When you think about adaptive sports—those designed specifically for players with disabilities—you may imagine something overly accommodating or lesser-than. But you would be wrong. Spend five minutes with Shaina Allen and Mike Esposito's The Rebound, a documentary about wheelchair basketball, and you’ll be in awe over the aggression of the sport and physicality of the players. Once you see someone doing full chin-ups with the extra weight of a wheelchair attached, or doing training sprints while towing five full-grown men, you’ll never think about disabilities the same way again.
Combining the best elements of a sports doc with a character-driven story, The Rebound follows the Miami Heat Wheels on their harrowing quest for a national championship. The sports action is dramatic, but the film’s power lies in its revelation of the personal tales of three players and the commitment they’ve made to be part of the team despite a multitude of challenges.
"We have struggled through this financially. We crowdfunded halfway through it, but most of it was self-funded."
The team, like its hometown of Miami, is made up of a very diverse group of players, some of whom ended up in wheelchairs due to violent pasts. Director Shaina Allen was fresh out of college when she embarked upon the project, and it's safe to assume that her background differed pretty dramatically from most of the team’s. We caught up with Allen and her producing partner Mike Esposito after the film’s screening at the Brooklyn Film Festival, where we discussed how they found common ground and gained trust with the players, what it took to shoot complicated action sequences, and how to make an impact with your doc.
NFS: Given that this was your first doc, tell us what you know now that you didn't know when you started.
Shaina Allen: We literally knew nothing going in. I didn't even know at the beginning of the project that it was going to be a doc. It really evolved from a promo video project into a full feature documentary. We had to teach ourselves everything. Every part of the process it was like, "Okay, well how do we do this?"
Of course, some people along the way helped us with advice. We would do research and talk to people and figure it out. Lots of trial and error, but we learned so much. Now we know the parts that we like, we know the parts that we don't like and it's going to help us in the future to be able to decide what parts of the project we actually want to do and don't want to do.
“Just go out there and jump in. It's going to be messy, but if you never get started, you're never going to see the possibilities.”
Mike Esposito: For me, coming from a marketing background, I think that a lot of young filmmakers like us hold back because they’re unsure if they can do it, or how to do it, or they think they need to have prerequisites before they can start their project.
The biggest lesson is just getting started. Just go out there and jump in. It's going to be messy, but if you never get started, you're never going to see the possibilities. I think so many people are held back because, "Oh, I don't have funding. I don't have a crew. I'm not sure if my idea is good enough." You're never going to know until you get your feet wet.
Miami Heat Wheels do a training drill in 'The Rebound'
NFS: Along those same lines, what do you think you would do differently next time?
Allen: From a cinematographer-on-set perspective, I learned a really big lesson when I was editing the film. I love natural moments, but when I first started, I wanted to do interviews and collect all this footage and find the story that way. I wanted to control what it is that I thought I was trying to tell. Being a part of the whole process, and especially the editing process, really taught me to look at what we're capturing from a different lens and let life happen naturally.
“The magical moments that really happen in front of the camera happen when you're least expecting them.”
The magical moments that really happen in front of the camera happen when you're least expecting them. The most authentic, most emotional moments are going to happen when the cameras are rolling, when people have forgotten that they're there and you're there letting life happen in front of the camera. That's really what I was looking for when we were sorting through three years of footage. I realized those are the things that really make a powerful documentary. Having that approach with all the filmmaking would be what I would do differently.
NFS: Are there other parts of the process you would approach differently next time?
Allen: There are so many. There is the factual planning and shooting. We didn't really have a huge planning process, but I think that is something that is really important for filmmakers, especially after you've done your first one. We have struggled through this financially. We crowdfunded halfway through it, but most of it was self-funded. That is something that a lot of filmmakers experience and I think for your first project it is something you will have to do. But, going forward, you need to plan things out in advance and find partners who align with your message from the get-go.
Shaina Allen with two Miami Heat Wheels players
Esposito: Then that plan will change. Preparation is key when you're going into a shoot: prepare for any situation but be flexible and be willing to adapt and pivot when, "Hey! This storyline is not fleshing out the way that we expected to." If you're so focused on that that you can't see this shining light, you know, in the background of what you were shooting, you miss that golden opportunity. I think preparation but also that adaptability is crucial to be able to get through that and tough out some of those small failures along the way.
