When Marty Bowen, the producer behind the Twilight franchise, The Fault in Our Stars, and a bunch of other movies and TV shows you’ve definitely heard of, called up Jay Longino and asked him what he thought about writing a film around Uncle Drew—the septuagenarian star of a few Pepsi ads, played by Celtics phenom Kyrie Irving under a horror flick’s worth of prosthetic makeup—his reaction was the same as the one you probably had when you heard that they were making an Uncle Drew movie: Wait, what?
“[Bowen] calls me, and he’s like, ‘Have you seen these Uncle Drew shorts online?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he was like, ‘Well, what do you think about those being a feature?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so,’” Longino told me over lunch in Studio City. “To me, [it sounded like] the Saturday Night Live skit turned into a movie that doesn’t work. That was my gut reaction. And he was like, ‘You’re a fucking idiot, you’re going to realize you’re an idiot, and you’re going to call me back within 24 to 36 hours and tell me you’re wrong and that you want to write this movie.’ And I was like, ‘No, I won’t.’ Sure enough, I woke up the next morning and I was like, Am I turning down a job? And a job with basketball?”
Longino played basketball at Colorado College, plus a couple of stints in Mexico and the now-defunct USBL; he got into screenwriting with ambitions of being the next Ron Shelton, the director of sports-cinema landmarks like Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup (he also wrote the William Friedkin–directed Blue Chips). Longino and Bowen had already sold a pitch about basketball in China to Fox 2000, and here was the opportunity to shore up his Ron Shelton credentials—even if it did require him to turn an ad campaign into a feature film.
This weekend, Uncle Drew opened to good reviews, strong word of mouth, and $15 million at the box office. It turns out Bowen was right.
Uncle Drew was born when the people at Pepsi realized that the then-19-year-old rookie Kyrie Irving, who had recently been taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft after playing only 11 games at Duke, might be able to sell more than just tickets and shoes.
“We worked with him on a broader spot that we put together back in the day, and he did a really, really great job,” said Aziel Rivers, a marketing director at Pepsi. “We said to him, ‘We have this crazy idea, and we’re looking to do something completely different and new. Is that something you’re up for?’ I don’t know if he knew what he was getting himself into.”
The campaign was born from the type of cringeworthy-but-effective brand messaging that often provides the kernel of successful advertising: PepsiCo considers Pepsi Max a zero-calorie cola in disguise, so why not disguise one of the most explosively dynamic and exciting young basketball players as a grumpy old dude who tucks his sweatpants into tube socks? But aside from the conspicuous shots of spectators holding Pepsis, the Uncle Drew shorts were surprisingly delightful, providing the odd joy of watching what did look like an old dude absolutely clown on guys in a pickup game. And it was immediately clear what Pepsi had seen in Irving, who trash-talked with convincing old-dudeness and held his own as an on-screen presence. The first chapter of “Uncle Drew” has racked up a healthy 52 million views on YouTube to date; three more followed, introducing similarly geriatric characters played by Kevin Love, Nate Robinson, Maya Moore, Baron Davis, Ray Allen, and J.B. Smoove. Altogether, the four shorts have been seen more than 100 million times.
However, for every Space Jam, there’s a Cavemen, and the battlefield of film and television history is littered with the bodies of previously valuable IP. As Bowen predicted, Longino did reconsider, but that still meant he needed to figure out what the movie might look like. After going through a range of ideas—from a broad-comedy version in which Drew’s powers stem from black-market Viagra, to one in which Drew is a young dude dressed up as an old dude—he landed on an expanded version of the shorts, in which Drew travels the country gathering his old squad. In the shorts, the purpose of his efforts is basically to sell Pepsi; to give the plot an emotional and narrative backbone, Longino drew on his own connection the game, landing on, as he puts it, a “Blues Brothers put-the-band-back-together love letter to basketball.” The basketball part was key: If that element didn’t work, the rest of the movie would collapse around it.
