The Last Dance interview

For Emmy Award-winning director Jason Hehir (Andre the Giant, 30 for 30), completing the ten-part documentary series The Last Dance has been a Herculean task – and he’s still not finished. He likely won’t be totally done with the project until hours before the final episodes air. Talk about pressure.

But like Michael Jordan, the primary subject of the documentary, Hehir seems to thrive when the game is on the line. His series, which chronicles Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-1998 season as they try to win their sixth NBA championship, was scheduled for a summer release before being moved up to fill the world’s sports-sized hole during the coronavirus pandemic. The show has already broken viewership records for ESPN, generated a mountain of memes, and seems to be one of the few pieces of pop culture that the country is consuming at the same time in an era when that kind of water cooler entertainment is increasingly rare.

I spoke with Hehir by phone earlier this week, after the premiere of the third and fourth episodes, and Hehir told me about how he decided to shape the show’s timeline, his top three Michael Jordan moments, how he and his team had a staggering 10,000 hours of footage to whittle down, and much more.

The Last Dance Interview

The documentary is sort of in conversation with itself, flashing back in time to contextualize or add impact to moments from the ’97-’98 season. There’s one example where Jordan laces up an old model of his shoes when he plays at Madison Square Garden, and that seems like a natural transition backward to talk about the rise of sneaker culture and the importance of shoes in Jordan’s story. But how did you go about deciding how to construct the timeline from other moments that maybe didn’t have such a perfect, natural transition point practically built-in?

You’re right that that was a perfect, natural transition point, because that’s one of the ones we pinpointed at the very outset of this in 2016. I remember having a conversation with Connor Schell, who is in charge of this project at ESPN, and we both said, “We have an opportunity here to do more than just examine this ’97-’98 season. We can do a lot of mini-docs within this macro doc.” One of those things was that he wore those pair of 1s, which at the time was not common. Now, retro sneaker culture is commonplace in fashion. But back then, this was his signal that I’m going to pay homage to Madison Square Garden, my favorite place to play, by wearing these special shoes, and that was kind of a signal to everybody that this was indeed going to be his final season. So we knew that was a jumping off point.

As far as the other ones, especially when it came to people and examining peoples’ backstories, characters’ backstories, we really relied on that ’97-’98 season to dictate where the proper telling of their backstory would go. We’re talking about the immense fame the Bulls are enjoying at the beginning of the season when they’re in Paris. Well, the reason for that immense fame and global appeal is Michael Jordan, so let’s start to tell his story in episode one. No pun intended, that’s a lay-up. Episode two, they’re without Scottie Pippin when they start the season, and we examine the reasons why, so that appeared to be the right spot to tell Scottie’s backstory: why he signed the conservative deal that he did and the origin of all these fraught relations with the front office. Episode three, Scottie’s gone, so someone has to fill in. That’s going to be Dennis Rodman.

Episode four, Scottie comes back and now all these egos have to be handled, and when Dennis goes off the deep end, someone has to handle all that and rein it all in. That’s Phil Jackson, so we tell his story in episode four. Episode five, in the backstory, we go to Barcelona after the Bulls win their second title, and there, they play against a young kid named Toni Kukoc, who at that point was drafted by the Bulls and had not yet come over to play for them. So we really let these two converging timelines dictate where and when we were going to tell these backstories.

I read you had access to 500 hours of behind the scenes footage from that final season, but do you know approximately how many additional hours of footage you and your team had to sift through to create the finished version of this series?

Well, there was approximately 10,000 hours of footage in the Avid project – the software that we used – in that project. What that includes is every game from every main character that we have, every news report that has been done on them, both nationally and internationally. Our archival producer, Nina Krstic, is literally the best in the world at this. She did the same job for the O.J. doc [O.J.: Made in America] and some other high-profile projects, and she’s incredible. There is no stone unturned on the face of the Earth where we haven’t seen the footage and determined whether or not we wanted to use it. And then you have thousands and thousands of still photos, each of which take up about ten seconds or so in the project, so all in all, there’s about 10,000 hours of footage and we had to whittle that down to ten hours. It sounds absurd to say we had to leave certain storylines out when you have ten hours to tell a story, but it just indicates how multi-layered and how rich the material was that we were utilizing.

