With the NBA themed The Last Dance proving a massive winner on Netflix, the recently launched short-form mobile video platform Quibi will be hoping that their docuseries Blackballed will take off in a similar way.
Blackballed details the controversy that erupted in 2014 when a secret tape was leaked of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling putting down African Americans. Told in all-killer-no-filler sub 10 minute episodes, filled with archival footage and contemporary interviews addressing both the sport and the inherent racial politics, Blackballed is the perfect postscript for The Last Dance.
“Some of our doc is a criticism of Michael Jordan actually,” says cinematographer Joshua Weinstein. “One thing Michael Jordan said was, ‘Republicans buy shoes too.’ Because he wouldn’t criticise basketball, especially when he was playing. There was a lot of political things happening back in the eighties and nineties, but Jordan just refused to step in the fray. Blackballed is 20 years later, the players have more power and they can say what they believe. It looks at the politics of the game and how it’s changed.”
A director in his own right (festival fave Menashe from 2017, along with numerous docs), we spoke with Weinstein from Los Angeles.
How are you coping with all this quarantine business?
Yeah, I don’t know if we’re going to work in America this year. It’s a really big question. I’m getting calls for like, ‘oh, do you want to come DP something in Sweden?’ Do we shoot in countries where things are open? So, it’s a really big, big question about what’s next, for the rest of the year at least.
For the time being, the federal government gave us stimulus pay, they’re giving extra money in unemployment right now. The government is being very helpful, at least til the end of July.
How did you get the Blackballed gig?
The director Mike Jacobs and I both had a film at a film festival in 2008. We stayed in touch and then a couple years back, we met again, and I shot two projects for him; Blackballed and a Disney+ documentary about Marvel Comics [Marvel’s 616] coming out this year. We did these two back-to-back together. And I shot a commercial for him too. So, in the last couple of years I shot for him a lot.
You’ve also directed, so was cinematography a way into the industry for you?
I’ve always been a cinematographer, but breaking in, it’s so hard, and actually, what launched my career was a documentary that I DPed and directed. And that came out in 2008 and that really opened my door to DP a tonne more after that. When I came out of film school, you’re 22 years old, and you say I’m a DP and they laugh at you. They’re like, ‘Okay, go get me some coffee on set.’ And this is before the 5D and all this stuff, it was expensive to make films back then. So, when I made my own little film, people could see, ‘he knows what he’s doing’. And then I started DPing nonstop. I love DPing. It’s my career. But I make films too.
Was the subject matter of Blackballed something that appealed to you?
Oh man, I was born in New York City and the Knicks… Knicks/Bulls, big rivalry. This was honestly the most fun project I’ve ever worked on. Being so close to all the players. Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Matt Barnes, just to spend a lot of time with them… These guys are amazing athletes. Chris Paul is one of the main voices in the doc and we filmed him a couple of days and we all shot a whole bunch of b-roll of him playing basketball. So, one day, I was super close next to him and in the shot, he’s supposed to move to my right, right side of the camera. But the way he moves his body, if he throws his body to the left, he’ll move to the right. It was like I was a defensive player, and every time I threw the camera the opposite way, because that’s what his body was telling me to do… They are just phenomenal athletes, and to actually see them perform up close, that was amazing.
The series uses a lot of archival footage with the talking heads. Were there a lot of requirements from Quibi, including a technical brief of what you needed to deliver?
For sure. They had a whole list of things, but the key thing was a 16 by 9 version and a 9 by 16 version. Basically, Quibi is like, you can watch your phone and you can flip it back and forth between vertical and horizontal as you watch it. And the image can be different. So, most of the show, you’re seeing the same shot in horizontal and vertical. But sometimes, occasionally, the horizontal shot just didn’t look as good as something else we could pop in the vertical shot. So basically, the audio timeline is the same, but the images can switch back.
Does that mean you had two cameras on at the same time? How do you achieve this technically?
I knew there was going to be a lot of archival in this film. My idea was like, ‘Oh, let’s shoot three cameras, every interview. We actually shot the 6K camera, we shot a VHS camera and we shot a Super 8 camera, because I thought that we’re going between archival and we can use all that media and they could collage it. And Quibi did not like that at all. They said, keep it with the high end footage and the archival. So, we didn’t use the three camera approach. We ended up with using the footage from the latest 6K Sony Venice Full Frames camera with a 24mm lens. I knew that we were going to shoot everything very wide and it would give us a lot of variance to crop. So that no matter what, we could crop a vertical version and a horizontal version. Just so I knew that we had a lot of cropping options.
So, the director was on board with what you had put forward, but Quibi decided on something else.
It’s a new platform, so they’re trying to figure out what their voice is. What would be a Quibi show? That’s something that Mike and the editorial team dealt with more because they let us make the show we wanted to make on set. But obviously in the edit they had all their notes.
How was the overall experience of working with Quibi, because so many filmmakers speak about the freedom that streaming platforms offer?
It was amazing. For a documentary, we had big crews and we rented basketball courts and we shot basketball. We could make the show exactly how we want to make it. And on other docs I worked on in the past, they were a lot smaller budget. This was definitely something that Quibi was super excited about. Jeffrey Katzenberg started the company. He was very involved with the whole process. They just knew that this was going to be a special project for them. And I really think that this is going to be something that people are really going to get excited about watching on the… platform? What do you call it? On the app?
You recently made your feature directorial debut with the highly acclaimed Menashe. Are you working on a follow up?
Yeah, totally. During quarantine, I just get to write every day. I hope to make another film when things open up again. There’s just so much unknown right now… Making films, in some ways, is unimportant, compared to… I was born in New York City and all my friends and family over there. You hear of all the suffering happening every day and all my friends who have had the disease. It’s hard to really think about the future right now.
Have you seen Unorthodox, which has been such a massive hit on Netflix, and it’s about the same ultra Orthodox Jewish world of Menashe?
To tell you the truth, my computer is too old to run Netflix. I’m like an idiot, the only person out there who can’t watch Netflix. My computer runs Amazon Prime. It runs Criterion Channel. It doesn’t run Netflix. So, unfortunately, I haven’t watched. But I tell you what, Menashe watched it, and he was like, ‘I didn’t realize that you could have so much nudity on Netflix’.
Perfect response. But it’s fascinating because you could say that Menashe was a gateway for Unorthodox in some ways…
For sure. It opened up a lot of doors. I think it opened people’s minds to the possibility. And another thing too, it is very much a male dominated society, and I always said, ‘I can’t wait for someone to make the female version of this because it would be a completely different story’. So I am really happy because it’s a different lens, a different way to observe that world and the story deserved to be told.