The ESPN 30 For 30 Films are widely celebrated and watched. “You Don’t Know Bo“, about the rise and strange disappearance of two-sport star Bo Jackson, is the highest-rated of all the ESPN documentaries. It is now available on Netflix, too. Whether you’re into sports or not, it’s a great watch and delves into what makes a legendary figure, a superhero type, in this case in the world of American athletics.

The film’s director, Michael Bonfiglio, was kind enough to talk to me about the film, its origins, and the filmmaking process.

Read this, then watch that. Or watch that, then read this. Your call!

John: How did you get this project going? Did ESPN pitch you? Or were you pitching ESPN?

Mike: It actually was sort of a weird thing. I work with @Radical Media and one of the executive producers here, a guy named Dave O’Connor, he came to @Radical from ESPN. For years when he worked at ESPN, he and a bunch of his colleagues over there had been talking about doing a Bo Jackson film. Everyone at ESPN was a really big fan and about one year ago, they decided they wanted to do it. ESPN had two criteria for the film. They wanted to focus primarily on Bo’s professional career and they wanted to make sure that the Nike campaign was a part of the film, since it was such an iconic campaign and part of Bo’s story. Those were really the only two directives that I was given.

@Radical has long-standing relationships with a lot of advertisers including Nike and Wieden and Kennedy, who was the ad agency for Nike. So, it was sort of a natural fit to bring it to @Radical. So, they came to Dave, who’s now an EP here at @Radical, and they talked to a bunch of directors here. For whatever reason, Dave decided that he would trust me to be the guy to do it. And, ESPN went along and agreed. We were off and running from there.

I’m not a sports guy. I’m… I’ve never been much of a sports fan. I don’t know much about sports at all. I really kind of just knew Bo from just being alive at that time, you know. I was a young teenager when he was at his height. And, so I knew the Bo Knows campaign. I knew he was that guy who plays baseball and football. But that was pretty much it. So I just started diving into research. I watched tons of highlights online. I read his autobiography. I read a couple of other books about him, one really great one called “Bigger Than the Game” by Michael Weinreb, who’s in the film.

I came up with this sort of take on it which was, based on everything that I’d read about Bo, the thing that just kept coming up again and again and again, in the way that people talk about him, was that he was just like this superhero, and I thought that was kind of cool. Because, I think, I don’t really like sports, but I like sports movies, and I like superhero movies, so let me make that. So I pitched that back to ESPN and they were totally into it and so we kind of just took it from there.

Director Michael Bonfiglio

The thing that was initially really challenging about it was that, you know, “30 for 30″ has been such a good series and the bar was set really high. I’d seen a few of the films before the project came to me, I’d seen them and I thought they were great. I started watching more of them when I got this project and was basically like, “Oh, f–k, (laughs) this, you know, there is a really high bar to these things, you know?”

John: (Laughs) Right.

Mike: Before I hit on the whole superhero/legend concept, the thing that was sort of daunting about it was that it was, in so many of the “30 for 30” stories, there’s this kind of dark underbelly. They tend to focus on stories that have a lot of drama and that often have a dark side to them. And it’s great. But everything that I could find about Bo, everything that I read about him and watching highlights and watching everything on Bo I could find… It was just like, “This guy’s great”, you know, and I was almost secretly hoping that he had fallen off the rails and was living in a dumpster someplace…

John: (Laughs)

Mike: …But instead, he was always really smart about his money and he was a professional business man, and he lives very comfortably. He has a happy domestic life. He’s just totally fine. He has a really nice life. So I was wondering, “What is this thing?” Where’s the drama? And then I realized that the apparent “perfection” of Bo is actually where the story was. I wanted to examine the creation of a legend.

John: Yeah.

Mike: The way everybody now talks about Bo is that he’s this larger than life figure and an almost impossible character, so that was really interesting to me. How are legends created? That, to me, is kind of what the movie is about, as much as it is about Bo.

John: Got you, got you. Well, it’s great, man. How did you go about… did you put together an outline with act breaks you thought were going to come up when you were researching? Or did you kind of go along with what people were telling you when you’re actually shooting?

