BSO Interview: Q & A With Jeff Camarra On His NBA D-League Documentary “Up And Down”
Recently BSO talked with Los Angeles Lakers guard Trey Johnson, who told us about his experience as the subject of a forthcoming documentary detailing his travels through the D-League. That film, titled “Up and Down” is going through some final preparations (click here for production updates) so we caught up with the filmmaker, Jeff Camarra, to find out how the project came about, his thoughts on life in the D-League and the stress of juggling film making with grad school.
What motivated you to make this documentary?
I grew up in New York and am a huge Knicks fan. I was reading the paper one day and it mentioned a few guys the Knicks were looking at to call-up from the D-League and Trey was one of them. I did some research and was blown away with Trey’s accomplishments and confused why he has never had a legitimate shot in the NBA. I grew up dreaming of playing in the NBA, so I thought it would be interesting to document and follow someone who is so close to achieving that dream.
How long did it take to put the project together – from the time you came up with the idea to the start of shooting?
Putting the project together was organized chaos. I emailed the Jam owner (David Higdon) in late December about the possibility and he got back to me the next day, very receptive to the idea. He gave me Trey’s number to see if it was ok for him. I called Trey, with whom I had never spoken, and asked him if I could film him throughout the NBA D-League Showcase. The Showcase is where all the D-League teams play before NBA scouts and NBA teams begin calling players up. D-League president Dan Reed compared it to American Idol, which is very fitting. I think he was reluctant at first, but agreed to let me live with him and document his journey. Once Trey was on board I had to figure out how I could do this and work within a meager budget. I went to my older brother Chris Camarra (Executive Producer), who works on Wall Street and who was intrigued by the story. He thought that his business associate Bryan Kobel (Executive Producer) would be interested in getting involved. They financed the project under our production company “Kyroo Productions.” This all took place in about a week from getting the ok.
What about Trey Johnson made him the perfect candidate for this film?
Trey has such a great story of perseverance; following him was a no-brainer. In the past four years he played in Serbia, France, Italy and in the US with the Bakersfield Jam. He played in the NBA summer league with the Heat, Hornets and Lakers and was the last guy cut each time. He was the 2nd leading scorer in college, ahead of Kevin Durant. I couldn’t believe why he was still in the D-League and wanted to explore that. This past season was Trey’s fourth season in the D-League, most players play a season or two tops so there was a sense of urgency for him.
How important was it to pick a guy with a legitimate shot at making it to the NBA?
There were a couple inherent storylines in this film; the major arc being the journey from the D-League to the NBA, so we wanted a player with a legitimate shot at getting called up. The fact is the D-League is relatively unknown to the general public. This is not a treatise piece where we just throw out a bunch of statistics, we wanted to humanize the journey by following one player throughout the most important week of his life, the NBA D-League Showcase.
As a filmmaker, was there an added benefit to leaving your personal comfort zone in New York to go across the country to Bakersfield? Why not pick a player in Erie or Maine?
Filming in Bakersfield never really played into the equation, it was about the story and the story is Trey’s Journey. There are certainly a lot of great stories in the D-League, but I felt Trey’s was the most compelling. Also, we only filmed two games in Bakersfield before traveling with the team to South Padre Island, TX for the Showcase.
What did you expect to find when you got to Bakersfield?
I have spent some time in Los Angeles but never northern California, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The first game we shot, where the Jam won in overtime, I learned this is not your average minor league town. I had been to minor league baseball games where the fans are less enthused; this was not the case for the Jam fans, they were intense. The Jam play in a smaller arena, maybe two thousand seats, but it makes for a real intimate atmosphere and the fans connect with the players on a more personal level that is really unique. Trey is like a demigod in Bakersfield. I remember one night we were leaving a restaurant and it was one of the rare times we weren’t filming. A man rushed up to him asking for his autograph. He didn’t have a pen or paper, so I gave him a release form we had and let him use my pen. I’ll never forget it. I could see how much he looked up to Trey. The guy said “Hey, big fan, keep playing man, we’re all pulling for you, we know you’ll get there”. It really touched me because the guy was so sincere. The people in Bakersfield really follow the Jam and they know these guys all dream of playing in the NBA.
