Stony Brook is not mentioned until the closing credits, but careful viewers will know long before then of the university’s involvement in the movie “Wolves,” which opens on Friday.
That is “Wolves” as in the nickname of a fictional Manhattan-based high school basketball team at the center of the story, not “Seawolves” as in Stony Brook’s nickname.
Rather, IFCU Arena appears in writer/director Bart Freundlich’s film as a stand-in for Cornell, the school the main character aspires to attend.
Freundlich said using Stony Brook was easier than traveling to Central New York on the crew’s tight schedule. He found in IFCU a reasonable facsimile of Cornell’s Newman Arena. The red décor helped.
Throw in a little art direction and computer-generated imagery and, voila! Close enough, anyway. People familiar with the Seawolves’ home will have no trouble recognizing it.
Freundlich said he chose Cornell for his star player, Anthony Keller (Taylor John Smith), because it seemed to be a plausible destination for a good-but-not-great player known mostly for a sweet jump shot.
“It fit well, because it didn’t put pressure on the protagonist to be a kid who could play for Duke,” he said.
Smith trained for six months on that shot, and ended up with one that looks credible for a high school gunner.
“He developed a beautiful jump shot; he was not a basketball player to start with,” Freundlich said.
That turned out to be enough. It helped, the director said, that “he wasn’t supposed to be a guy who breaks you down off the dribble.”
There are players in the film who can, though, giving the basketball scenes necessary verisimilitude.
“That was hugely important to me,” Freundlich said. “I just worked hard at it.”
He enlisted Macky Bergman of a Manhattan coaching program called Steady Buckets to help audition and select players that could fit together on the court – and handle the non-basketball parts of the job.
“It takes a pretty specific kind of person to be on set for 10 or 12 hours,” Freundlich said.
One of the best real-life players among the actors, Jake Choi, portrays the worst player on the Wolves.
Freundlich himself played high school basketball in Manhattan, and his son Cal is a walk-on at Davidson, where he has appeared in three games this season. (Freundlich is married to Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore.)
“I definitely have a player’s mentality and a shooter’s mentality, and I know the game really well,” Freundlich said.
Some of the more memorable basketball scenes were shot at the West 4th Street Courts in Greenwich Village, two days that the director said were the most challenging to shoot of the entire project.
“There are so many factors,” he said. “The sun, there’s people throwing punches, there’s dunks.”
Freundlich, 47, said the story had been percolating since a 10th grade English assignment grew into a screenplay after he attended NYU. He “reverse engineered” it once he found a satisfying ending in his 40s.
It concerns the young star played by Smith dealing with the trials and tribulations of teenager-hood, complicated by a father (Michael Shannon) led down dark paths by problems with gambling and alcohol.
Complications ensue, along with some inevitable clichés of the sports movie genre.
The film was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, but Friday is its official rollout. (The scenes at Stony Brook were shot in the summer of 2015.)
“My experience has been that it is a much more commercial film than my others in that it’s very accessible because of the basketball, and because it’s a story that’s very recognizable,” Freundlich said.
“It’s about someone who is oppressed by someone and rises up to realize their full potential, and in the process vanquishes your oppressor.”