On Saturday in this space, I posted the film Fast Break, the wonderful and somewhat bizarre documentary following the 1977 Trail Blazers on their championship season. Curious to learn more about a film with so much apparent mystery despite depicting such a seminal moment in Trail Blazer history, I managed to track down Mike McLeod, who was the cinematographer and a producer on the film. Mike was kind of enough to chat with me, and in our conversation, he described the process of making the film, their guerrilla shooting style, the financial and creative troubles that delayed and minimized the release, as well as their unique access with Bill Walton, even accompanying him on a bike trip to Oceanside. If you haven’t yet seen the film yet, you can view it on YouTube here.
Audio of the interview is available here, or scroll down to read the transcript, slightly edited for flow.
JS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I watched the film on Saturday and really liked it and immediately wanted to look up and see the story behind it and that’s how I tracked you down. I guess my first question for you would just be, how did the film come about?
MM: Well, it really came about because of Don Zavin, who as you understand is now deceased, long deceased. [He] was just really a fan of the Blazers and, you know, just had been bugging the Blazer organization to do something for a long, long time. And they hadn’t been paying much attention to him and he finally just decided to go ahead and document the team and the excitement of the season. I mean, the feeling about the Blazers was pretty intense around Portland at that time, so Zavin just took it upon himself to start filming.
From what I could find on the credits, it looked like you were listed as the co-director, co-producer, and the cinematographer? Is that correct?
Yeah, well I was brought aboard as the cinematographer and the, ‘slash’, producer, and things got a little sticky. In the end, once the footage had all been [gathered], there were some financial problems trying to pay the crew and everything like that. Basically we had to put a lock [on the film] for all the crew to get paid. We had to, basically, lock the film up. And so Zavin and an associate of his went out and raised the money and took the film back and paid everybody and went away for a year. So the film didn’t actually get edited for… oh, it was a year, year and half after it was shot before they sat down and were able to edit it.
It seems like at the time, it didn’t really get a huge response, even considering that it was a documentary following the team on the first championship – and only championship, as of now. So is that [the delay in releasing the film] related to why that [the lack of response] happened?
Well right, exactly. You know, there were the problems in getting the thing edited so it just sat. There was no momentum behind it. And Zavin, it was really sort of a tough situation for him. He had to first of all, mortgage his soul and that of his partner to get the film back so that they could work with it. And then it took a year to put it together. So I think all that time, they really just lost momentum. And there wasn’t any money at all to market it. So when it was finished, it was what it was. I think it played in a theater here in Portland. I remember, it played at some theater way out on the east side of Portland and I remember going out there and I think it was myself and a couple young kids that were the only people in the audience. And that’s the only time I saw it in 30 years was that one showing. There was no money at all to market and so it was just sort of, not an optimum situation.
Recently, it seems like it’s had a little bit of a revival. They showed it at the Hollywood Theater in Portland, the Clinton Street Theater—
Well you know, a writer, a guy who lives on the coast, his name is Matt Love – he wrote a book about the Blazers that came out about 2 years ago I guess. He resurrected the film. Somehow he got a CD made of it. Zavin’s wife works at the Northwest Film Study Center here in Portland. I think he contacted her and somehow he got a copy of it and had it made into a CD and released it with the book. That was the first time that I had heard that it even still existed. So he promoted it. And then this guy named Greg Hamilton, who’s sort of a local guy tied in with a couple theaters around town, he found it. And he’s a real Blazer fan. So over the last year and a half, he’s had a whole bunch of showings of it at a few theaters around town. So it’s really between those two guys. But it was Matt Love, who had heard the film had been made and went on a search and found it. So it’s really to Matt Love’s credit that it’s around.
Yeah, I mean I found it on YouTube of all places.
To get back to the production, when you were filming it, how did that go? What kind of access did you get through that season?
