Interview: Filmmaker Gabe Polsky Explores What Makes Athletes Exceptional in In Search of Greatness

Filmmaker Gabe Polsky is someone who crosses my path every few years, and I’m always excited to see him and what ideas for future projects he’s got cooking. Raised in Chicago, Gabe and his brother Alan first came to the spotlight as the producers of Werner Herzog’s weird and wild 2009 film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. And it was because of this film that I first met the brothers, when I hosted a special screening of the film at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago with them as guests.

In Search of Greatness Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Three years later, they made their only film as co-directors—the atmospheric and edgy The Motel Life, starring Emile Hirsch, which played at the Chicago International Film Festival where I got to interview them again. Gabe Polsky returned to the Chicago festival with his fantastic documentary Red Army (2014), about the Soviet Union's famed Red Army hockey team. Also landing at the Festival this year was his latest doc, In Search of Greatness, a film that is as much a series of motivational speeches as it is an examination into what makes some of the greatest athletes the world has ever known as distinguished as they are. Narrowing the focus to three subjects—hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, NFL running back Jerry Rice, and soccer phenom Pelé—In Search of Greatness provides an overview of their skills from both a technical angle as well as a look at what motivates them to success (in nearly every case, someone daring to say they weren’t special was what drove them).

From a performance vantage point, nearly every subject played their sport in ways that simply weren’t taught, and it was this creative drive that made their way of doing things the standard eventually. In addition to those interviewed, the film also looks at figures like Serena Williams, Michael Jordan, and even musician David Bowie as examples of innovators who went on to be the norm rather than the exception. In Search of Greatness is undeniably thought-provoking and impossible not to watch, as the best of the best show us a way at looking at the world that most of us will never understand.

For the fourth time in 10 years, I sat down with Gabe Polsky to find out how he settled on this nebulous subject for a documentary and how he landed on these particular athletes to be the focal point for such extensive interviews. It’s a terrific film that is now playing in the Chicago area at the AMC River East 21 and AMC South Barrington 24.

Trying to define what makes an athlete great is about as mysterious as the meaning of life…

Give me five. That’s exactly what the film’s about.

So what made you want to eve tackle such an insurmountable subject?

Now looking back, I don’t know if I would do it again. But I had something inside of me that I had to get out, to get these ideas out. It’s something I always think about. It makes me feel lonely sometimes wondering if I’m the only one who thinks like this about how creativity is, not just in sports but in anything, how there are so many forces fighting inside you. But with sports, it was always a fight to express oneself creatively. I played sports growing up and in college, and was always fighting with authority for this, and it wasn’t something that was cool to do something new or creative. I wanted to find out from the greatest athletes of all time whether they felt similarly, whether that was important to them. Did they feel like they had better genetics then everyone else? What were their parents like? What about motivation? Were they more motivated than everyone around them?

So you went into this project with this theory that creativity was a shared trait among these athletes?

Yeah. I was searching to see if that made sense, if that was true. Obviously, I learned a lot of things as I went through the process and discovered a lot of interesting details and strange things about these guys, and it was surprising to me too. But it was this idea that I didn’t understand: how could no one be talking about this? How much money do they spend on sports and media? Billions of dollars, but I never hear about this. Why did I have to make this film? If this is what I felt was the essence of sports and greatness, isn’t it simple enough for people to talk about? But they don’t, so that’s why I felt compelled to make it. Also there are a lot of kids and parents that need this film. It’ll make things better, healthier.

I particularly like the section of the film where you show Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, and you realize how much of what drove him was about showing people who told him he couldn't do something how wrong they were. That perceived adversity seemed like a surprise to you.

It’s incredibly relatable too—that anger can be transformed into creative energy. Although Jordan, I’m not saying he isn’t the happiest guy ever , but it’s true. We have to know life in all shades.

The other common thread that the three main people you talk to have—and I’m sure others have it as well—is that when they are at their peak, being allowed to do what they do best, they are at their happiest.

Yes, exactly. That’s something every parent and kid who wants to get into sports should pay attention to.

Does something like a numbers game such as analytics completely counter what you’re talking about?

GP: I didn’t do this intentionally. People have asked me if this is the counter argument to data and analytics. That’s not why I made the film, and I wasn’t really thinking about that. Although, I did start to realize that standardized tests and things like that are all connected. We do need this standardization so we can sift through material and filter out things, but we’re filtering out greatness a lot of times because these guys don’t really fit well into being standardized. Let’s agree that Jerry Rice and Gretzky, that they’re off the charts statistically, they produce. But what I argue is that creativity is positively correlated with statistic. A lot of coaches and teachers don’t understand that. They think that creativity is different than being productive; it’s the same thing. And data is important in the sense that it can actually help the creative person because at least you can point to something and say “I’m more productive than this guy.” That’s the game—scoring more points or goals—but I’m going to do it in my own creative way.

I often wonder, how do you correlate that to other fields, like movies. It’s difficult because you point to box office, right? But that’s so subjective because it’s so closely tied to marketing dollars and making people aware of the film, getting them in seats, word of mouth. Do the greatest films actually get labeled that they’re the greatest or not? Do the greatest films get the most Oscars or get the highest box office? What’s the measurement?

