Don't be fooled by the title: the new documentary "Knuckleball!" is about a lot more than the notoriously twisty pitch of the same name.
"For us it was really important that this film isn't just a sports film," "Knuckleball!" co-director Anne Sundberg told HuffPost Entertainment. "A lot of positive feedback we have gotten is audience members who are not necessarily the biggest baseball fans and find themselves drawn to and moved by the story."
Though it's tempting to think about baseball in terms of wins and losses, Sundberg and co-director Rick Stern ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work") found plot in a pitch, and two men whose careers have been defined by it: former Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Tim Wakefield and current New York Mets starter R.A. Dickey. Sundberg and Stern followed the pair -- the last two pitchers who made their living throwing a knuckleball -- throughout the 2011 Major League Baseball season, and the pitch's unpredictable dips and swerves might as well be stand-in for the players' respective sagas. "Knuckleball!" tracks Wakefield and Dickey through wins, losses, injuries, self-doubts, and, for Wakefield and his Boston teammates, one epic collapse: The 2011 Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in September, and missed the playoffs. It was later revealed that the Red Sox clubhouse was the equivalent of a frat house during the season, with starting pitchers reportedly drinking beer during games; during a Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of this year, Stern said the scandal was left out of the film to make "Knuckleball!" feel more "evergreen."
Beyond what happens between the white lines of the baseball diamond, "Knuckleball!" tells the story of two men who constantly tried to overcome adversity in the face of increasingly difficult odds. It's in that regard that "Knuckleball!" transcends baseball to become something more: Not just a great sports film, but one of the year's best portraits of the human spirit.
With "Knuckleball!" arriving in Boston and New York this week -- as well as on VOD around the country -- Stern and Sundberg spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about how they came to this story, why the film isn't on ESPN and the most surprising thing they learned about baseball clubhouses.
What made you want to make a movie about knuckleballers?
Ricki Stern: Basically, producers Chris Schomer and Dan Cogan, knew us, and came to us with a treatment. Annie and I we were really taken with the way they had presented this story of knunckleballers. These guys were outliers in baseball, a handful of them, who persevere and reinvent themselves to pursue their dreams. We thought, "Wow, that story anyone can relate to." Very quickly, because it was the end of spring training in 2011, we said, "Gosh, if we're going to do this we have to get on a plane and meet these guys and see what they're like as characters. As storytellers." So we got on a plane a couple of days later and flew to spring training. We did our first interview with R.A., the big one in the film, the day after meeting him. We knew right away. He's such a good storyteller and he's so introspective about his own journey, that we were really excited. Dan and Chris had gone to meet Tim and he was in such an emotional state knowing this could be his last year as a pitcher, they were excited about where he was in his life. We just jumped on the train.
Neither of you are huge baseball fans, but "Knuckleball!" is one of the more clear-eyed presentations of the sport I've seen. How do you accomplish that?
Ricki Stern: It's a combination of having a producer, Chris Schomer, who really knew a lot of baseball and having MLB productions vet things for us. They were like our Wikipedia on baseball. If we had to double check anything, they were there for us. It's also kind of what you do as a documentary filmmaker: You take these crash courses in what you're making a film on, whether it's Darfur or Burma. You name it. You just have to get yourself as much up to speed, but you realize that baseball -- very much like trying to understand the history of Sudan -- it's very long and complex. You definitely need people who are experts to point you in the right direction or you can spend forever reading about the history of baseball. The names just go on and on and on.
One of the film's biggest moments of dramatic tension is whether or not Tim Wakefield will get his 200th win. Were his struggles during that stretch of the 2011 season good for the film, or do you feel bad because he's going through such a tough time?
Anne Sundberg: It's good, except that it's often difficult when the player is in the throes of it to want to talk about how bad it's going. But, I think there were moments, like any doc, where you have a sense of what the themes are that you want to approach. But you really have no sense of the direction that life will take you in. Personally, I was hoping that Tim was going to come back for this season. It would have been great to have an epilogue for film, where you see him back there at spring training, suiting up and he's still the oldest player in the major leagues. There would be something really great about that.
Ricki Stern: While it ended being emotionally draining and dramatic that he couldn't nail the 200th win, at the time we weren't thinking, "Oh, we have this little emotional arc that's happening at the end of the film." We were thinking, "Gosh, we want him to get his 200th win in the movie. At least. Can it happen sooner than later? Our budget is going down the drain." You know you have no control, so once you let go of the control you just have to interpret what's happening in a storytelling way.
R.A. Dickey is having a phenomenal season for the Mets. Was there any thought to adding some of his 2012 successes to the ending of the film before release?
Ricki Stern: We thought maybe there would be something on the DVD, but otherwise not really. To be quite honest: the film was finished and life does go on. There's only so much you could continue to track. We haven't quite finished DVD stuff, so there could be something maybe on the back packaging. It's more just a matter of budget and finishing your film and having to move on.
How difficult was finding distribution for the film?
Anne Sundberg: It's a unique project. We always knew it would have a niche audience with baseball fans, particularly Mets and Red Sox fans. It's also a film that we knew would reach a lot of people through -- I hate to say it -- TV and VOD; the people who are huge baseball fans in cities that don't necessarily program docs theatrically. It's been an interesting approach to releasing. We're not going through the typical pattern where it comes out in theaters and then it comes out in the next stage. It's kind of all happening at once during this particular time in the season. The fact that R.A. has had such an unbelievable year -- we're really lucky there's been so much attention on him and the knuckleball pitch itself. We're trying take advantage of that this fall.
Was there any thought of pairing with ESPN for the release?
Ricki Stern: Let me clarify the ESPN thing. The thing that people don't realize is that ESPN only has limited financials, and what they spend their money on, they own the rights to. So, it doesn't always pay. People always say, "Why didn't you sell the film to HBO?" Well, because HBO doesn't necessarily pay the most money. The thing is, with ESPN, what they do is a very specific thing. They have their 30 for 30 series and they occasionally pick up another movie, but they don't have a distribution ability on their channel to pick up one-off docs that don't fit with their 30 for 30 series. When they do, they need to acquire them with full rights in order to maximize their investment. Yes, of course ESPN was interested in this movie, but that's not always the right venue a film that has a sports angle to it.
You had an incredible amount of access to these players and their clubhouses. Did anything happen during the season that really surprised you?
Ricki Stern: Yes! What really surprised me was when Tim got his 200th win, what he said moved him the most was when he looked out at the dugout. For them to get the press on the field and everything was about 20 minutes after the game. When he looked into the dugout, his whole team was still there. He said he was so moved. He said you get into late in the season and baseball is a sport of individual players on a team -- you're doing your job. It's moreso than some of the other team sports. You kind of lose sight of the camaraderie, so to see the guys were there supporting him -- that it meant a lot to them as well -- that was surprising for him. That was surprising for us, because you think, "Really? You see them every day. You train with them every day." But he said, you just kind of get lost in a little bubble that late in the season.
"Knuckleball!" is out in limited release this week and also available on VOD. For more on the film, click here.
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