Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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He shoots! He scores! After a strong limited release opening, Linsanity, the documentary about openly Christian basketball star Jeremy Lin, is expanding into more theaters this weekend. I talked with producer Christopher Chen about how the film came about and what it’s like to see his passion project succeed on the court of public opinion (aka the box office).

JWK: So, what drove you to want to make Linsanity?

CHRISTOPHER CHEN: I think people know Linsanity mostly from February 2012. Suddenly there was a miracle that happened at Madison Square Garden. My journey with the story — and my journey with Jeremy — actually began prior to that. Jeremy was on my radar when he was still in high school. EndGame Entertainment is based out of Los Angeles. We do mainly feature films. We dabble in documentaries.  Jeremy took on more of a personal interest (for me) because he’s a basketball player (and) he’s an Asian-American kid. I start reading about him and he wins the state championship! That’s really cool! That’s really inspiring! Wow! He wins player of the year! In the entire state of California he’s the best player in the division! Wow! That is super-inspiring!” Immediately, I said “Okay, where does he go to school? Does he go to Stanford which is right across the street? Does he go to Cal-Berkeley which is right across the bay?” Then (I hear) he’s at Harvard. Interesting. So, I immediately thought maybe he’s not as good a player as people were saying because who goes to Harvard to actually play basketball? If you’re serious about basketball, nobody goes to Harvard. There are plenty of other academic institutions that you can go play basketball at…

…So, I had gotten introduced to Jeremy by a mutual friend. In our first — and very casual — conversations we started talking about a lot of stuff and I came to find out that he didn’t get a single offer to play anywhere else besides Harvard. As we know, Harvard is part of the Ivy League. They don’t have (basketball) scholarships. So, Jeremy has to get in on his own. You know, meet the academic standards of Harvard and, ultimately, he has to play basketball too. He’s gonna need financial support for that. So, he’s on financial aid just like the rest of the kids. He’s there, you know, busting his butt on the court and in the classroom. So, when I first started talking to him I (found) a really interesting story. I found out that he is a man of faith. I think in one of his very, very early interviews that was posted on YouTube, they asked him “What did he want to be when he ‘grew up’?” Any basketball player I think would say they want to play in the NBA. His answer was a little bit different than that. He wanted to be in youth ministry. He wanted to be a pastor.

So, I thought that was fascinating all the way around. As he started growing as a player, I said “Jeremy, we can have cameras on you. You can be very, very inspirational to a lot of young kids out there.” He kind of blew me off. And then, ultimately, he sent me to his mom. He said “Chris, can you talk to my mom about that?” I said “Sure, let me talk to your mom?”  I felt like I was courting Mama Lin for a little while there. Phone calls were not returned — or emails. (laughs) I even sent smoke signals at a certain point.

We just wanted to start the conversation to see if there was something interesting there…not necessarily a movie but (for) more of a web series. Can we tell Jeremy’s story in four or five or six different parts — four or five minutes each — and put together some kind of entertaining web series to tell his story.

So, that’s how it originated.  And, as you get to know the Lins, they’re a very, very private family, very reserved. So, I think the idea of having cameras in their living room was unappealing to them. They didn’t want the distraction. They didn’t want the extra attention. They didn’t want the trouble. It took a little bit of convincing.

JWK: Was it a difficult documentary to make?

CC: While he was at Harvard, we shot some, let’s say, unauthorized images. We went to some of his games. We shot some of the stuff out there but it wasn’t until his senior year when he signed his contract with the Golden State Warriors that we actually were officially greenlit, so to speak. So, we shot with them a little bit during the rookie year. It was very, very uneventful. He was sent up and down (through) the NBA‘s minor league system. That was a very depressing time for him. When he was with the Warriors, he was kind of on the end of the bench. So, I think we all had doubts. We had about where the project was going. He had doubts about where his basketball career was going. So, frankly, I think that was a test of his faith. One thing that is stressed in the film (is that) in the (Lin) family they always had pecking order.  God was first. Family and school, let’s say, were second. And then basketball was always below that…

God is Number One. God is on top. So, I think faith has been the through line in his whole journey…It’s always easy to praise God when things are going well but I think in the film we show that Jeremy struggled with his faith — certainly during his tough times. He’s very open about that and…let’s be honest, everyone struggles with their faith at some point. I think Jeremy is very open about what he was doing and how he dealt with that.  So, I think what we like to say is this is an authentic look at what Jeremy’s journey was and I think, more than anything, it’s a documentary. None of this stuff was scripted. We don’t know that he’s gonna make the winning shot. We don’t know that he’s gonna score 38 points…You could argue — and I would argue — that we had divine intervention and help from the Man Upstairs.

