ESPN Films’ highly anticipated documentary series “The Last Dance” about Michael Jordan, current ESPN NBA analyst Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls’ quest for a sixth NBA Championship in 1998 premieres this weekend, almost two months earlier than its original anticipated air date (Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN & ESPN2).
A version of “The Last Dance” containing strong adult language will air on ESPN (TV-MA) while an alternate option edited for that language will air simultaneously on ESPN2 (TV-14-L). In addition, ESPN+ will debut a new Detail series Sunday about the Bulls teams featuring commentary from former head coach Phil Jackson and two of his stars from those squads, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr.
Front Row recently caught up with director Jason Hehir, who helmed ESPN Films’ “The Fab Five” and the 30 for 30 “The ’85 Bears.”
He talks about the challenges of working on a project of this magnitude, and how his team adapted to the programming shift.
How did making “The Last Dance” compare with previous ESPN Films projects you’ve directed?
The magnitude of the project was daunting. Every challenge that you typically encounter on a feature-length doc was multiplied exponentially. The number of bookings, the amount of footage to whittle down, the number of voices weighing in on each production decision, etc. The research phase of making this series took nearly as long as the actual production itself. I read over 10,000 pages of material on MJ, Scottie, Phil [Jackson, the Bulls legendary head coach], [Dennis] Rodman, the Bulls, etc. We began shooting in June 2018 and we just shot our 108th and final interview a few weeks ago.
In the world of sports documentaries, this is the Holy Grail. I’ve always been interested in de-iconizing our most beloved sports heroes. There’s humanity in all of us, even those regarded as mythical, and there’s no more mythical figure in our generation of sports (and, perhaps, all of the pop culture) than Michael Jordan. It’s been a massive undertaking but a labor of love. So as grueling as its been, I feel enormously privileged to be entrusted with telling this story.
I hope that the steps we’ve taken to get it done can play a very small part in taking people’s minds off all of these terrible events for a few hours as they watch the series. – Jason Hehir on completing “The Last Dance” against a tighter deadline
How did you and your team have to adjust when ESPN and Netflix moved up the premiere date?
Apart from a more condensed timeline for editing, which of course already created a challenge for us, we’re also dealing with adapting to a different work environment, much like a lot of people around the world are in these times. The editing itself is the same work, but it’s the collaboration component that has changed. When you’re working over Zoom, you can’t just walk in and out of rooms with people when you have an idea, so we’ve definitely missed that collaboration.
I hope that the steps we’ve taken to get it done can play a very small part in taking people’s minds off all of these terrible events for a few hours as they watch the series.
What is one thing you learned or were surprised about that you discovered through making this?
That, as clichéd as it is, hard work truly is what sets the greatest athletes apart from the rest of the bunch. The common denominator in all of the anecdotes I heard about Michael, Scottie, Magic [Johnson], Larry [Bird], [the late NBA Commissioner] David Stern, Phil Jackson, etc. was that they put hours and hours of passion into their chosen craft. No matter what athleticism, intelligence, and charisma they were gifted with, what made them legendary was their work ethic and their drive to be the absolute best no matter what the cost.
You could say I had a head start in preparing to make this project because I’ve been studying all things Michael Jordan since I was nine years old. – Jason Hehir
Where were you during “The Last Dance” 1997-98 NBA season? Were you a Bulls’ fan then?
I grew up the youngest of three boys, and everyone in my family is a huge sports fan. I was born and raised in Boston, so my team was the Boston Celtics, but I was also a Jordan fanatic growing up. You could say I had a head start in preparing to make this project because I’ve been studying all things Michael Jordan since I was nine years old.
Jay Jay Nesheim contributed to this post.
Premiering Sunday exclusively on ESPN+, Detail: 1998 Chicago Bulls
5 episodes, each premiering over the next 5 Sundays, will break down key games during the @chicagobulls' 6th Championship season
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) April 17, 2020