Well, you know, we never got official okay from the Blazers. It was one of those situations like you learn when you’re in the news business: if you have to ask permission, you might as well forget it. Sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission and get turned down. We just went ahead and shot whatever we could, made deals with the players and stuff like that. We would catch them, you know. At that point in time, that was back before basketball became a gazillion dollar industry. You could actually just show up at Blazer practices and hang around with the team and talk to the players and that sort of thing. And that’s what Zavin did. The Blazers just let it happen, [they] didn’t pay any attention. How he got so close to Walton, I’m a little unsure. Some of that had to do with Larry Colton, who was the writer who was writing a book that came out called Fast Break. You may have seen that.
Yeah, I did see that.
Yeah, that book really gives you a better idea of what the film was about. But anyway, Colton was hooked in with Walton. Somehow, he got hooked in with Walton and by hooking up with Colton and injecting Colton into the documentary, that brought Walton along. And Walton, you know who was famously hostile with the press, for some reason decided that in a few instances, he just let us come along. In those days, there weren’t huge crews or anything – just a sound guy and a camera guy and Zavin. And he [Walton] was very accommodating in a few occasions. And of course, bringing Colton along, it was killing two birds with one stone. Colton got material for the book, we got material for the film, and so it worked out for everybody.
Yeah, I mean the Walton footage I think is some of the best in the whole film: the stuff on the bike, the stuff when he’s sitting by the lake and giving his philosophy on things, or the scenes from the basketball camp. How much Walton footage did you have by the end of it?
We had quite a bit of Walton footage. Yeah, definitely, he was far and away the most developed character, which I thought was great because obviously he was the world famous guy, you know? But a lot of it that we shot didn’t get incorporated in the film. I always felt that was kind of a shame because I know what was shot and I know what’s in the film. And a lot of stuff that was shot that was very cool is just not there. And for whatever reason, that just was kind of a shock to me to see what was missing.
What kind of stories did you shoot that you wish had made it in?
There’s an amazing thing to be said, to be depicted, about black ballplayers and white fans, that whole thing – especially in Portland, a very white city. You had these giant black guys who were very famous and there’s just sort of this undercurrent with the interaction with fans and that whole thing. There was a lot that could have been developed around that, knowing what footage was shot, but it wasn’t. Maybe Don didn’t want to get into anything too overtly political, I don’t know. But it just wasn’t developed. I think he just decided that he would go with Walton, who was obviously the star, so that’s where he put his emphasis.
The film could have benefited a voiceover or something, more use of Colton. Develop Colton as a narrator because there was just a lot that wasn’t said. It ended up being kind of an existential ‘70s movie, you know? [laughter] Where you kind of just had to sit back and just watch it. [laughter]
Yeah it definitely has like a psychedelic kind of feel between the music and some of the shots, especially the stuff of Walton and even some of the shots of Maurice Lucas. Without the narrator, I guess you could kind of take it your own way.
So were you on the bike trip with Walton?
Yeah I shot it.
What was that like?
Well it was pretty cool. It was pretty funny with the interplay between him and Colton always trying to catch up. Walton being so famous, and as the film depicts, showing people being awed when they realized who he was and that sort of thing. It was just a very special few days.
Yeah I bet. So how much stuff did you get through the year? Did you follow the team the entire regular season and playoffs, or did you show up for certain points that you knew would be important?
I really can’t remember much of that. I think we started really pretty late in the season. It escapes me. I would have to look at the film again to get my bearings but I think we started pretty late. It was pretty intense. It wasn’t like the filming was all strung out. We were trying to grab people when we could and everything was on the fly. We didn’t have a lot of resources so we didn’t have a lot of time with a lot of people. Actually, as it turned out, we had probably more time with Walton than with anybody else, which is surprising.
One of my favorite shots from the film was when, I forget who the two players were, but they were sitting in their hotel room, watching a commercial for Hilton. It was just kind of funny to see them in this cramped hotel room looking at this commercial, dreaming about the nice Hilton Rewards.
