Interview with Jon Frankel
Raised in New York City, 43-year-old filmmaker JON FRANKEL is a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Communications. Frankel began his career in media as a radio producer for Bob Costas, later spending a season as a producer for NFL Films. Changing gears, Frankel then moved in front of the camera as a local sportscaster in West Palm Beach and Miami. Eventually, he moved back to New York City to work for WNBC. At present, he is a correspondent for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO and CNBC's On the Money. Frankel now gets his kicks from cross training, and even participated in the 2002 Ironman Championship in Hawaii. He is also an avid skier. Jon Frankel currently lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.
Tribeca Film Festival: What is your film about?
Jon Frankel: It is about young men coming of age and discovering themselves under difficult circumstances; and for many of them, at least in this film, what helps them discover themselves is playing high school football. And that in itself was an incredible challenge because there was no high school football in Harlem. And this one man, Coach Duke Ferguson, a former NFL player, came along and petitioned the city to form a community team so that kids who either live in Manhattan or go to a public high school in Manhattan that does not have a football team can play and participate in the public school’s athletic league in New York City, and have the same opportunities that kids who live in suburban communities or more affluent communities have.
Tribeca Film Festival: How did you come up with the idea?
Jon Frankel: I first learned about the team in November 2003; there was a column in The New York Times written by Harvey Araton in the sports section about this team. It was really about the man: Coach Duke Ferguson and all that he was about and what he was trying to accomplish. And it sounded so inspirational and I remember thinking I either wanted to literally drop everything I was doing, walk out the door and walk up to Harlem to start volunteering as a coach, or I wanted to do a piece for CBS. Neither happened. And only a year and a half later, going to a Yankees game with my son and heading to the subway, walking across the street I literally bumped into a gentleman who had a gym bag over his shoulder and embroidered was “Harlem Hellfighters,” and I turned and I said, “Are you that coach?” And he said, “Yes, I’m Duke Ferguson.” And I introduced myself and I said, “I’ve always wanted to come out and watch you guys practice and I want to do a film, has anybody done a film about you? May I come out and watch?” And he said, “Sure.” A couple weeks later, I was out and as it turned out they were practicing on the very same field at 120th Street and Park Avenue where my son played his little league baseball games. And every time we were finishing up and putting the bats and balls away there was this group of young kids collecting and gathering, and it turned out they were the Harlem Hellfighters. And so I went out on May 23, 2005 for the first time with my camera. And it was raining and that was the beginning of what has been a two-year experience to bring this film to its finishing point.
Tribeca Film Festival: What is your background?
Jon Frankel: I’ve worked as a broadcast journalist for nearly 20 years. I started out as a local sportscaster then moved to the networks, became a general assignment correspondent, covered some sports, covered some war—an interesting combination. But I always wanted to shoot a documentary. I wasn’t sure really how to go about it, but it was at the Tribeca Fim Festival actually that I was really inspired and motivated to do this because a friend of mine, Jonathan Hock, produced and directed a film called Through the Fire, about Sebastian Telfair—the high school basketball player from Coney Island and Lincoln High School. And I remember watching that film and thinking to myself, “Wow, that is incredible. To make a film and look at it up there on the big screen. I’d like to do that.” And I’m passionate about high school football. I played high school football, and I originally went to college to play football and that didn’t work out. But I thought this was perfect. I like kids and Harlem is an interesting place. So I went to B&H, the heaven of all places, and I bought my equipment. And then it took me about three different tries to get the gear right, and how I was going to move with these kids. I finally landed with this backpack and I was completely self-contained. And I would just make my way every day with I’m guessing it was 35-, 40-pound pack by the time I was done. And I’d go to practice and I’d go to the schools and I’d go home with the kids.
Tribeca Film Festival: How was the experience of going from doing something you know to something you don’t?
Jon Frankel: Yeah, I think that in shooting this film there were certainly times when I could rely on and fall back on the experiences I had as a journalist. Most basically, asking questions, being inquisitive, wanting to know the answers. There was the balance of how much to just trust what’s happening in front of the camera and how much do I then have to go and do investigative work to know what’s the truth, what isn’t the truth, what really happened. And then you realize that that stuff isn’t happening in front of the camera, so how does it play into the documentary? How do you make it all work? On the other hand, it was refreshing because as a journalist, just by definition, when you work in television, you parachute in and you’re out in a hurry. This was watching a story unfold in front of my eyes. I did not know where it was going, I didn’t know the answers. I didn’t know what the story was. I really didn’t. I mean there were so many times when I came home and I said, “Well, I have an interesting scene. I know that’s compelling. And that’s a really good moment, but I don’t know if I’ve got a film.” And does nine or ten good moments make for a film? How do you weave it all together? And too many players, and following too many guys, and at a certain point trying to weed it out. And who’s good, and who isn’t good, and this kid’s really good but his mom’s not a great talker. Or the mother is a great talker but the kid’s not as good a talker. So how do you balance those out? And this kid’s interesting, but this kid’s more interesting.
