From director Josh Greenbaum, the fascinating and inspiring documentary The Short Game (now available on Netflix) follows eight of the most competitive golfers around the globe, who all just happen to be young children, training and competing in the World Championship of Junior Golf. The film gives a vantage point and insight into a unique world, where children are playing a grown-ups’ game that requires intense focus and extreme skill.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, filmmaker Josh Greenbaum talked about how this project came about, narrowing down the possible subjects for the film to the eight they focus on, why it’s been so important to have Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel as executive producers, how the humor evolved, purposely including the moments where the kids were acting like kids, what most impressed him about these kids, making the decision not to judge the parents, the techniques he used to get the kids to open up, how he was expecting to witness more temper tantrums than he did, and how he hopes people will walk away from the film feeling better about the world. He also talked about his 10-episode documentary series for Hulu, called Behind the Mask, about the lives of four sports mascots, and that he’s also working in narrative, scripted features, as well. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
JOSH GREENBAUM: Rafael Marmor, the producer of the film and an old friend of mine, called me up. We had a lunch, and he presented me with this world. My initial instinct was, “I’m not sure.” I’m not a big golfer, and I feel like a lot of these stories about 13-year-old kids in certain worlds in documentaries have been told. It really wasn’t until I started doing a little bit of research and realized that there 5- and 6-year-olds doing this. And not only were there 5- and 6- and 7-year-olds doing it, but they’re actually incredibly talented. It’s not just a little hobby. That’s really what hooked me in.
I’m primarily a comedy director, and the idea of getting to spend the year with this age group means you’re laughing a lot. It’s the last age before you become incredibly self-aware, and so they say things that are, at one point, hilarious, and at the next, incredibly wise. So, I just got really excited about exploring this age group, and it took off from there. We started finding characters and doing research, and then the snowball effect happens. The project technically started with our executive producer, David Frankel, who is a director, himself. He directed Marley & Me and The Devil Wears Prada, and lots of wonderful films. He has twins – a boy and a girl – who are in this world. They’ve been playing golf since they were seven or so. So, he approached Rafael and myself, and really brought the world to light and let us know that the world existed.
How did you find and decide on the children and families that you were going to feature? Did you speak to a lot of people, and then narrow it down?
GREENBAUM: We did. Like you do with any documentary or journalistic work, we went to the tournament the year prior. We went to the 2011 World Championships, and we brought a couple cameras, but not our full crew. And we just interviewed and sat with as many kids and their families as possible. We probably met several hundred kids that week, and started to talk to them to find out, not just who were contenders and who might be the next World Champion, but really find out who’s interesting, who has a personality and who has a take. With the eight kids that we were following for the film, we also wanted a really diverse ensemble. Not just of girls and boys and of countries, ‘cause we followed kids from all over the world, but really with their approach to the game, their personalities, and their outlook and view on life. They all provide really interesting insight. You wouldn’t think it, but these young kids provide quite a depth of insight into life itself, and into the world itself.
Obviously, if you’re going to get a celebrity who loves golf involved with this and have a name bring visibility to the project, Justin Timberlake seems like the perfect choice. How did he end up as an executive producer on the film, and what has it meant to have both him and Jessica Biel behind this?
GREENBAUM: It’s been incredible! The film’s first-ever showing was at the South by Southwest film festival. It was received really well. We won the Audience Award at that festival, which was huge. And right around that same time, Justin and Jessica got to see the film through managers and connections and people we knew, and they just fell in love with it. Justin, as it sounds like you already know, is an avid golfer. Jessica, herself, is not just an athlete from her youth, when she played all sorts of sports, but she and Justin responded to the messaging, the themes, what the film explores, and the optimism of it all. So, it’s meant an incredible amount to have them be a part of the time and come onboard with the team. One of the biggest things they’ve done a wonderful job of is getting people aware of it. It’s hard to make a documentary, and it’s hard to have people find out about your film. There are so many other films out there. They’ve been on talk shows with the kids, and they’ve been tweeting and Facebook posting. Justin has 25 million Twitter and Facebook followers. It’s been incredible. We feel really lucky to have had them come on board with the film.
Because golf is such a serious sport that involves such immense concentration, did you intentionally want to off-set that with humor, or was that more of an organic process?
