Interview: NBA Star Jeremy Lin, Producer Brian Yang And Director Evan Jackson Leong Talk LINSANITY: THE MOVIE.

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
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Interview: NBA Star Jeremy Lin, Producer Brian Yang And Director Evan Jackson Leong Talk LINSANITY: THE MOVIE.
In 2012, New York Knicks point guard, Jeremy Lin, a many times passed-over, oft-rejected benchwarmer became an overnight sensation when he electrified the sports world with his dynamic, record breaking plays. The fact that Lin is Asian-American was a cause for worldwide exultation, as well as racial controversy.  Linsanity: The Movie chronicles Lin's hard fight for survival in the NBA and the far-reaching effects of his meteoric fame.  Here's my chat with NBA superstar Jeremy Lin, Producer Brian Yang and Director Evan Jackson Leong.

Jeremy Lin

The Lady Miz Diva:  How was the idea of a documentary first put to you? 

Jeremy Lin:  They pitched it when I was in college and I really wasn't comfortable with it.  I would say after my rookie year, I really had gotten used to the idea of having cameras around and stuff and I thought, 'This is cool.'  We could create some footage of my story that I'll be able to one day show my kids and grandkids.

So these same filmmakers knew you back when you were in college?

JL:  Yeah.  They had pitched it for like, two years, maybe.  After two years, I agreed to it.  They did a great job of pitching the idea.

You mentioned not being used to the cameras, so how did you get used to having them on you 24/7?  Were there any no-go areas?

JL:  I think I got more comfortable after my first year in the NBA, because there were cameras everywhere.  I just got used to them.  And then I think what got me to be on board with the documentary was getting comfortable with the producers, the director; getting to know them a little more, having them understand me and my family, what we're okay with, what we're not okay with and what we feel was important to the story.  They did a great job, and by the end it was like a bunch of friends filming a project.  It didn't really feel that much like business just because we had gotten to know each other.

What was it like for you to be in the middle of that time in New York when Linsanity hit and all everyone could talk about was you?  What was the first instance when you knew things were different?

JL:  I would say it was really crazy.  It was definitely an interesting time.  I think it was a lot of fun.  On the court, it was a lot of fun.  I think even me walking around - I'd played for the Knicks before, but nobody really cared - I could go anywhere I wanted, or any place where I wanted to sit down and eat and it was fine.  And then after that first game, it just went crazy and then kind of just walking around I noticed things weren't the same anymore.

Was having that sudden scrutiny and support something that boosted you up during your games or an added source of pressure?

JL:  I think both.  I mean, it was cool to be supported and they supported me as enthusiastically as any fanbase could support any one player, and along with that comes pressure and expectations to perform.

I've spoken to Asian-American friends for whom you are like a symbol of hope and promise.  What is it like for you to not only have to worry first and foremost about your performance during a game, but to suddenly be an icon for an entire race of people?

JL:  I think that was definitely something that I had to learn to deal with. At one point, it became a lot bigger than basketball, I think.  Dealing with a lot of expectations and getting back to the court in terms of, like, 'Okay, who am I, and why do I play basketball?' and to understand that I play as an act of worship to God, and not for any one human or anybody else.  I think getting back to that, reminding myself of that is kind of the key being able to manage it.

I was shocked to hear some of the blatantly racist comments made by media people and fellow athletes when your star began to rise.  Were you aware of that then, or did you just shut it out?

JL:  Yeah, I mean I've been dealing with that my whole life, and to be honest, it wasn't anything that happened that was really surprising from a racial standpoint, I would say.  In fact, I've dealt with a lot worse growing up, so...  In fact, it's pretty mild.

Have you seen the finished film?

JL:  No, I haven't seen the final product.  I've seen a lot of the edited versions leading up to it, but tonight will be the first time I'm seeing it.

In the clips that you've seen, was there anything you wish they hadn't left in?

JL:  Naw, I loved it.  I loved everything about it.

I've watched the short films you've made on your YouTube channel.  Between those clips and now the feature documentary, how important is the visual medium to you?

JL:  I think the main purpose behind the YouTube videos is, in journalism today, the way it works is the media shapes a lot of your persona, or your brand, or what they think of you, and I think doing the YouTube videos, or having the YouTube channel, that's kind of my way to express who I am in my own eyes to everybody else, and similar with this documentary.  You know, a lot of people have talked about Linsanity like, 'I think Linsanity is this,' or, 'I think Linsanity is that,' but this documentary is my chance to say, 'This is what Linsanity means to me.'

