Writer and producer, native Los Angeleno, and longtime Lakers fan Max Borenstein approached HBO’s Winning Time as a labor of love. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is that Max and the filmmaking team didn’t settle for just telling a great sports story—they also looked to explore this particular era in basketball as a time of seismic shift not only for the business of sports, but for American culture at large.
In our conversation, Max tells how the show’s vision grew to encompass much more than just the game of basketball as it relates to the Los Angeles Lakers’ dynasty. We also discuss the challenges of casting really tall guys who can act.
Awards Daily: Winning Time is a lot of things. It’s a sports show, but it’s also a period piece, a comedy, a drama—there’s a ton going on. How did this series come together?
Max Borenstein: A huge piece of it is passion. Jim Hecht had optioned Jeff Pearlman’s book years ago, because he’s an enormous Lakers fan and it was his dream to see a True Detective style miniseries about the Showtime era Lakers. He partnered with Adam McKay, who’s a huge basketball fan and passionate about finding a way to finally put a great basketball story on screen, and they were looking for someone to write and create. I’m a big Lakers fan, I’m also from L.A., and I’ve been looking for a story that would allow me to kind of explore that era through the lens of basketball, but beyond just being about basketball. It’s really about this transformational moment in our culture. Then coming in and starting to talk about it and starting to write it, it became clear to me, and then I think everyone else, that rather than being a miniseries that was going to just sort of cover the events and tell you facts, that we could really slow things down and use this true story as a lens or a template for a longer running drama about this whole era, about a cast of characters that really is a crosssection of Americans, the likes of which rarely gather together from all walks of life and represent a dynasty story, much like The Crown would be in England. But here in America, our equivalent of royalty is celebrities.
Awards Daily: The challenge of doing an NBA show is very particular compared to most sports shows or films. I can think of no sport that is more difficult purely from the basis that you have to find really tall guys who can play basketball and act. That’s why so few are well done.
Max Borenstein: If you compare it to football – and I love Friday Night Lights, it’s one of my favorite television shows – I envy the fact that they get to have actors wearing helmets. Nothing is easy, but think about how easy that is to get people who can play football really well, and then when you go in for close-ups you’re with your actors and your stunt people are hidden. In baseball it’s similar. If you’re doing a baseball story, you can have your actors swinging, but swinging is relatively easy. It’s less athletic looking, and it’s less complicated for an actor to mimic. Basketball is really one of the most challenging sports to realize on screen. Beyond basketball, you’re talking about iconic players whose specific personal artistry and style, because of course that’s the thing about basketball that everyone plays in a unique way, that’s something that’s incredibly difficult not only to capture but to mimic.
We have obviously scrutinizing eyes – people saying that does or doesn’t look like Magic Johnson’s style of play, let alone look like Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Dr. J or Larry Bird. There’s a huge high bar with that. One of the virtues of being an artist, you kind of live in faith. Which I think sometimes means absurd ignorance of the difficulties of reality. You get passionate about a project and say we’ll figure it out, and never stop to ask how the fuck you’re gonna do that. [Laughs]. Which I think is a virtue, because if you do it’ll stifle you. It’s much better to just sort of say we gotta get across the river and then figure out how you’re gonna build the bridge. That’s the way we went about it. And fortune happens. We got very fortunate with the incredible talent that we were able to assemble.
Awards Daily: The three best basketball movies that come to mind are He Got Game, Hoosiers, and White Men Can’t Jump. But because one is about the college game, the second is about high school, and the third about pick-up games, for the most part, the actors are of a relatively reasonable height. Tall but normalish tall. You don’t get to do that here. I know the camera can cheat a little bit. Kareem doesn’t have to be seven foot two, but still, you can’t fake that sort of size entirely.
Max Borenstein: I think in Kareem’s case it was harder to fake. When you’re seven foot tall there’s a proportionality to your body that’s a bit different. Solomon (Hughes) happens to be half an inch, I think, under seven feet. He’s essentially a seven footer and that was really important, actually. In the case of Magic, Quincy Isaiah is a few inches shorter than Magic and that we were able to cheat. It’s just a bit easier. Whereas when Kareem is sitting down, you need those lanky limbs. That’s not something that we can add lifts to.
Awards Daily: Every show of any kind, casting is a huge piece of it. I would not have seen John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss and then as soon as I saw him, I thought of course! It was so perfect. Jason Clarke as Jerry West, never would have pictured him, but he’s fabulous. Quincy Isaiah is such a wonderful find and Solomon Hughes as well. This is one hell of a cast.