I was wondering about that, because in a ten episode series, I think the assumption from a lot of people is that you can cover just about anything you want with all that time. But it sounds like you found yourselves bumping up against time restraints and needing to cut things out due to necessity, instead of by choice.

Yeah, absolutely. Michael’s backstory could be its own four-part series. The years between his sophomore year when he was cut from his high school team to his senior year, when he burst on the scene after going to a five-star basketball camp and emerging as one of the best players in the country when no one had ever heard of “Mike” Jordan from Wilmington, North Carolina two weeks prior. Then two weeks later, he’s seen as being better than Patrick Ewing and some of the other high profile recruits that year. Roy Williams was a tremendous character from North Carolina. I have so much respect for him, and the stories that he told about Michael’s parents and the relationship that he had with Michael’s father were so rich and detailed and vidid. He’s such a good storyteller. But we had to get moving down the road.

I would tell our editors that our highway was the ’97-’98 season. That’s the spine of the entire series, and the exits we took off of that highway were the backstories and this ancillary material that contextualized that season and all the main characters in it. I would tell them that you can stop to eat, but you can’t stay overnight – we have to get back on that highway every time it feels like we’re too far away from the story. So were discussing that highway analogy all throughout the edit for two years, and sometimes you do want to stay overnight. Sometimes you want to drive around and maybe rent a house at that exit and stay there for a week. But you can’t. You have to get back on the main highway, and that was that ’97-’98 season.

That’s a great analogy. I understand that you had a basic outline for this when you first started, but that once you got into it, some storylines emerged that you didn’t anticipate. What was the most surprising storyline for you that fits that description?

In that basic outline, I did not anticipate Michael being as candid as he was with all that it took to be the winner that he was. That was good, bad, and ugly. I was not anticipating that we would be able to devote an entire episode to how difficult it was to play with him, and then an entire episode about how difficult it was to play against him. The basic structure and skeleton of the outline I presented back in the summer of 2016 was very similar to what we ended up with, with converging timelines and that ’97-’98 season being the backbone.

But we had to deviate on several occasions, and that’s always a good sign, when you’re deviating from your previous plan. Because you go in with a plan of stuff you know you can get, and when you have to deviate from that, it means that you got something you didn’t even think you could get, and you have to change your plan for the better. Michael was so forthcoming and candid and vulnerable in the interviews, the time that he spent with us, that it opened up a lot of doors that I didn’t think would be opened.

Was there a particular storyline that ended up falling by the wayside because of that vulnerability, because it changed the shape of the project?

Let me think. At the end of this thing, I’m going to release – there’s a timelapse photo we have of this huge cork board that we have on the wall of my office. It’s ten columns with ten color-coded columns worth of notecards. The green ones are ’97-’98 storyline, and the white ones are the flashbacks. That thing is just a mosaic of the entire series, and it changes almost every week. We took a picture every week and you can see how the series evolves in front of you. So it’s tough for me to recollect off the top of my head what we had to get rid of.

Some characters, I wish we could spend more time on. Ron Harper is a fascinating character, and was a key member of that second three-peat run. We barely got to get into Ron’s story, because we were covering the stories of other people, and we interviewed 106 total people, non-Bulls as well, and opponents, and they played in some fascinating playoff series. We had to give time to that. Toni Kukoc, we do get into his backstory. I wish we could have done more with Toni. Jerry Krause was no longer alive when we started shooting, but I still would have loved to have – because he’s got a fascinating backstory himself. Jerry Krause discovered Kirk Gibson, the baseball player. Jerry Krause was a baseball scout before he was a basketball scout, so there’s an entire couple of episodes that could be done about Jerry and his rise to power with the Bulls. It’s a great problem to have as a filmmaker, to have too much story and too many characters, but we did our best with it.

Have you seen the 2000 documentary Michael Jordan To The Max?

I saw it a long time ago, yeah.

I grew up with that movie, and I know that also documents the ’97-’98 season, so I was wondering if you had access to the same footage from that period that they used, but it sounds like you weren’t super familiar with that one.

