Chris Robinson: SHOOTING STARS

July 7th, 2023 by Karen Burg

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Director Chris Robinson with his two young stars Marquis “Mookie” Cook as LeBron James and Caleb McLaughlin as Lil Dru Joyce III. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“SHOOTING STARS is the inspiring origin story of a basketball superhero, revealing how LeBron James and his childhood friends become the #1 high school team in the country, launching James’s breathtaking career as a four-time NBA Champion, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Directed by Emmy nominee Chris Robinson, SHOOTING STARS is a film about humanity and connection, and how the deepest human relationships can be established and elevated through sport.” --Universal Pictures
SETDECOR spoke with the director about the sets, filming in LeBron James’s hometown of Akron and nearby Cleveland, and the spirit of friendship and family, and community the film evokes. 
Thanks, Chris! 
SETDECOR: The look and the feel of this film is so much more than a standard sports bio, it's a high caliber film, quietly artistic, a story of friendship and family, commitment and community, values and integrity. Thank you for that. 
Director Chris Robinson: Thank you. Appreciate it. I was very intentional. I'm a fan of LeBron James, like a lot of us are. I'm a big basketball fan, so that initially interested me in the project. But once I read the script, I was really happy that it was more than about basketball. You know, basketball is actually kind of a footnote in this story. It's about their friendship...and it’s a father/son story.
I think a lot of times, in American movies with young black men, there's a lot of trauma. Some of those are my favorite films, there are some amazing stories, like BOYS IN THE HOOD, and those stories need to be told. But that’s not the only experience, or the only way life unfolds. For me, to be able to get into this story, to go to Akron, visit with real people, and realize like, ‘Wow, this is a story that's continuing to unfold.’ It was, and is, amazing. It's still happening right before our eyes, as LeBron plays for Los Angeles. 
And it's a true story. Like, these guys are really friends, guys from the same town who came together and did something really extraordinary. And I think the most extraordinary thing...they won a national championship as high school players and LeBron is probably, the best basketball player in the history of the game...but I think the biggest thing they accomplished is that they're just winning at being human beings.
We saw the seed of that, and we saw it grow. And, for me, I have a son. We used to coach him and his cousins in basketball, and our goal was never for them to be these super huge superstars. It was to teach them about integrity, and what it takes...that you don't always win, being graceful in losing...and just having a good foundation. I think what I've really learned, myself, in this is you can't skip any steps in life. Here's LeBron James, he's a huge giant star, and he couldn't skip any steps...all that is part of his foundation so that rocket ship could really take off.
The script was great. Frankie Flower wrote the first script that I read, and then Joe Taylor and his partner came aboard when I started to put in some ideas. And it was a labor of love. It was a beautiful experience. We're happy, we’re good.
SETDECOR: You mentioned about going to Ohio, did you film everything in Ohio, or perhaps some in LA? 
CR: We filmed everything in Ohio. Between Akron and Cleveland. Yeah, it was really important to be there on site.
SETDECOR: We had read that LeBron had helped refurbish the gym at St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school. So, you had to go to another gym and re-create it as it had been?
CR: Yeah. We were so fortunate to have such an amazing production designer and his team. We ended up going to an abandoned school, and I mean, this school hasn't been opened in 15 years. So, after we did the check for asbestos and got all the clearances to be there, Lucio [Seixas and his team] re-created the gym in the way it was when LeBron actually played. Brilliant. The heart of our production.
He used the auditorium of that school to create the set for the “Joyce family’s basement” where the boys hung out, and there is no way you would look at that and not go, ‘Oh yeah, this is in the basement, somewhere in the Midwest or East Coast.’

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Joyce house basement, sleepover. At this point in their young lives, basketball is everything. If they’re not on a court dribbling, passing and shooting, they’re making their plays through video games. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

SETDECOR: And it's the set decorator, Rachel Barker and her crew putting in all of those details, bringing in all the furnishings and set dressing elements that visually tell the story as well, so it's a real team that they had put together, for sure.
CR: Oh, man, this whole crew was an amazing team. The set decorator and the art directors and you know, Lucio, who just ran the whole show.’re hearing from  a very focused director, they just made all the dreams come true. 
SETDECOR: Great, exactly their goal, I’m sure.  This set...the Joyce family home basement, with the boys is indeed so realistic, and it evolved with the time, always a centerpoint for the guys and the story. You start with the boys doing a sleepover and playing video basketball games, even off-court it was all basketball and friendship.
And the film moved forward four years to an incredible drone shot into LeBron’s apartment, where he lives with his mom. I'm assuming it was a drone shot. It was fabulous. Can you tell us about that?