Longino wrote the first draft on Pepsi’s dime, but after they successfully pitched the idea to Kyrie at the Cavs’ training camp in Santa Barbara, it didn’t take long for them to find a production partner. In fact, the timeline for the film is dizzying, particularly in an industry that often takes years to put projects together: Longino began writing in the last days of 2016 and turned in a draft at the end of January; they had a go from Lionsgate in April, and they began shooting in August.
In that time, they also found a director. If you pay attention to the shorts, you’ll notice that they end with the credits, “Written and directed by Kyrie Irving.” During the conception of the film, someone floated the idea of having Irving direct as well, but, as Longino tells it, Bowen quickly shot down what was, at best, a very optimistic thought—directing a feature, with all the casting, location scouting, and million other details that come with it, is a much different beast than making a short where you mostly just play ball.
“Marty was like, ‘Are you fucking out of your mind?’” Longino said, laughing. “‘That’s a year of his life. Why would you tell me that Kyrie Irving should direct this movie?’”
Instead, they signed on Charles Stone III, the director of Drumline and Mr. 3000. In addition to the concept of getting the band back together, Longino had also written in a protagonist named Dax, an orphan who falls in love with basketball and tries to put together a team to compete in the Rucker Classic. Dax also serves as an audience surrogate, able to express the elemental skepticism that surrounded the project without undermining the film. While Stone was intrigued by the generational conflict and old-school/new-school tension that the shorts hint at, the character of Dax—who would come to be played by Lil Rel Howery of Get Out fame—was a major draw.
“This is a person who wanted a family, and this one thing was really holding him back, and that’s the fear to open up, or the fear to take a chance and connect with somebody, taking a chance and taking the shot—there’s a chance you’ll get rejected, or you’ll make it,” Stone says. “I was very much into that universal theme of taking the risk to realize your dreams.”
As soon as they had the team in place behind the camera, it was time to find the other actors who would complement Irving’s Drew. That was no small task, since they had to pull off two very different feats: first, be able to play basketball at an elite level while drowning in makeup, and second, make this feel like a real movie.
Shaquille O’Neal, with his acting past and his inherent Shaq-ness, was an obvious choice for the character of Big Fella, a martial arts master whose decades-old grudge against Uncle Drew provides much of the story’s emotional weight. Nate Robinson, who’d appeared in the shorts, felt natural as Boots, a character who spends much of the film using a wheelchair and not speaking—a nice inversion of Robinson’s brash NBA persona. Stone initially wanted Snoop Dogg to play the role of Lights, a rangy, smooth 3-point shooter, but the producers and Longino were insistent that they go with pro ballers for each part, and they landed Reggie Miller. And while he didn’t join until the day before shooting, Aaron Gordon is surprisingly good as the on-court villain, Casper, who’s meant to represent everything that’s wrong with young ballers.
There was one role that proved more difficult to cast, though: Preacher, a gregarious, baby-dunking reverend who spends much of Uncle Drew fleeing from his wife, Betty Lou, played by Lisa Leslie. Stone first thought of Kevin Garnett, but when the 15-time All-Star couldn’t do it, the search went to the 11th hour. That’s when one of the producers suggested Chris Webber.
“I was like, ‘Really?’” Stone says. “I didn’t see it through Chris’s commentating. But I met him, and he grew up in the church, his father was a preacher, so he had all that going for him. I asked him to come in and read for me the next day, and that’s when I was like, ‘Oh shit.’ Who you saw on film is what he did for the audition: He came in with that voice and the mannerisms.”