I wouldn't necessarily compare what you’re talking about in this movie to film but to filmmakers.

Right. So what relates is, tell me one filmmaker that was controlled by a studio who also made the greatest film ever. Not a single one .

From what I’ve heard, people like Pelé and Gretzky are extremely tough to get interviews with. How did you get them in this? And I’m guessing some of those other people you profiled, you went after unsuccessfully. How did you wear these other people down?

You’re right about that; that’s the bottom line. They say no, then the door is closed for a long time. I should have kept a diary of the process because I don’t remember specifically when that door opened a little bit, but Jerry Rice’s manager warmed up a lot quicker than others; she got it. The others were more business oriented, as far as management went. They didn’t get it, and they probably get so many request associated with the word “greatness.” “We want to talk about greatness.” I physically can’t do anything that cliche or redundant, so I tried to express that this was not like what anyone has ever done. It’s hard to put into words. Plus, it’s not a narrative structure; it’s a film about ideas, and I didn’t have a structure yet, before I shot it.

There’s a moment in each of their their lives and training where they move from being coached by a parent to an actual coach who believes in them and their unique abilities. In filmmaking, is there an equivalent?

That’s a great question. There is. I think it’s probably a producer or financier or director, but it happens on various levels. For instance, for my next film, I’m working with an editor who doesn’t have a single credit. So why do I think she’s talented? I try her out and see what she has. What is her ability? You have to give someone a shot. That’s at a smaller level. On a bigger level, everybody has that person that they need to believe in them. It could be a critic, but we need support. We don’t live alone. At a certain point, somebody has to take a risk. You have to be really intuitive and understand people well, people have to develop that skill set more, especially heads of studios. They don’t look deep enough at somebody; they don’t want to take that risk; they’re not courageous; they don’t have enough taste. I guess it’s a rare quality to have a coach that really can see the talent. There are people with that talent, who can see it someone. Then there are guys who can produce it, make it, but they need the support.

When the film first started, I thought it was just a motivational tool for people who have unusual approaches to sports, but as it went on I realized this could be a great tool for those charged with finding those athletes.

Or finding that skill that somebody has and transforming it. “You’re good at this, but you could also do this.” Encouraging that creativity and brining it out.

I love the example that you give of the high jumper who was the first guy who jump backwards over the bar, and as soon as he did it differently, it changed the sport and now everybody jumps like he does. Again, I wondered if there was an equivalent in the filmmaking world.

I think so. I guarantee you that in every aspect of this movie, there’s an equivalent to filmmaking, but are you looking for that right now? Why do we go to movies? Because you want to see something amazing, but it’s few and far between. As a filmmaker, you’ve got to find that, but it’s hard. But you should always be thinking “What am I doing? I can’t repeat what other people are doing.” But that high jumper wasn’t just being creative to be creative; he was experimenting, and it was scientifically proven later that it made sense. But you look at what Christopher Nolan did with Memento, and that’s when we started to take notice. Or Tarantino, he brought something new to the table. Spielberg when he started.

Are there any sports movies that acknowledge what you’re talking about here in some way?

Well here’s what bothers me about films like Rudy. Because Rocky worked and everybody thought they had to do this underdog story, these great athletes—no one thinks of them as underdogs, but they were. Look at them. Einstein was an underdog, and that’s the irony. They became great but they were anomalies. Tom Brady drafted low, for example. I want to see something amazing, not Rudy who sucked. But as far as movies where the coach is a great guy who spots something promising. Maybe The Karate Kid in a way, where he’s teaching him to think in a different way. “Don’t think traditionally, do this, see this simple movement.”

What are the biggest things that stifle creativity and eliminate potential superstars?

Two things. They can’t identify it. They see a guy and think “He’s too slow. I’m putting him third string. He’s never going to play, never going to develop a skill.” Not looking deeper at an individual. Second thing is, they don’t know how to develop it. They themselves don’t have a creative mind, so how are you going to develop it? You have to nurture it, encourage it. “You could do it this way. You’re tall, so why don’t you try it this way?” You have to understand what people’s strengths are, you have to see that. Then you have to give them confidence and have enough patience, like with Bill Walsh and Jerry Rice. Instead of allowing them to just play, be less controlling and more open.

You have a few glimpses in your film of Mohammad Ali. Not only do I think he would have done your film if he were alive, but I think he would have had a lot to say specifically about your theories.

Oh, man. He would have been…I mean, he said it. Here’s the thing about Ali: he told everybody exactly what he was. “I’m a poet. I’m a dancer. This is what I am.”

Gretzky refers to himself as an artist at one point, which is both true and shocking to hear him say out loud.

Gretzky is not as cocky as Ali. But Ali is was like “I’m all this stuff. You don’t want to believe it but I am.” And he was. He wanted people to know that.

Do you know what you’re doing next?

I’m making what I think will be my craziest movie yet. Right now, it’s called Red Penguins, and it’s about Russia in the 1990s, but it’s different tonally than Red Army. It’s more like The Big Lebowski or Fargo, but in Russia in the ’90s, about a business deal gone bad. It’s another documentary.

Great to see you again. Best of luck with this.

Yeah, thank you so much.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.