GREENBAUM: Well, it’s a little bit of both. Going into it, I was hoping there would be a lot of comedy, by following 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds. Even though I’ve played a little bit of golf myself – I wouldn’t call myself a full-on golfer – the film is not solely for golfers. If you play, it’s great. You’ll love it. But if you don’t play and don’t know anything about golf, I really made the film so that you can follow it. It’s not really, ultimately about golf. Having played a little bit of golf, I know that it is such a difficult game, both physically and mentally. I was really intrigued to see how these kids, at this age, some of whom weren’t quite able to tie their shoes properly, and they really had trouble signing their name on their scorecard, were going to be able to perform and play the game. But, the comedy just came out in spades. There are so many funny moments on the cutting room floor, many of which came from Allan Kournikova. I learned, early on, that I could ask him anything and he had an opinion.
GREENBAUM: Yeah, I certainly wanted to, and then, of course, it just happened. You have an intention, but you also just want to present the world honestly. What happened every day, after this giant World Championship tournament was that, as soon as these kids’ rounds were over, the kid that they were just batting fiercely out on the golf course, they’re playing a fun little game of ping-pong with, or they’re wrestling with each other, or they’re going for ice cream and pizza. It’s really inspirational to see the way these kids approach the game of golf, which in many ways, the metaphors of life run through, with how they approach competition, friendships and relationships. But there are so many fun, wonderful kid moments that, to be honest and fair to the world, I included.
The film says that you can fake it in team sports because it’s about the collective of the players, but because golf is a solo sport it relies on one individual’s talent and skill. What most impressed you about how these young children play such a difficult and intense game?
GREENBAUM: I was impressed, across the board, in so many ways. It is an individual sport. Yes, they have their parents helping. Most of them have them serve as caddies. For those who don’t know the golf world, it’s sort of your assistant because they’re not strong enough to carry their own clubs, and you have to know which club to use. When I play golf, I always have to ask someone with me, “Which club should I use from this distance?” So, I was impressed, across the board. Most of these kids are hitting below par. I saw tons of birdies, several eagles, and we even caught a hole-in-one, which is an incredibly rare thing to see, in anyone’s lifetime, let alone from a 7-year-old boy.
I think what probably most impressed me, and I really took from making the film, in terms of the way they approach and play the game, was that they purposely have a short memory. Some of that is probably a result of their age, but they also train themselves to do it, so that when they have a bad hole or a bad shot, they put it behind them and start again fresh. I think that’s a really important skill to have in life. As we get older, and I certainly do this, when you have a bad start of whatever it is – whether it’s a golf round, a business, a book, a page of a screenplay, the start of a painting – if you start off wrong, you think it’s all over and that you can’t fix it from there. These kids train just continuously train themselves to put it behind them. And they put the good shots behind them, as well. That’s part of the training.
The other thing that really impressed me, and that I just love and think about all the time, in my own life, is that they really just focus on where they want to go, and you see that, over and over. There’s incredible power in that confidence. If we all followed in their footsteps, we might lead happier or more successful lives.
The parent-child relationship plays a big part in this film, but you don’t make any judgments on whether it’s the parents pushing their child, or whether it’s the child’s choice to be playing. Was that something you made a conscious decision about, ahead of time, just to present it and not judge the reason?
GREENBAUM: I did. It’s been interesting because I even caught some flack for that. I try not to read too many reviews. When I pitched the project, and we were trying to get funding and people behind the film, almost everyone we pitched said, “Oh, okay, so it’s about crazy parents.” That was so interesting to me because, for me, it was never about that. I was so interested in these kids, and I’ve never really seen a doc that spends an hour and a half with 7-year-old kids, and particularly 7-year-old kids that are incredibly successful at something. So, I really always wanted it to be about the kids. And of course, if you’re going to follow kids this age, parents are going to be a big role, but I always set out to just present it.
I think we often jump to conclusions and judgments about people that maybe aren’t fair and, in doing so, lose a chance to learn something, both about them and about ourselves. I became a parent while making this film. I’m not the dad of identical twin girls who are 18 months old. It was interesting for me to see all the different parenting philosophies across cultures. Every parent is different, and every child is different. The only universal thing I found, across the board, with all these parents, is that they clearly want the best for their children. Some of them are going about it in better or worse ways than others, but I didn’t want to judge. You can watch the film and judge, and take away your own conclusion, but that wasn’t what the film was about. Also, I’d rather just present the truth, and you can take away what you want to take from it.
