The documentary "IVERSON" debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday night on SHOWTIME, as director Zatella Beatty and coach/mentor/manager Gary Moore collaborate to tell the story of Allen Iverson's fascinating life and career. Iverson has long been one of the most dynamic, controversial, and possibly misunderstood pro athletes we've ever seen. He set cultural trends and sparked polarizing debates.
I was given the chance to discuss the filmmaking process and the journey of this story with Zatella Beatty over the phone. Here is my Q&A with the director of "IVERSON."
Question: How did you get involved with the project?
Zatella Beaty: That is kind of an amazing story. I guess it was several years ago when I kind of first got to know Allen Iverson, really through watching him on television. It was a game when they played the Lakers and I just remember seeing this interview and I was like, "Who is this person?" He just had so much heart and determination and drive and all these things. I was just wondering I wonder what his story is. As time went by, I decided I’d like to reach out to him and see if we can get a documentary done on him.
And what I found was that no one could actually get in touch with Allen. All these people told us they knew him and they could call him, they could see if there was an interest, and no one could actually get next to him. So then it just made it even more intriguing. I was like, "The president is easier to get in touch with." Because at this point he was at the top of his game, and I had never heard of you can’t just get nowhere near him. I’ve never heard of such a thing.
We had just come off of doing a movie (the Barbershop franchise). I was like, "Well, surely we can get in touch with Allen Iverson." But even that didn’t help. Eventually we connected with Gary, and Gary kind of at the same time we were looking, was kind of looking ahead and thinking about his legacy and those things. We kind of connected at the same time and as I sat down and we talked about it, I think he saw the honesty, the real interest in the story, and no other agenda. It was really him that allowed me to come in and tell the story.
Q: Gary Moore told me that he had asked Allen to let him tell his story someday. And I was surprised to see that you didn't really pull any punches with him. It wasn't a fluff piece. How do you go about presenting all sides of it, both good and bad?
Beatty: That was important. It was really important. As we went through this process, it was several years before we even let Allen see it. Because he knew that we were filming, but he was like, "What does it look like?" and I was like, "You’re going to have to wait." Because we didn’t know what the story was going to be. We’re just going to need to follow him and see what it turns out to be and it has to be honest.
The first time he saw it, which might have been four years in, we open with the kids and he was like, "What?" He couldn’t believe these kids were ripping him apart. He said, "I love it because they’re real." That’s what you see.
Q: There was a lot of old footage and home video to set up the story of his younger days, the bowling alley incident and incarceration process. How difficult was it to obtain that video?
Beatty: That was a very difficult section. There were people there that still carry that whole incident with them today. The footage we got was from someone that was involved. They held onto the footage for 15 years because they feared there could be repercussions if someone got hold of it. It was building a trust that we were going to do the right things with it. It probably took us six or seven years to get the footage that they felt comfortable that it’d be used in the appropriate way.
No one wanted to talk about it. I didn’t know it was going to become an investigative piece. You had to spend a lot of time in [Hampton, Virginia] to understand the climate, overall. We went through a lot in the process. Our cameras were taken. We were told to leave town. I really don’t think people understand. This was a really difficult piece on so many levels. I couldn’t even believe it.
I really just never thought in this day we’d still be faced with certain issues; it seems like in that town it all happened yesterday.
Q: I haven't been all that familiar with the Hampton, Virginia area or really any areas in Virginia. Admittedly, I'm kind of ignorant or unaware of how things are done there. How difficult does that make it to talk about what happened from a legal sense in such a racially divided or charged area?
Beatty: We did meet with the judge [who sentenced Iverson to a prison terms of 15 years with 10 years suspended] but he said he would never talk about it. And he died three months later.
Q: So then how do you unearth that part of the story?
Beatty: It became an investigative piece. It became investigative journalism. They’re so guarded that nobody wants to say anything. Do I say this or don’t say this? We had to almost live there. We had to just get on the ground and just let these people know we weren’t trying to sway it in any way. We just wanted an honest and accurate picture of what happened and just try to see does it make any sense?
You really can’t understand it unless you’re there and see what it’s like growing up in that little section. I’m from Washington, D.C. but this was a part of Virginia I had never been exposed to. There were certain parts of the town where they said don’t come here after dark. I was like, "Huh?"
Q: What year is it when you're trying to go about this?
Beatty: 2008. It took me a long time wondering "Did they really say that? And what happens if we go there?" Do you really want to find out? We had never experienced this. Most of our crew was from California. A lot of them grew up [in California]. They just didn’t believe this type of thing was even possible. What I also learned through this was, when Gary said the Martin Luther King [comment about Allen having the same type of impact], some people were like "How could you say something like that?"
