Jeremiah Zagar on Directing Adam Sandler in Hustle, Growing Up on South Street, and His Philly-Famous Family
Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar — son of iconic South Street artist Isaiah Zagar — gets his first major studio release this month with Netflix’s Hustle, a Philly-shot basketball movie starring Adam Sandler.
You may not know the name Jeremiah Zagar, but you’re certainly familiar with his father, Isaiah, creator of South Street’s mesmerizing Magic Gardens. But this month, movie director Jeremiah steps into the spotlight with some help from Adam Sandler, Queen Latifah — and a few NBA legends — in Hustle.
Hi, Victor. Thanks for doing this. I just have to be a little quiet, because I have a baby lying on my belly.
Oh, my. Congratulations!
Thanks. She’s almost a year old, and I’m on daddy day-care duty today to give her mother some time. But she’s asleep, so we should be okay.
I’ll try not to shout.
So, Hustle. I had a chance to screen it last night before its worldwide release on Netflix on June 8th, and I have to admit: I was kind of dreading it.
Well, I don’t know what an alley-oop is. Just not a basketball guy. And I haven’t forgiven Adam Sandler for Little Nicky or — well, take your pick. But you managed to combine a sport I don’t watch with an actor who has, at times, made me cringe and made something that is both moving and exciting.
It’s wonderful to hear you say that. Adam is so, so good in this movie.
Agreed. I was glad to see the more serious version of Adam, à la Uncut Gems and Punch-Drunk Love, and less I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry.
Me too, though he is funny as well in Hustle. But yes, it’s part of an Adam renaissance. An Adamssance? [laughs] I’m sure those people in Hollywood have some term for what it is.
Your main background in film is documentary and commercial. So how did you go from that to directing one of the most famous comic actors of our time in a movie about basketball?
Well, from the beginning, Adam made it clear to me that he had an absolute mandate of bringing in real people from the basketball world to act in the movie. And I imagine that’s why they wanted me to direct: I have a background working with people who don’t act, whether in documentary films or my 2018 feature We the Animals, which used actors who had little or no experience.
And in Hustle, there’s no shortage of real basketball players who had no acting experience. I didn’t realize until after watching the movie that the co-star is the towering Spanish basketball player Juancho Hernangómez, from the Utah Jazz. And then you have Anthony Edwards, Kenny Smith, Boban Marjanović — the list goes on. Definitely a movie whose credits you want to stick around and watch.
They were all unbelievably good — Boban is a giant magical creature — and we brought in the fabulous acting coach Noëlle Gentile. She was really able to work with all of them so that they could express themselves and get this naturalistic documentary feel. And the movie is really well-cast, and 90 percent of acting is in the casting.
So, do I have you to thank for casting Queen Latifah as Adam’s wife? I love her in this movie.
No, you have Adam to thank, but I thought it was a great idea. They are a really special couple in this. They feel like Philadelphia to me. They are not some perfect Hollywood-looking couple. They are … authentic.
There’s a pretty high level of involvement from the 76ers in Hustle — current players, Doc Rivers, and some real Sixers legends, most notably Dr. J, who has a brief but absolutely pivotal role. Did this film hinge on Dr. J and some of those other Sixers saying yes?
No. It was originally unclear where we would shoot this and exactly who would be involved. But then we got a tax break thanks to Sharon Pinkenson from the Philadelphia Film Office, and it made it possible for us to do this here. If we shot it elsewhere, the movie wouldn’t be what it is. And it was just amazing to hang out with the Sixers. Superheroes. Real superheroes. All of this was also possible because Adam is known to be a true basketball lover. He’s meaningful in that world.
You and Adam. One-on-one. Who wins?
[Laughs] In basketball?! I love basketball and can play a decent game … with a six-year-old. But Adam is a real player. He plays every day.
How long were you actually in Philly for Hustle?
We did about three months for the first round and two for the second. The first time, I lived in Fishtown. The second time around, right by City Hall. I ate a lot of pizza.
You lived in Philly for five months and the best you could do was pizza?
[Laughs] I did okay. I loved Kalaya and Beddia and Alpen Rose, which was definitely the most luxurious meal I’d ever had in Philadelphia. And I did my birthday at Vernick Fish. Also, Fiorella and Parc. Oh, and Hiroki. We loved Hiroki.
