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‘Winning Time’ director on building the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in Season 2


(This story contains spoilers from the third episode of season two of winning time“The Second Coming.”)

Steps in dictating the overall creative vision for the latest episode in season two of winning time: The rise of the Lakers dynasty was “a natural continuation” of the work Todd Banhazl has been doing on the sports drama about the rise of the basketball franchise. So says the filmmaker who received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series for his work on the 2022 HBO show. But when it comes to being the one who directed Sunday’s pivotal episode – which sets the stage for the decades-long rivalry between Lakers mainman Magic Johnson (played by Quincy Isaiah) and Boston Celtics’ Larry Bird (played by Sean Patrick Small) — Banhazl, casually says, “I think I got really lucky.”

“I think this whole season has been building up to this fight, right?” Banhazl tells The Hollywood Reporter in the chat below. “It is like this Lord of the Rings thing where we build both storylines until they collide. Episode three to me is like our supervillain’s backstory, but at the same time it’s also about fully humanizing him. I think by the time you get to later in the season, the hope and goal is that you really understand both characters and you really care about them.

How has your long life as a cinematographer and in this series in particular helped you make the leap to direct this episode?

I think I know what I need as a cinematographer from my directors to help me do my best work so it was so nice to have my DP Rick Diaz who is a good friend of mine allowed to do his best to make it work and be free to try things and experiment. Directing felt a bit like what I was already doing as DP, I could just do it more broadly and be one of the emotional leaders and one of the creative leaders, and bring out the best in everyone, including the actors.

Sports dramas often rely heavily on the on-field or on-field action of whatever sport they depict to advance the plot. winning time is much more story oriented. Can you talk about that creative choice?

I guess what winning time is really about America. It’s about race and capitalism and how those two things interact, especially at that time in America, and how that mirrors what’s happening in America right now; which things have changed and which things have not changed. I feel like for us, the answers always come from the characters’ experiences. In some ways Magic vs Bird, or Buss vs Reid, or LA vs Boston is the story of new America vs old America, or like Black vs White. It’s all these different things coming together, which is why I think it’s so important that Magic and Bird personify those ideas, and why it’s so important that they end up being friends in the actual true story of their lives. This series is about those themes and characters told through the story of basketball.

There’s also a unique approach to treating some scenes as if they were documentary footage rather than fictionalized depictions of real life events. How is that technique important to the overall feel of the series?

We always wanted the show to feel like a collage of American memories. We wanted the public to lose sight of what we shot and what is archive, and the truth is it’s all what we shot. But that’s what we want it to feel like. The mixed format is a way of seeing these kinds of mythical-ish characters from our culture as larger-than-life figures, and then also seeing them in this really stripped-down, vulnerable human way. You are constantly confronted with different ways of seeing them.

Season one focused on the Showtime era of the Lakers dynasty during Jerry Buss’ first year as owner from 1979-1980. Season two now revolves around the period 1980-1984. What is so important about these years?

From my point of view, the ’60s and ’70s had a little more romanticism. It was the team’s first season to win with Magic and at the end of season one when they win they ask “What are you going to do now?” And Buss says, “Well, I think we’re doing it all over again.” But now it gets a lot more complicated. It becomes a matter of what do you do when you’re chasing these mountains and you reach the mountain top only to realize there’s just another mountain out there? There is a very big existential question. Season two and stepping into the ’80s is about stepping into more money, more power, the loss of innocence and the coming together of these two dynasties.

Larry Bird, played by Sean Patrick Small.

Warrick Page/HBO

The end of the episode foreshadows the disruption of the winning time, so to speak, which is Larry Bird. Why isn’t there a series about the Lakers without his story?

There is no magic without a bird and there is no bird without magic. They start out as mortal enemies, but really, they need each other and they push each other to get better. The rivalry between the two dynasties is the rivalry between the two of them, and we all know that they actually become friends and that’s so beautiful; they are actually two sides of the same character.

There are also these parallel surrogate father-son stories. This is the episode where Buss offers Magic a huge deal to be a Laker for the rest of his career and it really comes down to trust. Magic came in as a kid who was tutored by Buss, and there’s a limit with Magic’s real father, who did such a great job raising him, but now there are parts of Magic as a modern young boy in this new world which he can only connect to Buzz over. Things like money, power and a way to be famous in the world. And it’s really put to the test in this episode, because Magic isn’t a kid anymore and he’s wondering, can I trust you? Do you really have my best interests at heart?

The same thing happens to Bird with the tragedy that happens to his real father and he finds a surrogate father figure in Bill Hodges, his assistant coach, the first person to actually see him and say, “I see your talent, and I see you’re scared In the end, it’s going to be Red Auerbach, that other surrogate father figure who really helps Bird transition into who he’s becoming.I think it’s interesting to see those two kinds of parallels running in the episode.

When the first season came out, some players objected to their portrayals, as did Jerry West. Do you know if the feelings have changed after the release of season two?

I don’t know how they feel about season two. I do know that our intention has always been to represent these characters with the utmost grace and empathy. I watch the Kareem episode in season one and there’s always been a goal to grow these characters and show all the incredible things that have happened in their lives. I don’t know if they’ve seen it since. I hope they saw it and I hope they like it.

Winning time Todd Banhazl

Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) and Paul Westhead (Jason Segal). winning time season 2.

Warrick Page/HBO

In addition to your directorial debut this year, you also became a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in January. Can you comment on the significance of that milestone?

The ASC is an organization that I have looked up to all my life. I remember wanting to make movies as a kid, and this horror movie came through my hometown. I was going to try to get on set and I met the grips and they let me hang out and I got to hold a springboard and I was so excited. One of them had a problem with American Cinematographer Magazine in their truck and I remember reading it and having no idea what anything meant other than wanting to be a part of that community. Being a part of the ASC feels like an honor to be a part of that community that I hold in such high esteem. These are all the artists who have inspired me all my life. There is no winning time without so many of the cinematographers I look up to in ASC.

Looking forward to your next directorial role?

Absolute. The main thing I felt while directing this episode was, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker,” you know? There are boxes that we kind of build for ourselves. Like I’m a DP, I’m a director, and I just sort of realized to myself, I just love this thing and I’m a filmmaker. So whatever it looks like for me, the future is shooting things I love, directing things I care about. This makes me happy and it’s filmmaking anyway.

As you contemplate that future amid the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, are you hopeful about the value that will be placed on your work as a filmmaker once the negotiations are completed?

I feel like this is a moment in time that needs to happen and I really, really support what’s going on with the strikes. I think we’re at a real turning point and I think the trick for me, and maybe for many of us, is to try to find hope and inspiration — generate hope and inspiration ourselves to do a good job in the future as that is not the case. much of that inspiration is now reflected back to us. My mentor told me a long time ago that the real trick in this is to stay passionate and hopeful and keep that fire going. And I think right now it’s hard for a lot of us to hold that fire because it’s such an overwhelming prospect, what’s going on right now. But that’s the trick. And that’s what I’m trying to do as we figure this out as well and fight for a better system for all of us and for all artists.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Season two of winning time airs Sundays at 6 p.m. PT on HBO and Max.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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