Trey said it was weird to have a camera following him around all the time. What was it like for you to focus so intently on one person/subject for eight days?
In shooting this documentary, I wanted to experience what it was like for a player trying to make it to the NBA. I moved in with Trey and lived with him throughout the entire eight days and did everything with him. I slept on his couch, we watched television, ate meals together and played horse (no comment on who won). We filmed every aspect of his life, so being on camera for roughly 12-14 hours a day is understandably taxing. Being able to spend so much time with him allowed us to build a rapport and constantly filming allowed us to get some great footage.
What surprised you most about life in the D-League?
What surprised me most about the D-League was that it’s a real family. All of the players live together in the same apartment complex; the players are on a first name basis with everyone in the organization, from the announcers to the event staff to the receptionists. It’s a very tight-knit group, which I think would differ from other professional leagues. We came in and were quickly accepted into their family. Jonah (Director of Photography) and I stayed with Trey and Kenny Taylor in their apartment. The first night filming, Drew Naymick and Luke Zeller were in the apartment with us and asked if the other two guys wanted to sleep in their apartment, so they didn’t have to sleep on the floor. This was after knowing us for a couple of hours, so I think that speaks to the family mentality of the guys.
What effect, if any, did this project have on your perception of pro athletes?
I definitely gained respect for them in respects to following their dream and the struggle of achieving it. I think a lot of people have the negative perception of professional athletes that everything was given to them, and that is certainly not the case. Almost all of the players played overseas and bounced around with NBA summer league teams and many of them have wives and children at home that they rarely get to see. The transient lifestyle takes a toll on them, but its all for the dream. The fact is many people don’t follow their dreams because it is just too hard, so after seeing it first hand, it’s hard not to have a lot of respect for these guys.
What has been the most difficult part of this process?
The most difficult part has been the editing process. After we shot it I went back to school in Florida and the other three guys went back home to New York. We were in constant communication, trying to whittle down the 100+ hours into the great story we witnessed, over the phone and through email was challenging. There were so many great moments it was difficult to cut it down to 45 minutes. Going into a project like this you have a general idea of how it will play out, but you always have to be prepared for change.
How much does it validate the D-League to have a player like J.J. Barea become a contributor on a championship team?
A D-League alum contributing on a championship team is a microcosm of how far the league has come, but not at all surprising. Shannon Brown played in the D-League and was a major contributor for the Lakers in their back-to-back championships. When I started this project, I didn’t fully understand how strong a connection the D-League has with the NBA. Twenty percent of the NBA has come through the D-League and that number is growing every year. I expect to hear more stories of D-League players making significant contributions in the NBA each year.
When do you hope to have the film finished?
We actually finished the film two weeks ago and submitted it to the NBA for review. We have to go through the licensing process for the games we shot. Our goal is to get them behind this, because it is such a remarkable story. We just want this to get the exposure it deserves. I’ve been in contact with them and will be meeting with them in the next week or so.
You’re just finishing grad school. How did you find the time to get all of this done?
Finishing school and the movie was a process to say the least. Before we could even start I had to clear it with my teachers because I was going to miss significant class time. After our last day of shooting, I flew back to school in Florida and the rest of my crew (Johah Quickmire Pettigrew, Dan Zinn and Nayim Saati) flew back to New York. Nayim and Dan would edit scenes and send them to me every few days. I’d review it, make changes and send it back. We did this for five months; it was a lot of all-nighters, a few weekend trips home and a ton of emails and phone calls, but now we have an end product we are very proud of.
Have you thought about what your next project will be when this is finished?
I’ve been so busy with this project, trying to get it the exposure it deserves I haven’t really thought too much about what is next. This should be out in the fall, so after that I’ll see what’s next. My brother Chris and I have some ideas, but nothing definite yet.