Hill to Premiere Documentary at Phoenix Film Festival
Posted: March 30, 2011
When Amy Unell interviewed Grant Hill for a documentary on legendary Duke track and field coach Al Buehler, she had no idea she was looking at her future executive producer. Neither did Hill.
When the two met for the first time before a game in Atlanta in the fall of 2009, the Suns' small forward had never produced, directed or written a movie before. Although the concept of being involved with a film seemed appealing in theory to Hill, the Duke graduate didn’t have the faintest idea of where to start.
But in the course of being interviewed, Hill became fascinated by the stories that surfaced about Buehler. His curiosity was so piqued that he became inspired to lend a helping hand to the project.
Like Unell, Hill was a Duke graduate and both had been students in Buehler’s “History & Issues of American Sports” college seminar. Both knew their professor to not only be a character, but to possess a great deal of it.
Buehler, who is in his 56th year as a professor at Duke, has been a respected figure in collegiate and Olympic track and field since the 1950s. And kind of like the character Forrest Gump, Buehler always seemed to be in the background at some of the most transcendent moments in sports.
“It’s very rare that after taking a class, the thing that I remember the most was the teacher,” Hill said. “He’s a great man, and I think everyone that has taken his class, whether it was in 2008, 1998 or 1988, would all say the same thing.”
After the initial interview with Unell, Hill nearly missed the bus to shootaround as the two energetically discussed the contents of the film. Although Hill wasn’t necessarily in love with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, he was in love with great stories.
“We just started talking about inspiring stories in the world of sports and how they can really connect with people,” Hill said. “I had been curious, but I had no understanding of anything in terms of the process. But I had been curious in seeing if I could help bring those types of stories to life.”
For Hill, the process wasn’t about an opportunity or investment. It was about shedding light on an important figure at Duke that was unheralded nationally despite incredible success in his life. Even though people knew of him, Hill believed that they weren't aware of the scope of his impact.
The story first gained momentum when Unell quit her seven-year career as a producer for the “Today Show” in L.A. to become a 2009-10 Media Fellow at Duke's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. She was flown out to Duke, put up on campus and commissioned to teach a seminar on filmmaking.
Using many of her connections and former crew members at the “Today Show,” Unell began recruiting well-recognized sports figures to be featured in her documentary, which is now titled, “Starting at the Finish Line; The Coach Buehler Story.” Funding the film as she shot it, she used her Duke connections to land Hill as a subject.
The rest was history.
“We just immediately hit it off because he’s so friendly, easy to talk with and he really just loved the story,” Unell said. “He was surprised by the depths of it and how it was bigger than Duke and bigger than one sport.”
Unell had three goals for the film: to show it to Buehler for his 80th birthday on 10/10/10, to premiere it at a film festival and to make it accessible to viewers via broadcast or DVD. The first goal was achieved when Unell, Hill, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the entire Duke men’s basketball team attended a private screening for Buehler at the college.
The second goal will be reached Thursday when Hill and Unell officially premiere the film at the Phoenix Film Festival in Scottsdale. Although the pair are receiving serious telecast interest from Oprah’s network, as well as from CBS, ESPN and PBS, the final goal hasn’t been fulfilled as of yet.
The documentary examines Buehler’s role in race and gender struggles during the height of those movements in the second half of the 20th century. For example, Buehler invited the all-black team at North Carolina Central University to train at Duke, developed friendships with John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they protested against prejudice with their famous “black power salute” at the 1968 Olympics, while also helping form Duke’s first women’s track team.
“In the world of sports, it’s all about winning and it’s about having success, but sometimes I think a message of character, integrity and sportsmanship is overlooked,” Hill said. “These are qualities I’ve tried to live by, but he’s lived by them for 80 years. He is a man of unbelievable character.”
Some of the subjects interviewed in the film include Olympic gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Carl Lewis, Dave Wottle, Joan Benoit and Mary Decker-Slaney. After showing the film in Phoenix, it will also be screened at the Kansas City, Atlanta and the Newport Beach Film Festivals.
Despite being a rookie executive producer, Hill was impressed with the way the film turned out.
“Without patting ourselves on the back, I didn’t expect it to come out as good as it came out,” he said. “With documentaries, you don’t know a story until you dive into it.”
Hill and Unell enjoyed working together so much on this film that they’ve embarked on another project together. The two have been in development to do another documentary, but this time the subject will be Hill’s Duke back-to-back men’s national championship team of the early 1990s.
But for now, Hill’s focus remains on his current documentary, and achieving that remaining final goal -- which takes another step forward Thursday at the Phoenix Film Festival at 6 p.m.
Click here for tickets to the event
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