What made the best athletes of all time the best? In his provocative new documentary In Search of Greatness, in theaters November 2, Gabe Polsky puts forth a counterintuitive explanation – with implications extending far beyond the world of sports.
Rather than those with the best physical stature, Polsky contends that it’s the innovators whose innovations change their sport who truly excel. He cites examples of athletes who were hardly perfect physical specimens but broke the mold: boxer Rocky Marciano going undefeated after pioneering shorter punches closer to his opponent, or Dick Fosbury breaking the high jump world record by jumping backwards.
Polsky spoke to BOXOFFICE about how his movie will change how he parents his newborn son, the film’s political implications, and landing interviews with legends like Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, and Pelé.
Your film’s message is that the best athletic greatness is developed through creativity and exploration, rather than – for example – from players funneled early into supposedly-premier but rigid youth football academies. Do you think the equivalent is true of artistic or filmmaking greatness?
Absolutely. You don’t usually go see the same movie twice. The greatest movies that we remember were bringing something new to the table and doing it in a powerful way. People are sitting there in a theater, they want to be moved, they want to have the chills, they want to feel something very different. The only way to do that is by watching something you’ve never seen before, seeing magic.
And when it’s a magical performance by an athlete, something you’ve never seen before that Gretzky or Kobe does? That’s why you spend the money: to see something unbelievable. That’s what creativity is: doing something that hasn’t been done before.
Your movie highlights examples of athletes who weren’t perfect physical specimens but broke the mold. Which filmmakers who similarly broke the mold inspired you?
Spielberg, when he came out doing what he was doing with Jaws, that hadn’t really been done before. A guy like Werner Herzog might not be a technical genius or guru, but he started leading on other aspects of his toolkit. Everybody has their own strengths in filmmaking. Tarantino leans on his style. Other filmmakers lean on the spectacle, they’re just so great at imagination, like Christopher Nolan. Others don’t have that same imagination, but they really focus on the characters.
Like Tommy Wiseau, for example?
[Laughs.] But even look at him. He didn’t know it necessarily, but somehow he made something people remember. Failure is a really important component, it’s experimentation. Look at these great athletes, they failed a lot in their careers. A goalie achieves greatness through a lot of failures, you’ve got to know that that’s part of it. It’s a positive thing. Look at a lot of filmmakers, they’ve all had flops.
What was the process of securing interviews with Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, and Pelé?
That was incredibly hard. It just takes a lot of time and a lot of persistence. Jerry Rice was the first guy I got, but that took a long time. I don’t want to say it was impossible, but I was so passionate about what I wanted to do with this movie that the idea of impossibility I could overcome. Basically, it took forever. It took constant calling and explaining and a lot of weird things. They would say no, then you get an inch and you keep going and going. To get these interviews took probably a year.
Did I go after Michael Jordan? Yes. I wasn’t able to get him. I went after Serena [Williams] and I wasn’t able to get her. But ultimately I got the guys that inspired me in the major sports.
Your film seems to send the message that nurture trumps nature. Is that a fair assessment?
What is it that really makes somebody unique? It’s not necessarily what you would think. If you ask anybody on the street what makes somebody great, nobody would say creativity and experimentation. But if you look at it, it’s so fundamental. That notion, I think it’s going to surprise a lot of viewers. Why don’t people think about that? Why don’t they talk about it more often?
Any scene in my film, you’re going to be thinking about yourself. “How were my parents growing up? Did they do this or that? What is my genetic makeup?” Okay, well I wasn’t physically superior to my competition, but neither was Gretzky or any of these guys. Yet they were able to figure out what their strengths were and mold their game around that.
Do you think this current unprecedented level of regimentation and structure in childhood and adolescence is a societal phase, or do you think that’s here to stay?
I’m a recent parent, I’ve got a seven-week-old son Leo. Any conversation I have when I show the film to other people and ask them, it seems there’s a craziness that’s going on right now, with scheduling and how intense parents are. It’s insane. I almost get sick to my stomach listening to these stories about how parents are now: how focused they are, how obsessed they are.
Greatness can only come from a tremendous sense of joy in what you’re doing. It might be a cliché, but if you don’t really love what you’re doing, you’re never going to be great. Parents should be obsessed about that – “What is my kid joyful about?” You’ve got to just chill out, you know?
Yet your movie also shows a clip of a toddler Tiger Woods already so good at golf through his training that he appeared on national television.
It’s true, it is a contradiction. But everything in the film is purposeful. There are a few counterexamples, like Andre Agassi. [Agassi by 12 was considered among the best tennis players in his age group in the world, and grew up to become one of the best players of all time.]
Listen, everybody knows that in order to achieve something you’ve got to work tremendously hard. But I just want my kid to be passionate about something and feel a sense of purpose – his own purpose, not mine. The world is changing so fast. What my film shows is you’ve got to have a sense of fluidity and flexibility, have a very supple mind that is able to handle changes, to not be so reactive and against change.
This film is a reaction to that. I want there to be a healthier environment for people to really understand what is greatness. It’s really being open to creativity and encouraging it, in any field that you’re in. I mean, look at the studios. How much control do you want over your filmmakers? Does that produce the best results? It’s a question that people grapple with in every single field.
The same thing with parenting. Think about it. When you’re trying to control your kid too much, it produces bad results. There has to be an openness and an allowance to explore. I use these athletes, the greatest of all time, as a mouthpiece for these issues. Because as a society, we’re obsessed with sports. People want to know what the greatest of all time are saying. But we’ve never really seen them say it in this way.
In addition to an analogy for the current prevailing middle-class parenting style, does your film also present an analogy to the current prevailing political climate?
That’s exactly right. I think about that too, all the time. You’ll get your head chopped off if you say anything these days, but not saying whether I like him or not, it’s a fact that what Trump did was incredibly creative. Whether he intended it or not, he completely changed the game. His style was different, everything he does is different. Whether that was good or bad, it was game-changing.
The guy is very entertaining. And sports are entertainment, people buy tickets to see creativity and magic. That fundamental idea is at the core of my film: how do you have more of these moments? Because sometimes sports can feel robotic.
AT THE MOVIES
What is your all time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
When I was a kid, my friends and I went to watch Rocky IV with the Russian. [Rocky’s boxing opponent was the Russian Ivan Drogo, played by Dolph Lundgren]. Afterwards, because my parents were from the former Soviet Union, all my friends wanted to fight me. I literally had to box my friends.
What is your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
Sour Patch Kids, always. I figure I’m getting a little old because what was once a sugar high is now getting me sick!