Max Borenstein: Yeah, our great stroke of good fortune was having Francine Maisler, who is the best casting director in the business, as our grand poobah in that pursuit. In addition to being a brilliant casting director she just falls in love with the material and obsesses about finding the right people. She’s always thinking outside the box. Jason Clarke was an idea that she had, the first person we cast. I’ve always loved his work, I’d seen him in dramas as kind of a grizzled warrior and other things. I’ve never seen him in something that used this range where he’s funny and dramatic and over the top and then warm and empathetic. To me it’s one of the great characters in the show and he’s incredible. That was Francine seeing it and having that eye and that imagination. John C. Reilly, it’s impossible for me to imagine the show without him.
That character, Jerry Buss, he’s our Gatsby figure, he’s our P.T. Barnum. He’s gotta have this charisma that can carry you through. In many ways he’s kind of dated. He’s the character who has morals and certain kinds of predilections that are kind of old fashioned and sometimes distasteful. We were able to show the beauty of the character and the reality and you need an actor who can bring humanity and empathy to every side of him – even if Jerry Buss is doing things like dating younger women, things that you might look askance at today, John plays him with such honesty and warmth and love that you forgive, or at least never lose him as a character and as a rooting interest while letting us be honest about some of the facets of him that may not be as attractive as others. Of course that’s reality, everyone has their warts and all.
Awards Daily: There’s a unique look to this show in terms of differing film stock that reminded me of what Oliver Stone did in the 90s with Natural Born Killers and JFK. Sometimes it’s like you’re watching a show from the 70s or 80s that never got restored visually.
Max Borenstein: You are extremely astute for a few reasons. First of all, our editor of the pilot who set the template of the show throughout the series is Hank Corwin who edited JFK and Natural Born Killers and invented that style. That is Hank’s style. What it is is exactly what you’re saying. It’s a kind of free ability to bring to bear the aesthetics of a documentary on a drama. I can use whatever footage I want and we can mix it and match it as long as it serves the story without a kind of rule or rubric that’s limiting. It’s really freeing. And that’s Hank. Now the actual footage itself, that’s Todd Banhazl who’s a brilliant cinematographer. When Adam McKay hired him to direct the pilot, Todd read the script and felt the story could use this layered technique we bring to it where within the script it has cutaways to stock footage, sometimes recreations, other times to animation, and sometimes characters are addressing the camera directly. Those are all things that people do in documentaries. The conceptual idea was to bring a showmanship to the show, because it’s about the Showtime Lakers and it’s about the moment where sports became synonymous with entertainment rather than being simply an athletic event. It’s about this layering and textural dig into the past. Todd decided that he would shoot on film, but not only on 35mm film which he treats to have a 16mm grain and aesthetic, but also on 8mm film and also on a period video camera that he and his camera team dug out of yard sales and fixed up. This Ikegami camera that predated beta was the standard in the late seventies and very early 80s. When we started to look at our scenes through that lens, literally, it was like a time machine. Those video shots transport you to an era. It hits a certain part of your brain where instantly you just know that it falls into that period. None of it was treated in post to look that way. That’s just what we’re shooting on.
Some of the artifacts that you get from that: with the film you get roll-outs, you get nasty hairs in the gate, you get kind of crunchy accidents. Same with the video, you get this kind of buzzing. A lot of the patterned fabrics they would use in that era would kind of buzz, if you watch those old broadcasts, in a way that’s wrong and improper but extremely interesting and fun and unique and pleasing too. We always leaned way into that. With every member of the team, whether it was costumes or production, they were always encouraged to if there’s a fabric that’s going to buzz on the Ikegami video the answer was do more of that not less of it. That’s the kind of thing that when you watch old footage or documentaries on Youtube, that’s what’s so interesting or amusing. We had a wonderful graphics team, and we always encouraged them to lean in on the period graphics that are crunchy and have this chromatic bleed. All the stuff that nowadays you try to make crisp and clean, we did the opposite. When we had roll-outs in the film, which is when one reel ends and you get this flickering into light, we would use that a lot within the show. Sometimes emotionally it made sense. You get these accidents where suddenly it rolls-out in the middle of a beautiful moment and it feels emotional and it feels found. It’s a little like a John Cage kind of idea, that there’s part of art that’s planned and then there’s part of art that’s like rolling the I Ching and you just get what you get. And when you get it, the audience can tell that it happened accidentally and the accident adds to the excitement and the soulfulness of the material.
