Wolves: Filmmaker Bart Freundlich On His Basketball Drama

– by Edward Douglas

Having been 20 years since Bart Freundlich made his feature debut, The Myth of Fingerprints, the filmmaker hasn’t exactly built his reputation based on being prolific or any sort of auteur, although his eighth movie Wolves may be his best one yet, maybe because it’s so different from his earlier ones.

It stars Taylor John-Smith (Cruel Intentions) as Anthony, the hot-shot basketball star of his private New York Catholic school, something his mother (Carla Gugino) hopes will get him into Cornell on a scholarship. The only thing holding Anthony back is his shaky relationship with his English professor father Lee (Michael Shannon), an abusive alcoholic and chronic gambler whose growing gambling debts are starting to cause problems for the whole family.

As things continue to get worse, Anthony finds a new mentor in a street ball player who calls himself Socrates (John Douglas Thompson) who forces the young man to make some tough decisions.

Wolves was one of the best movies I saw at least year’s Tribeca Film Festival, so with it finally seeing the light of day, LRM got on the phone with Freundlich earlier in the week for the following interview. (Note: Sadly, our reception was very bad on this phone call to the point where some of the director’s responses trailed off and got lost. We did our best and apologies for any paraphrasing.)

LRM: I saw your film at Tribeca last year and really enjoyed it and glad it’s coming out finally…

Bart Freundlich: Me, too. It’s been a long journey.

LRM: It’s a little different from your other movies, and I don’t know much about it in terms of how it came about. I thought I heard that it was a very personal story or something you’ve been trying to do for a long time.

Bart Freundlich:
Yeah, the roots of it were really in my love of basketball, and my real interest in the intricacies of family relationships, so this grew for a really, really long time for me.  I actually wrote a short story for it when I was in 10th grade for one of the scenes, and that kind of sat with me. In my 20s I wrote the screenplay and then in my 30s I returned to it again with a different perspective and then it crystalized for me. It really was based on my love of basketball and how I saw that growing up as it affected me emotionally.  

The movie always felt like it had a really solid narrative push around the basketball, but I wasn’t sure about all of the characters. They felt a little two-dimensional to me for a while, and in my 40s I started looking at the pages again and they started gathering momentum, and then I had an idea of how to change something really fundamental in the script with the ending that was big, big change from the ending you saw. That opened up the story for me. That solidified for me the fact that this was Oedipus with a modern-day family in a basketball story. I just went for it, as opposed to trying to skirt around it.

LRM:  Are you one of those New Yorkers who hangs out at the West 3rd basketball courts to watch what’s going on?

Bart Freundlich:  
I do it sometimes. When I pass by, if there’s a game going on, I hang onto that fence for a while, for sure. I’m 47 now so I don’t play as much, although I do have a couple regular games every week, but I grew up playing outside at all the playgrounds, and experienced similar things to what my character experiences, but of course, I made him better on the court.

LRM: How did you find Taylor to play Anthony? He’s a solid dramatic actor in his scenes with Michael Shannon and Carla Gugino, but he’s also great on the court as well, and seems very agile and able.

Bart Freundlich:
I got so lucky. I decided that the character, Anthony, that he plays, was the key to this film. To get someone who could do it and portray the depth and fragility and vulnerability of that character AND could play basketball and that he could win. That took about 200 auditions, and Taylor came in and read, and he’s fearless as an actor, he’s fearless. You could watch him working with Mike and Carla, and I’m sure that he has nerves, but he’s just about the work, and it’s very unusual to find that in a young actor. He would just throw himself with total abandonment and trust into every scene, and I think he trusted and certainly grew very close with Mike and Carla, and he entrusted them with everything he was doing in each scene.  I find a lot of young actors feel they need to dictate everything, but he would just learn to be, and then on the basketball front he actually trained for about six months with a guy who runs a program, and he trained him day and night so that he could get ready for the role. 

LRM: The movie has a great energy because of the basketball, but also the dramatic scenes have an energy, so what was your approach to doing a scene with the three of them, specifically?

Bart Freundlich:
Luckily, I think the best thing I did was cast it.  I mean, write it the way I wanted to and then pay attention to the script and then cast it really well with people who got it. So going into it, I understood this wasn’t going to be about pre-crafting the performances. This was going to be these actors taking it apart and internalizing them and giving me the gift of making these people even deeper than I ever imagined. My main approach was to be really clear with myself going into every scene about what was going on, and then to just not stop until we got it. Another approach was to not be intimidated, to speak my mind about what I wanted and also try to be open to the really, really unusual fantastic ideas that particularly Mike and Carla were bringing to it. So I guess the real answer is focus. It was pure focus to try not to get caught up in the mental rush of moviemaking and try to stay on the story at every given moment.

