Writer/director Franklin Martin first met Kevin Laue, the one-handed Division I college basketball player who recently graduated from Manhattan College, in August 2006, while completing editing on his debut film, the Hurricane Katrina documentary “Walking on Dead Fish.” A former Hofstra University basketball player and Tennessee State University coach, Martin was dazzled by the prowess, grace and heart of the 6’9 athlete, then a high-school junior (he later sprouted two inches). Eventually, he decided to showcase Laue’s strenuous efforts to get recruited by a Division I team.
The resulting documentary, “Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story,” (see our REVIEW) chronicles all the triumphs and tragedies of Laue’s journey: a serious injury that forces him off his high-school team; his period of intense training on military academy Fork Union’s top-ranking team; and his brush with prejudice when no college recruiters will consider him despite an explosive record. Most poignant of all is Laue’s sense of closure in achieving something that his father—who died of cancer in 2000—would have been truly proud of.
Screen Comment talked with Martin about how he made “Long Shot” so personal, how the New York City audiences have reacted to its premiere and his early acting experiences alongside Tupac Shakur.
Screen Comment: How have the screenings been in New York?
Amazing. We had a screening and a couple of AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] teams from New Jersey came. There was a little boy in the crowd with a guy named Jackie Ryan [AKA Hoop Wizard], he’s like a big-time guy. And he brought his nephew, who had a question at the Q&A, and he grabbed the mic with his right hand. He’s seven years old and he proceeds to tell Kevin that he only has four fingers on his left hand, that it’s numb and doesn’t have muscles yet. Even though he’s not missing his left hand, he can’t use it. In front of everybody, he says that he’s played every sport except basketball, and he always thought he couldn’t do it and now he wants to. Jackie Ryan is in love with the movie, and he’s got about 80,000 followers on his web site.
What’s the status on a national rollout?
We’re in negotiations right now to go national in the spring. I think a lot will come out about how well we did at the premiere, how well the box-office did. We want to go to Lexington, Ky., and Philadelphia.
Is it hitting any festivals?
We’ve been invited to three or four festivals since the premiere. Of course, once you release a film, you can’t do a world premiere at Sundance or one of those places. It’ll be a smaller festival.
Are you happy with the critical reception so far?
Ninety percent of people are blown away, and then there’s the cynics. I don’t see how you can not like this kid. I think in the Village Voice, they said he was boring. I read it on RottenTomatoes.com. About twenty people responded, “You’re a-holes.” I think he’s real and deep. I’m surprised that anyone could be that negative about him.
Did Kevin have any hesitations at first about making such a personal film?
The real hesitation was me. I met him and knew he was special, and I tried to help him in basketball before I decided to make a movie about him. When I saw how good he was as a person, and his family, how great they were, and I heard the story about Coach [Patrick] McKnight, I said, “That’s huge, man.” This guy’s training with the rival coach. You don’t see Roy Williams training the Duke players. And when I was finished cutting my first film (“Walking on Dead Fish”), I felt like I could maybe entertain another movie.
I told him, “If I do this, I need total cooperation. I want to know everything about you. I don’t want just some basketball movie.”
You said at the premiere that it was a less personal movie until you shot the scene in the bedroom, where Kevin comes clean about his dad.
Yeah. I knew the McKnight stuff was a cool part of the story. But he had coached Kevin all throughout his youth and now he was in high-school, so he really wasn’t coaching him much. So when Kevin and I went into the room one day, I said, “You gotta let me in more. We shot a lot of hours, and it’s good stuff, it’s basketball. But it’s kind of superficial, so I need to know what’s going on inside you.” He didn’t want to talk about it, and I started talking about my father, who passed away from pancreatic cancer, and how hard it was for me as a young man. When I told him that, I got a little teary-eyed, and I told him something about myself.
How did you get the budget together?
After I’d shot it all, I edited together a little piece and showed it to Dain Blair, my executive producer, and Skip Connors (a former UMass player), whose son only has one arm. He gave me some money and then I met Charlie Loventhal [director of the cult comedies “My Demon Lover,” “Mr. Write” and “Meet Market”—see feature story about him here], through a mutual friend who saw “Walking on Dead Fish,” and he helped me out, too.
You went into the movie not knowing the outcome, which could have been very sad. Did you plan to release it regardless?
Of course, but I was scared. There were people interested in him in high-school and then he broke his leg. I thought for sure if he went to prep school they’d take him. Fork Union is one of the best prep schools in the country, he’s playing the highest level of high-school basketball. He outplayed Thomas Robinson, who was the number one player in the country. And you’re telling me nobody wants this kid? He faced straight-out discrimination.
Did you interview any of the recruiters that passed him up?
I did, but I didn’t use any of that in the film, because the Division I guys started to talk about it and then their bosses told them not to. It’s a no-win situation. I did talk to one Division II coach. He said that college basketball is a business and if you lose, you get fired. If alumni are watching, and someone throws the ball to the one-armed kid, and they lose by one point because he didn’t catch it, they go, “Why the hell did you get this guy?” Manhattan deserves a lot of credit for what they did.
Was there any scene that you had to cut that you wish you’d kept in?
[long pause] There was a scene where Kevin got to meet Jim Abbott [former Major League pitcher who was born without a right hand]. Kevin idolized him, but I thought that it wasn’t what the story was about. I also thought that people might go, “Oh, he made it to the Major Leagues and Kevin didn’t make it to the NBA.” So I just decided to cut it.
I was wondering when you turned from sports to the film industry?
Even when I was in sports, I was getting [cast in] stuff like “Above the Rim” and I was doing commercials. I was on “Law & Order,” and a show they used to do called “Ed.” Then I started writing, which was very cathartic. And then 9/11 hit, and I had just been in a motorcycle accident and almost lost my leg. And I said, “OK, you’ve done the whole athletic thing all your life. What do you really want to do right now? Life is too short.” I took two years to really start writing and then I moved to LA, and I started shooting “Walking with Dead Fish” in 2005.
What was it like working on “Above the Rim”?
We were shooting it up at Rucker [Park, in Harlem] and I got to be friends with Tupac Shakur. We would hang out and slap box. I didn’t really know who he was at the time. He wasn’t a big star yet. I really learned about his music by working with him. I really liked him. He was a deep soul. He was crazy, because he had to be, that was his thing. But it was great to work with him. I thought he was great in the movie, the movie was OK, but he was very good.
I heard you are now planning a feature film based on Kevin, also involving Charlie Loventhal and Julian McMahon. What will that entail?
I wrote a script and they gave me notes on it. It’s a little more in-depth about his father and Coach McKnight. I concentrate on him as a child, more than I did in the documentary. I also have the Al McGuire project in the works, with Dick Enberg [who wrote a one-man play called “McGuire].
What are Kevin’s plans now that he’s graduated?
We hope he does some traveling and speaks about the movie, this year. He’s taking his GMATs and wants to get his Master’s Degree in business. He had a 4.0 average at Fork Union. He’s charismatic. I’ve told him, “If Obama can be the first black president, you can be the first one-armed president.” I’ve always encouraged him to dream big.
“Long Shot: The Kevin Laue Story” is having an extended run at Quad Cinema in New York City due to hurricane-related cancellations in late October. It is showing through November 15.