Awards Daily: Boogie Nights was a movie that showed a particular industry going from sort of loose format to a pure big business, which is where the NBA was at the end of the seventies before making that transition as well. Winning Time is very aware of that.
Max Borenstein: Absolutely. Sports is our way in but you can apply that same thing that’s happening in the 80s to other forms of entertainment, to other aspects of American culture. They became globalized. We’re on the second season right now. We’re working on a bit where cable television comes into play and trying to put ourselves back in that moment, trying to articulate for an audience and show what exactly is so transformational, and such a key change about the idea of cable television, and why at the time it wasn’t an obviously good thing. There was a lot of resistance among members of the league, owners in the league who felt as if it could be problematic because they had a deal with CBS where CBS would air between four and twenty games a year, never in primetime, always on tape delay, never live, including the playoffs. But it was a lifeline, the money they got from that was important. In a way, they actually saw being aired on television more as a negative, because they had only a certain amount of fans and if those fans could watch for free…if they have the cow, why are they gonna pay for the milk?
It took a guy like Jerry Buss to say that’s because right now we have X amount of fans, but we could have X times 100 if we’re showing games everywhere. That’s a leap of faith and it’s trusting in something new. For our show, a lot of what we’re trying to do with those cultural moments is try to take you back to a moment to understand how the ways in which the world evolves are not obvious. They’re not fated. The conventional wisdom changes. So taking yourself back to the old conventional wisdom, where people’s perspectives were different is really one of the many things that is fun and illuminating about the show, and kind of gives you a mirror reflection of where we are today. We take a lot of things for granted that we’ll see within our lifetimes that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Awards Daily: The reception has been great in terms of ratings. You’ve got your season two going. Critics have overall been kind to a show that is dramatic, comedic and satirical, and in some ways and can be in your face. However, Kareem did not love the show at all. I watched it and I felt that was unfortunate because I don’t think he could have seen all the episodes. By the end of it his relationship with Spencer Haywood is very moving.
Max Borenstein: All I can say is, I don’t know how odd it must be, and I assume I will never find out how odd it must be, to have anything on film whether it be on television or a movie, made about my life. I would never judge anyone’s reaction to that because it’s gotta be a strange thing. All I can say on our end, for the people who created the show at every level in front of and behind the camera, we’ve made it with a great deal of admiration and respect and affection for all of these people. The reason we’re making it is because we are fans of the era and of these people. I would never judge anyone’s reaction, but I do hope always when/if the people actually do decide to watch, that they will appreciate the spirit with which it was made. It’s certainly happened.
Spencer Haywood, from the outside you’d say our treatment of his story is certainly warts and all. He’s going through a really dark time in his life. It’s heavily researched, as are all our portrayals. Much of it’s taken from his own memoir, as are all our portrayals. Spencer has been really incredibly supportive of the show, very vocal about it, and said “I did all that and I did way worse shit too.” But he’s emerged from it into another act in his life that’s incredibly inspiring, and he’s been really grateful that the show has shined a light on him and his story and on his contribution to the league. The league would not be what it is without him and his contribution. Being able to tell that story, and to tell the story of Jack McKinney, who’s a character who’s been largely forgotten in NBA history, has been really really special for us. That’s what we take out of it. We always, of course, hope that people will appreciate what we’re doing but all we can do is make it in good faith.
Awards Daily: There’s incredible attention to detail, I was wondering if you were going to have the true anecdote of the first regular season game in Magic’s rookie year, and Magic goes nuts when they win on a last second shot, and Kareem says to him “You know we’ve got 81 more of these.” I knew that quote and was so impressed when you included it. The small things really matter.
Max Borenstein: I love that. It’s part of the thing that’s so special about this material. I look at it as being a privilege like being able to adapt Game of Thrones or any really great long form story. We know we have so much good material and so many incredible stories. Obviously it’s a bit different in terms of where Game of Thrones is obviously made up but it’s still a great story. In our case, we’ve got so many wonderful beats and moments we know lie ahead of us if we’re fortunate enough to be able to get there. A moment like that, we know we want to hit it, we want to serve it, and we also want to infuse it with some larger meaning and significance within the context of our telling of the story that will, for someone like you who knows the reality, it will resonate on a rich level and hopefully it will work even if a lot of the fans have no idea what really happened and what was dramatic license. A lot of times, in most cases in the show, the things that are strangest and hardest to believe are the things that are true. It’s really a great privilege and an honor to be able to tell this story.