Tribeca Film Festival: How important was the NYC location?
Jon Frankel: Being able to shoot in New York was invaluable. I mean my wife wasn’t going to have it any other way. I wasn’t shooting a documentary halfway around the world or in another state. But shooting at home, in the city that I grew up in and in Harlem specifically—which has so much color and so much flavor to it and so much rich history and such a promising future—was incredible. And it’s a place that I had been through a thousand times—more often than not in a vehicle. But to walk it, and I can’t say I lived it. I wouldn’t be as presumptuous as that and to say I know what it’s like in extremely difficult situations for some people who live there. But I did get to see a different Harlem than I’d ever known before. And often times, perhaps naively saying, “Boy, this isn’t the Harlem that everybody talks about, that people are scared of.” I would say one of the most interesting experiences I had was very late in the shooting and I wanted to get some more B-roll of Harlem and I was walking by Rucker Park. And I was coming down the street, just getting street scenes, and for the first time ever in the course of the seven months of shooting, I was told that I probably should be careful and I shouldn’t pull my camera out in public and that there people who will try and take it away from me and they’ll use guns in broad daylight. And who did that come from? The cops. And it was the only time I ever felt uncomfortable, and I was a little more guarded. But there were so many times, so many times that I was walking through Harlem that people would come up to me and they’d say oh, is that the Panasonic Mini DV 100XA? I’d be like, “Yeah.” “Oh, I’ve got one of those.” “Oh, what are you shooting?” “I’m shooting a story about this. And what are you shooting?” “I’m shooting a story about the Harlem Hellfighters high school football team here in Harlem.” And we’d have this really interesting conversation and talk specs about cameras and so forth and so on, and about the contents of what we were shooting. “Have a great day!” Maybe exchange cards.
Tribeca Film Festival: Looking back, what was the most surprising thing you learned?
Jon Frankel: I think one of the most surprising things I realized after the whole process is that I actually did it. You know you set out to make a film, and you get a little camera, and you throw a backpack on, and you don’t really have any structure. You haven’t set up a shooting schedule. You go when you can, and when you think you should, and that’s three, four, five days a week. I think one of the most surprising things is that you start on a road, a journey, and you complete it. Doesn’t mean it’s a good film or it’s a bad film, it’s just that you’ve made a film. Maybe nobody will watch it, maybe you’ll have 20 friends over in your living room and serve pigs in blankets and that’s it, but you finished a film! I was also taken by the kids and how much I felt towards them. They were very special kids, and I want them all to achieve everything that they want. And I’ve maintained a relationship with some of them; I wish I could help all of them. But experiencing that, and experiencing Harlem, and the education that I got about the city, about the public school system, about the way many people less fortunate than me live.
Tribeca Film Festival: Why is your film important?
Jon Frankel: I don’t know if the film is important in the sense of oh, saving lives, and changing the world. Bit it’s an interesting film because it examines a lot of issues that many people in this country have to confront all the time: having enough money to put food on the table. Keeping the power running in your house. Getting your kids to school. Getting them an education that you think is suitable to them. Fighting bureaucracies. Overcoming lots and lots of obstacles, including single parent homes and delinquency, and all sorts of things. But I think we do it in a way that doesn’t hit the viewer over the head. We don’t state some of the obvious statistics that you’ve seen time and time again when people talk about urban plight. That the average young black male has a better chance of going to prison than he does reaching the age of 25—that’s not in there. I think this film allows you to absorb and let the daily grind of life wash over you. And yet experience the joy and root for these kids and believe that they are going to make it. Because you see how good they are, and you see how intelligent and thoughtful and sensitive and sweet they can be, and how much they just want to reach out and have someone hold their hand and steer them and guide them. Just a little bit in life.
Tribeca Film Festival: What’s your favorite moment of the film?
Jon Frankel: One of my favorite scenes is when Renell, the assistant coach, is walking and he’s about to give me a little bit of a tour of Harlem. We’re going to his car. And he says, “You know one of these things about these guys is that they gotta be careful to be productive, and not destructive. I’ve seen guys who spend their futures trying to get their pasts back. Instead of enjoying the future.” And he says it, and then he goes, “Man, that’s deep. That’s deep.” And I remember thinking, if nothing else, that’s gonna make it into the film.
Tribeca Film Festival: Do you have words that you live by?
Jon Frankel: I just read a great one from John Wooden, which went something like “If you’re finished learning, you’re finished.” Apparently he had that up in his office at UCLA. And it’s true. I think you never stop learning.
Tribeca Film Festival: Favorite sports film?
Jon Frankel: My favorite sports film hands down is Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington. It’s everything I could relate to, except for the racial divide in that film. I didn’t live through that period, but I think it’s moving. It’s about triumph. It’s about loss. It’s about challenge. It’s a fantastic film and I love it.