Jason Hehir Interview: ‘The Last Dance’ director
For so many sports-starved fans, “The Last Dance” provided not only weekly appointment television that felt like some semblance of normalcy during a pandemic this spring, but a sense of nostalgia-fueled comfort as well. So what has been “The Last Dance” for “The Last Dance” director Jason Hehir? He’s watched “Escape at Dannemora,” rewatched “Breaking Bad” (his girlfriend had never seen it), ’80s movies, and most recently “Hamilton,” but at the beginning, it wasn’t much. “I was still working, like night and day, on ‘The Last Dance’ when the pandemic began, so there wasn’t a lot of bingeing going on,” Hehir told Gold Derby (watch above). “I was bingeing my own rough cuts at that point.”
“The Last Dance” spotlights the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls dynasty utilizing unseen documentary footage from the entire 1997-98 season, which culminated with the team’s sixth NBA title in eight years, after which the key players — Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson — went their separate ways for various reasons (well, the main reason was late GM Jerry Krause). Long an “urban legend in sports production circles,” the footage could only be used with Jordan’s approval, which he finally gave in 2016 to executive producer Mike Tollin (“Varsity Blues,” “Coach Carter,” “The Bronx Is Burning”), who brought Hehir, who’s helmed multiple “30 for 30” episodes and HBO’s “Andre the Giant,” onboard that July.
Initially eight episodes, the ESPN docuseries eventually expanded to 10 and told the grand tale through two timelines — the other starting with Jordan entering the league in ’84 — converging in the finale with the ’98 finals. “The whole point of the series was to showcase that unseen footage from the ’97-98 season, so that had to be the marquee attraction, but obviously you had that kind of access to Michael and Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and so on, [so] you don’t want to limit yourself to just one season because there’s so much story to be told,” explained Hehir, who interviewed Jordan three times for the series. “We had to kind of figure out a way to tell the backstory and to tell the ’97-98 season story at the same time.”
The show, which birthed some fantastic new MJ memes, obviously, flaunted Jordan’s preternatural talent and brain-breaking accomplishments, but it also didn’t shy away from tackling tougher, darker and less-than-flattering moments in the legend’s career, including his gambling habit, his overt apoliticism (“Republicans buy shoes too”), and his merciless, drill sergeant demeanor toward his teammates.
“There’s a good side and a bad side to everybody. There’s the nice side and the mean side to everybody. We wanted to be able to tell as comprehensive a story as possible,” Hehir said. “Michael himself never gave one ounce of pushback. … He never once mentioned anything he didn’t want to talk about, he never once dodged a question. If anything, it was the opposite, thankfully for us, because he came in and seemed like he wanted to talk, he wanted to discuss these things.”
One powerful moment comes at the end of the seventh episode, when his former teammates discuss his harsh, demanding tactics. Asked by Hehir if he thinks his ferocious competitive fire came at a cost of being thought of as a nice guy, Jordan gives a lengthy, candid answer about how “winning has a price,” and ended it tear-eyed and calling for a break. That moment occurred 45 minutes into their first sit-down.
“He’s getting really passionate and choking up, and I could see a tear come out of his eye. … And I think myself and the crew were stunned. And that’s a point where you just get out of the way and let the subject finish the thought or whatever they’re trying to get out,” Hehir recalled. “That was really a turning point in the entire project — the turning point in the project. He asked for a break, he didn’t get up. A lot of people say he takes his earpiece out — there wasn’t anything in his ear, I think it was just a nervous tick. … I got up and left because I’m not gonna sit there and take a break and stare at him for however long he needs to compose himself.”
Hehir retreated to a bathroom in the mansion in which they shot. “I was just standing in that bathroom pacing around — bigger than any apartment I ever had in New York — and looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘Whoa, that’s a moment. How are we going to build to that? This affects the trajectory of the series now because that’s one of those tentpoles you build to,'” he continued. “So it was stunning in the best possible way.”