Allen: Everyone always says you have to keep on walking or keep on going through whatever you're going through. I always use the word “push” now because of the significance to our movie.
“I was on a tripod or a monopod at the lowest level possible, mostly on my knees. I have lots of bruises.”
NFS: Speaking of the chairs and filming, I was wondering about the actual camerawork on the film. How did you navigate your way around the wheelchairs and avoid the perspective of always looking down on your characters?
Allen: From the get-go I recognized that perspective was going to be a big thing. I knew for the interviews I wanted to be at eye-level. It's powerful to be at eye-level with people and to see the world from their perspective.
It definitely was a conscious choice for most of the shooting and I think it makes a huge difference in the film. If you're filming from above them looking down at them, it does give you a different perception and that’s how we tend to see people with disabilities in our mainstream society. We really wanted to take that and flip it and make sure people were able to connect with our characters on a one-to-one basis and realize that this is a human. These people have families and they're our friends and they are real people. That perspective was really important to our storyline.
NFS: So were you sitting? Crouching in a chair? How did you actually do it?
Allen: I was mostly on a tripod or a monopod at the lowest level possible, mostly on my knees. I have lots of bruises.
Esposito: We did use the Glidecam for certain shoots to provide that aspect of motion. Honestly, we wanted to use the chairs as a stabilizer of sorts, but given our situation, there weren't enough chairs. We simply couldn't do it. That would mean taking a chair away from someone who needed it and we weren't willing to do that.
Allen: It's actually really fun to be in the game. When we have those extreme close-ups and we're really in there with the chairs crashing and everything, it's really awesome. When we first started we were using one camera and one lens and we had to work with what we had. And we weren't that close to the players.
I remember the first time I went to practice, I set the tripod down on the sideline and the guys zoomed by me and were like, "You need to move. We're going to run you over." I was like, "Oh my god!" I took a few steps back. But as time went on, we really became friends with these guys.
I remember our last shoot at practice Mike's, we were walking on the court with the Steadicam in between the guys while they're going a fast break. There was really a level of comfort, and I definitely got hit in the head with the ball or got my toes run over a couple times, but if you're willing to get in there on the action and capture those moments, then it's really special. I think it shows in the film.
Shaina Allen shooting 'The Rebound'
NFS: Sports photography is its own craft and then you had the wheelchairs on top of it. How did you navigate the games?
Allen: For the games, we had to stay off the court unless they had a time out, and I would run across to capture the time out. We had two cameras, for the most part, during the main games, especially the ones at Nationals. We really wanted one of the angles to be continuous the whole time, so Mike was mostly on the continuous camera and I would be roaming around with the monopod, getting creative shots, or trying to do my best to go back and forth.
Esposito: The game is really interesting and exciting but I think the drama happens in the huddle and off on the sidelines before and after the game. That was a big lesson for us. In hindsight, we wish we had spent more time focusing on that.
Allen: Yeah, it's going back to focusing on life and the character moments. I think we knew that we were doing a film that was about wheelchair basketball and I think the film could have gone a completely different way and we actually had a storyboard that would have taken the film in a more educational direction. But we knew that we not only fell in love with the sport, but we fell in love with the players because of who they are as people. We didn't see them as different and we knew that a character story would be the most powerful way to tell the basketball story.
"These guys were used to people coming and going, interviewing them for some sensational disability story."
NFS: Gaining trust with your subjects is an issue with every documentary, but in this one you are so different from them on the surface, and a lot of them have pretty rough backgrounds. How did you ingratiate yourselves to them?
Allen: It was really hard at first. As a wheelchair basketball team—and I think a lot of teams across the country experience this—they're usually featured as a special story on a news report or someone will do a short piece and they'll go away. These guys were used to people coming and going, interviewing them for some sensational disability story.
