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Rick Greenwald’s Quantum Hoops is a story about triumph in many different ways.
By Lina Houze and Patrice Ewell
Hollywood Scriptwriter Magazine
December 2007

For over 15 years, Rick Greenwald has built a solid career in Hollywood as a top short and long form video editor. After transitioning into the freelance world of editing, Greenwald setup shop in Burbank, California and started a successful post production company to cater to his growing list of clients. Having been inspired by friendships with leading documentary filmmakers Stacy Peralta (Riding Giants, Dogtown and Zboys) and Paul Crowder (Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos), Greenwald decided to tackle a documentary project of his own. As an avid sports fan (Rick got engaged to his wife at the 2002 World Series) and mediocre amateur athlete, it seems only natural that he would pursue a sports subject that champions the underdog.

Quantum Hoops is Rick Greenwald’s first feature length directorial effort, and he talks to HS about this experience.

Hollywood Scriptwriter: How does your love of sports play a role in producing this feature film?

Rick Greenwald: I’d say my love of sports had a lot to do with it. I was actively pursuing several stories and this was the only one with a sports theme. My friends and family have always wondered why more of my career wasn’t spent on sports related projects since playing and following sports has been an active part of my life. In fact, my wife and I had our first date at a Lakers game and got engaged at the 2002 World Series… I also played baseball for 12 years and softball after that. It is quite likely that I would not have had the same interest to turn this story into a full length documentary if I didn’t love basketball. It’s also safe to say that if I knew nothing about sports or basketball that this project couldn’t have become what it did. I would be very curious to find out what this story would have looked like if produced by someone who hated sports.

How and why did you decide to make a film centered on the Cal Tech Beavers?

I was looking at several different subjects to do short documentary stories on. The Caltech basketball story was the only one that had to do with sports. It was also the only one with a definitive timeframe. If I didn’t get started soon, I’d have to wait another 10 months for a new season to start. Specifically, I was drawn to the fact that this was the world’s smartest basketball team. It was also, statistically, the worst team in the history of sports. Either one of those facts would make an interesting story. The two combined meant it was too good to pass up! How no one discovered this story for the last 50 years blows my mind, as the basic elements are virtually unchanged since the 1950’s.

What made this project come together and be a success?

I contacted the Caltech coach and pitched him my idea. He consulted the team and they allowed me in. You have to understand that these kids aren’t playing basketball for media attention. There is a purity to what they are doing there like nothing else in college basketball. To allow someone like me to come in with my camera and document them is a huge leap of faith for these guys. They know I could have easily ridiculed them and played everything up for laughs. It didn’t take more than a day with the team and coach to realize that this story was not only unique, but also very special. I take a lot of pride in what I created because I think it’s truthful and honest about what goes on at Caltech. One of the best compliments I have received was when somebody said, “I can’t believe you didn’t go here… you’ve captured our essence perfectly”.

Please explain your history in filmmaking. How did you become a filmmaker?

In high school my career path was architecture. For fun I bought my own video camera and started playing around with my friends. By the time I was a senior, I made a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of our school play, but I wasn’t thinking about it as a career. When I applied to college, I made sure they had a film program just in case.

I’ve been working as an editor since graduating from UCSB in 1993. I had the chance to work on some very cool projects over the years and have had a very successful career – but it was always for somebody else. Having worked with Stacy Peralta on Riding Giants really got me thinking about doing something on my own. I really didn’t think about myself as a “filmmaker” until I had to type it into the credits. Now that the film is complete I look back and wonder, “did I really do that?”

What do you want the audience to take away from the film?

My initial instinct was to create something with entertainment value. This isn’t a true “cause” documentary and I think it can be a little tough for some documentary fans to take a sports story seriously. Before we had our first screening, I really was just hoping people would have a good time. What I found out later is that many people told me how inspired they were by this group of people. Others told me how refreshing it was to finally see a sports story that celebrates the true amateur athlete. One woman thanked me for “making smart people look sexy”, and one of Caltech’s Nobel Prize winning physicists said that after seeing Quantum Hoops, it reminded him of why he was at Caltech in the first place. I couldn’t ask for more than that. It’s actually pretty simple: This film is not meant to cure cancer; I’ll leave that up to the players.

When did you meet your collaborators?

How did those partnerships come about?

As director, writer, producer, camera operator, & editor, I probably took on too many job titles… most of that was out of financial necessity. Since I originally intended for this to be a short, I didn’t give any thought to a full staff and crew and certainly no thought to financing. As the story grew, I often wondered how I got into this in the first place. Luckily some of my staff at my postproduction company were able to jump in and help out in between their regular jobs. One of my company’s audio mixers ended up scoring original music; my edit bay scheduler became my AP and additional camera operator. Everybody was able to chip in when I got too far over my head.

How did you research for the film?

I had almost no research under my belt before the first day I started shooting.

Many of the stories came about during the interview process. I would find out about something interesting that happened there in the 60’s or 70’s, etc. and then go and track down somebody from that era and they would give me more leads. Almost none of these stories had ever been told before because these guys didn’t think what they had been doing (losing basketball games) was interesting. Tracking down a former player by his name and then discovering he was a famous astrophysicist was pretty amazing. I became pretty obsessed at that point and probably Googled the names of 80 years worth of Caltech athletes. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Caltech has never documented anything related to sports. It’s pretty easy to forget about that stuff when the school is busy discovering planets and sending people to the moon. There was literally nothing sports related that I could draw from. I had to put all the pieces together on my own. It quickly became an incredibly elaborate research project like nothing I’d ever done before. My eyes still spin when I think about all the micro-film flying in front of my face for hours on end.

