For the last few years it’s felt like Adam Sandler has been rewriting the rulebook of what he does onscreen. “Hustle,” which has been firmly atop Netflix’s most-watched movies list since it launched last week, is just the latest example in a string of unexpected turns that’s included “The Meyerowitz Stories,” “The Week Of,” “Murder Mystery” and “Uncut Gems.”
Directed by Jeremiah Zagar, whose previous film “We the Animals” was nominated for five Spirit Awards, Sandler’s breakout basketball dramedy was written by Taylor Materne and “A Star Is Born” co-writer Will Fetters.
The film, from Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, stars the comedian as Stanley Sugerman, a scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who spends most of his time scouring the globe for the next NBA sensation, away form his wife Teresa (Queen Latifah) and daughter Alex (Jordan Hull) while desperately wanting to become a coach. When he discovers Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangómez), an unknown player living in Spain, Stanley risks everything to get him on the team.
Aside from Utah Jazz player Hernangómez, the film is stuffed with other real current and former NBA players, including Anthony Edwards, Boban Marjanovic, Kenny Smith and Julius “Dr. J” Erving. And the mix of so many real-life elements with Zagar’s naturalistic filmmaking touches has caused many viewers to wonder if the film is based on a true story.
Zagar, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, recently spoke about his experiences making “Hustle” from his office in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives.
Q: So Adam Sandler calls you about a movie and you don’t think the project is a good fit for you. Then you think about it a little more and decide to do it. What changed your mind?
A: When I was a kid, I really loved sports movies. Now I find a kinship with what we do as filmmakers. In the plot lines it’s all about the will — do you have the will to do this thing that seems impossible? That’s what making films are like, they seem impossible.
So I started to think — if I always wanted to do a sports movie and if one just fell in my lap and it’s set in Philadelphia where I’m from ... wouldn’t it be cool if we could cast real players? And Adam had mentioned that. I just started to dream it up a little bit. There were details in the script that I felt could be enhanced and evolved, and Adam was open to working on the script with me ... [Working with] Will Fetters, one of the writers, we got to a place where there was an authenticity there that was something I could latch onto.
Q: What did it mean to you to make Philadelphia such a part of the fabric of the movie?
A: In some ways, it means more now that I’m hearing people talk about their feelings about it. For me, it was just intrinsic. It was like, “Well, you should make it real.” That’s sort of my ethos in all things, how do you make it real? How do you get the audience to suspend their disbelief?
Part of making something feel real is steeping it in the specificity and details that are intimate to someone who lives in a place, is from a place. We really wanted to make sure everything was as authentic as we could possibly make it. I think it helps for the actors to feel like the spaces are lived in and real, it helps for me and it helps for the audience.
Q: What was it like working with Adam Sandler, first as a producer and writer, and then transitioning to a dynamic as actor and director?
A: Well, he was wonderful to write with. We wrote together over Zoom because it was the pandemic. We spent very little time in person together, because we were afraid of killing each other with this disease. And then when we got on set ... he was the right guy for the role, and I could just sit back and let him do his thing. I would give him little notes, but mostly he’s just incredible and wonderful to watch. He is that guy and he did it perfect every time. One of the cool things about watching Adam act is there aren’t bad takes. They’re just good in different ways.
Q: In your earliest conversations about the movie, you were talking about bringing in real players — what was that like? First of all, just finding guys who were available and wanted to do it and then getting them up to speed as actors?
A: That’s the great joy of making this movie for me, working with those ball players. And not because they’re famous or anything, but because it’s amazing watching them become the characters. Watching a person go from zero to 60 — from never having acted before, to, you know, crying in a car and finding a place where they can dig in deep to their own emotional core.
I worked with Noëlle Gentile, my acting coach on “We the Animals,” and she brought these unbelievable performances out of those boys. And she did it again with these ball players. I think there’s not a bad performance, personally. Boban is incredible and Anthony Edwards is unbelievable and Kenny Smith is amazing and Jauncho is a revelation. That’s a testament to Noëlle. I get a lot of credit for her work, but for me it’s just a joy knowing that that they are as good as they are on screen.
