On Friday, February 12, I chatted with triple threat Nick Borenstein about his new short, Pete Can’t Play Basketball, with some diversions into his other filmmaking work, TikTok, and finding and creating joy where you can.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
BOSTON HASSLE: Could you talk a little bit about your inspiration for the short or the genesis of where it came from?
NICK BORENSTEIN: I’m not good at sports, and I ultimately wanted to tell a story about how not being good at sports always felt like a real deficiency. And I wanted to explore that there are so many things that make us, as humans, valuable and worthwhile. Growing up, especially as a young queer person, my inability to play sports, and my inability to sort of connect around America’s favorite pastime always felt really, really difficult for me, and I felt like an outsider. So, Pete Can’t Play Basketball was very much an exploration into all of that and, specifically, this idea of feeling like an outsider. That’s a theme that comes up pretty often in my filmmaking. In my other films, Sweater and 99, it’s always about this idea of how can we find joy and comedy through some really thorny conversations and some difficult issues, and I think Pete Can’t Play Basketball was in that same family of filmmaking.
BH: I definitely saw that, and I found it interesting how you took this sort of not universal, but near-universal, queer childhood experience of not being good at sports. I can relate to that too as somebody who would stand in the outfield during baseball. But, I appreciate how you took this more obvious trapping and put it in a workplace setting, where you can still be an outsider, especially if you’re queer in a workplace, but there’s more nuance to that.
NB: I think the hope with this film is that it does feel universal. Regardless of it being sports, in the case of my storytelling– I am queer and so that’s the perspective that I come from– but I think we’ve all been made to feel like outsiders in our individual lives, and I wanted to poke some fun at that. I wanted to sort of poke some fun at this idea of, “I don’t fit in, because I can’t play basketball.” I think oftentimes it can feel like “I don’t fit in because I am x, I am y, and that is the reason why someone or something doesn’t accept me.” And so that was really sort of where that metaphor came in.
BH: I also really enjoyed Pete and Carl’s friendship, and I found it a really great way of talking about finding allies in spaces, whether those are fellow queers or straight people who you just form a bond with and find security with. Could you talk about that?
NB: I think the community and the chosen family that we create in this life is so meaningful, and Carl ends up being this unexpected chosen family member, this unexpected ally, as you mentioned, and I think that that is so important to our experiences, and the support that we can get from those who are unexpected can feel so delicious. I think the whole framing is that Carl is also such an outsider, and he is also made to be pushed to the fringe, and Pete gets involved in that. He sort of unknowingly is a part of that machine as well. I think once that is able to be broken down and he’s able to have acknowledgement and that understanding, I think that friendship and that bond is so important. It really is the ultimate freeing opportunity.
BH: Now that you mentioned these bonds and a found community, in 99, it’s about a mother and a son, but you could kind of consider that the same way that it is about these two people creating a secure place for each other.
NB: I think that, again, it’s so important for me to find joy and hope in the films that I make, and certainly I have found joy and hope through the communities that I have built, the support systems that are around me. I think it’s important that that’s reflected in the film. Our communities are oftentimes such an important support system to us, and I want to reflect that and I want to show that.
BH: I can really appreciate that, and we’ve talked a lot about being queer, but I also think you find really small ways to also comment on being Jewish and publicly Jewish. I’m Jewish and I’m gay, and I related to 99, and I think there’s something very unique about being a gay Jewish son and going to the grocery store with your mother. Could you talk a little bit about how that influences your work, because it seems like it does?
NB: My storytelling and my filmmaking is so personal. You’ve probably seen that across all of my films. There’s such a “me” within it all. That’s also [because of] the fact that I write, I direct, and I’m in these things, so it really feels like a piece of my heart when I make this, and I really do write from experience. I do write from my perspective and my sort of experiences. I think that all of that probably comes to the fold, across all the things that I am. That’s probably what you pick up on you. I don’t know if I’m always making all of those specific choices, but oftentimes, they do just show up naturally.
BH: Can you talk a little bit about your process when it comes to creating projects, putting yourself in it, and how what comes out can be unexpected?
NB: I actually wrote Pete Can’t Play Basketball in, like, one day at a café. I overheard some guys talking about sports, and I was really in a mood that day, so I was was like, “God, sports are so dumb.” It just sort of fell out of me, and I was watching a lot of Black Mirror at the time and wanted to consider this society that looked and felt like our own, but was slightly different, in that the only thing of value to society was how good you are playing basketball. And I wanted to take away all these other societal pressures and concerns and really just make it about this one thing. So, that’s really where that ideation came from. I vowed to myself that I wanted to make a lot of films. I really wanted to explore my perspectives and my style, and Pete Can’t Play Basketball came after writing Sweater and 99, which are around a similar family of storytelling and point of view, but they’re also quite different films. That was also really exciting to me to do this surreal dance fantasy film, then a dysfunctional family dramedy, and then tell this story.
BH: It’s really interesting that you bring up Black Mirror, because I didn’t think of that when I was watching Pete Can’t Play Basketball, but now that you mentioned it, I can totally see “Nosedive” in this, without the dark grimness that’s usually associated with Black Mirror.