Webber is easily the biggest revelation of Uncle Drew; he’s physically verstaile, emotionally expressive, and remarkably funny. And his presence allows the film to riff on one of the biggest blunders in basketball history: In a nod to Webber’s infamous mistake for Michigan against North Carolina in the 1993 NCAA championship, another player makes sure to point out to Preacher that their team doesn’t have any more timeouts. Figuring out how meta to make the film was a balance Longino and Stone consistently had to strike: For example, they included a line where Shaq’s character says to Uncle Drew, “Pass the ball, Kobe,” but other ideas, like getting Spike Lee to heckle Miller’s character, didn’t work out. When Webber said he would allow a timeout joke, though, Longino knew it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
“The script initially didn’t have the timeout joke in there, because I didn’t want to put it in if we’d never talked about. I was hoping we would get to a point over the course of the shoot where I would feel comfortable asking him, ‘Hey, can we make a joke about the timeout,’” Longino said. “But it was the second day, and we were talking [about something else], and I was walking away, and he goes, ‘Hey,’ and I turned around, and he says, ‘Come here a second,’ and I say, ‘What’s up?’ and he’s like, ‘I think it’s time,’ and I was like, ‘What?’ and he says, ‘It’s time to talk about the timeout.’ Inside, the fan in me was like, Am I really having this conversation with Chris Webber right now, that he’s going to let me write a timeout joke? I was like, ‘You sure?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Just make sure it’s funny.’”
That story also reinforces the fact that, no matter how good their acting was, the athletes were still recognizable athletes, and they often had to leave set for long stretches at a time: Irving was traded to the Celtics in the middle of shooting; Robinson got a tryout with the Timberwolves; Miller had to go to a Hall of Fame induction; Shaq had to go to China; and between Irving’s restrictions (which limited the amount of time he was allowed to play) and Webber’s knees, they could shoot the basketball scenes only on certain days and for a certain amount of time. All of these factors put even more pressure on the experienced actors to make the movie feel like a movie.
Stone loved Lil Rel Howery, best known for his scene-stealing work in Get Out, because he was able to hit both the comedic and emotional beats of his character; he also happened to genuinely be little, contrasting nicely with the human giants who filled out the rest of the cast. As for Dax’s white-boy boogeyman Mookie, Longino had to do a little reconnaissance before he’d sign off on comedian Nick Kroll, who was up for the role.
“When his name came up in casting—my thing was always, if I’m going to chime in about casting, it’s going to be basketball,” Longino says. “I knew that you don’t have to play a lot, but you need to look like you can play, or else it’s absurd. His name started getting thrown around and I was like, ‘Wait, guys, do we know anything about his ability to actually play? He’s in the game with a bunch of NBA legends.”
Turns out, Kroll plays frequently; even if that didn’t prepare him for guarding Kyrie Irving, it was enough to make it work on camera. After he was cast, Longino got on with the phone with him, and Kroll picked apart his character’s motivations, asking why he was so obsessed with Dax. From that conversation came the idea that Mookie saw Dax as the Borg to his McEnroe, the Magic to his Bird, and Kroll continued to expand on his character during shooting. He and Howery improvised liberally, and one of the best comedic beats in Uncle Drew was a spontaneous riff that Stone and Kroll decided to run with: Mookie starts to mirror Dax’s movements and words in an attempt to get inside his head, and he commits to the bit so much that he returns to it throughout the rest of the movie. If Uncle Drew might not otherwise sound like a Kroll Show sketch, you might feel differently after seeing it.
Once the cast was in place, it was time for shooting, which involved rounding up all the overscheduled athletes for 16-hour days in the Atlanta summer, including hours of makeup and prosthetic application. True to his point guard nature, Irving not only had his lines memorized word-perfectly, he knew everyone else’s. But as he told Bill Simmons on a recent podcast, capitalizing on a character’s popularity to star in a movie might look like the deliberate brand-management that today’s NBA players are so good at, but it always seemed kind of unreal.
“I didn’t really want to—it just happened,” Irving said when Simmons asked what made him want to be the star of a movie. “It was like, ‘Boom, you’re our lead.’ And I was just like, OK! This is a real thing, this is a real thing. It took me a while to really come to terms with, I have a frickin’ movie coming out.”
Not only that, but he has a successful movie: Uncle Drew’s $15 million opening beat Lionsgate’s expectations, and an ‘A’ Cinemascore—a common measure of audience reaction—means that it could still have legs. Longino, it turns out, was also right.
As he told me before the film was released: “I think the expectation of, ‘Oh, it’s a commercial, how could you make it funny’—I think that expectation is going to work in our favor.”
Kevin Lincoln is a writer in Los Angeles.