With the advent of streaming services like Netflix producing major movies, there’s a lot of talk about the future of movie theaters. When I was a kid, we were always at the movie theater. Now, even pre-COVID, we go very infrequently. My kids were always happy to watch a movie at home, assuming there was popcorn. Does the movie-theater model matter to you?
That model is everything to me. It matters the most. I grew up at the Ritz at the Bourse and Ritz Five. My parents would give me books of tickets for every birthday and Christmas. The theater experience is religious to me.
One thing that really stuck out to me in Hustle are the fun training scenes with Adam and Juancho on the streets of Philadelphia. They felt very Rocky. Intentional?
Absolutely! An intentional homage. I think you can even hear one of them yell out “Yo, Rocky!” at one point.
I do think I heard that. Wasn’t sure. I also could have sworn I heard some Rocky-like triumphant horns at one point, when Juancho finally reaches his training goal, which, like in Rocky, involves a staircase.
Totally. Dan Deacon, the musician from Baltimore, did the score. He’s so amazing. There’s fire to his music. It’s anthemic. It feels like sports to me. There’s so much action. It’s alive.
Wow, I am a huge fan of Dan’s live shows and had no idea he did the music for Hustle. I am going to have to watch this again and listen.
He’s the best.
This being Philly, people will be excited about the nods to local restaurants. I picked up on Pat’s, Geno’s, Ishkabibble’s and Federal Donuts. And in this one scene where they’re playing basketball outside, there’s this out-of-focus restaurant in the background that I think might be the Melrose.
Good eye! [singing] “Everybody who knows goes to Melrose … ” I saw those Melrose commercials constantly growing up. We had a lot of fun shooting here. There’s also the Italian Market, Fante’s, Esposito’s.
Tell the truth: Does Adam get a fat check from Michael Solomonov for wearing a Federal Donuts shirt for quite a long time in the movie? Is this like Reese’s Pieces product placement in E.T.?
[Laughs] No, I think he just wanted to celebrate the city as much as we did and as much as the costume designers did. But I do know that Adam loves Zahav.
One of the reasons I’m glad you have this major release is I hope it brings attention to your fascinating 2008 documentary In a Dream, which you made about your father, Isaiah Zagar, who Philly knows best through his wild mirrored mosaics that you can find all over South Street. In that film, you document your father’s struggle with mental illness and your brother’s addiction. There are some hard moments to watch. I mean, you film your dad talking about playing with his own, uh, feces. More than a decade later, do you have any regrets about what you chose to show in this highly personal, intimate film?
First of all, Dad said, “Play with my own shit,” not “feces,” but I like the way you sanitized it. [laughs] But no, I have the opposite of regret. The movie was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had artistically, and also so important for my family. My father, mother and brother put their guts on the screen, and we as a family are stronger for it. And actually, at the beginning of the pandemic, we made In a Dream free on Vimeo for all the world to see. Unless Netflix wants to pick it up?
[Voice of Netflix public-relations executive, who is listening in on the Zoom interview]: I’ll bring it up at the next meeting. [laughs]
How is your family doing today?
So, so well. I’m so proud of them. It really shows what we can overcome as human beings.
On the note of your brother’s addiction, I noticed you released The Fix, a Roku docu-series about the failed drug war, earlier this year, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Yes. Ten-minute episodes. Very short. It’s like a TED Talk on speed. Philly is at the forefront of this issue, and what we are basically showing is that drugs should be regulated and legalized, and not in a “Let’s all go out and party” kind of way. What we’re doing isn’t working. We’re seeing more addiction and more violence. I also address society’s thoughts surrounding addiction. When I made In a Dream, I thought my brother was weak, but it’s so much more complicated than that. The reality is that he was incredibly strong and brave.
You’re 40 now, so you grew up on South Street during an interesting transitional time. South Street has a lot of haters these days who say it’s just a bunch of trashy stores and too many vape shops.