As a New Yorker who experienced the excitement of Linsanity, and on behalf of the fans and all the bootleg Linsanity t-shirt sellers that want you back to MSG for keeps, I must ask is returning to the Knicks a possibility you think about?

JL:  That's so far away.  To be honest, I'm open to anything in the future.  I mean, I don't think I've thought that far, to be honest.  I'm just kind of focused on the upcoming season, but I would never say never, especially if you know my story and understanding how crazy life can be sometimes.

You're still very young, but the career of a basketball player is a finite and fragile thing.  Have you thought about what comes after?

JL:  Yeah, I have a foundation where we do work with underprivileged children.  That's one of my passions.  I guess Christian ministry is one of my passions, as well.


Producer Brian Yang

The Lady Miz Diva:  Tell us about the origins of Linsanity: The Movie?

Brian Yang:  Linsanity: The Movie started before Linsanity the phenomenon became a public thing.  The genesis of this was really The Jeremy Lin Project, we didn't even haves a title yet, it was a web series back when he was at Harvard in 2010.  He was a senior there, and Chris Chen, my producing partner and myself had separately caught wind of his story, even going back to high school.  Four years prior to his senior year at Harvard, he was setting records and led his Palo Alto High School team to the state title. And so, just as a big basketball fans, seeing this young, Asian-American kid doing some interesting things that you don't normally otherwise see, we just started tracking the story.  By the time he was a senior, he was an NBA prospect and that was enough for us to decide to put a camera on him. 

So we put together this proposal and approached him while he was still at Harvard.  It was supposed to be framed as an 8-part webisode series; really simple, put it up on YouTube dealing with different aspects of his life.  I would say he had a cult following at that time already.  He wasn't a complete unknown.  So that was the beginning and that was the idea, and he turned us down.  More like he pushed it off after saying, "Well, I don't know if this is for me?"  So, it didn't really click right away and we just stayed persistent and checked in with him throughout the course of his final year at Harvard.  It didn't happen at that point because he was still busy with school and trying to make it to the NBA, and being a private, conservative person, he was like, "I don't really want a camera crew following me around."  So, fortunately for us, in his first year as a professional, things changed a little bit and I guess he got used to the idea, so that was the beginning.  We started shooting when he was a Golden State Warrior.

Jeremy mentioned that the comfort level between the documentary crew and himself and his family helped make him comfortable enough to film.  Was it difficult to maintain the film's objectivity or did Jeremy's feelings become a consideration?

BY:  That's a good question.  It's hard sometimes, because we would always say that shooting this with him was like hanging out with a friend.  There was a distance kept between subject and filmmaking team; it wasn't like we were Big Brother, following him 24/7, but when we did get those interviews and those chunks of time, it was very relaxed, like hanging out with the camera on.  But there were times were we had to think, 'Well, we don't want to be a puff piece.'  We wanted to be comprehensive in telling the story and there were going to be tough times we were going to bring up.  So, we made a conscious choice to be like, 'Jeremy, during your darkest hours, could we come in for 15 minutes and sit down and get your thoughts?' That was amazing and he wanted that to be in the movie, and there was concern definitely whether we should allow it, or he'd allow it.  Looking back, it all worked out and we were very lucky that it did.  There were topics in themselves; whether it was racism, or his being cut multiple times - almost a third time by New York - and him dealing with it head-on, and with such a sensitive topic, we had to be tactful about it.  You just kind of have to get to know your subject and have that comfort or build that relationship up to a point where you're able to gain that trust. 

I think that's the biggest thing in terms of this story; we were obviously very lucky to go as far back as we did, because once Linsanity the phenomenon hit, then his phone and his peoples' phones started ringing off the hook.  'Hey, this is so-and-so director from such and such studio or network. I want to do your life story,' and some of these were very big names.  His response back was, 'With all due respect, Mr. So-and-So, I'm already doing something with this group.'  Everyone was like, 'What the heck? Who are these people? How did they know?" Obviously, we didn't know; we were as caught off-guard as anyone.  What we realised was that we had, a) a privilege, b) the responsibility of doing this story and doing it right.  And that even if we had the biggest, most powerful studio, with the biggest budget came up to us and said,  'We wanna work with you. We wanna buy you out,' whatever, and then we started seeing stars and all that stuff, we could not have done that to Jeremy, or to ourselves.  Because [in] over three years of time, we had cultivated that trust and relationship, and if we had given this film to a different film team, they would've owned the footage, but it takes a while to build that bridge with his family.  It didn't matter who was coming; we couldn't give this away or partner with other folks.  As interesting as some of those opportunities and offers were, we had to hold on to it and keep this close to the vest.

