October 25th 2021
(CBS) — Even before donning an NBA jersey, Russell Westbrook radiated intensity on the court. As his fame and public persona matured, so did the controversy surrounding his name. However, as filmmakers Erik LeDrew and Meg Cirillo want to expose, there are discrepancies between the “Beastbrook” you see in explosive interviews and the family man at home, working to give back to his Los Angeles community.
CBS‘ Katie Johnston spoke to Passion Play‘s Co-Director and Producer to discuss the creative process behind the new SHOWTIME documentary Passion Play: Russell Westbrook and working alongside one of the fiercest characters in the NBA.
KJ- I’m honored today to be speaking today with two crucial people behind the new documentary “Passion Play: Russell Westbrook.” Meg Cirillo, she’s the supervising producer and Erik LeDrew he’s the co-director. This film follows the NBA star, his life, talking about grief and love and everything in between.
I really want to talk about your roles in making this film happen. Erik we’ll start with you.
EL- I guess I can kind of take credit for coming up with the idea. Obviously, Russell is his own man and has lived his story. The idea kind of came to us like — who would you — if you had to pick one athlete to work on a documentary for, for your next project, who would it be? We were coming off a string of projects and what we were looking for was someone with a little bit of controversy to their name, just a little bit, but a lot of talent and charisma. We were looking for someone who would just light up the screen and really invigorate the project, just bring a lot of energy to is basically. Russell was at like the top of the list. It was a very short list, but Russell was A1.
This was like in a vacuum, by the way. No one was proposing anything with Russell to us, it was just like — any athlete, any sport, who would it be? A week later, maybe not even a week, a mutual agent came to us and was like, “What do you think about Russell Westbrook?” And we’re like, “We got an idea, we’re ready to go!” Pretty much from the get-go, it did not take long at all.
A lot of time on these projects, creative can take a long time to lock into place. Honestly, in this place, I would say the core concept, the title “Passion Play,” the concept of investigating an athlete’s overwhelming passion sort of through the prism of a bunch of different emotions and the origin story behind each emotion — that came together very quickly, literally within days. From there, it was really a long production. He was on the Thunder when we started, got traded to the Rockets, got traded again and again. We had the pandemic, NBA bubble, now he’s back in LA. We didn’t even know this was his journey home, but that’s basically what the story is. It’s sort of the prodigal son coming back home. I guess that’s my role.
KJ- Meg, what about you?
MC- I’m Erik’s creative partner in crime. With everything that went down, my job was to be the leader of logistics and make sure from production to post to delivery that we were able to capture all these things with Russell. Every trade. Through the pandemic. And everything else in between.
KJ- I didn’t realize you guys had followed him for so long in filming this documentary. I’ve seen a little bit of the film. It’s out right now on Showtime. What I really thought was fun was to see those videos of Russell playing as a kid, as you mentioned, in LA with his dad and other crucial people in his life talking over those videos. What was it like trying to track down those videos from Russell Westbrook’s youth and then also pulling in together all these elements of the trades he went through now in his professional career?
EL- I’ll take the first one, but Meg should really chime in on the tracking down aspect of it. I’ll just say, for a long time, those sections covering Russell’s childhood had like black screen and “childhood video” in big letters on it. We’re like, it’s got to be out there. Someone was filming it. We were just hoping and praying, kind of building the narrative with the interviews we constructed then hoping and praying that we were going to find good footage and Meg was the one who spearheaded that effort so all credit there.
MC- Huge shoutout to Chris Young from Russell’s childhood who basically had been filming this stuff all along. Thankfully, we had the support from Russ’s family and team around him that they were all really eager to get this stuff with us and work with us to get all this footage. Thank goodness they were filming because it’s amazing and nobody has seen this before.
KJ- It’s truly incredible and I think it also really gets the message across in this film. It’s so powerful and it has to be when discussing one of the most passionate players of the game. What’s the creative thinking behind this project and how much was Russell involved in that?
EL- I mean, obviously, he lived the story. All he has to do is act and be and the story is coming to us. In terms of literal collaboration, I would say it was a process of pitching him ideas and seeing how he responded to them and how they resonated with him and then getting his feedback. It was a loop, a kind of creative conversation that continued over time. He definitely had his priorities.
Frankly he would be like, “I don’t really care about XYZ, you guys are the storytellers, you think that’s important? Go for it. But I’m telling you this is important.”
Number one, he really felt it was important to talk about the Genesis of his public image and the disparity between his private life and public life and how that evolved. that was the reason for him to do this project, not just to tell his story, but to talk about why the perception of him is so different than the reality. Number two, it was a really big priority for him to honor his community in LA. LA is Russell. In his mind, he is LA, you know? There is a critical part of the narrative, a bit of a fulcrum in his evolution when he becomes more engaged with his community and realizes he kind of has a lot to prove to the public.
We talk about the Genesis of his faith. We built a four-part narrative arch as a part of the larger events happening in his life. We deal with the Genesis of his family’s faith, which really comes from his father. That’s kind of the origin of the Westbrook family faith. Then how that gets activated in Russell’s childhood when he decided to try out for the freshmen team instead of varsity because he was afraid of failure. The lesson that taught him and how that grew over time. You’ll see it’s kind of like a thread that really ties everything together beautifully. That was a priority for Russell as well. This is the story, we feel like the audience is going to really connect with these things in this way. Then Russell is like, “Alright, but you got to make sure you hit these things in this way because that’s what’s important to me.” It was really a meeting of the minds to tie that all together.
KJ- It seems like he was a really proactive voice in make this all happen, and you guys were all kind of bouncing ideas back and forth and then also getting great feedback from him in making the project come to fruition. I want to ask you now, what do you think is the most important takeaway for your audience when watching this documentary?
EL- There’s kind of like what I hope as the filmmaker and what Russell personally wants to communicate. I think those priorities we talked about for him — the importance of his community, evolution of his faith, and disparity between private and public perceptions.
Then for us, the point of view we bring as filmmakers — number one, point of view is everything. We are always like, “What is the point of view?” on a project, literally the first question. Secondly, you can’t help but bring your own point of view to it. What we crafted was a story about a guy who believes in being true to himself above just about everything else. When he’s not true to himself, he can’t do the things he does, he can’t be the man he is to his family.
The story is a little bit of a struggle especially when his public perception begins to turn a little negative and grows beyond his control–how that pulls him away from being himself and makes him feel like he has things to prove. You’ll see he goes on quite a journey of self-discovery. My hope, in the end, as a takeaway, first off, just sheer respect for what Russell has accomplished, but also an appreciation of him as a human being. Very simply, I hope everyone can see the importance of being true to yourself no matter what people are saying around you. I would say, at its core, that the very simple story of Russell’s story and putting it out into the world.
KJ- Meg, do you have anything to add to that?
MC- No, I think that’s absolutely right. I also believe, in a way, this is Russell claiming his own narrative. The media has such a deep perception of who Russell is. I think, for us, it was really important to show the world who Russell is inside, off the court, who he is with his family: being able to show the world he’s just not this media perception that everybody has.
Passion Play: Russell Westbrook is available to stream live and on-demand now with SHOWTIME.