I love South Street. My father’s Magic Gardens is there. My mother’s store, Eye’s Gallery, is still there. Tattooed Mom. Ishkabibble’s. South Street Souvlaki has the best baba ghanoush of all time. And sure, now you also have things like Whole Foods. South Street is alive and changing all the time. Do I have nostalgia for the arcade and comic-book shop? Yes. But I also love a good sneaker store.
Another item in your filmography is the 2014 HBO documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, in which you argue that the media coverage and sensationalism surrounding her murder case led to an unfair trial. Pennsylvania is among a minority of states that ban cameras from the courtroom. Are cameras in courtrooms a bad idea?
Yes. Our system is not an avenue to justice. It’s an avenue to storytelling. It’s not who is innocent and who is guilty. It’s: Who tells the best story? The camera complicates this, because this one-camera perspective becomes the populist, universal perspective, and the actual truth gets diluted because of that. Discerning the truth becomes impossible.
Earlier, you mentioned We the Animals, your first full-length narrative feature. I read that you shot that on 16-millimeter film, which seems a little crazy with technology today. Is there really an advantage, or are you like that guy in my neighborhood who swears that his original Dark Side of the Moon vinyl on his dusty old turntable is the only way to listen to music?
[Laughs] I would have shot Hustle on 16-millimeter if I could! Film is magic. It has a much broader color spectrum than digital. It’s a more precious and more beautiful medium, but it’s also more difficult to manage. There are advantages to digital. But it’s like the difference between creating a sculpture out of plastic and another out of bronze. Bronze is bronze. And film is film. I love it more as a medium than you can imagine.
What’s the very first movie you remember seeing on film?
Life Stinks, by Mel Brooks. Years later, I was at a restaurant in Manhattan and saw Mel eating there, and I went up to him and said, “I gotta tell you, my first movie was Life Stinks, and I loved it.” And he looked at me and said, “Well, son, you were the only one.” But I was obsessed with films. I was awkward. I had some friends, but we were all weirdos. I wasn’t going to parties. I was going to the TLA Video on 4th Street, just off South. They would put out this encyclopedia of cinema every year, and I would work my way through all the directors, from Spike Lee to John Huston to Truffaut. Whatever.
Fast-forward decades to the summer blockbuster season upon us, and we’re left with [sigh] Top Gun: Maverick, which came out just before Hustle. I recently rewatched the original Top Gun and was astounded at how bad it was. I couldn’t believe I paid $3.99 to rent it on Amazon Prime.
I remember it being great! And I will absolutely go see Maverick. I just love movies. Period. A lot of people have real critical opinions of movies. I can watch anything. I love them all. But I’m definitely more interested in movies like Robert Eggers’s new one The Northman, the foreign films. I’m interested in the movies that will be at the Ritz, or the Alamo here in Brooklyn. But I also love just scrolling through Netflix. There’s so much on there.
Ha! Nice plug.
But it’s real! My mother and father and I use all the streaming services. There’s so much at your fingertips, including the entire Criterion Collection. Man, I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had the entire Criterion Collection available to me at a young age.
Finally, I checked your IMDB listings and was surprised to see Hustle as the last thing on there. Normally, filmmakers have a bunch of stuff listed as “in production.” So what’s next for you?
I have a couple of projects coming up on HBO, like The Fact of a Body. And I have a super-secret show I’m making right now for a streaming service, but I can’t say anything about it.
Okay, yeah, as if I’m going to let that one go.
[Laughs] You’d get me in trouble. All I can tell you is that it’s a documentary series that I’ll be wrapping up in September, and it will be released next year.
[Laughs] And we’re shooting right now, all around Philadelphia.
Ooooh. The suspense is killing me. But you’re saved by the bell, because it looks like our scheduled time is up. I just want to sneak in one last question about Hustle. I was wondering if maybe you were on the outs with your dad, since there are all these great Philly shots, from the restaurants to the Loews Hotel on Market to the steep hills of Manayunk, but somehow, you manage to not include even a frame of your dad’s mosaics. They aren’t exactly hard to find.
Ugh. I had some in the movie, but it got cut out. Sometimes you gotta kill the baby. That’s just part of filmmaking. Maybe in 20 years, there will be a director’s cut with some mosaics. One can dream
Published as “For the Love of Film” in the June 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.