André Holland stars in "High Flying Bird." The film, directed by Steven Soderbergh, includes interviews with NBA players Donovan Mitchell, Karl-Anthony Towns and Reggie Jackson.

Donovan Mitchell will appear in Steven Soderbergh's new Netflix basketball drama 'High Flying Bird'

A Q&A with the film's star André Holland
by Aaron Falk

Donovan Mitchell loves Netflix. The Utah Jazz guard has said he likes to relax by binge-watching episodes of The Office and Burn Notice. But starting February 8, Mitchell will be able to find himself streaming on Netflix.

Mitchell is one of a handful of NBA players, including Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Detroit’s Reggie Jackson, who will be featured in director Steven Soderbergh’s new film, “High Flying Bird.” The movie tells the story of a sports agent (played by André Holland) navigating a fictional NBA lockout. Actual interviews with Mitchell and other players discussing their NBA experiences are interspersed throughout the film.

At first, Mitchell said, he didn’t know Soderbergh by name. But he quickly recognized the award-winning filmmaker’s catalog: “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Ocean’s Eleven.”

“It’s a blessing,” Mitchell said. “It’s not like I’m the lead actor or anything. But it’s really cool to be in a Steven Soderbergh movie. I think it’s going to be special. Myself being a sports fanatic and not just basketball, but as an athlete overall. The behind-the-scenes stuff, I think it gives you a good look of everything.”

André Holland, the film’s star, co-writer, and executive producer, spoke to about the movie, meeting Mitchell, and the NBA’s power dynamics. How did this project come together?

Holland: “Steven and I started talking about the idea. Originally it started with a baseball idea that I had. But around that same time, the Donald Sterling tapes came out. Steven and I started talking about that. And then we read more. I read some Ralph Wiley and Dr. Harry Edwards books. And then the conversations just sort of shifted in that direction.”

Were you interested in basketball before this?

“I’m a big basketball fan. I played growing up. Played in high school. I wasn’t very good, but I did try. I still follow the game and enjoy it very much.”

Your character calls basketball “the sexiest sport.” Do you think that’s true?

“I do find it to be quite cool. Maybe in another life, one where I’m maybe a little taller, it wouldn’t be a bad way to spend a career. It’s really glamorous.”

Donovan Mitchell is in the film. What did you know about him before he filmed his interview for the movie?

“I definitely followed that rookie season, like everybody else. He’s an incredible player. I got to meet him the day he came into the city to record his piece. It turned out he actually was a fan of an old TV show that I was in years ago. So we had a little moment of mutual admiration. Took some photos together. It was really fun. I was quite star-struck, I have to say. He’s an incredible ballplayer and a really cool dude.”

What was the show he had watched?

“He was a big fan of this show called ‘Burn Notice.’ I only did, I think, like one episode of it but he remembered that one episode. I don’t think my mother even saw that one. So I was surprised he knew it. We had a good time. I even talked a little basketball trash. I think at that time he had a foot thing going on, so his foot was in a cast. I was teasing him that now might be my only chance to take him to the rack. But even with that boot on, he could take care of me.”

What did Donovan’s interview add to the film?

“I think it added context. To me, I saw the film before those pieces were added. Then having them in there really changed the whole shape of the film. The opening of the film with Reggie talking, it just grounds the movie in reality. It gives the audience, especially people who don’t really know much about basketball, a chance to understand what the movie is talking about. That was Steven’s idea. It came after we had finished shooting. Fortunately, Karl, Reggie and Donovan were cool enough to help us out.”

What are some of the issues the players discussed in their interviews?

“They talk about their early experiences in the league. The changes they had to make. Karl talked about the changes he had to make to his personal life. The number of people who were suddenly around him, asking for his time and attention. Asking who was there for the right reasons and who wasn’t. Our main character, Eric Scott, has gotten himself into a bad financial situation because of a person who had gotten close to him and offered him a loan with a crazy interest rate. Taking advantage of him. Hearing Karl talk about the number of people around once a person ascends to those heights was really interesting and kind of validating. Like, this is exactly what we’re interested in talking about.”

The movie focuses on the power dynamic between the players and ownership. What do you hope fans will take away from it?

“I guess I hope that I just kind of continues the conversation. I don’t think the film is a brand new idea. I think this question of ownership is something that people have talked about—it’s come up a number of times. To me, it just seems like an interesting question to pose, and I hope that people are willing to engage with it and talk about it. I don’t have any agenda in terms of what I want people to think or feel or say or do. For me, engagement in the conversation is the goal.”

This film has some basis in the 2011 lockout. Do you think the power has shifted more favorably toward players since then?

“Ours isn’t really the 2011 lockout. It’s sort of a fictional lockout. We look at what happened in 2011 and prior to that as well. But certainly it does seem like the power has shifted and it’s great to see players have more agency, speaking up about what they feel, what they’re passionate about. In a lot of ways, the NBA has done a really amazing job in that regard, especially compared to some other sports. We’re not at all in this film trying to attack the NBA. They’ve done a good job of allowing players to have more agency. The film is a way to pose the question. It’s a useful question to ask, not just about sports but about corporate American and capitalism and also personal agency. How can we as individuals have more control over our own lives?”

The movie was shot all on iPhones and released on Netflix. Is there any message there?

“That was one of the cool things that Steven chose to do. I’m glad he did it with iPhones. It allowed us to work really quickly. We shot only in 13 days, which is really fast. And then there is this sort of meta-message in it. There’s a sort of democracy inherent in the use of smartphones, to control your own narrative and tell one’s own story.”


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