It was an ingenious idea, executed perfectly. NBA star Kyrie Irving, donning hair and makeup that disguised him as a 70-year-old man, walked onto public basketball courts around the country and joined street ball games against unwitting opponents. This was the central conceit of the Uncle Drew web clips produced in 2012 to promote Pepsi Max, PepsiCo’s low-calorie and sugar-free soda, under the slogan, “A zero-calorie cola in disguise.” The clips went viral and ultimately led to the production of this summer’s Uncle Drew. The feature film uses the original web clips as a launching pad to tell the story of Dax (Lil Relationship Howery), who spends his life savings to enter a team in Harlem’s Rucker Classic street ball tournament. When his rival, Mookie (Nick Kroll), steals his squad, Dax draws upon the legendary Uncle Drew (Kyrie Irving) to assemble a team of not-quite-over-the-hill veterans to compete for the tournament’s cash prize. The ensemble cast for Uncle Drew includes a spate of former basketballs stars, including Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, and Lisa Leslie. Boxoffice spoke with the film’s director, Charles Stone III, on how he adapted the short-form hit into a feature film.
How did you come across this project?
It came across my desk through my agent. The producer Marty Bowen, who knows me, he actually was my agent many, many, many moons ago. So he knew my work and felt like I’d be a good person to put the story together. Initially, I read it, then I came in and pitched my version of how to tell the story. He really liked that, as well as Lionsgate. We just moved forward from there.
You have experience with short-form content, both in the commercial world and music videos, so you’re familiar with how different it is in tackling a narrative feature film. What were some of the challenges in adapting something that worked really well in short form into a feature film?
It’s interesting you bring that up, because I did a short film back in 1999 called True, which actually became the Budweiser “Whassup?” campaign in 2000 and 2001. It’s a very similar situation here, a short-film series that kept getting created and sponsored. It was similar in that, “Okay, here’s this short form content that I have to expand into a story.” I guess it’s sort of a reverse of what I did with the “Whassup?” campaign, in that I’m actually taking the short-form piece and blowing it up into a long-form film.
It’s hard to, in the script, to put it together. I knew from watching the short films tonally where I wanted to go. The short films gave just a slight [sense of] who this person was and the people in his life. But Jay Longino, the writer, put together a much larger story that involved this older character. That question is really good for both Marty Bowen, the producer, and Jay Longino, the writer, who actually put this story together. But for me, the challenge and the goal is to make sure there’s a real story behind it.
It’s very easy to get caught up in what I call the hook of the shorts. That hook to me was, “NBA basketball player dresses up or disguises himself as an old man, and starts to challenge the real young players on a real public basketball court, and not announce to them or all the real people who are at the court.” So it’s more of a Candid Camera or Jackass kind of format. You get to see real people going, “Oh my goodness!” and being caught off guard by this old guy. We the viewers know that old guy is really a young guy. A lot of what makes that short film successful is that kind of hook, that surprise hook.
I couldn’t tell a story purely based on that hook line, because that would get tired real quick. It needed to be a story that helps define that superpower, so to speak, that Uncle Drew has. This old guy can actually play like a young guy. So we had to actually really create a story about this person. We did that by actually designing a young man who’s desperate to win this big tournament with a dream team he puts together, but that dream team gets picked by this bully nemesis of his. So he hears about this old guy who apparently can still play like a young guy. He doesn’t believe it until he witnesses it himself on the court. Sure enough, he gets the old guy to join him.
But again, it was important to design a story that emotionally we as viewers can connect to. That will then allow us to enjoy the eye candy or the superpower or the hook line: this old guy is schooling young guys on the court. That was really important for me. When I did the short film True, how can I make a resonant story about guys who are yelling “Whassup?” on the phone. I really went through that whole couch potato thing, of basically guys holding hands through the phone, which is what all of us do. It’s a universal thing.
Another interesting aspect of the film as a narrative feature is the ensemble cast you’ve put together. Can you tell us a little bit about building that specific dream team of talent?
It’s actually quite sobering, the process, because you start off with lists of potential NBA players. Then certain NBA players don’t become available. It’s sort of a back-and-forth thing. But I will tell you, it’s amazing how the process rewards the intent or the goal of the movie. In our case, that really happened.
When Chris Webber came in to meet me to play the character Preacher, I couldn’t see it at all. He’s got a really very steady and smooth demeanor, not like how I envisioned the Preacher character, who’s very fiery—sort of a cross between James Brown and Al Sharpton. But Chris came in and read for me as the character, and he totally brought that fire. I was totally taken by surprise. That was a wonderful revelation.
