- The Showtime documentary “Love Means Zero” (airing Saturday) looks at the career of tennis coach Nick Bollettieri.
- But the main focus of director Jason Kohn’s movie is the relationship Bollettieri had with his star student, Andre Agassi.
- Kohn talked to Business Insider about why he had to have a confrontational relationship with the coach to get the movie he wanted.
In the 1990s, there was no bigger coach in tennis than Nick Bollettieri. A charismatic motivator with an oversized ego, he also had a gift for moulding raw talent into champions.
At his lauded tennis academy, he launched the careers of tennis legends like Jim Courier, Monica Seles, Mary Pierce, Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Anna Kournikova. By his count, 180 grand slam titles would come out of players he coached.
But his crown jewel was Andre Agassi.
Coming to Bollettieri’s school as a teenager, Agassi instantly caught the coach’s eye because he was different. His attitude, his game, it all just shouted superstar. Bollettieri, yearning to be a star himself, put Agassi under his wing and the two became inseparable as his pupil became the hottest thing in the sport.
However, the good times didn’t last forever. Following a grand slam win with Agassi, in 1993 Bollettieri shockingly left the player he said he loved like a son. And if that wasn’t heartbreaking enough for Agassi, Bollettieri didn’t give a passionate face-to-face goodbye but instead ended it all via a letter to his star. The two have not been on speaking terms since.
Now decades later, at the age of 86, Bollettieri agreed to sit down with documentary filmmaker Jason Kohn (“Manda Bala (Send a Bullet)”) to talk about it all. But “Love Means Zero” (airing on Showtime Saturday) is hardly a conventional sports documentary that looks back on the highlights of a legendary career. It’s hard hitting and full of confrontation – just like its subject.
Kohn admits he didn’t have major aspirations for the project. In many ways he saw it as an opportunity to practice storytelling. Unlike his debut feature film, 2007’s “Manda Bala (Send a Bullet),” a complex telling of corruption and kidnapping in Brazil (it won the documentary grand jury prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival), Kohn could see from the start how to tell the story of Bollettieri: be as real as possible.
“The biggest learning opportunity was figuring out how do I make this into a real story,” Kohn told Business Insider. “How do I make this into a protagonist who has really clear specific goals and desires with very clear moments of conflict?”
And that was the initial challenge for Kohn: getting Bollettieri to come on board with his idea.
”I was extraordinarily concerned that if I wasn’t able to get something real with Nick that this was just going to be a conventional sports documentary, and that was a genuine fear,” Kohn said. “Even though I knew what the story was I didn’t mention to Nick that I knew exactly what the story was I wanted to tell. Rather than say, ‘I want to exclusively tell the story about his relationship with Andre,’ what I told him is I wanted to tell a family story and that I wanted to tell a story about surrogate fathers and sons and the relationships between his players. At that point Nick said to me, ‘Well, what about French Open 1989 when I chose [to coach] Andre [Agassi] over Jim [Courier]? They were both my boys.’ And I was like, ‘Nick, that’s a wonderful idea!’ Meanwhile, that was the treatment that I had written.”
With Bollettieri on board with the story, the other challenge was figuring out if Agassi would participate in the movie. Initially, Kohn had the project set up as a “30 for 30” documentary at ESPN. But it became clear that the network was only interested in the movie if Agassi was involved. After a year of back-and-forth discussions with Agassi’s manager, Kohn finally got the “no” – Agassi would not be in the movie (Showtime snatched it soon after).
What Kohn realised in that moment was he had been free of a major restriction: working with a temperamental superstar. He changed his story treatment from a 60-minute documentary to a 90-minute feature doc and began tracking down Bollettieri’s former students.
Kohn’s confidence in the project came from knowing how he wanted to structure the storytelling of Bollettieri and Agassi’s relationship – using the battle sequences from the Akira Kurosawa samurai classic “Ran” as a model for how to showcase three key Agassi matches – and capitalising on the on-camera personality that Bollettieri would bring.
But the latter turned out to be more than what Kohn bargained for. In an attempt to get Bollettieri out of his usual soundbite speak, the result was constant arguments caught on camera between the two that aren’t just entertaining to watch, but a refreshing subplot to the movie. As most sports documentaries are helmed by directors too busy gushing over their subjects to get them to be revealing, Kohn can be heard off camera pleading with Bollettieri to give him genuine answers to his questions.
Kohn said the key to the whole movie was that his producer Amanda Branson Gill had Bollettieri agree to sit down for two days of interviews. It was vital, because what Kohn realised was almost the entire first day was the famous coach doing the shtick he’d done for interviews for decades.
“I was getting very frustrated,” Kohn said. “Nick is self-mythologizing and when you’re taking to people who are good storytellers and who have told the same story over and over and over again the actual story becomes extraordinarily detached from what actually happened. It was pretty boring.”
With visions of a conventional sports doc flashing before his eyes, Kohn at the end of the first day finally began to get Bollettieri out of his interview speak by confronting his subject on camera. Kohn said at the end of filming the first day Bollettieri got out of his seat and said to the crew, “You see that? Jason and I are fighting, it’s great!”
“I saw how well he responded to that so the second day of the interview I just went in with the idea that we’re going to fight now,” Kohn said. “And that was great, I felt really liberated.”
The result is one of the most powerful sports documentaries you’ll see this year. Through the pressing by Kohn, Bollettieri opens up about the controversial decision to sit in Agassi’s box when he played fellow Bollettieri protégé Jim Courier at the 1989 French Open, why he sent Agassi the letter ending his time as his coach, and why his world-renowned academy ended up not making any money.
But where we find the macho coach’s most revealing moment is when Kohn asks Bollettieri to read a passage from Agassi’s autobiography, “Open,” in which the star writes an emotional letter directly to his old coach. It shows a rare vulnerable side of Bollettieri leading to him finally saying how he feels about his protégé: that he still cares deeply for Agassi.
Kohn said he offered Agassi a chance to see “Love Means Zero” at a private screening when it was completed, but the tennis legend declined. Though he would have liked to have known what Agassi thought of the movie, it was more important for Kohn to find out what Bollettieri thought. The director admitted showing the movie to his subject for the first time was a strenuous ordeal.
The small screening included some of Bollettieri’s friends, and at the end it seemed the coach liked it, as he then held court and told stories. Kohn snuck out feeling it all worked well. Then around 10:30 that evening, Bollettieri called Kohn.
“I’m thinking, s—, this is when Nick is going to pull his mafia persona,” Kohn said. “And then he gave me a world class Coach Bollettieri ‘I’m proud of you’ speech and I was extraordinarily moved. The fact that I was moved was the most surprising thing to me because I wasn’t looking for Nick’s approval with this picture. I wasn’t looking to make him happy. But that was the last thing about Nick’s power as a coach and a motivator that I couldn’t grasp until it happened to me. To give me the kind of speech I can only imagine he gave some of his players, I loved it.”
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