During the 1997-98 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls allowed a film crew from NBA Entertainment to document what would be the last championship run for a historic team that included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, head coach Phil Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause. The footage would sit on a shelf for two decades.…How ‘The Last Dance’ Director Told the Story of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls — Variety
During the 1997-98 NBA season, the Chicago Bulls allowed a film crew from NBA Entertainment to document what would be the last championship run for a historic team that included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, head coach Phil Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause. The footage would sit on a shelf for two decades.
Jason Hehir was a senior in college during that season. But by the time he began work on “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary series about the Jordan-era Bulls and their final championship season, he was a veteran sports-documentary filmmaker — most recently having tackled “Andre the Giant” for HBO. However, “The Last Dance” is next-level. Hehir employed the trove of 1997-98 footage as well as older archival material and recording from dozens of hours of contemporary interviews he and his crew conducted with everyone from Barack Obama to Magic Johnson to Jordan himself to tell the story of that final run and the years leading up to it.
Epic in scope, “The Last Dance” debuts Sunday on ESPN at a time when the network and its audience are starved for new sports content — creating peak anticipation for the project. Hehir discussed with Variety how he went about telling the story of one of the most important teams in pro-sports history.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html?9eeeadb164ca14cdf53099819fc1eaed
How did the ’97-’98 footage end up sitting there for 20 years?
A lot of people had to come to the table and agree on a lot of different parameters, financial, creative, logistical, and it took that long just to get that many people on board. A lot of it is timing. Maybe Michael wants to do it one year and the NBA doesn’t. Maybe we can find a network one year, and maybe we can’t the next year. I wasn’t around for that process. So I can’t tell you exactly why year to year this sat on the shelf. Knowing Michael, knowing Michael’s competitive nature and knowing that fire that still burns inside him, I think it’s no small coincidence that he agreed to be a part of this project right around the time that the [Golden State] Warriors won 73 games in one season, eclipsing the ’96 Bulls’ 72 wins, and LeBron [James] won a title with Cleveland, and people were starting to have the conversation, “Well, maybe LeBron is the greatest. Maybe Michael’s not the greatest.” So I think a lot of stars aligned creatively, financially, logistically and emotionally for everyone to come to the table and say, “Alright, it’s time to tell this story.”
How did you come up with the parallel structure of telling the story of the ’97-’98 team alongside the overall history of the Jordan-era Bulls and their key figures in the years leading up that season?
We had access to Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson. Their stories are so rich, and so deserving of their own documentaries — it felt like an opportunity to do mini documentaries within one macro documentary. And in order to do that, you have to go back in time and you have to tell the story of what made these people who they are. And also to understand the ’97-’98 Bulls, you need to understand the evolution of that franchise, and the evolution of that dynasty — how they became what they were at the time. By ’97-’98, they were a global phenomenon, and just 10 years earlier, they were barely a blip on the NBA radar. So it seemed like an opportunity for us to have the ’97-’98 team be the chronological spine of the doc, given the fact that we had access to this footage, but also to tell the story of the Bulls dynasty and the rise of Michael Jordan through the lens of that season.
There are a number of transition points in the doc. The one that really got me was in the third episode when you use Rodman as the entry point to go back and talk about the Pistons in the late ’80s. How many of those moments were you able to map out in advance?
The fun part was that we have these two converging timelines of the evolution of the Bulls dynasty leading up to their final title, and then the ’97-’98 season, which also leads to the final title. So the timelines converge at the finish line. Then you can work backwards, and you can say, “Okay, we’re going to tell the story of each of the titles that they won, ’91, ’92, and ’93, and ’96 and ’97. So when are we going to introduce ’91?” We can’t wait until after the first half of the series to start introducing when they started winning these titles. So Episode 4 seemed like a good time to have them win their first title in a flashback. And then when you work backwards from there, you have to say, “Okay, in order to tell the story of them beating the Lakers, you have to tell the story of them vanquishing the Pistons, who had been their nemesis for years before that.” And you want to introduce your main characters sooner rather than later. So then you say, “Dennis played for the Pistons. He’s a main character.” He also at that time, chronologically in the ’98 season, which is about a third of the way through the season, started to go off the rails. So there are three story points that all hit at one time and you think, “It seems like Episode 3 is the right time to start introducing this storyline.” It was a fun puzzle to figure out.