“This is their one shot.”
What is the plot of ‘Warrior Strong’?
When Bilal Irving (Jordan Johnson-Hinds) left his small hometown bound for a basketball career worthy of his athletic gifts, he was sure he would never return. When he’s suspended from the Chinese pro basketball league, he finds himself desperate for an opportunity to repair his image, and what could change a ‘coach-killer’ narrative better than returning home to coach his old high school team? The only problem: his old coach, Avery Schmidt (Andrew Dice Clay), still holds the reins to the team with an iron fist. It’s only after a near-fatal heart attack that Coach Schmidt is forced to accept a co-coach he stubbornly doesn’t think he needs.
What everyone can agree on is that this ragtag team of high school basketball players desperately needs help from someone. They barely get along, let alone know how to play together, and that’s not the only hurdle the team has to overcome. Bilal and Coach Schmidt have some very different opinions on how the team should be run, not to mention a deep emotional rift about their past which has never been resolved. Forced to work together, Bilal and Schmidt have to learn from each other and realize that they both have to grow before they can teach the kids the life lessons they will need to become champions.
Who is in the cast of ‘Warrior Strong’?
Moviefone recently had the pleasure of speaking with director Shane Belcourt about his work on ‘Warrior Strong,’ his first reaction to the screenplay, other sports movies that influenced him, casting Andrew Dice Clay and his impressive performance, why Jordan Johnson-Hinds was the right actor to play Bilal, if he is based on any real NBA players, Coach Schmidt and Bilal’s relationship, working with the cast of kids, shooting the basketball sequences, and the themes of the film that he wanted to explore.
You can read the full interview below or click on the video player above to watch our interview.
Moviefone: To begin with, can you talk about your first reaction to the screenplay and were there any other sports movies that influenced you while making this film?
Shane Belcourt: I first got the script for ‘Warrior Strong,’ from the original writer Dan Gordon, who’s written ‘The Hurricane,’ and a whole bunch of other things. He is a legit writer, so the script was great. It was exciting. The weird thing about this sports movie is it had this dual protagonist co-coaching conflict, which was in some other films. But what was challenging with this one was how to focus it on each one having the right amount of balance. So Dan and I worked on getting that balance as well as the kids to really feel the team. Then from there, because it’s these two coaches, like this dual protagonist going at it, oddly, I was watching ‘48 Hrs.’ with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy and ‘Lethal Weapon’ with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson. These movies with two people forced together, where they’ve got to battle it out, and there’s usually a seniority conflict with the youth. That was something that I was looking to the most. Of course, with the basketball stuff, everybody in my generation, we started with ‘Hoosiers’ and then ‘He Hot Game’ by Spike Lee, then into things like even recently ‘The Way Back,’ which was a phenomenal basketball film. So every basketball movie was a part of the crib sheet for how to do this.
MF: I grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s, so Andrew Dice Clay was a huge part of my childhood. Did you have a similar experience and what was it like working with “The Diceman”?
SB: It’s interesting because I was thinking about how I was able to work with Dice. We got along so well in prep, working on the project and the character because everybody in our generation knows who Andrew Dice Clay is, for sure. He’s this rock and roll comedian who’s sold out Madison Square Garden, and been in ‘Ford Fairlane.’ I recognize that he’s a huge star. But for me, I was always into the depressed comics like Steven Wright and Jerry Seinfeld, of course, and that entire group. So I was interested in comedy, for sure, but Andrew Dice clay wasn’t somebody who I had a poster of up on my wall. Like if I was working with Robin Williams from the comedian world, I would’ve been out of my mind, and I couldn’t focus. But with Andrew Dice Clay, I recognized the fame, the talent, how hard he worked, but he wasn’t necessarily somebody who I had the album of. So I was kind of relieved of what you were describing as like this childhood connection to him. It was more like, “Oh, hey, great. This is amazing. You’re so accomplished.” He was just so interested in being vulnerable in a new way as a character. I think he touched on some of that in ‘Blue Jasmine’ and definitely, in ‘A Star is Born,’ sort of in his esteemed age and working with that a bit more, allowing it to come across on camera. This character of Coach Avery Schmidt allowed Dice to click into some of where he is in this transition period from sort of a younger guy rocking it out to being an older guy who’s still doing a lot. How do you sort of transition with grace and then also mentor the new generation? So for him, that was a connection to the script and the character, and it was lots of fun to work on it that way. I’m actually kind of thrilled that it wasn’t like Eddie Murphy or somebody that I would’ve been crazy with and I couldn’t focus, but I could focus with Dice and he was amazing to work with.