Once we were down there and we saw what it was like, I understood that that’s what it felt like to them because there were marches. There were boycotts. It was a major thing in this little Southern town, so that’s what it felt like to them.
Q: It almost seems impossible he made it through that.
Beatty: I think he just is who he is. He came in unapologetic; he left unapologetic. He doesn’t know how to be any other way. I don’t think he looks at it the way other people do, but the legacy is so important and to overcome what he did is unbelievable. Just the fact that he was able to do this in spite of everything that was going on was truly amazing.
He’s one of the few players – we have Kobe, we have Shaq, we have LeBron and they’re all great players – but how many people actually came into the league and changed not only the game, but society and culture at the same time?
Q: He channels the rage and becomes the icon and figure we all end up knowing, which eventually builds toward the infamous practice rant. And this is where the real heart of the film is, right?
Beatty: The way it is now; it’s this joke to everybody. To him, it always takes him back to this place with what happened to his friend. Ra was so close to him and that was his best friend and just gone. Not only that, he had seen so much growing up in that environment and he had lost so much at that early age, here was just another one. It was something very interesting because people talked about the way he dressed and all those things and why doesn’t he just put on a suit?
I wanted to somehow incorporate this in the documentary – it didn’t get in there – but one of the reasons he always had issues with wearing suits was because every time he put on a suit, he was going to a funeral.
All these things you had heard about him, they’re not even reasons. We came up with our own narrative but the truth is it was a painful experience for him.
Q: Did you have certain expectations going into it?
Beatty: I didn’t necessarily have certain expectations. I just wanted it to be a true documentary. And we end up living this with him. It’s kind of like we came in like a roller coaster ride. When we came into this, he was kind of at the top. That ride was frightening. It was exhilarating. You didn’t know what turn it was going to take. It was all of those things. You just had to be prepared for it.
In the process, I find him to be a very complex individual and people really don’t understand that he didn’t seek this. It’s not like he said, "Oh yeah, I want to do this documentary." He wasn’t seeking anything like this. He didn’t need it; it wasn’t that important to him. He’s a person that’s fine with the way that everything is.
It’s kind of all of us that want to get to know everything about him. It’s like getting Howard Hughes, basically. Then there’s that trust and loyalty factor with Allen. It takes years to get close to him. That’s also one of the reasons it took so long. He just is not going to open up until he feels like you don’t have an agenda.
Q: When did you really start working on the project?
Beatty: I think it was about ’07 that we were actually into it. We didn’t do it like every single day. We’d spend a certain amount of time like we’d go to this event or that event. Or they’d say we’re doing this and you need to be here. And it just kept taking all these turns. We thought when he went to Denver and did all this, we thought this would be it because this is where he’ll retire and this will end here. Before we could get finished, he was off to somewhere else.
It was like, "Uh oh. It’s just shifted." Now he’s to Detroit and we’re like, "Detroit?!" And then it’s like he’s there for about two days. Now he’s to Memphis. Now we’ve got to go to Memphis. Then when it came to Turkey, we were like, "Oh no, who wants to go to Turkey? Is this ever going to end?" It was all over the place. This cannot be happening to one person.
I’ve never seen anything like this and we just had to keep rolling with it. I don’t know when it’s going to end. I don’t know how it’s going to end.
Q: Was Allen open to talking once the project got going?
Beatty: Once he saw the approach we had taken, he was fine with it. He would just go on and on. He saw the guys who were incarcerated with him and everything. He saw that we had gotten through to all these different people and that just made him feel more and more comfortable. Then he was like, "I’m really glad to be able to tell my story."
When he actually watched it, he said it took him on a roller coaster ride. He was happy; he was sad. He was angry; he was frustrated. He’s like, "This is my life."
Imagine seeing your life on the screen for the first time. You had been a part of it but now someone is presenting it to you. And we didn’t shy away from things. Like the Reebok thing, it was like, "Well, this is what they said was going on." He kind of laughed about the whole thing.
Q: What do you hope the audience member gets out of watching this?
Beatty: I look at it like it’s a piece of art or a painting. I think when people go to a museum or a gallery, they look at art and they see many different things. And there are many different things in this documentary.
If you’re a child, you see what can happen when you overcome adversity. If you’re a parent or a coach or a mentor as Gary was, you see what happens when you take the time and nurture a child. If you’re an athlete, maybe it’s a cautionary tale. If you’re just a person in general, maybe it’s about survival and endurance because I didn’t realize that was what we experienced.
It was about getting through this. You’ll experience many different things as if you’re in a museum and it’s a piece of art, take away from it what you see.
IVERSON airs Saturday, May 16 at 9 p.m. ET on SHOWTIME.