Meet Peter Nicks, director of the new documentary Stephen Curry, Underrated.
Synopsis: The remarkable coming-of-age story of one of the most influential, dynamic and unexpected players in the history of basketball: Stephen Curry. This feature documentary — blending intimate cinéma vérité, archival footage and on camera interviews — documents Curry’s rise from an undersized college player at a small town Division I college to a four-time NBA champion, building one of the most dominant sports dynasties in the world.
Andrew Nguyen: So first I just want to say I really enjoyed this documentary, especially being a basketball enthusiast myself. And of course, being a fan of Stephen Curry, there were a lot of things I never knew about his journey and Davidson College, so I wanted to know during this documentary what was one of your favorite new facts that you learned about him during this production?
Peter Nicks: Well, there’s a bunch of things that were fascinating. I didn’t understand that he had never been recruited by any D1 college, which was surprising, including Virginia Tech, where both his parents went, including Dell Curry, who was a legendary NBA player. I didn’t know that theynever retired his number at Davidson because if you haven’t graduated from Davidson, they won’t retire your number. And he was the only player under the tutelage of Coach McKillop, who had not graduated. And so I didn’t realize that he was sort of carrying that with him and that that ultimately became part of the narrative that he was finally trying to fulfill his promise to his mom to graduate, but that he also would love to have his number hung at Davidson.
Andrew Nguyen: And I just want to say like, one of my favorite scenes was that climactic finish at the end during Steph’s journey, especially with the final game with Kansas. It felt as if fate could have changed that night, even though we knew how it was going to end. I just wanted to know, could you elaborate more on how you were able to kind of create that scene in particular from the filmmaking perspective?
Peter Nicks: Yeah, a lot of it came from the emotion, the unexpected emotion of what made that emotional. And if you think about it, just simply in terms of like, sports or athletic contact context, either you make the shot or you don’t, and ultimately Steph didn’t take that shot Jay Rich took the shot just like many of us take shots in life and for many of us, the shot doesn’t go in, and that’s a very unifying and universal idea, and that’s part of what we wanted to try to do with this movie is make a film that’s transcends the sports film. It’s also a moment of transition for these young men. It was the last time that they were going to be playing together, this particular team playing together as a team. That’s what we were sort of building up to that moment as well. Not just are they going to win or lose, [but] that this is a transition for these young men going off into life, some of whom are going to go on to the NBA like Steph, most of whom you know are not. And so that was really the idea in terms of how to cut the scene. It was probably painful for them to watch that. I don’t think that Steph’s ever watched that moment with such clarity and focus before. I think he said that he had never actually watched it. So that was nerve wracking for us to have the responsibility of representing that moment, which is a difficult moment for them.
Andrew Nguyen: And I know that your previous projects were more about exploring like the narratives of healthcare and criminal justice and the education system in Oakland, which was incredible, by the way. And I just want to know what was the difference in the approach of working on this documentary about Stephen Curry and how would you compare that experience?
Peter Nicks: I mean in some ways radically different in the sense that I don’t have any on camera sit-down interviews in my film, The Waiting Room did utilize some voiceover, but The Force and Homeroom did not. And so in that, it was a departure, but in a lot of ways there were a lot of similarities. Thematically, my films are very much about community and family, and the power of community to sort of transcend challenges and overcome obstacles, and that was very much what this movie was about. It was about a young man, very much like the city of Oakland, who was overlooked, wasn’t seen, wasn’t validated except by his inner circle and this very special person, Coach McKillop, who became his mentor. And about the power of that sort of community to sort of overcome and so I don’t think that was evident to me right away, but as we were editing the film and it was sort of coming together, I started seeing more and more similarities to my body of work. It’s just that it’s through the lens of a celebrity basketball player as opposed to an extraordinary person who’s more ordinary than you think rather than ordinary people who are extraordinary, which is sort of like what Homeroom and The Force and The Waiting Room were about.
Andrew Nguyen: What brought you to want to do this documentary in the first place?
Peter Nicks: I’ve been making films in the Bay Area for many, many years and actually my dream was to make a film about the A’s, set in the in the stands of the Coliseum, kind of similar to The Waiting Room, which was this film about this remarkably diverse community bound together by shared experience. I wanted to make a film set in the stands. Any time I go to A’s games, I’m like “oh man, this is beautiful, like all different types of people, different ages, classes, genders, gender identities, backgrounds, socioeconomic, everything come together” and have conversations and share stories, have friendships. So I knew I wanted to do something in the sports realm in the Bay Area but not sure what and that movie never came into fruition for a variety of reasons, but along the way I befriended Ryan Coogler. He started a company which I joined a few years ago, and he and Steph had struck up a friendship because he’s such a hardcore Warriors fan. When it became time for Steph to realize that he wanted to make this movie, the seed was that he had tried to graduate, fulfill his degree requirements back in 2011 during the NBA lockout, but he couldn’t do it. And the year before, he said to himself, I’m going to do it this year and I’m going to make this film about my time at Davidson. So he approached Ryan, and I run Ryan’s nonfiction department, and Ryan was like “I could make the movie, but Pete does documentaries, you want him to make it.” So me and Steph met, and I talked to him about my style, my philosophy of storytelling, what I think makes an impactful movie, and we talked about access, we talked about the need to spend time with him and his family, and we came to an agreement and we were off and running.
Andrew Nguyen: One of my last questions is during this process of meeting with Steph and everything, was there any kind of like not disagreements per se, but was there things that you wanted to make it into the cut but then he didn’t agree or anything vice versa?
Peter Nicks: Not really. I think we were on the same page for the most part. I’m always trying to get access to everything and so the one thing that actually I wanted access to, which we couldn’t get was over at the Chase Center, like in the locker room as the season was unfolding. I wanted a little bit more access into that world and a) Steve Kerr didn’t really want that because it was a distraction for the team. The more we learned about Steph, and Steph never really articulated this directly, but he didn’t want it to be about him because the team is so important and ultimately what we were learning as the process unfolded for us – it wasn’t just a film about Steph Curry. It was a film about Coach McKillop. It was a film about Jay Rich. It was a film about the ‘08 Davidson Wildcat basketball team, and it was also a film about the community of Davidson College and so those realizations, we were all kind of aligned with that. We interviewed a lot of people that didn’t make it into the film, Allen Iverson and Muggsy Bogues, and Jeff Van Gundy. The people who made it in the film, like Reggie Miller, made it in because he was organically connected. He was there during the three-point record. He was filming the scene on his phone like a fan, even though he was calling the game. He himself had been a three-point champion. So we were always looking for those organic touch points and Stephen and his partner, Erick Payton, at Unanimous Media, were great in terms of recognizing that what you might typically see in a sports documentary is like getting a bunch of famous people to talk about how great Steph Curry is, that that wasn’t going to make the best film. And so we were lucky to have partners who understood and sort of vibrated on our kind of frequency because we’re documentary nerds and we have our dorks, we have very strong feelings about what makes authentic film. And we also recognize that these days, there’s so many films about celebrities coming out that you have to really understand beyond the celebrity: What makes this interesting? Why should I care? Why am I going to spend two hours of my life watching this movie?
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