NB: Black Mirror was something I was thinking of, although it was never a direct comparison, because they are so tonally different. But this idea of world-building is really interesting to me, especially this idea of creating this fantasy world that is so close to our own. I think that there’s so much heaviness and so much darkness around that I really try to create a world that is filled with joy and fantasy but it also looks and feels like our own. There’s sort of an aspirational quality to it.
BH: The way you’re talking about finding joy is something that is perpetual, but it also feels very of the moment. Was this written during the pandemic?
NB: No, I made this before COVID, but I think you’re exactly right. Seeking joy, harnessing joy, exploring joy, that has always been a theme of mine, and I feel so grateful that we are now accessing opportunities to find joy and self-care in this moment, now more than ever. I think we are realizing how important it is to find the simple pleasures within our lives, and I think that translates to the type of filmmaking that \I hope to to continue making.
BH: On that note, is there anything you’re working on now?
NB: I wrote a feature length film. It will be my debut feature, something that I’ll write, direct, and perform in. I’m so excited by it. I think it takes cues from my whole body of work. There is sort of elements of all the things we’ve talked about, from joy to otherness to sadness to grief, but also to hope. And all of those themes are going to feel so ripe for exploration. And, there’s a little bit of dancing too.
BH: Okay, that was actually what I was thinking, “I hope there’s a musical number along the way.”
NB: I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a little bit of dance or dance-inspired movement in my movies.
BH: You choreographed Sweater, is that correct?
NB: Yeah, I co-choreographed it. I worked with a really talented choreographer named Tiana Hester, who’s a good friend of mine. Dance and movement has always been a big part of my life, and I never really knew how to integrate it into my films until I just decided I had to. I was just like, “Okay, well, you want to be Britney Spears? Put it into your work.” We have to be the protagonist of our own story right, isn’t that what the kids say? I think the framing of Sweater was so exciting for me to think about. I had sort of choreographed or conceived ideas in the past, but I really wanted to make sure that I was working with a trusted hand to make sure that the movement came together really nicely, so that’s where Tiana, my co-choreographer, was so incredible.
BH: You think a lot about choreographing or choreography. How does that relate to directing yourself and what’s that like?
NB: Truthfully, it’s all I know. Every film I’ve made, I have been in or directed myself. There’s been one one or two pieces where I actually have not been in them, but I feel more comfortable performing in my work than I do not performing in my work. I think, for me, it just feels so much more personal and it feels like I’m able to connect with the work so much more deeply when I can capture the emotions and the performance of a character that I wrote. I absolutely have aspirations and desires to not always perform in everything I make. I just happen to really love that process and, for the time being, it’s felt really, really incredible to portray a voice that I know so well.
BH: It’s probably easier to feel more intimately involved in the work.
NB: Absolutely, and I end up working with an incredible group of people who are so supportive. Between the cast and the crew, because there is a definite sense of thought and care that goes into a film that does have a writer-director-performer, because oftentimes on set, I do need to be really focused on performance. I worked with incredible assistant directors and producers and everyone from top to tail who are so supportive and have such a great eye, so that I can trust that everything is moving smoothly even as I’m on camera.
BH: It’s a true collaboration, it sounds like.
NB: Absolutely. And that’s what moviemaking should be. Life is so short, and we deserve to have some fun and, like I said, some joy, as we’re making movies. What makes it worth it.
BH: It’s what makes it worth watching them too, for sure. Actually, on that note, is there anything that you’re really obsessed with now, whether it’s film or some other type of self-care?
NB: I’m pretty obsessed with TikTok. I can just be on TikTok for hours, and what’s so great about TikTok is there’s so many different communities. My “for you” page, which is the content that’s served to you based on a terrifying algorithm, is like dance videos and cooking videos, and it’s such a happy place for me to sort of toggle between incredible dancers from across the world doing a 30-second dance video to then someone making a feta pasta. It’s great.
BH: I love TikTok too. They’ve perfected that stickiness so you can’t leave it. It’s fun though too, because sometimes it’ll just be a video of a guy who just pushes stuff into this high-powered dremel, so it just flattens it. And sometimes I just watch these videos, and I don’t know how to explain it.
NB: It is so satisfying. I know exactly what you’re talking about. And it has been very enjoyable. Maybe not the highest art form, but enjoyable nonetheless.
BH: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on TikTok as it relates to moviemaking, because that’s what it is at the end of the day, whether people want to call it that or not. I want to hear your thoughts on how people say that the next great director is going to come out of TikTok.
NB: I believe it. I think TikTok is an incredible expression of creativity, especially by younger people.
BH: There’s a rawness to it.
NB: There’s a rawness to it, there’s an eccentricity to it. There’s also, truthfully, a lot of creativity behind it. You think about how some of these TikTok creators are doing the lighting, or even some of the graphics, or some of them do these incredible transitions. It’s super fun to watch. I believe in all these art forms. I personally really want to make feature films, television shows, things that are sort of made for those mediums, that’s sort of my hope and aspiration. But I think there’s absolutely a space for experimentation and creativity within all of the social medias.
Pete Can’t Play Basketball
Dir. Nick Borenstein
Pete Can’t Play Basketball is available to stream now on Vimeo!
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