Steven Soderbergh confronts greed, inequality in new movie about 2011 NBA lockout

AndrĀŽe Holland, as Ray Burke in "High Flying Bird," navigates the NBA's inner machinery to get his clients playing -- and paid. Peter Andrews

The idea from the start, Steven Soderbergh says, was "a sports movie with no sports." Soderbergh is filmmaking's disrupter-in-chief -- he loves making new stuff, but he loves trying new stuff more. And the thing he loves more than anything is blowing up a genre or turning a franchise inside out. See: "The Limey" (film noir), "Contagion" (disaster flicks), "Haywire" (B-movie action), "Ocean's Twelve" ("Ocean's Eleven"), "Logan Lucky" ("Ocean's Eleven" again).

Which brings us to his latest film, "High Flying Bird," a fictionalized tale of the 2011 NBA lockout about a veteran agent (Andre Holland, "Moonlight") scheming to end the stalemate and get money flowing back to his young clients.

It is set entirely in offices, restaurants, Ubers and gymnasiums around Manhattan. There's only one scene with actual basketball in the whole movie, lasting a grand total of maybe 20 seconds: a few dribbles, a jump shot cut at the moment of release. That's it.

And yet it has the feel of an instant-classic sports movie -- a rapid-fire river of angle-playing and ticking-clock negotiating, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the Oscar-winning author of "Moonlight." It's also a raw, polemical screed about the business of pro sports, the ruthless exploitation of black bodies and the spiritual corrosion of an urban art form. As one character puts it, "They built a game on top of our game."

At its core, "High Flying Bird" (out Friday) is a heist movie -- a boardroom caper about a last-ditch plot to seize the game back. Soderbergh says the movie was six years in the making, McCraney sending pages when he could while he and Holland worked on other projects. But once the script was ready, Soderbergh directed it in early 2018 at his usual breakneck pace: 17 days from the start of shooting to a first cut. He spoke with ESPN about where the movie came from and where he thinks pro sports is headed next.

ESPN: So this is basically a sports movie that's set entirely in offices.

Steven Soderbergh: That was the trick, a sports movie with no sports in it. I was kind of viewing it the same way that I view scenes of people hooking up sexually. [Laughs] When it comes to the act itself, I think everybody's pretty clear on what happens, generally speaking, so what I'm more interested in is the things that lead up to that and the things that happen after the event. I was kind of viewing this in the same way, which is if you pull the game out of it, what's left? That's what we were focusing on.

There's very little public information out there about this film -- if you Google "Netflix" and anything with "bird" in the title, all you get now is "Bird Box" stuff. So tell me about where this movie came from.

It began with a conversation that Andre Holland and I were having during the first season of shooting [the Cinemax TV drama] "The Knick." He said, "Oh, I've been toying with this idea of a project about the Negro Leagues in baseball and how integration killed off this black-owned economic ecosystem. So on the one hand, you've got something that in social terms is a move forward, and then the unintended consequence of that is to kill off the Negro Leagues." I've always been interested in a project that deals with the question of why the players don't have more of a direct ownership stake in any of the major sports leagues, particularly basketball, because that is utterly dominated by black athletes. I always wonder when the contracts come up why a group of the players doesn't get together and go, "We should own all this s---." So I said, "What about doing a what-if movie that's very contained, about this long weekend where somebody tries to activate an insurrection, and we kind of watch this play out?" A little over a year ago, we had a full draft of a script, and I said, "OK, let's shoot."

At various points, it feels like a blend of genres -- a sports movie but also a heist movie. The main character is an agent taking on the NBA, but he feels like George Clooney trying to bring down the casino.

There were certain genre antecedents that we drew on, like "Sweet Smell of Success," or in my mind, strangely, "Glengarry Glen Ross" -- these sorts of hyperverbal, fast-moving pieces about people who want things and use their mouth to get them. Look, I began my career making a movie essentially about two people in a room [1989's "Sex, Lies, and Videotape"], and I've never strayed very far from that. Because I think at the end of the day, people would be shocked to know how many world events are shaped by, or can be attributed to, a meeting between two people in a room.