That was IMAX footage, and we did not have access to that. The NBA was hugely cooperative with us, and they opened up their entire vault for anything we needed to see, so we probably could have acquired that footage if it was NBA property, but since it had already been featured in another documentary, it felt a little bit derivative and redundant.

Was it ever a concern for you that many of the stories people tell in this series – not just Jordan, but everyone – have already been told in different places over the years? Were you worried that people might be too familiar with certain anecdotes?

Absolutely. It was one of my biggest fears going in, because there are so many classic stories. Everybody knows that Michael was cut his sophomore year from his high school basketball team. That’s in greeting cards to inspire young kids, and it’s one of those things that everyone seems to know in American culture.

Now, this is a Netflix property as well as an ESPN property, and Netflix and the NBA and the Jordan brand and even ESPN were acutely aware that there’s a whole generation of people who didn’t grow up in America and didn’t grow up with Michael’s story who know him, but they don’t know the details of his story. They know him more as a logo on a shoe. So that might be new territory for them, and it’s certainly a story worth telling. So we had a lot of different audiences to consider with this. It’s not like everyone’s coming to it with the same amount of knowledge and the same amount of experience. I was really afraid of the first couple of episodes, the reaction to those being, “Well, they haven’t told us anything we don’t know.” Right off the bat, the partners that we worked with were pretty adamant that we have to give people a primer in just how famous this team was and why they were that famous. My instinct as a filmmaker was to get right to the verité footage and showcase the stuff that’s unique to our project rather than rehashing stuff that we’ve seen before.

That’s an example of them being right, and we had a lot of knock-down, drag out discussions about what should go where and what stories should be told and how they should be told. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes another partner who was just as adamant was right, and that’s a case of them being right. It was a long road to hoe, but we had to make some decisions as to who our audience was at specific times. That’s a long way of answering your question. Yes, I was very concerned that a lot of these stories have been told, and a lot of this footage is so iconic that it’s been seen before. So the best possible compliment we can get is for someone to say, “I thought I knew the story, but there’s a lot more there than I recognized.”

Are you still working on finishing the final two episodes?

We are. I just locked episode eight last night [Monday, April 27, 2020], so that is ready for air. And then nine and ten – we finished editing ten last Friday, but this goes to 185 countries, so we have to translate it and dub it and closed caption it and subtitle it and sound design it and audio mix it and color correct it. And I have to watch that finished version and give my notes, and then it goes back to those same artists, they do the revisions that I’ve asked for, and it comes back to me, and there’s a back and forth process that’s going to last a few weeks. So we won’t be done with the final show until right on the eve of May 17 when it premieres.

That’s wild. OK, I have time for one more question. What are your top 3 favorite Michael Jordan moments, on or off the court?

Well, the 63-point game, I was at with my dad. So there’s a special place in my heart for that because that’s a great memory that we had. He’d promised me tickets to “The Air Jordan Show” on a hand-written note that he put in my stocking at Christmas in December of 1985, and I don’t know how he got ahold of those tickets. He didn’t have them when it was Christmastime, but he promised he would take me to see Michael Jordan, because I was a fanatic when I was eight years old.

The “kiss the rim” dunk, specifically, in the 1987 dunk contest, that’s the one where he goes sideways and looks like he’s flying. That’s where my fandom – I was just jaw-dropped. That was the first time, I think, as a kid, where I truly did not understand how an athlete was doing that, flying through the air. For the rest of my youth, all I wanted to do was dunk. All I wanted to do was jump. There’s fingerprints all over the ceiling of my house, still to this day, of me when I was a kid, trying to jump up and touch ceilings and doorjambs and dunking on my Nerf hoop. That’s all I wanted, was to jump like Michael did.

And then “The Shot,” in Utah. I specifically remember where I was when I was watching that, and that was with my dad again, so full circle. I had just graduated college and gotten home, and we were watching that game on our couch in the house I grew up in. If you read that in a script, for someone to end their career that way, you’d get laughed out of a Hollywood office because it was too corny. But leave it to Michael to orchestrate an ending like that.

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New episodes of The Last Dance air on Sunday nights in the United States on ESPN and will appear internationally on Netflix on Mondays.

Photo credit: Andrew D. Bernstein, NBA Photos

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