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How ‘Hustle’ director Jeremiah Zagar turned his Philly basketball film into an endearing bromance

'Hustle' features cameos by NBA players including Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, and Julius Erving.

Director Jeremiah Zagar is seen at his offices at Public Records in Brooklyn, NY. Zagar, a Philadelphia native, has a new movie coming out on Netflix called Hustle. 5/31/2022 Photo by ©Jennifer S. Altman All Rights Reserved .
Director Jeremiah Zagar is seen at his offices at Public Records in Brooklyn, NY. Zagar, a Philadelphia native, has a new movie coming out on Netflix called Hustle. 5/31/2022 Photo by ©Jennifer S. Altman All Rights Reserved .Read moreJennifer S. Altman

Philadelphia basketball fans can’t wait for this month’s release of Adam Sandler’s Netflix flick Hustle, starring Queen Latifah and Utah Jazz power forward Juancho Hernangómez. They’ve got good reason: A squad of Philadelphia 76ers including Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, and head coach Doc Rivers will make big screen debuts.

And then there’s the butterscotch icing on the Tastykake Krimpet: Most of the movie was filmed in Philadelphia.

Directed by South Philly-born Jeremiah Zagar, Hustle is the fictional story of Sixers scout Stanley Sugerman (Sandler). When we meet Stanley, he’s just been promoted to assistant coach by Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall). When Rex dies unexpectedly, his son, Vin (Ben Foster), forces Stanley back into his grueling scouting gig and will only let Stanley return to coaching if he finds the player who can lead the Sixers to a championship. Stanley travels to Spain and discovers streetball phenom Bo Cruz (Hernangómez), and the sweet story of two men who need each other to make their dreams come true unfolds.

“Yep, it’s a sensitive movie,” Zagar, 41, told me. “This is what I love about sports movies. You look at this impossible thing ahead of you and are like, ‘How will I ever do this?’ It seems insurmountable. But if you never back down and you are true to you, you can achieve this dream. This giant dream. This great dream.”

Hustle features cameos by the greatest — and might I add, toughest — NBA players of all time, like Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving, and Allen Iverson, with Philadelphia, among the nation’s most tenacious sports cities, as its backdrop. Everyone who plays basketball in this movie is an NBA player, so there is plenty of great hooping. But Hustle’s strength is in emotional intelligence. Feelings are raw in nearly every scene as Zagar taps into the pressures of competition, the difficulties of relationships, and the events that make the characters stronger.

Zagar and I chatted about the film techniques he used to pull it off.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

On capturing NBA players’ vulnerabilities:

So the movie I made before this was We the Animals. It is the coming-of-age story about a young, gay man in upstate New York. The kids never acted before and they had to do deep emotional work for the film, so I brought in an acting coach named Noëlle Gentile, and she brought out amazing work. When Adam [Sandler] told me they wanted to work with real basketball players, I decided we needed to bring on somebody who could bring out what was deep inside of them. So we brought Noëlle on. She worked with Juancho, [Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard] Anthony [Edwards], and Dr. J for weeks, if not months. And they were dedicated, they gave it their all. There is a scene between Juancho and Adam, and Juancho is shaking and crying in the car — it was incredible. He put himself in that space, and it was Noëlle that helped him get there.

On showing the tear-jerking taunts of Hustle’s mean boy Kermit (Edwards)

In basketball, you are supposed to do that. He’s being mean, but it’s not outside the realm of what Michael Jordan would do or any basketball player would during a game. He [Kermit] was trying to find his competitor’s weakness. Anthony is a friend of Juancho’s. They played on the Timberwolves together. When we did the audition, we could see they [Juancho and Anthony] had so much chemistry and it was natural. Anthony was rewriting the script to make sure it was right for him, that what he said would read how he would say it if he was on the court.

» READ MORE: The best — and worst — Philly sports movies of all time

On making each game an emotional experience

We wanted them to be able to see the perspective of the players. You are watching Juancho’s perspective. You are watching Kermit’s perspective. We do that in a number of ways. One of the things we did was build a Charlie bar — a bar that sticks from the player’s stomach, and at the end of the bar there is a camera the player can operate with handheld controls. When the player looks into the camera, the audience feels like the player is staring at him. That’s the perspective you don’t get when you are watching basketball. We are giving the viewer Kermit and Bo’s perspective ... Film is a language of close-ups. Hitchcock always said close-up is king. When you are close up, you feel the humanity of the subject because the subject is looking right at you. We stole this technique from [Martin] Scorsese. He did it in Raging Bull. We watched those scenes over and over again.

On casting Queen Latifah as Stanley’s wife, Teresa, to bring a mix of cultures

When we first started talking about casting the role of Teresa, I was excited about the idea of a mixed couple. I’m in a mixed relationship. My wife is African American. We live in a city where there are a lot of mixing of people, and cultures. Adam was really into it. Adam is close friends with Queen Latifah. What’s also great about Adam and Queen is they look like real people. They look like people that we see in South Philly, but they still have a movie star glow. One of the first scenes we shot was Queen and Adam walking through the Italian Market and they were riffing off each other at Fante’s. They are both such wonderful improvisers, and right there we knew it was going to be a fun relationship full of sweetness and caring. The movie was about two guys yeah, but those guys wouldn’t have been who they were without the amazing women who surrounded them.

On making a real Philadelphia movie

This is about the Philadelphia I know and love. The writers [Will Fetters and Taylor Materne] were familiar with the area, but I worked with them to make it really authentic. I mean: Let’s call out Ishkabibble’s. We had John’s Water Ice, but that scene got cut out. We had Bo training on that brutal Manayunk hill. We had him run over a bridge in Fairmount Park. Let’s do something in front of Pat’s and Geno’s. Let’s do real courts like that basketball court at Grays Ferry. The cemetery in South Philly is right next to my mother’s [Julia Zagar] Eyes Gallery in South Philly. This is my Philly.

On choosing the music for the film

There are two elements to the movie: the Philly-centric hip-hop with artists like Tierra [Whack] Beanie [Sigel], and Meek [Mill], and then there is the music Dan Deacon composed for the movie. Deacon is an electronic musician based out of Baltimore. We worked together on a short several years ago, and he came up with this unbelievable soundtrack that we played when we wanted to get into the minds and the emotions of the characters during games. The music he composed was so iconic during the games I think people will be ripping off that music for years to come.

» READ MORE: Music gives Adam Sandler’s Philly basketball movie ‘Hustle’ its flow

Hustle opens in eight select movie theaters on June 3 — including Cinemark University City in West Philly and The PFS Bourse in Old City — and will be available for streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, June 8.