ESPN Films’ latest documentary “144” premieres tonight at 9 ET on ESPN and will be available immediately following on ESPN+.
ESPN feature producers Lauren Stowell and Jenna Contreras directed the film. Contreras spent 62 of the 97 days of the 2020 WNBA season inside the “Wubble,” the nickname for the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., that served as the league’s host last summer.
“144” explores the unprecedented WNBA season dedicated to social justice and all that the 144 league players overcame to get through it: the COVID-19 pandemic, the demands of activism, and the rigors of an unrelenting schedule.
The film is a bridge to the start of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season, which begins Friday; ABC broadcasts a doubleheader Saturday.
Front Row connected with Stowell and Contreras about making the film, as well as ESPN commentator, ESPN Radio host, and former WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike, who served as executive producer.
This is the first feature-length film for each of you. What was the most important thing you learned about the filmmaking process?
Contreras: Trust plays an integral role at every level of the filmmaking process. From being assigned the project, creating meaningful relationships inside the bubble, and shaping the content outside the bubble, trust is needed so people can feel empowered to contribute their strengths to the best of their ability. This trust allows space for an open dialogue that is pivotal in creating a narrative and maintaining relationships that will last long after a film is complete.
Stowell: Be patient. Don’t rush the process. It takes time to make every piece of the jigsaw puzzle fit. Conceptualizing a collective experience involving 12 teams and 144 players with more than 60 interviews and 150 hours of content to consider was daunting; it was important to learn how to step away and come back with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. A story like this takes time to develop and shape.
Why was it important to each of you to tell this story?
Contreras: This film captures a moment in time that I don’t think anyone could have ever fathomed. It was the perfect storm of chaos all coming to a head that led 144 of the world’s most strong, courageous, articulate, talented athletes on the planet to compete at the highest level on the court while also fighting social injustice issues off the court.
Traditionally, stories of Black women aren’t told or are under-represented. Here we have the incredible story of a league that is predominately Black women, and their experiences matter. You may not be able to relate to their reality, but that doesn’t mean that their reality is not valid.
The film is raw in the representation of the human experience. Viewers are able to see the highs and lows of 2020. The women united together against everything that was thrown their way.
Stowell:: 2020 was draining. The horrific events and injustices we witnessed took a heavy mental and emotional toll. This is a league that is 80 percent Black women, and it was important to us to humanize these issues through honest, raw, and tough conversations.
These events aren’t just part of a news cycle; they are deeply personal and deeply connected to what – and who – these women are fighting for.
What do you hope viewers will learn about the WNBA and the Wubble in particular?
Contreras: I hope viewers learn that the WNBA is full of not only world-class athletes but world-class people. They are role models for men, women, boys, and girls with their poise, grace, competitive nature, and talents that transcend the court.
They remain relentless and unflappable, standing together strong in their convictions, but also know how to be there for one another and find a reason to laugh and smile. You don’t have to be a fan of the WNBA to watch this film (though you will become a fan afterward!)
Stowell: The circumstances that brought these 144 women together resulted in an incredible display of unity and resilience that we can all learn from. In the face of uncertainty and turmoil, these women came together with a common goal and made real lasting change.
While you were abiding by COVID restrictions, what was the filming process like?
Contreras: One of the biggest challenges we faced with the filming process is covering an entire league with one camera (Joshua Smith), one audio tech (Morgan Worth) and one producer.
We had a small footprint and a large area to cover, all while making the film feel intimate (taking social distancing requirements into consideration) and making sure the players resonated with viewers.
We had on masks at all times, and I didn’t realize how much we take for granted the ability to communicate or confirm a message is received with a facial expression during an interview.
While these were challenges, the small footprint ultimately ended up being one of our strengths. Our three-person crew was able to embed in the bubble without overtaking the players’ home away from home. The women embraced us into their world with grace and open arms.
The more access that we were able to get in this unique situation is not the type of access we normally associate with athletes. We were trusted with a deeper level of vulnerability from these women that I had never seen before, largely in part because we were going through this experience with them.
There was a sense of normalcy because we knew what was expected of us every day during a time when nothing in the outside world was normal. There was also a sense of peace knowing you were safe, but also a sense of longing, being away from your personal reality.
There was no “clocking out” and leaving for the day. We were alongside the players getting COVID tests, eating the same meals, riding bikes on the same paths, and also living where we were working. The bubble became a small community, with an unspoken bond of a shared experience that only a small number of people can truly relate to.
Through this access, the viewer is treated with the intimate look into an athlete’s psyche and how they remained resilient and fiercely united in the face of challenges and hardships.