That brings me to Kyle MacLachlan's character -- he's the villain here, the lawyer representing the owners, and he's just oozing naked greed. He's corporate wealth personified. Is he an entirely fictitious creation or a composite of real people?

You'd have to ask Tarell, but to my knowledge, that was a character who was created out of whole cloth to represent a certain position that is pretty standard in these situations. He's revealed through his conversations, the heart of that being a chance encounter that he has with Andre's character in the steam room.

That's the scene I want to talk about -- the snot-rocket scene. Soon to be legendary. The horrified look on Andre Holland's face --

[Laughs] I know.

Please tell me that's based on a real incident.

Again, I don't know where Tarell pulled that out of -- that might have happened to him. I've only seen it on an actual ball field. I haven't seen it in a steam room, thank god. [Editor's note: When asked about this scene in the film, McCraney told ESPN, "You can't make that s--- up."] But as a filmmaker, I'm always looking for physical ways for a character to express themselves. The last thing I want to do is start an intellectual conversation -- I want them in their bodies; I want them behaving like the character. And I would imagine that if you talk to Kyle, that little momentary act itself is a foundation to build a character. If you can figure out how to understand the guy who can do that and feel good about it, then you know exactly who you're playing.

That's interesting, because you'd think one of the advantages of a sports movie is the opportunity for physical expression of character. And that's the first thing you got rid of here.

And I like that. I viewed it as, "Let's not show the shark." We have a little bit of one pickup game that happens, and you see just one little play and that's it. To show a substantial amount of this one-on-one -- it wouldn't have helped the movie. That wasn't the point.

"There's a psychological barrier, I think, for a lot of people across the spectrum, for compassion and empathy toward people who seem to be making a s--- ton of money. But that's only possible because they don't have insight into the kind of money that exists on top of those salaries." Steven Soderbergh

There aren't a lot of overlaps between this film and "Moonlight," but they do have in common this theme about the exploitation and commodification of black bodies.

I think any thinking person who watches sports can't help but reverse-engineer the universe of that sport and question how we got here, why this is structured this way. And it could just be me, but there's still something unsettling to me when they cut to those shots of the skyboxes with the white owners looking down. It's weird.

I do think more fans are doing that now, but not as many as I would've expected.

I think it's hard. There's a psychological barrier, I think, for a lot of people across the spectrum, for compassion and empathy toward people who seem to be making a s--- ton of money. But that's only possible because they don't have insight into the kind of money that exists on top of those salaries. It's like the Chris Rock line: "Shaq is rich. The guy who writes the check for Shaq is wealthy."

There are actually very few Shaqs, in the NBA and especially in the NFL. Lots of them will be done playing by 25, and they'll be lucky if they made $1 million.

I was shocked at how short the average career is for a pro athlete. In some cases, in the case of football, those careers end because of catastrophic injury. One of the things I like about basketball is that it's as fast as a sport can get without becoming truly violent.

In the film, you've interspersed bits of on-camera interviews with some actual NBA players, and it really connects the story we're seeing with the life experiences of the young stars it's based on.

At the time we were finishing the film, Donovan Mitchell was in the headlines a lot, as was Karl-Anthony Towns. So at points where they were going to be in New York, they all came by my office and I interviewed them. There's a whole other 10 to 15 minutes of material not in the movie that could be a short film of its own.

I'd watch it.

It's pretty fascinating. What was very, very clear in talking to these guys was that any notions of the savant player who's just ridiculously gifted, who just kind of shows up and is magic and doesn't have to do the things that other players have to do to be great -- that does not exist anymore. What was clear from talking to them was: You can literally be the most talented player on the planet, but if you don't bust your ass, you're not going to make it. And people won't want to play with you. There's just zero tolerance now for what you and I might call head cases. They're like, "There are too many good people out there fighting for these jobs." If you turn out to be somebody who can't get their s--- together, you're just gone.