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September 22, 2020

Podcast No 92: Jason Hehir, Director of The Last Dance

We are excited to welcome Jason Hehir, one of the best documentary filmmakers on the planet, to this week’s WHOOP Podcast.

By Will Ahmed

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Jason directed the Emmy award-winning series The Last Dance, chronicling Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. It was the most-watched documentary in ESPN history and is already regarded by many as one of the best sports docs ever made.

He discusses his never-ending quest to find out what makes the greatest athletes on earth human, the obstacles his team had to overcome to finish all 10 episodes on-time, and what it was truly like interviewing Jordan.

Jason is a world-class storyteller and I know you’ll enjoy hearing his behind the scenes anecdotes about the production of The Last Dance.

Jason Hehir Podcast Show Notes:

 

2:22 – Following His Dream. “I wanted to either be a movie director or a sportscaster when I was a kid. I wanted to be Bob Costas or Steven Spielburg.”

5:17 – Interviewing Elite Athletes. “You can’t be starstruck from a professional level because they’ll smell that on immediately and you lose all credibility. … The will to do the best possible job overtakes any sort of awe that you have around these athletes.”

9:35 – Gratitude. “I still feel incredibly lucky. When I’m on a plane, I still have butterflies that I’m going to make a movie and shoot and meet someone new and help shepard the telling of their story. It sounds really cheesy, but I honestly feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”

10:02 – Comfortable With Uncomfortability. “I still have a large amount of imposter syndrome,” Jason says, despite being one of the top documentarians on the plant. “I didn’t go to school for this. I was an English major and I learned at the feet of some really talented people at HBO and NBC. I tried to do what they would do. I lied my way into a lot of jobs. I started interviewing people because I said ‘I’ve done it before.’ That’s the same way I became a bartender when I was 18 or 19. I always just kind of smiled, went home, and looked it up and faked it ‘til I made it.”

12:37 – Making  a Reality. Jason explains how he was brought in to direct The Last Dance and how the project came to be after nearly two decades in the making. “It took years [for all the parties involved] to come to the table.”

16:00 – Working at Light Speed. On average, an hour-long documentary takes roughly a year to produce, according to Jason. He and his team produced 10 hours of The Last Dance in about two years. “We were working at quintuple the pace with a pretty small staff. We only had 10 of us who were working on it full-time.”

17:28 – A Big Surprise. Jason initially signed up for an 8-hour documentary, and only found out that ESPN planned on it being 10 hours after the production of The Last Dance was publicly announced. “When the lights came up [after the first teaser trailer to advertisers] they announced it would be 10 one-hour parts, which is two hours longer than I was aware of. It was breaking, shocking news to me.”

18:54 – David Stern. Jason and Will talk about the life and legacy of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Check out Stern’s appearance on the very first episode of WHOOP Podcast.

21:41 – Chronicling the Best. “I’m inspired and eternally curious about iconic figures and what makes them human. What separated them? All of us walked into the first day of third grade, all of us went to gym class, all of us did these basic things that you do. Where did they deviate and what caused that deviation? I’ve always been really, really interested in that.”

23:41 – Dealing with Critics. “No criticism is wrong. If you didn’t like it then it wasn’t for you. I don’t fault anyone for saying that. If it’s going to be for everyone then it’s going to be a maximum of a B+.”

30:29 – Breakthrough Moment. Jason shares how a question he asked Jordan about the partying ways of the Bulls in the 80s served as the foundation for the rest of their discussion. “That was the breakthrough moment for me.”

33:54 – First Interview Success. “I was so nervous that day that it wouldn’t go well. That’s probably the most relieved and elated and just energized, invigorated, I’ve ever been. After we finished, the crew and I all went out and we did a shot of tequila. There was this pool overlooking the ocean and I said, ‘Every single person who was here tonight, from the makeup person to the caretaker of the house, we’re all coming back the next time because we have lightning in a bottle and we need to duplicate this exact scenario the next time.’”

34:31 – Betting with Mike. Jason tells a story about how Jordan started making bets with him shortly after meeting him for the second time. “We got in the car, and I don’t even know if he knew my name at that point, and I’m sitting next to him in the back seat and he said, out of nowhere, ‘I bet we see 10 pairs of Jordans on the way to the arena.’ So he doesn’t know who I am, there’s nothing on the line, it’s not for a dollar, it’s not for a million dollars, it’s for nothing, it’s for bragging rights, but he needs to play a game at all times. That was really informative to me in scripting the interview for him. Keep him occupied. … That’s where the iPad came from.”

39:49 – Inspiration for the iPad. Jason says he got the idea for showing Jordan interview clips on the iPad from his experience with Jordan watching a video of his playing days on a phone during a pre-interview meeting. “He took the phone out of my hand and immediately locked in and started muttering these anecdotes … I was thinking, ‘This is what I need to recreate.’”

41:49 – MJ the Storyteller. “He’s an incredible storyteller. You don’t normally have the blessing of that when you’re a filmmaker that your main character [is such a strong storyteller himself] … It was a luxury.”

43:50 – The Flu Game. “I personally think that there’s absolutely no way it was [a deliberate attempt to get Jordan sick]. I do think that when you get the last pizza of the night at some random pizzeria in Salt Lake, pepperoni pizza that’s probably been sitting there for at least a day, and if you eat damn near the whole thing and you smoke a few cigars and probably have a few glasses of wine and you’re at altitude maybe not getting enough sleep, that concoction is not going to agree with your body. … I don’t think there was a conspiracy to bring down Michael Jordan for [the Utah Jazz] to win Game 5 [of the 1997 NBA Finals].”

50:09 – Scottie Pippen. “Scottie was beloved by that team. That’s what I didn’t realize. He was the good cop to Michael’s bad cop. We interviewed 108 people and they all adore Scottie Pippen.”

52:23 – Jerry Krause. Jason and Will talk about Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s role in building the 90s Bulls and his part in their breakup. “His tragic flaw was that he needed credit so bad that he wanted to blow the whole thing up and show people, ‘Look, I can do it with a blank slate. I don’t need Michael Jordan.’ But of course you need Michael Jordan.”

56:49 – Phil Jackson. Jason and Will discuss Phil Jackson’s approach to leadership and how he cultivated success with the Jordan-era Bulls.

1:00:24 – Fathers, Sons and Basketball. “It fascinated me so much how much the father-son dynamic played a role in all of the main characters in this doc. Michael is as competitive as he is today because he was fighting for the attention of his father with his brother, Larry. Dennis Rodman, according to him, doesn’t have a father. … Scottie Pippen’s dad had a stroke, he was working for him, for the love to keep his dad alive. Steve Kerr, we know the story about him and his father from Episode 9 and how close they were and how he cultivated that love of basketball because Malcolm Kerr himself had a love of basketball.”

1:04:05 – The End of Episode 7. Jason discusses the most iconic moment of The Last Dance, the  talking about his desire to win and how that may have affected his perception. “In my experience with him, he had been a really nice guy. He had gone out of his way to be really respectful to the makeup woman and our camera crew. The few times I had seen him interacting around other people he was just a very decent man, I thought. So I really wondered if he was ambivalent about the persona that he had cultivated through the years of being this ruthless killer.”

1:07:14 – An Unmatched Desire to Win. “I think it’s so telling that the only time that he actually starts to break down [during The Last Dance] is when he’s talking about how much he wants to win and how much it means to him. He didn’t break down when he was talking about his dad’s death and clearly that is something that left a hole in his heart. The only time he really got choked up and the only time he said, ‘I need a break’ was because he was so emotional in talking about just how adamant he is that you have to have that philosophy to succeed.”

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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