Shaquille O’Neal, we always knew wanted to play Big Fella. Number one, he’s so big! Number two, Shaquille has had experience in making films and he’s quite the cutup, he’s quite the ham, very funny. He just wants to make people laugh. So that was an exciting get.
Nate Robinson worked out really well. He’s five-nine but yet he used to be a slam-dunk champion and did pretty well in the NBA. So him playing Boots, being this little guy who appears to not be able to walk—and spoiler alert, he ends up getting his shoes and being able to actually slam dunk. Visually, that worked out very well.
Reggie Miller was also a surprise. Reggie had done the Lights character. His superpower is that he could shoot from long range; he was really deadly from the perimeter. Who else is deadly from the perimeter besides the classic Reggie Miller? There was the idea of maybe going to someone like Stephen Curry, because he’s also deadly from the perimeter. But Reggie Miller, we loved that idea. He’s a vet; he’s an alum of the NBA with a little bit more age on him. So that worked out well for the Lights character, especially because the Lights character is blind, which adds a comedy to it.
Lisa Leslie was the perfect person for Betty Lou, also because she’s one of the greats of the WNBA. And stunning to boot, on top of that. She looked really good with Chris Webber.
And then Kyrie Irving, who’s just reprising the role of Uncle Drew as well. So it’s the term “the stars are in alignment.” With this one, literally and figuratively, the stars just came into alignment. These guys all really got along and worked well together. It was just the perfect motley crew of talented players.
Working with non-actors is always a challenge. Working with non-actors who are also multimillionaires—I’m sure that isn’t the world’s easiest task! How much of it was directing a performance, and how much of it was—for a lack of a better word—coaching them in these roles?
So there are two things there. One is that because I had so many players to work with, and because a lot of them were inexperienced in terms of narrative acting, I also brought on a wonderful acting coach by the name of Adam Lazarre-White. Adam had a lot of experience with television as an actor himself, and he has an acting studio and coaches. So he was a great asset, in terms of really being able to handle the ensemble cast.
The other part of it is that for me, what my intent is in working with non-actors is to explore their personal lives, see just how they think and how they move, how their life experiences can potentially be applied to these characters they’re making.
A perfect example is that Reggie Miller had a relative, an older man who had this really bad back and used to have this funny walk. It was really great to embrace that. His character has this kind of strut, but because he’s much older he’s got this crick in his back. That helped to create the character.
Chris Webber’s father is a preacher, so Chris Webber grew up in the church. He’s well versed in what it’s like to be a real preacher. He was able to apply that knowledge and the mannerisms that he’s grown up experiencing of real preachers, especially his father, to the Preacher character in the movie.
So each person I would talk with, then both Adam and I would discuss their past experiences and family life, try to find things that could help to anchor them into the character. Then we just take it from there.
Making any film, you’re beholden to working with a number of different schedules—managing the availability of your stars. Sometimes people are available for reshoots, sometimes they’re not. With Kyrie [Irving], the preseason starts and that’s basically it, so you have a tight window to work with. It was also a very transitional time for Kyrie, both personally and professionally, with his trade from Cleveland to Boston. How did you manage those constraints?
Being a director, it’s not just realizing or executing your version of the story. It’s also managing all of the various personalities and conflicting schedules and time restrictions. I’m having to realize my vision but make it fit within a structure that has lots of challenges.
In reference to Kyrie Irving specifically, there was a lot going on for Kyrie. We didn’t know about the potential trade until he found out, which was when LeBron leaked something. It was out in the public that he was potentially going to be leaving Cleveland or being traded. So that was happening during the process. Then his getting traded to the Celtics happened in the middle of that. So that was going on. I tip my hat to Kyrie, because he was pretty good about keeping that away from his acting and what needs to be done in front of the camera.
But there were other things. A lot of the really successful ballplayers are brands; Kyrie is a brand unto himself. The brand is of great value obviously to himself, but to other people: the NBA, Nike, and so on. So the brand needs to be protected. Essentially, we could only shoot him playing two hours of basketball every other day. I get it! I totally respect that. I’m sure the insurance policy on his body alone is probably worth millions of dollars. We had to deal with that challenge.
And that was just Kyrie; we’re not even talking about Shaq and Reggie and Nate. At one point, Nate Robinson couldn’t make it for a couple of days’ shooting because he was trying out for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Or Shaq had to go to China for some event, some previously engaged event. Reggie had to go to the Hall of Fame ceremony to speak.
There are other lives outside the film, which was definitely something we had to deal with on a day-to-day basis, which in many ways was almost impossible. But I also had an incredible assistant director, Benita Allen, who was great at helping to really just manipulate the schedule in order to try to accommodate everything that these ballplayers needed, as well as what we needed.