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Marquis “Mookie” Cook as LeBron James. This is the actual apartment complex in Akron, Ohio where LeBron grew up. Photos courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

CR: Thank you. Yeah, this is actually where LeBron grew up. This is his actual apartment complex. I went into his old apartment, into his bedroom, which is amazing, because you're going like, ‘Wow, how did this giant of a man come from this tiny little space?’ It was really important for me to be authentic, and if we had the opportunity to be in the real spaces that he inhabited, that’s ideal. I was looking for a certain amount of energy that that would provide. And I think we did well here.
SETDECOR: Yes! It had an aspect of claustrophobia, but not totally. It was the warmth, between the two of them, Lebron and his mother, I think, that kept it from really being claustrophobic, even though it was a small, small space.
CR: Yeah, I think there's also something just about the socio-economic reality of America, right? This place has been around for, I don't know, 50-60 years, it's lower income. But ironically, when you look from Lebron’s balcony, you see this beautiful valley. 
You know, all the people there were living in a way that kind of creates a certain amount of aggressive energy. We all know the experiments of what the projects are, and LeBron grew up in that. But, although he was living in this struggle, so to speak, every day he looked out his sliding glass door and he saw what the potential was. He saw that the world was bigger than the space that he was in. 
And I don't think that can be understated for real life. What you look at every day, and where you are every day, it influences you. So there was an aspect that he wanted to fly away, to be up there...and so we connected the song from the Commodores. We wanted to use this drone shot to express what that felt like, going from this big, wide cinematic shot into this small, tiny, cramped apartment, which was his reality.
SETDECOR: And that's exactly that high caliber that I was talking about it. It was so fulfilling to watch. And I have to say, for his mom, the apartment carried a real pride of place. That was very cool messaging...

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Natalie Paul as Gloria James, LeBron’s mother. Natalie describes her as, “She was instrumental to all that LeBron accomplished. She is the motication, she’s that pressure, she’s the inspiration and she’s the love.” Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

 CR: Yeah, there's a certain kind of tile, there's a certain kind of paint, there's a certain kind of smell with these government issued apartments, right? But when you live in that space, you make it your own. We did that accent wall because that was his mom’s contribution to her home, to make it her own. That's her art. These are the things that, even if they've moved several times because they're dealing with poverty, she makes sure it doesn't feel like a temporary space. She makes sure every time they move that she's putting in the effort to make herself feel at home when she's coming home from work...and the same feeling for her son. ‘This is the place that we go home.’
SETDECOR: And then Lebron is on his bicycle, and takes us back to the Joyce house, the home that truly is a family home, with an extended sense of family at times.
CR: This was a great neighborhood. Great people. I'm from Maryland, from Baltimore. The people who own this house were originally from Baltimore. We wanted to shoot at the actual house that the coach owned, but it was a little small for shooting, with the equipment and all the crew we had. So we were lucky enough to find this ideal space and the amazing people who owned it.

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The Joyce family home. Coach Dru Joyce II [Wood Harris] and Coach Dambrot [Dermot Mulroney] discuss the boys and their future... Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

SETDECOR: Look at that garage, filled with family stuff. It's so realistic.
CR: Yeah, everything is about authenticity. And we were thinking, ‘What would this coach's house be like? What would his garage be like? What would his family's space feel like?” And once again, set decoration was amazing. What our DP did with lighting through the window, so you can feel some of that, was also cool. 
I wanted that basket to be attached to the roof, but these happen to be the only slate shingles in the entire neighborhood! The house had this beautiful patina. It's why we chose it, but the shingles are like from the ‘20s, so we could not screw in the basketball hoop. I know I must have asked for three weeks for us to figure out how we can attach this hoop through movie magic, as we do, but it did not come to pass.
SETDECOR: Well, it would be interesting to see where they put it when it snows...
CR: Right. And it snowed in April while we were there! It was almost a blizzard during April. It was awesome.
SETDECOR: So, there are weather stories even about basketball???
CR: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Especially when you're in the Midwest. We experienced snow, we experienced temperatures up to 100 degrees, all in a window between when we got there to prep February 22 and wrapped June 10. 
SETDECOR: Wow, so let’s go indoors! The Joyce family home. Love that these are happily married parents and a loving family, and the home reflects that. The set is fabulous in being so realistic and not a period overkill. Can you talk about being in there?

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The Joyce family home. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

CR: Yeah. It felt like a real family home, which is exactly what we feel like these folks really lived in this house. There’s a scene where they're all watching TV when LeBron gets suspended...

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The Joyce family home. The family gathers to watch TV. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

