Director Evan Jackson Leong Scores Big with Jeremy Lin Documentary “LINSANITY”
The phenomenon known as “Linsanity” shocked –and shook– the world over a year ago, when an undrafted second-year free-agent from Harvard led the then plummeting New York Knicks to a string of dire victories with an intrepid performance on basketball’s biggest stage. Before that miraculous week in February 2012, Jeremy Lin was an NBA journeyman –cut previously by the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets– on his final stop. No one could have anticipated the then 23-year-old, 6’3” point guard would overcome insurmountable odds to ascend the NBA ranks, from being the last player on the bench to –for some– worshipped as a basketball deity, all within 24 hours.
The first athlete of Chinese/Taiwanese descent to play in the Association, Lin became the most polarizing figure in sports and an international media sensation when he propelled the Knicks to a seven-game win streak during their 2011-2012 season. His epic performances captured the imaginations of basketball fans East and West and instantly thrust the popular underdog as a beacon for Asian-Americans.
It seems like “Linsanity” developed out of nowhere, but for filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong –the director of the documentary Linsanity, who had already begun filming the Lin family back in Palo Alto California three years ago– Lin’s meteoric rise was a result of his hard work and dedication to accepting the challenge at every level– and most importantly his unwavering devotion to Christ.
On the eve of the theatrical release of Linsanity nationwide, Life+Times sat down with Leong, a sixth-generation Chinese-American and UCLA alum, to discuss the creative process behind the film and the evolution of J.Lin.
LT: The film opens up in a few hours, how are you feeling on your theatrical debut?
EJL: I feel good. It’s been crazy, man. It kind of feels like it’s my wedding day or something. [Laughs]. It’s been a long time coming.
L+T: When we first spoke last year, the initial concept for this project was to have J.Lin’s story live online, as a web series. When did you decide to turn it into a full-length feature?
EJL: It was always in my mind with this project, but at first a lot of people didn’t care about Jeremy. No one really thought he would go anywhere- and so we did we. We thought online was the perfect platform for a mature audience. When YouTube launched all its [original content] channels, we approached them like, ‘we have this really cool project about Jeremy Lin.’ Nobody was interested and [YouTube] was handing money to everyone, but they didn’t care about us. So for us it was a labor of love and passion fueled it. That’s what kept us going. But when it happened last year we thought, ‘wow we have the potential to make it in theaters.’ We thought it was pretty cool.
L+T: From there it transitioned to Kickstarter. Talk about the success of such a huge campaign for the film.
EJL: As hard as it was financially we weren’t in dire need of money, because at that point a lot of people liked Jeremy and a lot of people wanted to be a part of our project. What we wanted to do with the campaign was build support and to get our early adopters on very early, cause in this age of social media and the Internet you can really see who your audience is before you even make a film. And I think that social engagement was more worthwhile than the cash. We were able to see if people really wanted to see this movie or not. And fortunately for us they did.
You have to understand that this was a passion project. We were doing this project for no money. We did not expect to get paid. At the time, I was using my vacation days [from work] to shoot this, just because I think we all were very passionate about Jeremy, the story, about basketball and what this could potentially mean to viewers around the world– even if it’s a small amount of people.
L+T: Your relationship with the Lin family began early on when Jeremy was a freshman at Harvard. How were you able to gain their trust in the beginning?
EJL: The trust level was like anything it takes a long time to get to know someone, and that’s what we tried to do with Jeremy and the family. This is who we are. This is whom we’re about. One of the reasons why Jeremy probably wanted to work with us was because we didn’t have an agenda. I first told him that I’m not ESPN. I’m not MTV. I’m not 60 Minutes. I’m not trying to tell this racism story. I’m not trying to tell this religious story. I’m just trying to tell your story. And in that process and trust, I was like, ‘[Jeremy] you have to open up and you have to work with me. You have to open up and let go stuff that you don’t give other people.’ He was very aware of the process and even with the edits. We didn’t show him every edit, but we showed him a very close to an end product and instantly he loved it. He was like, ‘this is my story.’ He was very proud of it. Everyone else told their story about Jeremy, but this is his story.