MF: Obviously Andrew Dice Clay is a legendary stand-up comic, and was great in movies like ‘Blue Jasmine’ and ‘A Star is Born,’ as you just mentioned, but he gives an incredibly deep and emotional performance in ‘Warrior Strong.’ Did you have any idea that he was that good of an actor?
SB: Honestly, he was so good in ‘A Star Is Born,’ I actually didn’t know it was Andrew Dice Clay until the credits came up. Because I was like, “Oh, I love the dad character,” as I’m watching it. “This dad character is amazing. He’s just so dialed in. He is the dad.” Then afterwards, I was like, “Wait, that was Andrew Dice Clay?” Then immediately went through the IMDB and I started reading more about him. He actually was an aspiring actor and did a lot of acting at a younger age and then transitioned into this comedy, which even he describes as an act, as opposed to himself as a person, like it’s a combo there. So I think that, obviously, he has such amazing (acting) chops. I’m going to be honest with you, you hope that the actor is going to show up and really just bring it. You hope that they’re going to just be so in the character, in their blood and in their being that the camera’s just capturing them. So, I think about the shot of him just sitting on the bench and he’s not saying anything and to me, it’s just one of those moments when he looks so forlorn and alone. He just did that. There was not a lot of director-actor combo. He’s just he’s in his own world and says, “Get rolling, let’s go, let’s go,” and you start rolling and there it is. So every day I was looking at this, going, “This is great. He is this character.” Just like I’m sure they felt on other movies that had him like ‘Blue Jasmine’ or ‘A Star is Born.’
MF: Why was Jordan Johnson-Hinds the right actor to play Bilal?
SB: Jordan Johnson-Hinds is incredible as Bilal. There’s a couple of things. Well, behind the scenes, his character is in every scene. So as an actor who’s in every scene, every single day, you know, directors, we’re very busy with all kinds of things around the camera. But those other actors in every scene, especially the young cast, they’re sort of surrounded. They’re with Jordan Johnson-Hinds, their Bilal, their coach character, along with Andrew Dice Clay, but most of it was with Jordan. In that sense he had to be not only an amazing performer as Bilal, but he really was holding the young actors in the room, in the scenes, giving, supporting and really being a mentor. He became like a coach on set to these young actors and he was great. When I first met with Jordan, he’s from Canada, and he played Toronto basketball so we immediately went down a Toronto Raptors fan base thing. Then we got into talking about all these basketball movies, Spike Lee and ‘He Got Game,’ how much we love and adore his films, what he means to cinema and what he meant to both of us in terms of we’re about the same age group and inspiring us to think about how we could tell stories in a different way from different communities. Also, he’s just a cinema master, so we definitely kind of geeked out on that. But then we started talking about the character and he just got it. We had a whole bunch of meetings where we went through the script line by line. We really worked on it together in prep. So when he showed up on day one, it was just like a home run. He is so good and so dedicated to performing and being that lead performer in the film that I just feel so lucky that this is the first movie that he was a lead in. It was very lucky for me.
MF: In the movie, Bilal is depicted as a temperamental ex-NBA star with a public image problem, and his last name is Irving. Was the character loosely based on the Dallas Mavericks’ Kyrie Irving?
SB: You know, it actually began with Stephon Marbury in his career, which was up and down. Obviously, he had this one focused time when he was just lightening it up in the NBA and then other things came to bear on that. Then he went to China and he became a star in China. So Stephon Marbury was really sort of the comparison. But the original character name that Dan had written was Bilal Irving and I had kept Irving. Of course, as we’re going through this, these other things are happening with Kyrie. But, it was more Stephon Marbury for me when we were going through it. For Jordan, he’s drawing on a lot of his own research and a whole bunch of players, and Kyrie would be one of them as well.
MF: How would you describe Coach Schmidt and Bilal’s history together and their working relationship now?