I remember this was how it was at home when I was a little kid about Dru’s little sister’s age, like seven years old. That was the set-up. My dad had the corner. My mom was next. I was next to my mom. I set this scene up because I know that's the way it was. I don't know what we were watching back then, probably HAPPY DAYS or CAROL BURNETT, something like that, but I remember us being in the living room just like that. Now, obviously, LeBron’s story is much later than mine, the era of him and his friends, but I think there's a certain family togetherness in the Midwest, and we wanted to make sure we could communicate that story in the film.
SETDECOR: Speaking of communication, we’d like to acknowledge that beautiful segment of the newspaper press. We see the shot of the reams of newspaper running through the printing press, the photograph from the newspaper coming alive, morphing into a live shot, then another physical element of the press...and this wonderful montage continues to unfold. Could you tell us about it?
CR: We were so fortunate. I wanted to communicate how we were receiving news then. There was no Facebook, there was no iPhone, no Instagram, right? So, how were we getting the news? A lot of it was through the newspaper. And I am just such a huge fan of mechanics...of mechanisms...of analog ways that we create things. Listen, I pitched shooting this on film. We couldn't afford it, but I would have loved to feel that texture. Although, I think we accomplished it with our DP Crash [Karsten Gopinath], and our colorist Dave Hussey. 
I found out that THE PLAIN DEALER newspaper, there in Cleveland, had one of the last newspaper printing facilities in the country. It wasn't on our schedule, but we HAD to fit it in. We were able to go there with a small crew, and they were just so good to print out our newspapers, and we were able to capture that and lots of aspects of the printing press. For me, it was important, so we could speak to the time. Everybody was receiving newspapers, and everybody was reading about this team and St. Vincent-St. Mary's and LeBron James. It's one of my favorite parts of what we were able to shoot.
SETDECOR: And you made it even more magical doing that interposing, because if you just have the one image, people sort of get lost in it, but this kind of gave cameos to each of those wonderful textural elements. So thank you.
CR: Thank you. Appreciate that you appreciate it.
SETDECOR: And then the schools and games. The high school they were planning to attend, Buchtel High. Did you shoot there or re-create?

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Buchtel High School gym. The actual school with added details of griffins and graphics. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

CR: That is, in fact, the real school, Buchtel. We did create the griffins on the back wall and the graphic stripes. Back then, there were more wood benches/bleachers. Now, most are metal. Fortunately, the wood benches are still there. In certain big games, it would be laid out like a college game. So we paid attention to that authenticity. We hung out for a long time, met the coaches at Buchtel, and it was great. 
The actual school, Buchtel, is a storied high school in sports...a lot of championships, a lot of pride. We wanted to illustrate that with the trophy case we created with the Buchtel signage and the Griffins flanking it.

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Buchtel High School. The trophy case was created by the set dec and art department teams, with accuracy being a highpoint. Photos by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

SETDECOR: That's great. I mean, those guys would have gone there except for Lil Dru Joyce III would have to be JV. And we're not about to do that!
CR: He wasn't having it.
SETDECOR: No sir! So instead, he negotiated with the new coach at St Vincent-St. Mary's, a private school, for all 4 to attend on scholarship, so they could stay together! We don’t see a trophy case like Buchtel, but there’s a beautiful library.

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St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School library: This was actually the library on site at the school the team refurbished. It became a favorite space, especially for the director, an ersatz office as they filmed during Covid protocols. Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

CR: Actually, that library was not in the real St. Vincent's. We loved this library, though, and we shot some additional scenes in there. This was the library at the abandoned school, which we refurbished. We shot a lot of days in this school...the hallways...the cafeteria as well as the gym, plus the Joyce’s basement that we added.
So we spent a lot of time here, and I always found myself in this area. It kind of became my office, where I would prep, and eat lunch, and where I would take meetings. 
We loved this place, we were just so happy with it.
SETDECOR: And we know this is the re-created gym and basketball court for St Vincent-St Mary’s. What a shot, literally!

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St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School gym, totally & accurately re-created in an abandoned school. 17-years-old Marquis “Mookie” Cook as LeBron James. Photo by Oluwaseye Olusa/Universal Pictures ©2023 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

CR: Yeah, the gym, the accuracy...our production designer [& team] did some amazing things. And when people would walk into the set, it was like they were transported. You know, the old guys came, the ones who actually played...they were like, I mean, jaws dropped.
SETDECOR: And speaking of guys who actually played, in the final game of the whole film, the championship game, wasn't one of them a ref? Willie Graf as a ref.
CR: Uncle Willie was a ref, yes. We did a bunch of little Easter eggs with the guys who really played with LeBron, they all made a kind of stealth cameo. Then at the end, when we do the coda, we wanted the audience to go, ‘Wait a minute! That was him!’ 
That was one of our producer’s ideas. 
That game was shot at Cleveland State University. They've changed their logo a bit, and a few other changes. But it was so great to be in this cavernous facility where the game really happened. You could feel those ghosts of this game, and we were happy about that.

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Championship game: Willie McGee [Avery S. Wills, Jr.], Romeo Travis [Sterling “Scoot” Henderson] and LeBron James [Marquis “Mookie” Cook] in SHOOTING STARS, directed by Chris Robinson. Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

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Championship game: LeBron James [Marquis “Mookie” Cook] in SHOOTING STARS, directed by Chris Robinson. Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2023

SETDECOR: And a final note: We loved that John Wooden's book is on Coach Dru’s bedside table, a nice touch since he quotes him often.
Here’s a Coach Wooden quote for us to end with: 

Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you're capable of becoming.’
That's this film. Thank you.
CR: Amen. Amen. Thank you so much.
Editor’s note: 
Thanks again to Chris and the team at MRC!
Check back next week for more photos + a bonus fun note from an SDSA member who worked on this special film!