“It’s really just a movie about humanity”: Producer Paul Brooks on Champions
Champions is a heartwarming sports comedy feature with a screenplay from Mark Rizzo, showcasing Bobby Farrelly in his directorial debut. The movie is based on the 2018 Spanish comedy-drama film, Campeones, and stars Woody Harrelson as a minor-league basketball coach (called Marcus) with dreams of making it big in the sporting circuit and heading up the NBA. A series of mishaps land him in front of a judge, who offers him community service coaching a basketball team with intellectual disabilities who call themselves The Friends.
After expressing his initial doubts, Marcus draws on the positive attributes of this group and has them match-ready during his 90 days of service. He also dabbles in a romance with one of the players’ sisters, Alex (Kaitlin Olsen), and learns to navigate this new path of friendship with his team, overhaul his approach to his future career and lean into the idea that sometimes he isn’t right.
The Upcoming had the pleasure of speaking to producer Paul Brooks about bringing this movie to the screen after watching the Spanish film, what it was like working with Woody Harrelson, and the casting process for the characters in The Friends.
Champions is loosely based on the award-winning Spanish film, Campeones – can you tell us what the appeal of this story was and what viewers can expect from watching the movie?
I saw Campeones at the LA Spanish Film Festival in… I think it was 2020, and just fell in love with the movie. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen something that was so different within a landscape that people expect, and then there’s a huge curveball, and it was so funny, it was so heartwarming. The movie is about an NBA, third-string, disgraced coach who gets done under a DUI after having a lousy game, and the judge gives him three months community service coaching a bunch of folk in a basketball team, and they’re all intellectually disabled. And so he doesn’t know what on earth to do and it’s basically this story of how he helps them and how they help him. It’s a mutual learning experience. We hope it’s a lot of fun; it’s irreverent and we hope super engaging. It’s the best homage we could have made to Campeones, which is really a terrific movie.
How was it working with Scott Niemeyer again after Pitch Perfect? As well as Jeremy Plager and Bobby Farley in his directorial debut?
Scott and I have been partners in Gold Circle for many years, and Jeremy and I have known each other since when he was an agent, which is more recently – he didn’t work with us on Pitch Perfect. But when he decided to pivot from the agent team to producing it, he got involved with Champions because he looked after Woody Harrelson. He sent Woody the original movie and built it from there, and built in Bobby Farrelly, who, you are right – it’s his directorial debut on his own. But, of course, he, as part of the Farrelly brothers, was responsible for some of the most iconic comedy movies of the 90s. So that’s sort of how it all came together.
Champions is a movie that really celebrates inclusive activity within sport. What did you learn from The Friends, represented here by these authentic actors? What was it like being part of that casting process and having them on board in the film?
Well, the process was really extensive. We auditioned literally hundreds of folk and ended up in the best possible way with those ten. It was an incredible education. All of them have incredible hearts, and they’re conscious of the challenges they face but they just want to be treated like the rest of us – which is kind of what the movie speaks about. They don’t shy away from the challenges they have, but they’re saying, “Please just involve us as a community.” It’s really fascinating. There’s 85% unemployment in that community, which is kind of remarkable, because they function, but they’re not sometimes perhaps treated in that way.
How was it to work with Woody Harrelson (also an executive producer on this too)? Was he an instant fit for the main role as coach Marcus?
You know what? He was great. His wife Laura actually said, “Let’s watch this Spanish film that Jeremy has sent us”. He fell in love with the Spanish film, said, “I’m in” and his wife said, “Well, then you need to read the script.” He said “No!” I mean, he did actually read the script; he was fantastic. I mean it! He was so engaging with The Friends and we had many terrific wine dinners together, which I can’t say too much about! But he’s a good man, he’s just a thoroughly decent bloke, and I’ve been a fan of his for years. If you look at his range as an actor, it’s kind of remarkable. It’ll go from an incredible Coen Brothers film to then playing something very broad. Then you’ll go to this place where he can be funny and emotional at the drop of a hat. Everything about it was a great experience, even including shooting in Winnipeg. I’ve shot four movies in Winnipeg; this one was quite a warm one, but on the last day of filming just before Christmas we left it as the temperature hit minus 23. Then notwithstanding, it was a great experience. It was a really humbling experience in many ways, but exhilarating also. I can’t say enough about it, or indeed him or Bobby – he was also great.
What do you think were some of the highlights during filming? Or maybe some of the challenges?
Truthfully, I can’t remember every day, as every day was a blast. It really was. It was just a great experience, and I think and hope it shows in the movie.
There are plans to regenerate basketball courts nationwide in partnership with this film called Project Swish. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I don’t know anything about it other than it seems like a brilliant idea. It’s a great idea; they’re doing it and it’s a great idea that they’re doing it. They’ve been part of early word-of-mouth screenings, which have been fantastic, and people’s response on the street has been terrific. I think it’s just a great offshoot.
This film potentially gives audiences a new outlook on the game of basketball. Does that include you?
No, because I’m the worst basketball player on the planet. I’m old-school – I’m a rugby and football man. But, yes, I guess basketball doesn’t really have that much of a profile here in the UK. But, to be honest, it’s not really a basketball movie. That’s the landscape, the backdrop is basketball, but it’s really just a movie about humanity, and it’s a comedy. It’s a massive, hopefully feel-great comedy, with some really compelling characters. But great if we can raise the profile of basketball in this country and for disabled folk – then, you know, it’s a beautiful thing all round.
What do you think are some of the key themes that come out of the film? And what do you hope that viewers will take away from watching it?
In truth, it’s just like with all the movies I do – or a lot of the movies I do: I just want them to have a good time. I’m a huge believer in the theatrical experience, and we’re all grateful that streamers have come along and helped the industry, but I just love going into theatres. I love seeing people in theatres, having a good time, having a laugh, cheering and just coming out with a smile on their face. That’s all! I just hope people have a good time with this movie.
Champions is released on 10th March 2023. Read our review here.
Watch the trailer for Champions here: