The 405 caught up with director, writer, film-maker Jeannie Donohoe to talk about her influences, film-making, the power of cinema, the “watershed moment” film is in now with the injustices and abuses coming to light seemingly every day, and her new film, Game.

Game is an eloquent, short take on the sports film and the universal power of working hard to go “all the way.” Without giving away spoilers, the film is also an incredible disruption of the usually male dominated “sports movie” archetypes, which certainly shows the struggles of women in a male dominated society but also brilliantly highlights the one-of-a-kind power of determination, perseverance, and hard work to get ahead.

Game is a not-to-be-missed 15 minute short and highly worth a watch because of the profound statement it makes on a few subjects. Enjoy this insightful conversation I had with its creator.

Starting off, I would like to ask about your history. What got you into film-making?

I've been drawn to creative pursuits my whole life, so arriving at film-making was an accumulation of everything I've always loved.  One of my earliest memories is waking up before everyone to paint along with "Captain Bob" on PBS.  He was like Bob Ross, but it was a local Boston show with all under-the-sea images, which totally captured my imagination.  And growing up, I loved writing stories, playing music, making projects with friends.  I also played and watched a lot of sports.  I'd get wrapped up in player and team narratives, the thrill of a close game with seconds to go, (I still do).  I studied art as an undergrad at Dartmouth.  Among other disciplines, I shot a lot of photography, focusing on people and their environments in rural New England.  I then joined Teach for America, a program that trains and places recent college graduates in the country's most underprivileged public schools.  I taught middle school in the South Bronx, which was a profound experience that really shaped who I am and how I see the world, especially the unique power of young people.  After working in education for several years, I wanted to return to personal and creative work, and to tell stories inspired by some of the experiences I've had.  I went to film school at Columbia, where I made a short film called Public about teacher and a student one day after school.  I shot my thesis film, Lambing Season, on a sheep farm in Ireland.  The climax of that film involves a sheep giving birth to a lamb, which was an exhilarating challenge to film.  I entered that movie into the Lexus Short Films competition, a program that supports up-and-coming filmmakers, and I was miraculously selected as one of four filmmakers out of 4600 applicants, to write and direct my new short film, Game

Favorite films? Favorite directors? Which have been most pivotal on you as an artist?

So many filmmakers inspire me and influence the work I've made and dream of making: Andrea Arnold (WaspFish Tank), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, Nobody Knows), Jane Campion (The Water Diary and the Top of the Lake series), the Dardenne Brothers (The Son, The Promise, The Child), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff), Ryan Coogler (CreedFruitvale Station), Lynne Ramsay (Gasman, Ratcatcher), Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, The Kids are All Right), Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), Amanda Kernell (Sami Blood), Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, the film and the series), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), and classics from Wilder, Nichols, Akerman, Kurosawa, Coppola, Kazan, Varda, Erice, Altman, Melville.  I watch a pretty wide range of media -- foreign, art house, docs, classics, blockbusters, TV and web series.  I'm most interested in naturalism and sincerely told, human stories.  

What to you makes a truly great film?

The emotional experience I have watching a film is really the test for me, which usually derives from emotional truth in the performances and storytelling.  Great films have an ability to move me and to expand my thinking and my sense of what it means to be alive.  That impact takes a lot of different forms -- humor, heartache, pathos, thrill, visual and sensory brilliance, an ability to experience something or somewhere new.  Films that stick with me also usually have something powerful to say, beyond the plot. 

Still from Game (2017)

Getting into Game, I am curious as to the inspiration for the story. I really liked the emphasis on doing well, becoming better at what you do than those who would want to bring you down for whatever reason.

Thank you!  I wrote the story from the point of view of someone really wanting something but feeling on the outside, looking in.  I tend to challenge myself a lot in my life choices (sports, school, jobs, film-making), and I've encountered obstacles in a lot of things I've pursued, especially as a woman in a male-dominated society and industry.  I've experienced and observed countless examples of inequity in the opportunities and treatment of women compared to men.  I wanted to talk about that but through a very specific, action-packed sports film.  I think of AJ's character as an example of ambition and hard work that pushes past limitations and expectations of gender, in order to go all the way.

 I am curious as to whether we will see more to the A.J. Green story. The film was excellent but the story felt, to me, kind of incomplete – we, the audience, would love to see more I think. Maybe a feature?

I'm glad you asked!  I'm working on a feature-length story that's related to Game.  I wanted this short film to be all about the tryouts -- will this kid make the team or not?  But there's certainly a whole world of what would come next for her.  A lot of audience members have expressed that they want to see more from these characters, which is exciting!

