Basketball films offer a great way to explore wider issues within the dramatic confines of battles both on and off the court. TJ Noel-Sullivan’s On The Whistle is an excellent case in point, telling the story of an entitled white basketball player bristling against a Black coach during tryouts. Featuring some stunning basketball sequences as well as a great central conflict between the two leads, On The Whistle is a fine addition to the great pantheon of sports films. We talked to Noel-Sullivan about the film, including the interesting casting process, the racial tension at the heart of the short, and his desire to convert it into a feature.
What inspired you to tell this film?
The film really came from personal themes and experiences that I then tried to multiply out to a larger scale and storyline. I played high school basketball myself, and today there’s a large conversation around authority figures of colour. In the Connecticut suburbs, which are predominately white, most students will graduate having had all white teachers. I wanted to explore how this leads into white entitlement through the lens of high school basketball, which in the moment is a very high-stakes world.
How did you want to get this theme across through the basketball scenes themselves?
I went back to my high school coach and had the opportunity to shadow that year’s tryouts and have him give me a bunch of drills. We pulled on some patterns in predominantly white schools where there’s a lot of focus on shooting. Luke is this kid whose style of basketball is all around whether he has a great jump shot and whether he can make the shot. I tried to establish that early on where he’s shooting around, so then when the drills start, you see it’s not that important for this team. It’s much more about endurance and heart and whether you can push yourself to give your all in that moment.
To me Luke immediately wants to be a Steph Curry-type player, throwing great three-pointers all by himself. Is it part of this entitlement that he thinks he can play like this without thinking about how he should integrate into the team?
I think that’s a great example. He is this great shooter and he always makes the shot. If the game is solely about winning and scoring points then Luke ‘is’ this great player. But the key central conflict is Coach Weaver saying: “I don’t care if you are Steph Curry, this team is about playing team basketball and making the selfless pass for the lay-up.”
We knew going in that we didn’t want to make a High School Musical where you see him shoot, cutaway, and then the ball goes in the hoop.
The fitness scenes bring to mind Coach Carter, where Samuel L. Jackson makes them do suicides over and over again. Was that an inspiration at all?
Yeah. One thing I really wanted to capture in the film is that when you are doing suicides, it just feels like forever. One is only 30 seconds and yet you’re pushing yourself so hard. I just tried to capture this raw emotional feeling of running these suicides when you’re dog-tired and wondering why you’re doing this and not playing basketball. Coach Carter is absolutely amazing but one thing that stood out for me was those slow suicides where they just kind of jog and keep running forever. I wanted to add some higher stakes to it where the coach is like: “You have to do this in a certain amount of time”.
Did you hire actual basketball players as both the lead and the extras?
That’s two really good stories. To find the lead, Aiden Peluso, we did a standard casting call where we posted on Actors Access. We took self-tape auditions and in the description, we said that “basketball experience and skill is required for the role.” We knew going in that we didn’t want to make a High School Musical where you see him shoot, cutaway, and then the ball goes in the hoop.
We wanted to have authentic basketball that felt real and sold him as an amazing shooter. We probably got 300 self-tape submissions, and Aiden’s self-tape got across this entitlement while being likeable at the same time. But when we met with him, he was just bad to start out, air-balling every shot. We got a little concerned so I called up a friend who runs a basketball training program, and they went through the exact moves I wanted to do. For example, the spin move, we broke it down: step with your right foot, then dribble, then step with your left foot and spin. That was ten days before filming, and Aiden spent two to three hours every day in his basement just doing these moves over and over again. Then by the time he got on set he was able to do it perfectly. So I was very impressed.
For our extras, we were on a budget and weren’t able to put out a standing casting call looking for extras like you would in New York. We emailed high school basketball coaches and anyone involved with basketball in Hartford and said we were shooting this movie. It was a big concern on the Friday going in that, of the 17 extras scheduled to come, only ten would show up. Which was an issue as the script was written as ten making the team. But all 17 of them showed up the first day, and even after shooting all the suicides in day one, all 17 showed up for day two. This film really wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the great community of basketball players in Hartford who were all really excited about the film and willing to volunteer their time to be a part of it.
Danny Johnson is the big name in the movie, having been on TV shows such as Luke Cage. How did you cast him and what was it like having this big name on board?
We knew that this was a role that we wanted a star actor for. It’s a meaty, complicated role. The film rests in that performance. We did a ton of research going through all sorts of IMDB pages and Broadway playbills. We found Danny through a show he’d done recently, and went to IMDB and watched his demo reel. He has the powerful commanding voice that just works so well for a basketball coach. We reached out to him and his agent, and they were really interested. Then timed our shoots between January 4-6th so we wouldn’t be competing against pilot season or any film shoots.
We met Danny for coffee and he said he grew up right next to Purdue University in Indiana, which had a legendary basketball program. He talked about growing up and going down the street to watch them. So he loved it and was very excited about this story idea. He’s used to working with a very professional set, so we tried to make it as professional as possible. But all our extras had never been on any sort of movie set before, and all of them watched Luke Cage. So they were super excited and took pictures and asked for autographs.
He gave me one of my favourite directing experiences ever, shooting that big takedown scene where he rips into Luke and leaves him crying off to the locker room. We rehearsed it for about half an hour trying different things, then we shot a take and it was great. I said “Let’s do it again and tweak a few things” and he gave another incredible performance that was ‘different’. So we kept going and ended up with five different takes. He was coming and working on a student film. Maybe some actors would say “This is just a student film, I’m not going to take this seriously” but he came and brought his A-game, and was just a pleasure to work with.
This short is almost an inciting incident in the feature length draft.
Are you looking to turn this into a feature film?
We have a draft of the feature length now. This short is almost an inciting incident in the feature length draft. It follows Luke over the course of a season where he has to choose between his mother and his coach, putting Luke in these positions where he has to decide who he’s going to listen to. Shorts are tough because you just don’t have as much time to develop as much as you want but that’s something in the feature that really gets developed. I hope with the film going online we can find some other people who really like the short and want to see it as a feature.