Mike: Another challenge of it too was this – it was a story that had happened basically 20 years ago and really since Bo retired, there have been no real updates in the story. He’s just lived a very normal life. And, so, I was like, OK, well what is this story? There isn’t really anything new for hardcore fans of Bo. You’re not going to find anything new in “You Don’t Know Bo” that isn’t in his autobiography, or in other articles or other things that are already out there.

John: Um-hmm (affirmative).

Mike: And that initially to me was kind of scary, because it was like, well, this is a story that’s already been out there for 20 years. Initially I was like, “Oh, f–k. There’s just nothing new to say about this.” But what I realized in talking to people was that people didn’t really know the story and enough time had passed that it was fresh, even though all the stories are old. There’s no journalistically uncovering new information in the film. It’s all been out there and I decided that my job was to just to kind of synthesize it into something exciting and tell it in a fresh way. I was encouraged when I would talk to people, mostly younger people in their 20′s and younger, and my 13- and 16-year old cousins were like, “Who’s Bo Jackson?” That became kind of interesting to me. Here’s this guy who was, you know, the most famous person in the country for a while and he’s kind of forgotten. That was part of what gave me the idea for the title “You Don’t Know Bo” – younger people literally didn’t know who he is.

And in my mind, the fact that he had been somewhat forgotten – or certainly seemed to be at risk of being forgotten – opened up the story even more, and freed me up to not worry about delving into statistics and things. Sure, many people could make the case that his numbers or whatever weren’t as impressive as the visceral experience of watching him or remembering him, but I was kind of like, “Who cares?” People can debate his ranking among the greats on Twitter or wherever. The film is about the way he captured the imaginations of a generation and how he lives on in our memories. The statistics don’t matter.

So, basically, the really iconic plays were there, and in the film I kind of just built around that. And, to me, in reading his story, a very clear narrative came about that mirrored the great superhero stories – this idea of the kind of urban legends that surrounded him.

John: Yeah.

Mike: Um, his sort of origin story as a little kid, you know, having this like superhuman strength, and killing the boars with rocks as he’s jumping over a 40-foot ditch, and that kind of stuff.

John: (laughs) Yeah.

Mike: And then he goes to Auburn and basically takes this underdog team and almost single handedly puts them on top and beats Alabama. It was all just there.

John: That’s great. Yes, it’s interesting because at the beginning of the movie, you know, I’m watching it again, and I’m wondering – he never talked about working out. No one’s ever saying, “Oh, yeah, he was doing squats all day.” It’s like he’s just a f–king freak. It’s amazing. (laughs)

Mike: He’s just like from the planet Krypton, or something like that.

John: Yeah, totally. It’s … It’s … It’s nuts. It’s amazing and, yeah. All those stories are sorta like, wow! (laughs)

Mike: (laughs) …and those stories are fun.

John: He’s … He’s got … He got … He got his arm strength from …

Mike: You know, they’re fun. Like …

John: Yeah.

Mike: I had the narrative mapped out before we went in. I wrote up like a five page treatment or something for ESPN before we started shooting and they were like, “Great! Go shoot that.” And I was like, cool. So, I (laughs) I did. ESPN was just amazing to work with.

And then every single person that I interviewed, everybody with the way that they talked about Bo, like they just light up and there’s this enthusiasm and excitement that fills people when they talk about him.

The thing that really got me excited was the way that people had just extraordinary enthusiasm when they talked about him. Their … their faces light up and their whole bodies would light up, like, “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe, he’s so amazing.” And so I wanted a film that reflected that kind of enthusiasm and, along with that enthusiasm, comes this almost unbelievable kind of a legendary quality. The film sort of reflects that, or that’s what I was trying to do anyway.

I remember having a conversation very early on with Jonah Moran, who edited the film, and we were saying, “Let’s try and make the most sports movie-est sports movie ever. Let’s not worry about being cliché or over the top – that will be part of the fun.” And there was something so fun about approaching a documentary that way.

John: Yeah, I think so. Definitely. Was Bo already on board when ESPN was talking about it, or did you have to go out and try to get him?