SB: One of the things in the film that we really wanted to get on was this idea of the times of life when you have to transition. A lot of it is a transitioning in life as you age from a me-centric place to a we-service place. In that kind of natural aging, we have these two characters. A player who’s at a midlife point where you’re not really the player you once were anymore, your body is not able to do the things that you once were able to do. Then, We have a coach who’s sort there to mentor, but maybe not day-to-day coach because of his senior age and health issues that are coming naturally as we age. So we had these two characters at a point where neither one of them wanted to accept the transition point of their lives, you know? The older player still wants to be “The Guy.” Then for the older coach, Andrew Dice Clay’s character, “How do I also transition my legacy to somebody else and let them take over the position of coach,” the esteemed place where he finds so much meaning for himself? So that dynamic was there in this sort of, I’m expressing it in a thoughtful way, but really it was mostly about the young hotshot versus the old coach. Who could be more perfect than Andrew Dice Clay going at it with Jordan Johnson-Hinds, as they kind of just clash. It was a joy to see them really go at it and then off camera, as soon as the take was done, to hug, laugh and be high-fiving each other. It was a lot of fun in that sense and that was the way the characters were designed.
MF: Can you talk about casting the kids on the team and working with them on set?
SB: Casting all the young performers in this film, it’s always daunting because you write it down and you need the Shlomo character to sort of have a certain look. We’re thinking like a young Jonah Hill and we want somebody who can be really confident and funny in real life, but then when they’re in front of the camera, they can just nail it and Aidan Kalechstein was just phenomenal with that. Writing the character of Bettina, a they/them character that’s also good at sports, that was like, how are we going to find that? It’s such an important part because it really transitions over the whole film. So who could act that as well as be from that community? When we found Macaulee Cassaday, it was like, “Are you kidding me?” We saw Macaulee’s tape and it was like, right away, “Book Macaulee now! That is phenomenal.” So we really got lucky. A few of the parts, we had to sort of see more tapes and eventually they came forward. On set, I can say it was amazing. We had a basketball camp before we started filming and they all became best friends. They view it as their greatest summer camp ever so they all really did bond. It was really fun to be there and witness. Every day that you show up on set and young people are that enthusiastic just to be there, it’s hard not to just feel like this is the best job ever.
MF: Did you have to cast actors that had basketball experience, or was it more about fitting the characters with the right actors and then teaching them to play?
SB: I definitely got lied to because they put in their resumes, “Special Skills: Basketball.” I’d talk to their agent, and I’m like, “No, this is a basketball movie. They got to be able to play basketball.” Most of them goofed around with basketball so that’s why we had the camp. Then we actually had a basketball trainer, a semi-professional player, Aaron Brown. So he was able to get onto sessions and Zoom sessions with them for months before filming to sort of watch them dribble, to talk about basketball, and send them links. So credit to the actors, they really got to camp, they got together and they got their skills together to be camera basketball-ready. We played a little bit of a pickup game to get loose. All the opposing players are real local basketball players, college or high school, and they were not sweating, they’re having a good time and our actors are like just totally gassed. So we definitely had to find a balance between movie magic and the real basketball.
MF: As a director, can you talk about the challenges of shooting the basketball sequences?
SB: They really were. We also had the time when it’s COVID, so all the extras, the testing, the masking, all those things were quite a challenge. But I had done, earlier in my career, I had done a documentary on dance, which is bizarre. But when I had done it, I had a chance to work with Santee Smith, a Mohawk dancer up here in Canada. So she had this performance where we brought the cameras on stage and we could reimagine all the dance moves, not for the back of the theater, but for the camera. So what I was able to sort of do with this basketball one is remind everybody we can’t just play basketball elbows out, someone’s going to get a tooth knocked out. We have to choreograph all the plays and the real basketball players have to learn to stay consistent so they don’t hurt anybody. Then our young performers who were not really basketball players had to know how to look like basketball players when they were doing their moves. So it was really just like I was doing a dance movie for those things. It wasn’t so much the basketball that was hard. It was sort of making sure everybody was repeatable and safe. That was the real challenge of that one.
MF: Finally, besides the basketball story, the film has a lot of heart and touches on many important issues. As a director, can you talk about some of the themes that you wanted to explore with this movie?
SB: You know, I played high school basketball and I was just re-looking at my high school basketball team recently, a photo of us in the yearbook, and everybody is from somewhere. One person’s from Somalia, another person is from Vietnam, another person is from Laos, another person’s Jamaican, and then we had an Italian. Everybody was from all over all coming together playing this game that we love. In that, the game unifies the goal, the focus, but we really had to find our way to exist with each other. Really that was the draw I was thinking about when we were making this film, casting the film and bringing all these different kinds of characters together. Therefore, now the film can have a little bit about each of these storylines, each of these places because that was my experience on a team. How do we get to know each other to really be there for each other?
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