With all the allegations against powerful men in Hollywood, and the nature of Game's story as a very elegant disruption of typical sports movie tropes (a stereotypically male thing), I am wondering if you've seen people's reactions to the film change after the news on Harvey Weinstein.

We're in the midst of a watershed moment.  People are suddenly no longer willing to accept the abuses and injustices that have gone on since the beginning of time.  I think Game is more timely now than ever, and yes, I've seen a heightened engagement and reaction from our most recent festival audiences.  To back things up though, it's interesting -- I wrote, directed, and we finished the film in the final months of the presidential campaigns, leading up to what most of us thought was going to be the first woman president of the United States.  Game premiered the day after the election.  The film took on a whole new meaning to me after Trump was elected (locker room scene and all).  The essence of AJ's story continues to evolve for audiences and for me, as issues of women's oppression dominate the headlines.  In terms of the sports film genre, I watched around 50 sports movies as "research" when working on Game.  There are only a few sports films made by women, so I've been excited to bring my voice to the genre and hopefully expand what a sports film can do from a less traditional perspective.

What would you like audiences most to take with them from Game?

I hope audiences will connect with AJ's goals, her hard work, and her ultimate triumph, but that they'll also understand the challenges she's up against, and that the obstacles are not over yet.  I hope Game can be a conversation piece about issues of gender inequality in sports, work, and life, more broadly.  I wanted to tell a story about a courageous girl who really goes for it, and I hope that inspires girls, women, and gender-non-conforming people in their own goals and lives.  I also hope male audiences will take away from the film an engagement in the questions it poses.  There are a lot of different types of roles men play in issues of equality, and I want to highlight the potential of male allies.  It was also our hope to call attention to the incredible women athletes of history, many of whom aren't nearly as well known or celebrated as male athletes. That's the idea behind the end credit montage with real basketball footage from over a century of women's basketball.  

Greatest triumphs as a filmmaker? Greatest challenges?

The greatest triumph I've had as a filmmaker has been writing and directing Game -- getting the opportunity to make the film on a very high level, and really going for it in every way.  It was an ambitious, large-scale operation: a big cast (including an NBA Champion), some particularly tough character roles to find (AJ, all the players), an extensive crew, a sports story with lots of action, two cameras, stunts, a wide range of emotions in the scene work.  It was a thrill to be able to direct this film, and it taught me what I can do and want to do going forward.  I'm extremely grateful to all of our collaborators and to the Lexus Short Films program for selecting me and this story.  The most incredible outcome of making Game has been sharing it with audiences.  It's so meaningful to see people of all ages and genders take in the story and respond in powerful ways.  A 90-year-old woman at a screening in Long Island told me how proud she was of me for making it, which is a touching thing to hear from a stranger, let alone a woman who has lived through nearly a century of persistent gender struggles.  We've had some huge screenings at festivals with very engaged audiences and long discussions afterward.  One of my favorite screenings was just on my laptop sharing the film with my two young nieces and hearing them react.  And it has also been exciting to see how strongly and favorably male audiences have reacted to the story -- sports fans, players, coaches, people who don't even like basketball but connected to the character's journey.  It's been awesome to take in how much this story is impacting people of all walks of life.

My greatest challenge as a filmmaker was moving out to Los Angeles from New York City after graduating from film school.  I've never had money in my life, but that was an especially extreme time for me.  Everyone warned me that I'd need a car out here, but I couldn't afford one, so for my first four and a half years in L.A., I rode the bus and my bike.  I don't recommend it!  I actually got a $400 traffic ticket for running a red light on my bike.  [I fought it and won.]   I had a million weird jobs just to pay rent and my crushing student loans while completing my last short film and writing scripts.  I certainly recognize the privilege I have to be able to pursue this career and to have gotten a very strong education.  Choosing this field and the lifestyle of an indie filmmaker comes with a lot of sacrifice though.  I've done many difficult things in my life, from running marathons to teaching middle school, so I have a kind of stamina and a long view about life goals that helps me accept the challenges.  It's all about chipping away at the dream.  And when you get to tell a story from your heart on a big scale like this and really reach people, it all feels worth it.

Last, what is next for you?

I'm working on this longer script related to Game, and I want to make that as my first feature.  I also wrote a feature-length script based on my previous short film, Lambing Season, which is an offbeat family drama set in Ireland.  I'm excited to make my next film!

GAME - Trailer from Jeannie Donohoe on Vimeo.