Q: How did you come to cast Jauncho in particular? That role demands a lot.
A: We got a lot of tapes. And we got Jauncho’s audition, and it was OK. It was him in his room with his brother, and he was sort of into it. But then we called him back and he started working with Noëlle, and all of a sudden it just poured out of him. It was like magic. You saw this guy not just bring what he had to the table, but bring Bo to the table. And that was when we knew we had a movie. Adam always said to me, “If we don’t find the guy, we don’t have a movie, don’t worry about it.” But when we found him, I sent Adam and the rest of the team the tape, and it was off to the races because we knew we had the core of the film.
Q: Was it hard to find the grammar for how to shoot the games?
A: It was. We watched a lot of basketball and we didn’t see it in the movies that we were watching and we didn’t see it in the game as filmed on television. And so we started watching other sports films, we watched “Creed” and “Rocky” and we watched “Zidane” and we watched as much as we could. [Cinematographer] Zak [Mulligan] and I, when we watched “Raging Bull,” there was like a light bulb that went off like an explosion for us. Because what Scorsese does in that movie is every single boxing match has a different style and vibe to it and a different technique.
Q: How did you get Robert Duvall for the role as the team’s owner?
A: Adam and I were just tossing around names for who could be Rex. And I think actually, Jeremy Yaches, my producer, suggested Robert Duvall to me. I suggested him to Adam, and Adam was like, “Yes, Robert Duvall.” And everybody was like, “Yes, Robert Duvall.”
And then we called his agent, “How old is Robert Duvall?” And he was like, “90 years old.” [Duvall is now 91.] And we were like, “Can Robert Duvall come?” And he was like, “Yes, Robert Duvall can come.” ... Robert Duvall showed up on set and it’s just like having a king amongst you. He might be the greatest living American actor. And here I was in a trailer with him.
His last scene was the never back down moment. It was written sort of like, “Never back down!,” this kind of rah-rah thing, and I couldn’t quite picture it. And then Robert did this thing where he was across the room from Adam, and he looked at Adam and he goes, “Come here.” He made Adam get up and walk to him. And suddenly there’s this tremendous gravity in the moment. Then he whispered the line to him. You could feel shivers around the whole set. The movie somehow made sense. All of a sudden it was like, “Oh, that’s the movie. Robert Duvall just told us what the movie is.” It was magic.
Q: Casting the wife in an Adam Sandler movie could go a lot of different ways. How did you land on Queen Latifah?
A: It has gone a lot of different ways. I had told the producers and Adam that I thought it would be cool if it was a mixed couple. And he was like, “Actually I’m thinking of Queen Latifah. I would love it to be Queen Latifah.” And I was like, that’s great. Philly is a very mixed city, where I grew up especially is like Italian, Black, Jewish, and everybody, all these people get together. My kids are mixed and my brother’s kids are mixed. I thought it was wonderful to have a couple like that in this film. And Adam was excited about it because he’d known Queen for so long.
They have a way of speaking without speaking and they can improvise together and have fun and make each other laugh and and you see it on set. They would just enjoy each other. I just had to step back and watch them do it ... I keep saying they glow like movie stars but they act like real people. That’s such a rare quality.
Q: The movie feels like a hybrid between your sensibility and a Happy Madison sensibility. What does it feel like to you?
A: I know exactly what you’re saying. There’s some moments where I go, “Oh, that’s all me. That’s a Jeremiah Zagar vibe.” And then there’s moments where I go, “Oh, that’s all Adam Sandler.” And there’s moments where I actually look at it and go, “Oh, that’s Jauncho Hernangómez.” But I think that it is a genuine hybrid, and there are moments that are my aesthetic completely and there’s moments where it’s a very Happy Madison aesthetic.
I think that’s what’s cool about it. I think people respond to the hybrid. I was always excited about bringing a more experimental, verité aesthetic to a big Hollywood film. You can make a giant Hollywood movie that feels like a documentary. Why not? You know, people love to feel like things are real.