One Man And His Shoes charts the impact of Nike's legendary collaboration with Michael Jordan. I was lucky enough to talk to the documentary’s producer, Will Thorne, about his film - a six year labour of love.
What inspired you to make One Man And His Shoes?
It was really Yemi Bamiro’s story to tell. The entry point for him, myself and our editor, Michael Marden, was that we were all roughly the same impressionable age - between ten and 14 - when Micheal Jordan and his brand blew up. Air Jordans were the coolest trainers / sneakers around. So, we were fans of the brand first.
Yemi wanted to expand on a short film that he had made about Air Jordan collectors. I knew that if we could capture the aura of these shoes on film then all would be good. We knew that there was an audience there - even before exploring all of the other stories linked to the brand.
How long did the documentary take to make?
Yemi started working on this project in 2013 and I came on board in 2014. It has been a six year journey. Sometimes I don’t know where that time went.
The film has so many fascinating contributors. How did you go about interviewing these key figures?
From the start, Yemi wanted to tell this story via the people who were there - the people who made it happen. Without those people telling this story, you are just another fluff piece. The first step was finding out who those people were and trying to find them.
One of the main players that we wanted to interview was [legendary sports marketing executive] Sonny Vaccaro. He was the linchpin in the collaboration between Nike and Micheal Jordan. We ended up spending two years trying to arrange this interview.
Initially, he politely kept us at arms length. It was only because we kept knocking on his door that he relented. We showed him the material that we had already shot and then he took us seriously.
Later down the line, we invested in a talent booker. She was able to knock on some doors - like David Stern [the American lawyer and business executive who was the commissioner of the National Basketball Association from 1984 to 2014] and sports agent, David Falk, for example.
Once people realised that our project was legit, they were happy to talk - to go on record and tell their side of the story. We wanted to find the authentic voices who could comment on the subjects that we wanted to touch on - this was the base that we needed to build from.
Have you had any feedback from your contributors now that the documentary has been released?
We know that Sonny Vaccaro and his wife loved the film. Roland Lazenby also loved it and tweeted that it should win an Oscar! The Air Jordan collector based in Detroit, Jumpman Bostic, also really liked the film. The general reaction has been positive.
What has it been like to release a film during 2020’s global pandemic?
We did have a small theatrical release in the UK and in some cinemas in the Netherlands. We also managed to host a series of previews and Q&As. We just didn’t quite get our world premier red carpet event at SXSW with a standing ovation!
However, we are so happy that One Man And His Shoes is on BBC iPlayer right now. To get a film seen is a success in itself. To get it on BBC 2 is insane! The film is also being distributed internationally - in Europe, the US, Australia and Canada. For me, this proves that we were right, there is an audience for this film.
When you are making a film for six years and, three years in, you consider the amount of money and time you have invested in the project, you start to wonder if the film will ever get finished. When you live through that, just the film being seen feels like you have won an award.
We are all very grateful. We understand the statistics in our industry - how hard it is to get a film made, how hard it is to get a film distributed. We know what we have lost but we appreciate how lucky and successful the film has been - even with all of the challenges of this year.
What kept you going when you were in the middle of this six year journey?
We just always knew that we had a good idea and we believed that our film would have an audience. We knew that we would want to watch this documentary. I have lost count of the amount of people that we met along the way that were so excited about the project.
So we just kept going and we believed that we would get there. We have worked in and around the industry for 15 years and so we knew that, if we just kept going, we could make this film.
We had a siege mentality. No matter how many times we got knocked down we would remember that we had a good idea and we had the skills to make it - we just took it one step, one interview, one piece of archive footage at a time.
Of course, as a film producer you have to be belligerent - you have to take (and sometimes drag) a project from idea to cinema. I was the lead producer on One Man And His Shoes but the three of us co-produced this film as a team. We worked together every step of the way.
There are so many facets to your film...
Yes. This sometimes made it a difficult film to pitch! It’s a fashion film, it’s about capitalism, it’s about a 90s sports star. It is also about people who have been murdered for their shoes. Yemi describes One Man And His Shoes as a story of stories. It is a rich film and there are lots of elements to talk about.
It is incredible to consider the length of time that Air Jordan has been in such high demand...
This was another entry point into the film for me. It is fascinating to think that the brand is still relevant and just as big - even though Micheal Jordan retired 17 years ago! I cannot think of another sportsman who has a brand that carries that same aura.
Did you always intend to explore the other, more troubling, Air Jordan stories?
Very much so. We wanted to explore this brand and look at its lasting impact. If you want to make a film about Air Jordan you have to understand this context. We wanted to tell the wider Air Jordan story. We wanted to look at its inception, the world of the collectors, the role of Spike Lee and the issue of sneaker crime.
What do you hope that your audience will take away from the scenes exploring sneaker crime?
