SxSW 2015 Interview: BOUNCE: HOW THE BALL TAUGHT THE WORLD TO PLAY director Jerome Thelia

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/12/15 06:05:30

"BOUNCE is a documentary about the ball. At this point most people say "Wait, what ball?" and I say, "THE ball: where it comes from, why we play with it and how it came to be, very literally, the object at the center of our most cherished games around the world, throughout history."" Director JEROME THELIA on BOUNCE: HOW THE BALL TAUGHT THE WORLD TO PLAY which screens at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

This will be my second SxSW experience and one of many Austin experiences. Last year I came with another film for which I was the colorist and post-production supervisor for a narrative feature called BEFORE I DISAPPEAR which won the audience award.

Your favorite barbecue/food in the city?

Ah man, I have had so much good food in Austin over the years so it's hard to choose! This time I'd like to head out of town a little and find some BBQ off the beaten path. Any tips from locals are welcome! And I'm really looking forward to Trudy's Mexican Martinis. One is not enough and two is too many. Maybe I'll go for three this time.

What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?

SxSW and Austin by extension manages to find the sweet spot between being a serious and supportive showcase for world class films while being laid back and unpretentious. The audiences are smart, enthusiastic, curious. So what more could you ask for? I really think it is the best film festival in North America and perfect for BOUNCE!

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I grew up in a cinephile family. My parents weren't filmmakers but being born and raised in France and Italy, they were really into movies before moving to Los Angeles and having kids. In addition to being a journalist and French prof, my dad did translation and french tutoring, often for Hollywood creatives including Woody Allen and Alan Pakula. So I grew up watching lots of foreign film and mainstream Hollywood fare and loved all of it. At age nine I acted, terribly, in three short films by USC grad students and was much more interested in what was going on behind the camera. By the time I went to college in Minnesota I knew I wanted to be making films. I was mentored in college by an incredibly talented director, cinematographer, musician named Mike Rivard who taught production classes on the side. He hired me as a camera assistant, editor, VFX artist, video assist operator, musician, all kinds of stuff. Over a period of nearly ten years starting in 1989 we worked on hundreds of projects; Prince music videos, Dario Argento's TRAUMA, a documentary about poet Jim Northrup he directed, whatever features came through town and many many commercials, strange art projects, corporate videos... you name it! I have been fortunate to have made a living working on films ever since.

How did BOUNCE come bouncing along?

It came together over a long period of time, but you could say it goes back to 1999 when I was hired to work with David McLain, photographer, and John Fox, writer and anthropologist. We worked together on a live, educational web-based series of expeditions that took us around the world called Quest; AsiaQuest, AustraliaQuest, and a few others. The series was followed by thousands of kids in classrooms around the world. Each Quest had the goal of answering a mystery; did Marco Polo really go to China? Where did Columbus actually make landfall in the Americas? Why do Okinawans live so long? We produced nearly daily documentaries in the field from really remote and exotic locations, and it was there that David, John and I started collaborating on little films with big questions. John Fox had also done his anthropology PhD and written articles on the Mayan ball game of Ulama, which we talked about and I was always fascinated by.

In 2010 I worked as colorist on a 30 for 30 film called Fernando Nation and talked with John about it. He sent me a book proposal about the ball he was starting to circulate, titled Bounce. We talked a little about how great of a series it would make for ESPN, but shelved it as other projects took over and a couple of years went by. By 2011 David McLain and I had been working together since the Quests having founded a boutique production company together called Merge. John had turned his book proposal into a deal with a publisher and started writing the book, now retitled as "The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game." His first chapter was about an ancient form of football still played in the Orkney Islands in Northern Scotland. In August of 2011, David and I were brainstorming big ideas outside the commercial space we could do with Merge and I pitched BOUNCE, a feature doc about the ball. John Fox was immediately on board and in September David and I made our first scouting trip to the Orkney Islands to explore the possibility of making the ancient ball game they play the centerpiece of the film. We were hooked!

What was your process in getting the film together?

Aside from Garth Neustadter, a composer we brought in late in the game, and Phil Mershon, producer, I was fortunate to have worked with all the key collaborators on other films. So writer John Foxand and producer/cinematographer David McLain were the first on board. Very quickly we hired my wife, Anne, a working producer and Greg Wright, an editor Anne knew from college who had been doing great doc editing work, and cut a pitch trailer out of our scouting footage from Scotland and odds and ends we collected. I had worked with a young cinematographer named Trevor Tweeten on a couple of projects and he mentioned that his producing partner Phil Mershon might be interested. Phil and I talked, hit it off and he came on board as a producer with the mission of finding investors, which he very quickly did. Phil also brought some great ideas, several of which find themselves in the finished film including our segment on mirror neurons and the incredible juggler Michael Moschen. Eventually Trevor also came on as an additional cinematographer, shooting with us in Congo, Brazil. I hired Rodrigo de la Parra early on to take the lead on an animated segment in the film as well as other vfx work. And last October as we were feeling pretty stalled we brought on Andrew Napier, an incredibly talented director/producer/editor I had worked with on several films, including the academy award winning short, CURFEW, which he produced, and his own documentary and feature directorial debut, MAD AS HELL. Andrew really saved the day, bringing in new ideas and a lot of energy at a moment we were burning out.