LRM: As far as the basketball scenes, did you have any idea how you wanted to shoot them? You had the games in the auditoriums but then you also had playing in the street courts. How did you approach shooting those?

Bart Freundlich:
We choreographed all of those, although in fact, we didn’t have a long rehearsal process for the dramatic scenes in the movie, but we rehearsed the basketball for about a month and a half probably before we started shooting. We had every play designed and every camera movement to go with it designed, because we understood that with our budget we would have time constraints. It was also very important to create what I hoped would be the authenticity of the people playing on the local court being able to know how to play but also what was going on in every game was something very indicative and expressive of what Anthony is going through emotionally. It wasn’t just basketball.

In the quarter final, he defers to his friend and passes him the ball and that kind of becomes an indication of where he is as a character, and then in the next game, he gets overly-aggressive and shoots when he shouldn’t shoot. It was just really important, just like in the dramatic scenes, to be very clear on what was where and where Anthony was emotionally, because that’s what’s needed in the whole movie, but to be able to do that and execute the basketball was very challenging and unbelievably rewarding because we managed to do it, but it took a lot of preparation. 

LRM: You got a lot of great shots, both in terms of the camerawork, but also the basketball shots. Was a lot of that just having them taking the shots until they got them?

Bart Freundlich:
Yes, a lot of it was understanding what I needed. I had Plan A and Plan B. “We’re going to shoot this wide and we’re going to watch Anthony come off a pick at the top of the three-point line and he’s going to let it fly. If that doesn’t work, we’re going to come in and Anthony’s going to shoot the ball over the camera and then we’ll come from behind him and let him shoot until it goes in.” 75% of the time, we were able to get our guys to execute the move on camera and then the few times we couldn’t, I had designed where we could break it up shot-wise that it would appear as if it was happening. 

LRM: The shots that they make are pretty impressive because you can tell it’s not being faked as they normally are where you cut to the basket and then have someone above dropping it in. I don’t think you do that once. 

Bart Freundlich: Yeah, that was really fun. Part of it is when you know something so well. I’ve seen basketball movies that I really responded to, but so much of the good basketball movies are documentaries. I just wanted it to have more of that feel, and I know what it’s like to be under pressure and know there’s some moments that I wish I had gotten better, but I think for the most part I was able to execute in a way where I feel like the basketball (works).

LRM: I want to talk about the ending of the movie in a way that we hopefully won’t spoil it. In sports movies in general there’s always that moment of, “Will they win the big game or won’t they win?” This one has extra tension because there’s the subplot with Anthony’s father and his gambling. You mentioned that when you found a new way of ending the movie that was when you were ready to make the movie?

Bart Freundlich: What I was alluding to was that for a long time it ended differently, and I felt that was the only ending. I mean, the way it ended--so that we don’t blow it for people--the way it ended was in a much more…right now, it’s bittersweet and there’s a lot of that sports movie victory that hopefully feels earned, but there used to be much more ambiguity. For me, I like ambiguity as long as it feels satisfying in a movie, but this wasn’t feeling satisfying, so the hope is that there’s both victory and tragedy in Wolves right now, and there’s a lot of bittersweet quality to the end, but the hope is that it’s satisfying in the way that it’s satisfying when you watch a great basketball game, even if your team loses, and that in completion you’ve experienced something like you’re watching the first quarter and the second quarter and the third quarter…the hope or the dashed hope of failure I hope in a way will hopefully mimic that feeling of watching one great match.

LRM: It’s a great ending, a real nail biter, the last 10 or 12 minutes. I saw it with an audience the first time and even when I saw it again by myself--even though I’d already seen the movie--I still wasn’t sure which way things were going. 

Bart Freundlich:
I’ll pop into the screening sometimes for that last 20 minutes and though it doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, you’re just watching what unfolds and hopefully, we’ve pumped up the stakes for whatever is going to happen, so that you don’t need any more character development at that point. 

LRM: You’ve been doing some television over the last few years, so is that something you’re going to do more of or do you know what you’re doing next?

Bart Freundlich: No, I do TV when there’s a really interesting project that presents itself or there’s someone who sees me as a good fit for directing, but right now I’m writing my next feature, and I always have a bunch of ideas on the burner, but right now I’m on through a first draft of my next feature which will be totally different from Wolves, although it will share the fact that it’s very much a character piece, but it’s a much different world. I think all my movies forever will be internal characters expressed through different narratives.

Wolves opens in select cities on Friday and is also available on Video on Demand.

Film, Featured, Interviews, LRM Exclusives Wolves, Bart Freundlich, Michael Shannonon, Michael Shannon, Carla Gugino, LRM Interview