How do you think Quantum Hoops fits into your personal growth as a director? How will it affect your future eprojects?

I am shocked that my first feature project has turned out so well. People keep telling me this is going to be huge for my career and frankly, I can’t imagine what other project I could have this much passion and excitement about in the future. There are some stories I have already passed on because I didn’t think it would compare to Quantum Hoops. I’m lucky to have another career as an editor, so I guess I have the luxury of waiting for something special like this.

What were some of the challenges you faced while rising from a short to long form video producer in Hollywood?

I literally became a long form video producer overnight because of this project. Most of my background is in short form editing with an occasional hour-long show here and there. I would say the only challenge was figuring out if I could pull off something of this magnitude with a small staff and small budget. Two weeks into shooting, I reconceived it from a 10 minute short to an hour long (43 minute) TV show, and a couple months later realized it couldn’t be told in 43 minutes so I went for feature length. If it was up to me, this film would have about 45 more minutes of stories, but I don’t think my average viewer would have the patience for that. I would say this project was what a lot of documentary film projects are – the story took them in different directions and expanded the time commitment the more involved they got. It also needs to be noted that I don’t have one of the biggest challenges facing most documentary producers, and that is post-production. I have my own editing equipment and I am an editor. I never had to be at the mercy of someone else or their equipment. Several times I have been approached over the last 15 years by someone with supposedly great footage for a story they feel passionate about and they want me to edit for them and give them free equipment rental and then ask if they can defer my pay. Their project essentially dies because they don’t have the necessary money or skill to complete an otherwise great project. I am very, very grateful to have not had to beg, borrow, or steal from anyone to complete this project.

Explain the most rewarding aspects of being a video director.

I’m a 15 year video editor. I also do a lot of graphics work. Occasionally a project would come along that allowed me to direct but always on a small level. Primarily working for other people has been how I made a living for so long so it was refreshing to start a project where I knew I was the final decision maker. For this project, I was also the financier so I truly had no one putting pressure on me to make any decisions one way or the other. I will say that completing this project has really reminded me of why I went to film school in the first place.

How did relocating to Burbank, CA change the direction of your career?

It didn’t change my career at all. As a former freelance editor, I would work all over town. I chose to move to Burbank to service a pre-existing client who was already in the city. At that point, I was already a well established professionally.

How and why did you decide to make a film centered on the Cal Tech Beavers?

I was looking at several different subjects to do short documentary stories on. The Caltech basketball story was the only one that had to do with sports. It was also the only one with a definitive timeframe. If I didn’t get started soon, I’d have to wait another 10 months for a new season to start. Specifically, I was drawn to the fact that this was the world’s smartest basketball team. It was also, statistically, the worst team in the history of sports. Either one of those facts would make an interesting story. The two combined meant it was too good to pass up! How no one discovered this story for the last 50 years blows my mind, as the basic elements are virtually unchanged since the 1950’s.

What was your most memorable experience about shooting the film? Perhaps a story or anecdote?

Talking basketball with Caltech Nobel Prize winners was memorable and unique. Actually being at “the big game” was pretty thrilling; knowing that I had the chance to witness what could possibly be an historic event made my camera shake.

That still makes me laugh when I see the footage – I was so nervous I couldn’t keep my camera steady. One day I was asking around about a coach from the 1950’s. They told me to ask Fred Newman who was a player back then and worked at the front desk of the gym (he’s retired from IBM). I was told to look for him in the gym since he works out in there every day. Much to my surprise, Fred is a worldrecord holder in free throw and 3-point shooting. That was probably the big “epiphany” moment – these guys are more than they are cracked up to be. That started my obsession with finding every great story that had been hidden from the public for all these years.

How much of a budget is practical to produce a solid documentary?

To make a solid documentary it should realistically take at least $250,000 – this includes paying all of the appropriate people to work for you, clip and music licensing, promotion, post-production rental, etc. In many cases it can actually cost upwards of a million. The reality is that you can make a decent documentary for well under $100,000 if you do most of the jobs yourself, use pro-sumer equipment, maybe use stock music instead of trying for a Beatles song you can’t really afford. I will say this, while it is true that it really is all about the story, it’s also true that any documentary worth watching was not done for under $25,000. All of those silly stories you hear about someone making their documentary for $150 and the price of their laptop is flat out untrue. That is nothing but a marketing spin and is, quite frankly, irresponsible. People need to know before they get started that it could be years of blood, sweat, tears, and money that they will most likely never see again unless they are extremely lucky.

How difficult was it to stay within that budget?

For this project I had no strict budget. As the project grew from a 10 minute short to feature length, I analyzed and expanded the money I was willing to spend accordingly. If you are a one-man show and you fancy yourself as being “creative”, then you should do yourself a favor and find a qualified producer who understands budgets. I also showed some rough edits to a few people early in the process and felt like there would be a commercial interest in this project, so I felt comfortable expanding my spending.

Will you continue to research undiscovered stories and create films similar to Quantum Hoops?

I would love to find another story that I feel as passionate about as Quantum Hoops. It’s going to take me a while to even feel ready to start on something that I do find. This process has been more rewarding than I ever dreamed possible, but I think a lot of this story was just luck… it just unfolded in front of me despite the basic theme of the story already being in place for decades. “Capturing the Friedmans” got started as a documentary on party clowns and turned into one of the greatest character studies of all time. I suppose I will just go into my next project with a very, very open mind.

What are you currently working on now?

Promoting the film and moving forward with more cities. I am also back at work on some of my “day job” stuff. Ironically, I have been working on graphic transitions for the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” – which happens to be about two guys who work in a lab at Caltech. What are the odds of that?
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