The hard part of interviewing elusive subjects usually is getting them to agree to the interview in the first place.
That turned out to be the easiest thing about “The Two Bills,” a documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on ESPN and examines the relationship between Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.
How long did it take to arrange their joint sitdown last spring in the Giants’ locker room at MetLife Stadium?
“It took 2 ½, three years,” said Ken Rodgers, who directed the documentary and is coordinating producer at NFL Films, which produced it for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.
There were some comical moments as the two played hide-and-seek with Rodgers, their schedules forever in conflict and with no apparent sense of urgency.
“Coach Parcells would call and say, ‘Hey, I’m in Saratoga. I’ve nothing going on tomorrow. How about tomorrow?’ ” Rodgers recalled. “But Coach Belichick had [Patriots] practice.”
So it went, until one day when Belichick was in New Jersey and Parcells was in Saratoga, and they agreed to meet in the stadium that replaced their former workplace, Giants Stadium.
Rodgers knew both wanted to make it happen eventually, especially given Belichick’s appreciation for history, football and otherwise.
“I think he understands and wants to record the people who helped him get where he is currently,” Rodgers said. “So it was really as simple as saying, ‘What would be really great is if we could get you and Coach Parcells to sit down together and discuss your history,’ and him saying ‘Yeah, that would be great.’ ”
The result is a sometimes awkward, sometimes touching, always interesting chat that serves as a backdrop to a trove of archival footage that will be especially nostalgic for fans who recall their 1980s partnership with the Giants.
Rodgers thought the dimly lit locker room look was the right touch and used it for other interviews also, with the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“I knew instantly this was the place,” Rodgers said. “It just had a sense of nostalgia, a sense of ghosts of the past . . . It was like two former co-workers sitting down in the place they used to work late at night, long after everything has been packed up and shipped away, but the ghosts and the memories are still there.”
Both Bills drew the line when Rodgers asked them to shoot additional footage in the Jets’ locker room, good-naturedly walking away while Belichick says, “Not the Jets’ locker room.”
Says Parcells, “I’m not going in there . . . What’s the point?”
Rodgers loved it, because it illustrated that the two were “in a great place together. It was that moment when they bonded against me and I was the complete outsider . . . The way they say ‘no’ is in a very ribbing way. It’s in a very locker room, busting-my-stones sort of way. Parcells is telling me ‘no’ in the way that Parcells would tell a player or media member in 1986 ‘no’ and Belichick is being sarcastic the way he’s sarcastic now.
“To me it just felt like a perfect ending to the film in that they’re joined together now and are not going to go back and revisit this Jets thing. They’re past it. They’re not going into the Jets’ locker room because they’re not looking back on this one moment and allowing it to define their relationship in the end, and they move on.”
That “Jets thing,” the aftermath of a famously awkward handoff of the Jets’ head-coaching job from Parcells to Belichick in 2000, followed by Belichick resigning a day later and later landing in New England, strained their relationship.
It was not until a 2006 golf outing that they began to reconnect, which eventually led them to sit with Rodgers for what both men believe is only their second time together before a camera in an interview setting.
The first is perhaps the single most delicious footage in the film, from 1991, when Parcells was working for NBC and Belichick hosted him on his Cleveland television show.
Among other things, Parcells pokes fun at Belichick for the same lack of fashion sense for which he now is famous.
Rodgers said he knew of the interview because both coaches had told him about it, but it proved difficult to find, and it was uncovered late in the production process.
“It was like finding a piece of gold in the mine,” he said. “It was one of those moments where you just say, ‘Thank God we found this.’ ”
Rodgers said the bonus was that they were oriented in exactly the same way they had been for the 2017 interview, with even closeups framed the same way. “It was like, ‘Wow, that was meant to be,’ ” Rodgers said.
The video search was grueling in general, because Rodgers and his team were looking not for Belichick or Parcells footage individually but rather for footage that included both.
“You’d think, oh, we’ll find plenty,” Rodgers said. “You actually found too much. So it took a lot more time to find that stuff than you would think.”
As good as the old stuff is, the current interviews are bluntly candid in retelling old tales, including by Kraft, who employed both men as the Patriots’ head coach.
Perhaps the most startling moment is when Rodgers asks the two men if they want to tell one another that they love each other. Rodgers said he always planned to ask that.
“The goal of the film was to figure out what this relationship was,” he said.
Still, there were people who wondered how that one would go.
“It was definitely discussed here at NFL Films: Are you really going to ask that?” Rodgers said. “I knew I was and, really, I think their answer tells you all you need to know.”
The timing of the premiere is ideal, three days before Super Bowl LII. But what if the Jaguars had held on to their lead in the AFC Championship Game and ousted Belichick’s Patriots before the premiere date?
“It was decided well beforehand that it was going to be airing this week,” Rodgers said. “I think the Belichick legacy is so strong now that the interest would be there one way or the other . . . I think it’s great timing for the Belichick back story and to see more of the story rather than the Belichick they’re watching this week or this year.
“I think it’s also really great to remind people about Parcells . . . It’s a good thing to remind everyone that even the greatest of all time doesn’t get there by himself. The greatest of all time also has mentors and people who helped him along the way and people who influenced him and helped him get to the mountain he’s at.”
Near the end of the film, the two visit the Giants’ Lombardi Trophies and Super Bowl rings in the Giants Legacy Club at MetLife.
“These are our two,” Belichick says, then disgustedly adds: “These are the two we gave ’em.”
Says Parcells: “You should’ve never lost that one game. Tyree.”