Hollywood has been messing with historical details for dramatic purposes since movies were invented. But sports fans are notoriously picky when it comes to such things, making based-on-a-true-story sports flicks a minefield for filmmakers.
Director Stephen Hopkins understood all that while making “Race,” the Jesse Owens biopic that opened Friday, and every effort was made to avoid offending those who are easily annoyed by such things.
“How it all looks, we have records for, which is great,” he said in a phone interview Thursday. “So a lot of the races were recorded, and we actually replicated them. All of the races are exactly as long as the real races took, all the right runners are in the right lanes with, first of all, the right college uniforms and then the right country uniforms.
“There was so much recorded with Jesse Owens, because he was the fastest man on Earth from that Big Ten [meet in 1935] onward, so they followed him around and there’s great detail. At the same time, it’s quite hard to get all of the details directly. Because of the Second World War a lot of documents were destroyed because there was just no room for everything. They threw stuff out.
“So there are different versions of things. Even the newspapers, they have different records of the races and that kind of stuff.”
One of the most important sequences to get right was the long jump battle between Owens and Germany’s Luz Long in Berlin in the 1936 Olympics, one of the dramatic centerpieces of the story.
“We didn’t show the other competitors because that would have taken a very long time,” Hopkins said. “But we showed what [Owens and Long] did and the actual order of things. They’re all in the film ‘Olympia,’ so you can watch them. We just replicated them in a dramatic, narrative way. It was one of the legendary shootouts in Olympic sports.”
Recreating the long jump required nuances — and an understanding of the rules — that Owens’ footraces did not. Hopkins found sprints to be a filmmaker’s dream event.
“I tried very hard to keep the races as simple as possible, the way we filmed them, often in one shot or two shots, so it doesn’t feel like it’s all manufactured,” he said.
Hopkins was wowed by the exposure to world-class athletes he got during the filmmaking process.
“It’s one thing to look at sprinting from afar on a TV set, but when you’re next to these Olympic athletes and watch them run a hundred meters when they’ve been stretching all day and training all day for one 10-second explosion, and their bodies explode with power, they practically give themselves a heart attack over 10 seconds and 100 meters.
“And at the end they collapse, drenched in sweat, their muscles pounding. It’s such a weird sport to try to get across to an audience. It’s such a ruthless sport. You make a tiny mistake and it’s all over. You can’t recover from it.”
The film focuses narrowly on Owens’ life from around 1934-36, including his rise to stardom at Ohio State and his four goal medals in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Games.
The central relationship depicted is that between Owens and Ohio State coach Larry Snyder, played by the comedic actor Jason Sudeikis. Getting Snyder right was a challenge.
“Larry Snyder kind of kept to himself,” Hopkins said. “Even though Ohio State opened their vaults, they have so little of his stuff in there. But we do have all of his training records and how he did it, and Jesse’s three daughters, they knew him the whole of their lives.
“Even after their father’s death in 1980, [Snyder] was a very close friend of their family, so they told me a lot about what he was like. Jason is a sports psychology nut. It’s one of the reasons I wanted him in the role. He’s a huge basketball fan. He’s an every-sport fan, and he’s into the statistics and the psychology of it.
“When I was looking for the Larry Snyder character, I think Jason’s comedy has kind of an edge. I like that kind of modern feel of that role. He was only 36 when Jesse met him, so he wasn’t one of the old-white-guy coaching club.
“I was lucky that everyone backed me up to take a risk with [Sudeikis], because everyone thought he’s a comedian or whatever, but he’s a very smart, very educated guy, and he loved the idea of playing a coach.”
Compared to the 2013 biopic “42” about Jackie Robinson, “Race” is a more international production, befitting the broader global scope of Owens’ story.
Hopkins and both screenwriters are British, and Stephan James, who plays Owens, is Canadian. So is Shanice Banton, who plays Owens’ wife.
“The story of Jesse Owens and the Berlin Olympics is much closer to the hearts of the Europeans than most Americans know,” Hopkins said. “A lot of people wanted to see the Nazis beaten at their own game.”
Hopkins said the goal was storytelling, not moralizing.
“I tried to tell the facts rather than judge the facts and show the story rather than pretend we were there, because we weren’t,” he said. “I think race as an issue comes up probably more in sports than any other specific field, because of the nature of what sport is. It’s sort of warfare without warfare between countries and tribes.
“It brings up the conversation constantly, and that’s because I think the psychology of sport is really human nature.”
Even with the cooperation of Owens’ family, Hopkins said tapping into his personality was difficult.
“He was a hard guy to nail down, Jesse,” Hopkins said. “He was so quiet and avoided the spotlight so much. His three daughters really guided us through everything written about him or the quotations that people claim he made to what he was really like and what he really said and what he really did.
“It narrowed it down to someone who was almost Forrest Gump-like in a way in being so good at what he did and not interested in what other people thought or anything other than feeling free for a moment. This is a guy whose grandfather was a slave, whose father was a sharecropper — which was basically a slave in those days — and he lived through the Great Depression of America in Cleveland. He was made of steel on the inside.
“Being African-American you’d have a rage to live in a country where it was illegal not to be racist. I think somehow his nature was to harness this stuff to run and feel free rather than to lash out, which made him a maverick in that way. But he’s a hard person to read and understand because he really was a quiet, graceful man. Very thoughtful, very clear-thinking, much like the actor [James]. He’s got an old head on young shoulders.”
Hopkins lives in New York, but he remains a fan of soccer — especially the London club Arsenal — and rugby, his native sports.
“I’ve really tried to love American sports,” he said. “I’ve gone to lots of them, but there are just too many commercial breaks compared to where I come from. Our games never stop. I used to have season tickets to the Kings when I lived in L.A. and there was once where they actually stopped fighting for a commercial break.”