JWK: So, you’re a person of faith, as well.

CC: I think Jeremy and I shared that. I think that one thing that we talked about early on was that I grew up in a Christian family…We went to church every week… So, that was something that was very comfortable for me and I think when we first started talking to (Jeremy’s) mom that was one of her first questions. She wanted to know “Are you going to deal with the subject of faith?” I said “We’re not hiding from anything. We want to highlight that and we want to talk about it.” You can’t tell Jeremy’s story without telling that side of it. You can’t just gloss over it. Other people may have done that if they were the ones that were doing this film but that’s certainly something that we had in mind…We always came back to that at some point in the film.

JWK: How similar is Jeremy’s story in NBA to Tim Tebow‘s experience in the NFL?

CC: That’s a great question. I think Jeremy and Tim Tebow have very, very different journeys. Tim Tebow, you remember, was a first-round draft pick and a Heisman Trophy winner. He was very, very celebrated going into the NFL. Jeremy was relatively unknown…Not many of his games were nationally televised. So, he didn’t get that kind of exposure in college that a Tim Tebow did.

JWK: Have they met each other?

CC: They’ve definitely met. I know that they contact each other occasionally. I don’t know with what level of frequency. I think they have very different journeys but I think part of their journey is very similar as far as their faith. One thing that I’d like to point out is that, again, it’s very easy for these athletes when they hit the game-winning shot or have a great game and they’re interviewed on national TV to give praise and glory to God. But, with Jeremy, I think he very much lives the authentic life and I think that’s important to understand because…Everybody comes from different journeys to the NBA. I think the one thing is, you know, they’re all very young; they’re all making a lot of money. So, I think temptation is there — whether it be girls, drugs, alcohol or whatever. I think there’s a lot of temptation available to any of those guys. They’re on the road a lot — in their hotel rooms…One thing I can truly say about Jeremy is that he lives an authentic life — which is something for me (that) I can look up to and I can get inspired by.

JWK: So, you’re personally inspired by his story.

CC: Without question. I think it’s hard to not be inspired by his story. One thing that I (found remarkable) about Jeremy was that he is not singularly defined. Certainly, he’s Asian-American. Certainly, he a basketball player. He’s an athlete. He also a Christian. He’s also an Ivy Leaguer. He’s so many different things to different people. So, you don’t have to be just one person — or just one category — to really be a story…If you’ve ever been fired from your job or laid off or dumped by your girlfriend, whatever it is, everybody can really relate to Jeremy. I think the one thing that Jeremy’s very open about is his struggles. Nobody talks about their struggles when they’re at the top of the pyramid like that…Nobody talks about where they’re vulnerable. I think a lot of these athletes want to kind of portray this image of invincibility. That’s one thing that is refreshing about Jeremy.  He doesn’t mind talking about (his vulnerability). His attitude is you have to go through those times to really build character and build your faith and to get stronger physically, stronger mentally and stronger in your walk with God.

JWK: How’s it feel to see your film greeted so enthusiastically from audiences?

CC: Well, it’s been really enjoyable…Everyone said “Why didn’t you release (when) Linsanity (was in the headlines)?” Clearly, those people have never put together a film. It takes a long time to put together. One thing that we did have was huge cooperation from the NBA. We couldn’t have done this film without their help. We used a lot of their footage. We have terrific-looking shots from our cameras and their cameras as well…

…Again, February 2012 was (the height of) Linsanity. We took a little time to kind of take a step back and structure this as a film instead of a web series. We spent all summer and into the fall cutting it. We submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year– which was in January. And I have to admit we were editing literally until the day before the screening. We actually carried the tape to the festival. It was a sold-out theater. There were 700 people in the theater and, let me tell you something, that was really, really emotional…We had never seen the film played before an audience. We’re not talking about an audience of faith people. We’re not talking about an audience of only Asian-Americans. It was so emotional. They were clapping as if they were in the middle of the game — cheering when he had good shots. You hear people crying and we got a standing ovation as the end of the screening. It was just so rewarding after all of the hard work that we put in — just to be in the room and to see that people really appreciated it.