[laughter] I remember we sent a camera crew with the team down to L.A. We got a camera guy who was like 6 foot 6 and we put him on platform heels. Because you put the camera on your shoulder, and you know I’m an average size guy, and so whenever I’m shooting these guys, you’re looking up their noses. So we thought, let’s just get this giant guy if we can. We did that on that trip, I remember. We did some funny things like that just to get more eye level with these guys. But I think that footage [the footage of the two players watching the commercial in their hotel room] was shot by that other cameraman we hired.
At the time, sports documentaries weren’t quite as rampant as they are now, like the 30 for 30 series. You had like NFL Films [back then] I guess, but did you have a lot of references for the style that you wanted to go for? Or was it just, get as much footage as you can?
At that point, it [documentary filmmaking] wasn’t a stylized vehicle. It was basically cinema-verite, you know? Get what you can. This was before video. Film was very expensive, cameras were very expensive, there weren’t a lot of people shooting. The major thing in that project was just get as much as you can. I had a vision in my mind of how I thought the documentary might come together as you’re shooting it and so you tend to shoot a certain way. You form it in the camera. That’s the nature of that kind of filming. But in the end, when we had the financial problems and I had to step completely away from it and just wait for whatever Zavin did a year, a year and half later, it became a vehicle that my point of view in terms of how I approached the shooting didn’t match Zavin’s vision of whatever his vision was. And I didn’t have any input at all. So what you see is a film that was shot with sort of a style in mind and a final edit that didn’t really match that. But in those days, documentary filmmaking was what it was. Today, a lot of documentaries aren’t documentaries. They’re tightly scripted and you know exactly what you’re going for. And if you got the resources, you’re working for a cable channel or something like that, you have a lot of time to think things through beforehand and pick and choose your opportunities to shoot, when and where, how long, and how big a crew, and what kind of fancy stuff you can bring along to make everything look good. Back in those days, we didn’t have any of that stuff [laughter]. Especially we were doing it on the sly. What we did spend some money on was a good Aeroflex camera and some good lenses. We did spend some money on that, but that’s about as far as it went.
Although watching it now, the style of the film almost fits with what we think of as NBA basketball back then and how it was rougher around the edges—
Oh yeah, exactly. Right, exactly. Basketball, then and now, are completely different animals. That era’s gone. That was before players were making millions of dollars, you know?
For sure, that was back when they could go on cycling trips to Oceanside and nobody would really be following them.
[laughter] Yeah, right.
So in your career since then, it looks like you’ve done a lot with nature photography especially, and I saw you won a Peabody Award and some other things. You’ve had a lot of success but do you wish Fast Break would have taken off a bit more than it did?
Well, yeah. I do, but I had no control over it, so it is what it is. Can’t cry over spilled beans. It would have been nice. It was interesting, I think that exactly at the time Fast Break came out, a feature film came out called Fast Break. I don’t know if that had any bearing on it because of confusion. But as I say, this was produced up in Portland, Oregon. It wasn’t a Hollywood release and there wasn’t any money to market it. The nature of the film was—I think if you were a sports fan, you could really enjoy it, but as far as an all around watchable movie, I’m not sure it was that watchable.
So what kind of stuff do you do now?
Well I’ve been writing the last couple years so I haven’t been doing any production at all. The last production I did was 10 years ago. I’ve done a lot of documentaries, a lot of political-themed documentaries. I worked for a series called Frontline for 10 years. I’ve done a lot of investigative stuff, not all sports stuff. In fact, most of it is investigative documentaries.
My last question is just what is your favorite story or anecdote from making the film and being around the team during that year?
My favorite? Well, one of my best friends died on that production and so that whole thing – Walton was also there when that happened – was pretty emotional. The first part of the book, Fast Break, details what happened pretty explicitly. I always think of the film in that regard and that was a real tragedy. But as far as the enjoyable parts, I would have to say that the bike trip with Walton was pretty cool. It was fun to shoot. Walton, the famous guy, was giving us access, which I thought was pretty special because the country was pretty rabidly pro-Walton at that time. He was arguably the most famous athlete on the planet at that moment and we had a couple gorgeous days at the coast to shoot with him. And that was really, really enjoyable. So it’s those two aspects of the film, that are what I remember.