What do you think makes Jeremy Lin's story different?  There are detractors who would dismiss Linsanity as a flash in the pan or a fluke.

BY:  I understand that it's a challenge to get people to watch this film.  I think Linsanity is still relevant. I think what Evan has done is created a legacy piece that we want to look back on 15, 20, 50 years from now and remember this story of the journey of Jeremy from the beginning to the top.  I think what makes it different other than the obvious fact that he's an Asian-American kid doing a very unstereotypical thing in a world that's dominated nowadays really by African-American and European men at the highest levels of the NBA - he sticks out like a sore thumb, no question about it - and so every day he puts on his shoes and his jersey and goes out; he represents a community.  And he may not necessarily want to wear that cape, or be that torch, but he is, and so I think the story is for so many different people - and not just Asians - there's the whole Christian story, there's the whole Ivy-League background, you talk about nerds who are still going, 'Oh, my gosh.'  There's so many folks, and really, we saw the response from Sundance, to Hong Kong, to here at home in New York; everyone coming from different backgrounds saying, 'I don't believe in the same God as Jeremy. I'm not Asian. I'm not a basketball fan, but the lessons you take away from what he went through in terms of the perseverance of always being looked at as the ultimate underdog and succeeding is something I could take away and something I could tell my children. It's something I could apply to my professional life whatever it is I'm doing in life.'  Not everyone is going to become an NBA superstar, that's not what I'm trying to tell here, but there's pains here that I think anyone can relate to, which is what I think makes this a really special and unique story.

You've made a movie about a guy who's only 25 years old.  Can you picture revisiting this story in a few years' time?

BY:  That's also something we joked about.  I don't think Jeremy's story is done in terms of the newsworthy-type thing, because he's always going to be looked at and someone who you say, 'What's going on with Jeremy Lin?'  I think there's going to be another documentary, or even two, when all is said and done.  You know he obviously left us in New York, but there's still a 'What have you done for me?' attitude about him.  He's always still having to prove himself.  It's unfortunate, but it's just the way the world works. 

So, he's gone on; he's one year past the hoopla here in New York and he's performed very well in Houston, and the team continues to grow and gel and he's got a lot of years ahead of him.  I think the next phase is going to be very interesting.  Obviously, we're watching with great interest and I know, having followed him for so long - and it's still something that frustrates you - that at every stop he gets detractors; from high school, to college, to the NBA.  People are going to doubt and wonder and he's going to have to continue to go out and do what he does best.  I have faith in the guy; he's been proving it all along.  Even if he doesn't play another minute in the NBA at this point, I think what he's done is so incredible and you can't take it away.  And he will apply his lessons in his own life to whatever he does post-basketball. 

So I think there's always going to be interest in him and his story and certainly obviously basketball is a big draw and that is what makes him Jeremy Lin; but if he decides to become a pastor, or does non-profit work, and he has an econ degree from Harvard, so he can do so many different things that there's always going to be a story there that people want to read, hear or see about Jeremy Lin.  We're just lucky we caught it during the Linsanity part, I guess. {Laughs}


Director Evan Jackson Leong

The Lady Miz Diva:  How did Jeremy Lin come to your attention and what was it about him that made you think he'd make for a great story?

Evan Jackson Leong:  I first heard of Jeremy through the internet and then {co-producer} Christopher Chen said, "Hey, I know his family and there might be the possibility to do a documentary on him."  I looked more into it and there were a lot of things about him that I could really relate to; we were both Asian-American, both from the Bay Area, and we both played basketball a lot.  We both tried for the NBA; I didn't make it, but he did.  He represented something I never saw before and I thought he could really inspire the youth of today; 7 or 8-year-olds could have a role model, one of their own skin colour, one of their own journey, one of their own community that they never had before.  Maybe there will be another Jeremy Lin because they'll feel like, 'If he could do it, I could do it."

You were already filming him when Linsanity phenomena hit.  How did that affect or change the arc of the story you had in mind?

EJL:  Well, we were experiencing what everyone else was experiencing, but it was definitely pretty intense for us.  We got caught up in it.  We were having fun; yelling and calling each other and watching the games over and over.  We needed an ending and he gave us an ending.  It was a great ending!  It changed from a little internet webisodes series to a full-on, feature-length documentary.  That's pretty incredible for me as a filmmaker; I never expected to play the AMC {Theatres} at this point in my career.

Jeremy said he was hesitant for two years before he agreed to do the doc.  How did you go about persuading him?