L+T: What gravitated you to Jeremy’s story at first?
EJL: Mainly because it was an Asian-American story. It’s a story that I can easily relate to because it’s who I am. We’ve never had someone like Jeremy before him. For me that’s what drew me to this story. If he was African-American it might have been a great story and been different but this story in particular was special for me because of who he was and where he was raised and you know, he’s part of our dream.
L+T: In the film one of his college coaches confessed that he pulled Lin aside early on to tell him that he had NBA potential. Did you see that in him as well?
EJL: I had no idea. I believed the hype like everyone else, that Jeremy had potential, and he could possible make the NBA, but if you asked me then I would’ve told you that ‘I didn’t know.’ He didn’t even know that he was that good. His numbers were really good, but he knew he what level he was playing at, but he also had something to prove. And after his first year, he knew he could.
L+T: Has anything surprised you about Jeremy’s evolution?
EJL: The biggest surprised is that he’s stayed true to who he is as a person. I’m sure many people wish they could stay that humble when things blow up like that and you become that person overnight. To me that’s pretty special.
L+T: As you said, Jeremy is very down-to-earth and he likes to have fun on-and-off the court. Tells us about the ‘Papa Lin Workout video’ that went viral a couple days ago.
EJL: Yeah, yeah…Jeremy likes to do funny videos and we thought viral videos would show a little more of his family and at the same time be a way to get people more involved with the movie. That’s what we came up with. [Laughs] I don’t know how, but that’s what we came up with.
L+T: Balancing the egg on the spoon was clever.
EJL: Yeah. It’s kind of silly. For me, I defer to Jeremy when he thinks something is funny because I don’t always understand the humor of the next generation. But he thought it was funny.
L+T: You and I were watching the Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers game at a bar across the street from Madison Square Garden the night Lin erupted for a career-high 38 points against Kobe Bryant and company. You had to rush off before the final buzzer to get Jeremy’s reaction. What was going through your mind running over to the MSG?
EJL: As we were watching the game, we didn’t know what to expect but we knew that he was prepared. I spoke to Jeremy the night before and he said he calm and ready. Kobe’s comment didn’t come out until the next morning. Jeremy listens and reads everything, so I’m sure it had some effect. But, rushing over to the Garden after the game was amazing, man. You were there. It felt like we all won. Jeremy. The Knicks. My film crew. And whether you were a Knicks fan or not, Jeremy fan or not, it felt like everyone won that night. And that’s what that moment was about. That’s how Jeremy wanted us to feel.
L+T: We’re all “Linning” with the film now in theaters nationwide…
EJL: Yes, eleven cities nationwide. Crazy right? We don’t have billboards. We don’t have marketing. We’re not in commercials. The only way you probably hear about us is through social media or emails and screenings. So we have to promote this film on a grassroots level. It’s really, really amazing. I’ve been reading reviews, good and bad, and I’m just like ‘wow, they’ve watched my movie.’ [Laughs] It’s pretty cool. I don’t care what your perspective of the film is…I’m just like ‘wow.’ To everyone who has seen the movie and will watch it– I appreciate that. It puts things in perspective of how far we have come. I’m definitely humbled and bless by all this.
L+T: With the film currently in theaters are there plans to continue documenting Lin’s NBA evolution?
EJL: I think that we’re done telling Jeremy’s story for now. For us, this documentary basically chronicles Jeremy’s entire life up until now and he’s 24-years-old. That’s a long time. For us we wanted to make this documentary a legacy film. A legacy film meaning what led up to this moment in time, before the whole world discovered who Jeremy Lin was. But someone will do another documentary on him. It’s bound to happen.
L+T: What’s next for you and Arowana Films?
EJL: Currently, I’m shooting another documentary on YouTube celebrity Michelle Phan. We’re in post-production and it will be out soon. So we’ll see how that goes. It’s just another beautiful story.
Linsanity is showing now in select theaters nationwide. To discover locations near you, please click here.
Follow @LinsanityMovie on Twitter and @LinsanityTheMovie on Instagram.