The first practice I went to, the guys were like, "Oh, hey. This isn't special that you're here.” It didn’t become real for them I think until after we had interviewed them and we traveled with them to one of their tournaments. We got to hang with them off the court and really just be with them. I think that was the start of it. Being able to talk to them person to person— it's not like we're just asking you questions about your life, we are telling you stuff about our lives and we're becoming friends and we're building a rapport. We had to show that we had really positive intentions and were not going to screw them over.
Esposito: One of the times we broke that barrier was the first year at Nationals. We went to a bowling alley with the guys and I was curious. I was asking them about how do you bowl in a wheelchair? So they pushed a wheelchair over. I fell flat on my back, and they all laughed. That was a moment where it's like, "All right. He's one of us. He's one of the bros."
"I think making it a priority to separate yourself from the production, from the grind, the anxiety of it all and taking time to live and to appreciate what you do have with your collaborators is important."
NFS: So I gathered that you two have a production company now, and are also a couple. You're collaborating on basically everything. How do you make it work?
Esposito: Oh man, it's a delicate balance. We definitely went through a learning curve. We both brought skill sets. I came from a marketing background. She came from a creative media production background. We had to be open and willing to learn from each other.
I think we've over time become more comfortable sharing feedback constructively, which is huge. Then there's that gray area where it's like, where do you draw the bounds between your personal life and your professional life? For making a film, you live with it. We're editing in our home. You're there 12 hours a day sometimes and it's tough but I think making it a priority to separate yourself from the production, from the grind, the anxiety of it all and taking the time to live and to appreciate what you do have with your collaborators is important. Having that time to connect with people and enjoy the life around you.
Shaina Allen shooting a Miami Heat Wheels practice
Allen: I think that when you're working so closely with somebody else, it is about recognizing your strengths and your weaknesses and being okay with those and recognizing that the other person isn't always going to agree with you, but that's okay. One of the things that we have struggled with in the past is when one of us is taking on the biggest part of our work at the time.
Like when we're editing, that's mostly me. Right now we're dealing with distribution stuff; that's mostly Mike. We both wear these hats and we're just there to help one another through that. When we're stressed, it’s trying to actively recognize that it's not the other person's fault and not taking it out on them. Maintaining your relationship and collaboration— realizing that you're on the same team— really helps.
Mike Esposito behind the scenes of 'The Rebound'
NFS: I know you two are working on an outreach campaign and getting this film out there. How's that going? What are your plans?
Allen: Part of what got us through production was holding true to the impact that we were going to make and coming back to our story. Our story teaches us that you can overcome any challenge that you face.
Esposito: The impact aspect of this project is already taking place. We realized it first at the final Nationals that we went to. There was a young guy, he was 17 years old, who came up to us and he said, "Thank you for changing my life. I saw your trailer and I had gotten injured...." I think he got shot. "I dropped out of school and watching your trailer encouraged me to go back and finish my high school degree and try and go to college because I could make something of myself."
That was the moment we were like, okay, we have to continue with this. The whole process was worth it. All the money, all the time, all the blood, sweat, and tears, as we always say.
We launched at film festivals to introduce the film to new audiences, build up our street cred, and get publicity for the film, but now we are focused on community screenings. We believe that the strongest impact will happen within communities themselves. There are wheelchair basketball programs and adaptive sports programs all over the country and internationally. We're having different like-minded organizations and individuals bring the film into their cities and communities to get support for their adaptive sports programs. We're going to continue that through the rest of the year, especially into the fall looking to bring the film into colleges and universities.
"If we can help them getting through something in their life or just seeing life through a slightly different lens, our impact is exponentially increased."
NFS: You're doing all the booking and outreach yourselves?
Esposito: Right now we are. Being able to understand the context of each screening environment is really important to us because this film has such focused impact goals. We understand at a certain point that we might need to utilize some of the services like Tugg or Gathr, for example, when quantity becomes too much for us to handle internally, and we're also looking for the right distribution partners.
We're building awareness for adaptive sports, for disability issues, but also for anyone of any walk of life can find something in this film that they can connect to. If we can help them get through something in their life, or just see life through a slightly different lens, our impact is exponentially increased.
Featured photo by Chad Andreo.