JWK: What’s your target audience?

CC: I think people of all ages. Kids will enjoy this. We’ve had several different senior groups come out and really support the film because it has such a positive message, His journey is something. You know, I’m in the film business. If somebody came to me with the script of Jeremy Lin’s story I would laugh them out of my office. I would say “This is so unbelievable! Why would anybody ever spend so much time and effort in doing this?” But guess what? It actually happened! We were there to capture it.

JWK: Did you ever consider doing a scripted version of his story?

CC: I think we’re happy with the unscripted version. But I think certainly somebody will look to make some kind of scripted version because, really, it’s Rudy, it’s Rocky, it’s Remember the Titans…It’s all these different movies all wrapped up into one. I think what we really are proud of is that it’s not just a basketball film. My mom and my 96-year-old grandma — who are not basketball fans — saw this film and they loved it. It’s not just because I worked on it. It’s a really great story. I think that’s ultimately what it comes down to.

JWK: Why do you think are people so taken with Jeremy’s story?

CC: I think he’s relatable. One of my favorite scenes of the film is — he’s into Linsanity at this moment and things are going crazy for him — and we shoot the scene with him and he doesn’t have this posh apartment or posh house or anything like this. He’s staying on his brother’s couch. So, his brother has a small bed and bath and he’s staying on his brother’s couch. What’s he doing when we’re shooting the day before…the biggest game of his career at that point? What’s he doing? He’s doing his laundry. He’s talking to his mom and sister-in-law and is just so relatable to so many different people. You know, I don’t think Kobe Bryant is doing his own laundry. I don’t know that for a fact but I’m just guessing that he’s not doing his own laundry. Jeremy is so relatable. I think people really like him and can really connect with him on a gut level. Just to have him find that success — and find it at such a level in the NBA, which is the highest level of basketball, in New York, which is the number-one media market, in Madison Square Garden, which is probably the most famous arena in maybe the world. To have all that come together at one time, that’s not something that happens by accident. We certainly had some help from the Man Upstairs.

JWK: I understand you used Kickstarter to finance the movie?

CC: Kickstarter was very much a big part of it. I’m glad that you brought that up because Jeremy and I think a lot of Linsanity had to do with social media. Jeremy’s Facebook went bonkers. His Twitter (following) increased 10, 20 (times). He had a worldwide presence because of where his parents are from. So, social media has been such a huge part (of his story).

Frankly, when we went out for the Kickstarter campaign, we could have raised a lot of money (without it) but I think, for us, it was more about (wanting) backers. We wanted people. We said “We don’t care. Give us a dollar just to show your contribution to it.”  What we hope is that through their investment they will feel a connection with the film. And what they will do is they will tell five, ten, fifteen of their friends. They’re gonna tell their baseball team. They’re gonna tell their softball team. They’re gonna tell their church youth group to come help support the film.  That’s what we’re looking for. (We’re) trying to get that undercurrent groundswell of support on the social standpoint because…we’re not a movie that has tens of millions of dollars of budget to buy billboards and commercial time and buy all these ads. We don’t have that kind of marketing budget to support it. So we need help in service of getting people to watch it and, hopefully, you get to share that with your friends.

JWK: Besides theaters, you’re also making the film available via other platforms. Can you tell me about that?

CC: Right now it’s playing in theaters. It’s playing in about 10 different markets. Please check your local listings. We are playing Video On Demand on the various different cable providers — Time Warner, Comcast, DirecTV — those types of big cable providers. We’re also renting on iTunes. So, there are various different ways you can see the product. We, of course, encourage those who can to experience it on the big screen.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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