EJL:  We did start the shooting; Brian did a little unauthorised shooting in the public domain of Jeremy.  A little stalker footage.  We hung around and he got to know us a little bit better.  I think it speaks to who he is as a person; he's a cool guy.  "Who am I?  Why would you want to do a documentary?  I've done nothing.  I'm going to be in the NBA. I haven't met my goals.  I haven't got the goals I want to.  I don't want a camera crew following me around, I just want to play basketball."  If you want to play in the NBA, you don't dream of doing interviews after every game.  You don't dream of doing press stuff three times a week, or walking out of your house and getting mobbed.  You just want to play basketball; and at that point, that's what Jeremy wanted.  All he wanted to do was focus on basketball.  He didn't want a distraction and this goes to his discipline.  After a while, he got to know who we were and he trusted us and there was the potential for him to tell his story.  Everyone else was writing all these stories about him and all these things.  This was his chance to really tell his story.

One of the things he said made him comfortable filming was how well he'd gotten to know the crew and your understanding of him and his family.  How did you keep your professional objectivity and present the story as you envisioned, or did feelings for Jeremy become a consideration?

EJL:  That's a good question.  This is not my first walk in the park with filmmaking; you've gotta be very conscious of that relationship and that distance between filmmaker and subject.  If you get too close, you're not going to see what the true vision is, and that vision will be a little blurred from what the actual reality is; but you have to develop a level of trust that enables you to get close.  I was always conscious of my position with him.  I never hung out with him.  I never did anything without a camera, because the camera is going to keep the separation.  The camera is going to make sure we're always on and we're always filming.  That was tiring for both of us, it was definitely tiring for him.  It was important because it kept your objectivity at a distance; you don't get caught up in your feelings for the person. 

Ultimately, for us, we set out to do a feel-good documentary, not an expose on somebody where we're trying to change or cover up somebody.  We're fortunate that Jeremy is who he is on camera and off camera.  There's no bad stuff that we're hiding.  I think that made it easier, but Jeremy doesn't do any of that, so there's really no danger in capturing any of that.

Since your intent was to make a feel-good documentary, how did you judge how much of the ugly side of Jeremy's victory - the racist comments from other professional athletes and commentators - to include?

EJL:  I think while it is uplifting, because it is a documentary about an Asian kid trying to make it in the NBA. In that sense, it was an uplifting piece because it was about following your dream.  Obviously, you have to deal with everything from the perspective of Jeremy; what he has to deal with.  There's a lot of positive, but there's negative.  I wanted to view this film in the same way he deals with racism.  He's got a very sort of enlightened state about racism and I think that's something that can be learned.  He knows it's there.  He's experienced it.  But what are you going to do?  Are you going to let it upset you?  Are you going to let it bother you?  You've got bigger things to worry about than who are these people who feel that way.  You have to deal with racism because racism exists.  I think what happened with Jeremy was very interesting because at this moment in time, this was the state of racism for Asian-Americans.  This was the state of it in the world.  I think people are going to be a lot more sensitive to anything that they say since Jeremy has been in the spotlight.  But no one ever dealt with it before because no one knew what they could and couldn't say, because there had never been an Asian-American icon like this, who had captured the hearts and minds of people around the world like this. 

We're not dealing with racism like in the sixties; but racism like this, it's a little more quiet, but it's still there.  I think for me in this documentary, we wanted to show that in 20 years from now, you'll pop in this video and you'll say, 'Oh, that's where racism was then.  That's how we treated Asian-Americans at that time.'  In 20 or 30 years, maybe we'll have an Asian-American president.  It takes people like Jeremy to get us to the next plateau of understanding.

What makes Jeremy Lin's story different?  Many people have dismissed the Linsanity craze as a fluke.

EJL:  It's a very unique story.  That it's an Asian-American makes it very unique because it's never happened before.  And it happened at a time that there was nobody in the world who could not get with this story.  All the people that hate now; they were on the wagon when it was happening.  I think it's the way media works; media these days has gotta pull things up and they've gotta create sides.  That's the best kind of media; when you create a polarising issue and you pick one side - you're going to get a lot of supporters, or you're going to get a lot of haters and that's going to get you a lot of views, no matter what.  Everything in the media now is blown out of proportion, and with Jeremy, I think no one could ever take that away, even the haters cannot get with his story.  They may like to hate him and all that, but at the end of the day, his story is universal.  Everyone knows what it's like to fail and people say no to you, to not get to where you want to get to, to have your dreams taken away from you.  Everyone knows what that feels like.  To actually get it is the dream of everybody, to follow your passion and be happy.  I think in that sense, Jeremy right now is definitely a polarising figure, but nobody could ever take that away from him, or us as a community.

This interview is cross-published on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy exclusive photos from the film there.
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