It would be easy to wonder why a filmmaker who didn't grow up a sports fanatic might want to make a documentary about what makes elite athletes tick and strive for greatness.
That truly seems like something only fans, athletes, and parents looking for a competitive advantage for their children would be interested.
But getting to the core of truly elite athletes and discovering if there's a common trait(s), is exactly what filmmaker Gabe Polsky set out to do with his latest film, “In Search of Greatness.”
Director Gabe Polsky and NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky filming scenes for “In Search of Greatness.” (Photo courtesy of IMG Films)
“I was a fan, but not a sports nut,” Polsky said. “I just liked the creativity and the artistry of [high-level athletes] … and I wondered why wasn't creativity stressed more a earlier ages, and why don't we produce more athletes like that?”
But in order to tell a story about greatness, he needed the right subjects.
Sure, the story could be told with any athlete that has reached the pinnacle of their sport, but to lift the curtain on true greatness, and answer the question, Polsky had to set his sights high.
“It took over a year of persuasion [to get them],” Polsky said. “These are guys that don't need anyone to film them, or otherwise promote them in any way.”
In the end, he succeeded in landing the the greatest hockey player ever – Wayne Gretzky; the greatest soccer player ever – Pele; and the greatest wide receiver, and one of the NFL's all-time greats (regardless of position) – Jerry Rice.
Those three, along with authors David Epstein and Ken Robinson, lay out the paths that each of those athletes – along with others like Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali – took to reaching the pinnacles of athletic performance.
He had additional conversations with reps for Williams, Jordan, and Willie Mays, but eventually decided he had enough interviews, and enough footage and information about additional subjects that their essence would already be there.
Plus, he was more than satisfied with those that he did get.
“With Rice and Gretzky, they were like Gods,” Polsky said, noting that Pele was a little before his time. “They were the guys you were when you played in the back yard.”
Polsky said the idea for “Greatness” started long ago, but the actual work started shortly after completing his previous film, the 2014 documentary “Red Army,” which focused on the Soviet Union's Red Army hockey team.
Eventually, he added, you “reach a point of no return” in terms of investing your own time money, and you just have to go for it and complete the project.
Director Gabe Polsky interviewing NFL great Jerry Rice for the documentary “In Search of Greatness.” (Photo courtesy of IMG Films)
He did, and now the film is scheduled for release on November 2 (locally at the Showplace ICON in St. Louis Park), and was touted in April as an early Oscar contender for Best Documentary by the Hollywood Reporter.
Polsky said that in addition to critical acclaim (currently 88% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film has drawn a lot of interest from teams, coaches, parents and athletic associations.
“We're focused on groups going together, and having a discussion about it later,” he said.
Without giving away too much about the film and its findings, and noting that each athlete (whether included in the film or not) is different, Polsky said there was one thing that's really jumped out at him.
“The primary source of greatness was having fun,” he said. “They were doing what they loved to do, and nobody had to push them … that can't be manufactured.”
“In Search of Greatness” opens on Friday, Nov. 2. In the Twin Cities it is playing exclusively at the Showplace ICON Theater in St. Louis Park.