The issue raises a lot of questions. Everyone takes from a film what they will. The lasting impact of Air Jordan could be viewed as a massive success story. However, you could also watch the documentary and come away thinking about the dark side to that success and wondering if this marketing strategy is a good system.
We were careful about how we covered this issue - where and how we should include sneaker crime in the film. I often think that Daisy, whose son was killed for his Air Jordan shoes, is the moral compass of the sneaker crime issue explored in the film.
I want to thank Will Thorne for being so generous with his time - particularly as he has had such a busy year. In addition to One Man And His Shoes, his impressive debut feature film, Silent Night, is released this month. Silent Night is a gritty crime thriller set in London at Christmas.
Full of twists and turns, dark comedy and a surprising amount of heart, Silent Night is released in cinemas from 11th December, before being made available on digital platforms from 14th December and on DVD from 28th December. Will very kindly shared his experiences writing and directing Silent Night...
What inspired you to write and direct Silent Night?
The honest answer is that it was a reaction to having another project go into turnaround. It was quite an offbeat idea and so therefore risky. I was attached to direct and after 18 months of it not going anywhere, it fell apart so I was back to square one. I was desperate to direct a feature. So desperate in fact that I was prepared to sit down and try and write a script!
I’ve written before but I knew it would be time consuming so I felt I needed to box clever, to pick a genre that I felt I could write but also one that had an in-built audience, as it had to get made but it had to get distributed. I’d been discussing an idea with Bradley Taylor [who plays the film's lead character, Mark] for a while about a killer on the road, so that was my starting point, I felt the Christmas setting would add some value and give me some absurd situations.
Did you enjoy the experience of directing your first feature film?
I loved it, every single minute of it! It’s hard to overstate because I’ve dreamt of making a film since I was a teenager. You spend years believing you’re meant to do something but you don’t know how or if it will ever happen. When we were in pre-production, I would get a bit choked up thinking about how it might feel when we’d wrap. It was all just quite surreal - to think it was all about to happen.
So, when I stepped on set I just lapped it up. I was in the sand pit and had all this amazing crew at my disposal. I felt spoilt - it was great! In fact, after the first week of shooting, on the one day off, I went to see the editor Craig Coole, to see some rushes and check in. He seemed surprised at how chirpy I was. I think he was expecting me to be full of angst but it didn’t matter what went wrong (and believe me a fair share of it did), I was living my dream so I was happy as Larry!
Silent Night feels authentic and also has fantastical sequences. It has heart and horror and blends dark comedy and gritty suspense. How challenging was it to balance all these elements?
Thanks a lot, that’s music to my ears. It is a challenge and the balancing of it mainly comes in the edit, which of course is a bit late if you’ve not pulled it off! A lot of time and effort was put into the script, we did a fair few read throughs and things seemed to be working so we just had to trust it would translate. I wanted it to be authentic and for people to believe the characters but deep down it’s also kind of tongue in cheek too so that can give you licence to have fun. Ultimately I wanted people to be entertained. I’m aware I can be a bit ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ but it’s a rich medium and my favourite films play with the form, so I wanted to chuck it all in there and play with it all.
The film's cinematography is really impressive. What was it like working with Malcolm Hadley?
Again thanks a lot and I’m glad you’ve brought that up. Mal was like our secret weapon! I felt we had a solid script that was good to go and I knew the actors would deliver but pretty much everyone else I’d never worked with. I don’t think you can talk cinematography without also giving a shout out to the production designer, and we had a great one in Dale Slater, but the comment I’ve heard most from friends when they saw the trailer was “Oh wow, it actually looks like a real movie” which I never quite knew how to take considering I've made a bunch of shorts before this!
I put that compliment down to Mal and his team because it’s lit really well and does indeed look like a real movie! Mal was brought on by Mark Lacey our producer. We met for a coffee when he had read the script. I think I met him twice again for recces and twice to chat through shot lists before we were on set.
It was maybe a leap of faith from both sides but we got on. As he framed up one of the first shots he said “what do you think?” and I said “yeah.. looks good” and he moved it slightly and said “but maybe this is better” and I said “yeah..agreed” that set the tone, we had a shorthand immediately and were off and running - but you’d have to ask him how he found it working with me!
Do you think you will work in both fiction and non-fiction in the future?
Yes, I’ve actually got two feature doc ideas that I’ve been developing and I’m producing Yemi Bamiros' follow up to One Man and His Shoes, which we’re working on but haven’t announced, which I feel could capture that lightning in a bottle again. Yemi is a real talent so it’s great working with him and I’ve learnt a lot by doing so.
I’ve worked in TV for years and so practically speaking I’m trained to make non-fiction. The real challenge is to find the right stories and look at how you can push that envelope or try to tell your story interestingly. They’re two very different disciplines and worlds apart in how you can get them made but at the core they’re the same. I still would aim to chuck 'everything and the kitchen sink' into a doc and try to entertain as well as be insightful.