Was it challenging to get these kids to open up and talk to you in a way that would really allow the audience to see who they are and their dedication to their sport? Did you have to make adjustments to the way you normally work, when you started working with these kids?
GREENBAUM: Yeah, I did. Part of the reason why I wanted to do this film is because I love kids. Coming at it from that perspective is helpful. I’ve always loved kids this age, and I feel like they respond well to me. I’ve been told by many a kid, “You’re like a kid, yourself!” One of the kids said to me, “I bet you like chocolate ice cream and staying up late,” and I was like, “I do!” But, it’s a bit of a challenge. On one side, it’s easier because they aren’t self-aware and they don’t censor themselves. But on the flipside, the concern, early on, was about whether they’d be comfortable, if they’d be too shy, and whether they’d really be able to give any depth. The fear in the back of my head was, “Maybe people haven’t explored this age in documentaries because you just can’t get anything from these kids,” but I found totally the opposite.
And I certainly employed some techniques. I would always let them play with the cameras and see everything, so they weren’t too intimidated. We chose cameras that were quite small. I don’t think we ever actually used lights, other than some of our pro interviews. And we never used a boom mic because I just found that kids would get distracted and I really wanted them to forget about the cameras. I would always do a lot of the interviews where they were comfortable, like in their house and oftentimes in their room. Instead of sitting down for a formal interview, we’d get out some toys and talk while they were showing me some of their favorite toys. It certainly was difficult, but I think, at the end, it worked out fine. The kids were all very much themselves and very comfortable.
Were you expecting to witness more temper-tantrums than you did? Were you surprised at how well-behaved these kids were, most of the time?
GREENBAUM: I was. I know that when I play golf, I’ve had mini temper-tantrums, so I can only imagine, if you’re seven or something, how that would go. I was incredibly surprised by how poised they were and how much focus they had. These kids work really hard. What shows is that the kids who are really good at it, love doing it. I think that’s the case with anything, whether it’s sports or beyond. If you love what you do, you often wind up being good at it, and the reverse is true, as well. When you’re really good at something, you love it because you get positive reinforcement. So, I was blown away by the fact that they would have a horrible short, and then they would take a breath and keep going. It’s impressive, and also inspirational.
What do you hope people take away from seeing this film? Do you hope it gives people a new understanding for what these kids do and the dedication that they have?
GREENBAUM: Yeah. As a filmmaker and documentarian, I like to explore worlds that we haven’t seen before, or a world that we’ve seen or know pretty well, but from a brand-new perspective, with the goal of shedding new light on our own lives. This did both for me. I never knew this world existed, with this junior golf circuit. We’ve seen the golf world and we’ve heard stories about golf, but this is three feet shorter. It’s a totally new perspective, visually and also just intrinsically. The subjects bring a whole new perspective to the game. I hope, certainly, that people are entertained, and they laugh. I think it’s a very positive outlook.
Hopefully, people walk away feeling better about the world, and that the world is in good hands. There are a lot of wonderful documentaries out there, but it often skews very negative and very dark, and it just keeps reminding us that things are falling apart and the world is awful. It’s not that that’s not true, but there’s also a lot to celebrate about the world. There’s a lot of beauty and wonder, and kids are often the source of that perspective. So, I hope people remember what it feels like to be a kid, and take this perspective that these kids bring to their game and maybe look at your own life and remember what it is that you love. This is these kids’ passion, and we’ve all had passions. I hope that people find their inner child again, after watching the film.
Where do you go from here? Do you already have your next project lined up?
GREENBAUM: I’ve got a lot of things in the works. While I was finishing up The Short Game, I started a 10-episode documentary series on Hulu. They’re half-hour episodes, called Behind the Mask, and it follows the lives of four sports mascots, which are those interesting guys in furry suits. I followed a high schooler, a colleger, a minor league and a pro, for about a year. I’m really proud of that, as well. I think fans of The Short Game will be fans of that, as well. In many ways, it’s a very different world, but there are a lot of similar thematics and a similar tone. So, I hope people check that out. And I just continue to work. I’m always looking for an interesting documentary project, but I’m also working in the narrative, scripted space, as well. Hopefully, there will be lots more to come from here. Who knows, maybe in 10 years, we’ll do a follow-up for The Short Game and see where all the kids are. That would be interesting.
The Short Game is now available on Netflix.