Mike: When they decided to green-light the film, we didn’t know if Bo was going to do it or not. He was kind of on the fence. He’s a really busy guy with all of his various businesses and philanthropic ventures, and he’s never been really into talking to the press. Michael Weinreb quotes Bo as telling him, “I know how to feed you press people – with a long-handled ladle.” You know, he always kept the press at bay.

John: (laughs)

Mike: We really didn’t know if he was going to do it or not but we were going to make the film with or without him. I’m so glad, obviously, that he’s in it. I think it would have been a real shame if he hadn’t. I don’t think the film would be even a fraction of what it is without him. Around this time last year, he did a charity bike ride called “Bo Bikes Bama”…

John: Oh, right, right, right.

Mike: …to raise money for the tornado victims in Alabama. Dave met with him there and he seemed inclined to do it. He was mostly just interested in “OK, how much of my time do you need?” We didn’t really know. His involvement could change the film in a huge way, you know what I mean? I mean, do you follow him around for a few weeks and shoot verité of what his life is like now post-athletics? To me that was never really that interesting because he’s such a, on the surface, such a regular guy. His life is a very regular life now.

John: Hmmm.

Mike: And I think it was clear that he didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the film from his work and his family…

John: Right.

Mike: So we did one interview and then after the interview I asked him if we could come over to the house and just shoot him, you know, shooting arrows or get some sense of his life now.

John: Yeah. Yeah.

Mike: And that’s the stuff that’s at the end of the film – which I was really glad that he let us shoot. We shot all of that in a couple of hours.

John: That stuff’s great when he’s making the arrows and he’s talking about the Man Cave and all of that.

Mike: Yeah. Yeah.

John: Naw, that’s fantastic. I love that stuff.

Mike: Yeah. It’s really fun, but I also think it has a sort of melancholy to it, which I really like.

John: How did… when he’s talking about his mother’s death and the first hit for her when he made his comeback, was he… did you have to kind of… I don’t know what the right word is, but did you cajole or coax that out of him? Was he willing to talk about it?

Mike: To be honest with you, I don’t remember. I’d like to take credit for it, but I’m really not sure I did very much. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews over the past couple of years with really high-level people. I’m kind of proud of my interviewing skills at this point. I feel like it’s one of my few, if any, strengths.

John: (laughs)

Mike: And as a documentary maker, I think I’m pretty good at interviewing and drawing emotion out of people and stuff like that. But, with Bo, I didn’t know what to expect from him when we showed up for the interview…

John: Um-hmm (affirmative).

Mike: From everything that I’d heard, he was not like somebody who really likes doing all the interviews. He sat down in the chair and we had a pretty elaborate setup. We did it with the, you know, the Interrotron, and it was all giant green screen and we had him set up on this riser, and we had two cameras, and we had a dolly on site. It was a fairly impressive looking set to come sit down in, which was important I think in making it clear to him that this wasn’t just some little interview – we were making a real film about him. And he walked in and he sat down, and we started. And he just held court. I mean, I … I …

John: (laughs)

Mike: I asked fewer questions of him than I had anticipated. I mean, I had pages and pages of questions and I think the first question… I can’t remember what the first question was that I asked him, but it was something very simple, and he started talking, and like 10 minutes later, I was thinking, “Oh, my god, this guy’s amazing.”

John: (laughs)

Mike: He has brain power [John: I don’t think this is what I said. Maybe “He’s a great storyteller.”?] I think the whole interview lasted maybe three and a half hours, and I asked far fewer questions than I had anticipated. He just seemed to be really into it. I think he must have just been at a place in his life where he was ready to sit down and talk about it, you know?

John: Yeah.

Mike: So he was a dream interview subject. And he was really willing to go pretty much anywhere including the more emotional stuff. And that moment where he talks about his long home run for his mom, it gets me every time, really…

John: Yeah.

Mike: It’s really, really touching.

John: Yeah. And to have this man, this man who is one of the strongest, biggest, fastest men in the history of America and maybe the world, on the verge of tears talking about his mom, it’s a beautiful moment. Goes beyond sports or anything else.

END PART ONE

The second part of this interview with “You Don’t Know Bo” director Michael Bonfiglio will be posted next week.

Thanks, again, to Mike for taking the time to talk “Bo” with me!