What was your #1 challenge with this movie, and how did you over-come it?

The biggest challenge by far was how to take such a sprawling, expansive, epic subject and turn it into a concise feature length doc. We toyed with a lot of different ideas, including a series of shorts about the ball that would essentially be strung out, like a playlist forming a feature length film. As we did more research, writing, shooting, editing we were able to connect the pieces, at least we hope we did!

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Our first shoot was in Kirkwall, Scotland and although we had seen some images of the game and John Fox had been there the year before to research his book, nothing could really prepare me for how amazing the Kirkwall Ba' would be. Twice a year on Christmas day and New Year's day hundreds of people gather in this little medieval town on an island in a remote part of the North Sea and they have an epic battle over a beautiful handmade leather ball filled with cork. This ball game is the ancestor of all football games, uniquely preserved very much the same way it was played for hundreds of years, maybe longer. The game goes on for hours in the bitter cold, sprawling in any direction around the town as it has no boundaries, and it was just amazing to witness, much less to shoot. We stayed in Kirkwall for about two weeks over the holidays of 2011/12 and throughout the people of Kirkwall were incredibly welcoming. They really understood that we were there to honor the game and the traditions surrounding it. We got great footage of the game, including a rare glimpse of one game's winning score. I still get goosebumps thinking about it!

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

I would say that over the course of three years, I mostly sustained myself by a healthy combination of green tea, yoga, constitutional walks and homemade food. Then as we hit the crunch we traded most of that in for wine, weed, adderall and fast food! Back on the healthy side, in the last year or so we outfitted our editing and finishing studio with a standing desk, a floor mat and crocs to wear while working; it looks ridiculous but it has been a blessing. At one point I was standing and working for 24 hours straight, which I know I would have never been able to do sitting.

I would love to know about the "tech" side of the movie, your relationship to the cinematographer, how you shot it and all that fun tech stuff.

Don't get me started! I have worked much of my 25 years in film in post-production and specialized in color grading in the last ten years, so I have a lot to say about cameras and film tech in general. As a colorist and consequently as a director I work very closely with cinematographers and pretty much speak the same language.

We wanted BOUNCE to be as varied in its style of shooting and editing as the ball games we were covering, with a style always motivated by the scene. So there's a range from hand-held verite, to low mode steadicam, to sticks, to dolly. Some scenes were shot by a crew of three, as in India where it was just myself along with cinematographer Dan Katz and camera assistant Shrea Sharma, and other scenes were more elaborate as in the Michael Moschen Light scene, where we had a crew of 10, rented a beautiful set of Cooke S3 lenses and had the camera on a Technocrane.

David McLain, cinematographer and producer, and I own a Red Epic and Zeiss prime lenses, which is what most of the film was shot with. We also own a Steadicam and David has gotten quite good at flying it over the years. We used it pretty extensively on shoots in Scotland, Mexico, Brazil and Congo. We also worked with the Sony A7 camera in Brazil, which was fantastic in low light and very portable. The film was finished in 4K.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

Sharing a movie that you worked on with an audience is as close to being a live musician as you can get in film-making. This has been a long labor of love and I'm really looking forward to sharing it with friends, crew and total strangers at SxSW.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?

We have a few festivals in the works, but our schedule is still coming together. We'd really love to show it at Edinburgh and then hop over to Kirkwall! It has been three years since we filmed our first scenes there and it would be amazing to come full circle and share it with the people who are such an important part of the film.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

BOUNCE is an epic film, finished in 4K with a rich and layered 5.1 soundtrack. There are a number of great theaters around the world, but the Arclight in LA has got to be up there.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

I wouldn't say anything... I would just kick them in the balls. Kidding, but I feel pretty put out when people disrupt ANY film; SxSW audiences are really respectful from what I have seen, even for movies they don't like, so fingers crossed.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

You have to be a little crazy to make a movie. You also have to be a lot sane to keep it going and get it done. Filmmaking is finding a balance and I think that the only reason anyone should do anything is because they have something to say and give a shit about it. If you do, it has probably never been a better time to make films and maybe never a worse time to make a living at it. My advice is to specialize before you generalize; get good at something: shooting, editing, visual effects, producing, whatever. Then move out to the general from there. Then again, plenty of great filmmakers jump right to directing!

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

I have to pass on single greatest, but I saw a movie called THE WILDERNESS OF JAMES at SXSW last year and it was just fantastic; beautifully shot on 35mm film, anamorphic, with great performances. It has been released recently as ALL THE WILDERNESS. I get the feeling it's one of those great small films that could slip past a lot of people, so check it out!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our 35+ filmmaker interview series. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,

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