James: We had shot 40 days junior year, but after the MacArthur money, we shot 100 days between the summer of junior year and the end of the film. The film got more detailed, there were more scenes, it became fuller.
Marx: By the beginning or middle of senior year, this was around 1991, I did a paper cut of the scenes, and it went to 20 pages. It was huge. The first assemblage was over 10 hours, and I still hadn’t even gotten to where we were up to date in shooting. I was like, “Oh my God.” The footage was fascinating on so many levels. At one point, I talked to Steve about doing a five-part miniseries, which would make it, like, 10 hours long. Long story short, he properly nixed the idea—otherwise, we would still be in the editing room. I had spent a year editing when I realized, “This is too much.”
Quinn: You have to remember, this was tape editing, linear editing. To change something, you had to dub it down. It was very awkward.
Marx: Before long, you’re looking at VHS tapes that are so degraded, because we dropped so many generations, that it’s almost hard to make out what the hell is happening [onscreen].
Quinn: Frederick had done an enormous amount of work, but he was just burning out.
Marx: At some point, we brought on William Haugse. We just needed to hire on more editing help.
James: Frederick spent two years working his way through, and had a six-hour version to show us. I remember watching it, and around hour three, it broke you down and you just gave yourself over to it. You’re like, “I’m living in this.” It was this monster.
Gilbert: You have to understand how invested I was in the film, and also what I knew we had. From coming off three or four films I had done, I knew we had something that was insanely special. I didn’t know if people would see it, but to me, it was Shakespeare live. After I watched the six-hour cut, I went home and cried like a baby for about eight hours, I’m not kidding. I was like, “This is so fucked-up.” I was truly devastated, because I expected seeing all those moments we captured somewhere in those six hours, and I saw almost none. I didn’t see the characters, I didn’t see development, it was heartbreaking for me.
Quinn: I saw the potential, but Steve was impatient to get more hands-on with the editing, and I actually asked Steve to take a step back and work things out with Frederick. It was one of those things where I think Frederick felt it would be good for the project [if he were] to step out of the editing chair, but he didn’t want to be pushed out.
Marx: It was complicated and difficult. I’ll just say that.
Gilbert: The thing is, I walked into this weird agreement that they made between themselves. “If you do this, I’ll help you on the next one.” They were extremely close when I first met them, but that agreement was always a tough thing for me, because I was always in the middle of it, and getting it to that place where I was an equal member.
James: Absolutely I wanted to get in the editing, but I really felt strongly that as much as I would have liked to be involved, Frederick and I had an understanding that I was directing and he was going to edit, and that I needed to honor that. Since he had backed away during shooting at my request, I felt I had to give him his room during the edit. I didn’t seriously consider that I was going to get to edit until Frederick came to us as a group and said, “I’m burned out.”
Quinn: There was one point in the process where they all came over to my house to tell me they had all reached some resolution. Steve would start taking over editing, Frederick would still do parts of it, but it was pretty clear that Steve would be the primary editor.
James: When I did get involved in the editing, Frederick really had done a lot of work that I could build off of. I could take scenes he and Bill [Haugse] had done and adapt them to what I was doing. I was not starting from scratch and recutting the movie. I built off of what he had done. Bill continued on working with me, and did some great work.
Marx: Steve and I are different filmmakers, and it was great to have Gordon in the room toward the end to just be a referee, if nothing else, because we needed a third pair of eyes, we needed somebody to help us agree on the way forward. But what really made the difference—frankly, Steve’s greatest contribution in some ways as a director—was sitting down and cutting himself. He did a lot of the story-shaping, and that was huge.
James: I edited for a solid year and a half myself, with Bill there for a good stretch of the time. The struggle was how we were going to tell the story of these two guys where their lives coincide directly for only a brief period of time we were shooting. Arthur left St. Joe’s and had his own adventure, and William had his, so how do we put these two guys together in the same movie and have it feel coherent? That was the biggest creative challenge of the film.
At a certain point, with Bill’s help, we decided not to be tied to the linear developments. We didn’t take huge liberties—taking stuff that happened in junior year and making it look like it happened in freshman year—but we decided to stay with one of the boys even if he got ahead of the other in terms of when it happened. For example, when the Agees’ power was turned off, the next scene is William getting an MRI for his knee. We go from the family that has nothing to William at this Northwestern hospital, and he’s going through his own troubles, his knee, but he’s got everybody working hard trying to figure out what’s wrong, even the Bulls’ doctor at one point. When we decided to focus on one of the guys’ story for a stretch instead of playing ping-pong between the two, that’s when it started to feel like a movie.
Another thing we really tried to do in the edit is to not sit in judgment, but to let people think about it. Gordon was key in suggesting ways to make it clearer and punchier. We wanted to create an interesting juxtaposition throughout the film, where ideally when you were leaving one kid’s story, we hoped you wouldn’t want to leave, but when you got into the other kid’s, you’re glad you’re there.
James: When we had a rough cut, we showed it to the families to get their read on it. Both families were completely different: the Gates watched the film by themselves because they were very private people, and the Agees invited us over to watch it. And whenever their scenes were on, they were very still and quiet and attentive, and when it switched to William, it was like a commercial break.
I talked to William after watching it with his family, and he was very subdued. He said it was good. I said, “Tell me honestly, you seem pretty down.” And he said, “It shows how I went from being a great player to being an average player.” I said that wasn’t fair, he got a scholarship to Marquette. He also said, “I can tell you one good thing that came out of it: My family realized for the first time the amount of pressure they were putting on me, particularly Curtis.”
With Coach Pingatore, we felt we didn’t need his feedback on the film the way we felt with the boys, but when he signed the release back when we first started filming, it said we would make sure to show him the film before it was completed. Frederick and I showed it to him at his office at St. Joe’s. It was literally a day or two before we were headed to Sundance.
Marx: Steve and I talked a lot on the drive out to St. Joe’s on how we were going to handle the meeting. It’s funny, the one key question that Ping asked us afterward—I don’t recall us talking about or having a prepared answer for—was, “Can you guys still make changes to the film?” Steve and I looked at each other and I said, “Yeah, it’s too late.”
Gene Pingatore (Head Coach, St. Joseph’s High School varsity basketball): It was fun at first. You appreciated getting publicity. But as they got into making the movie, it became a pain in the neck. Every time you turned around there was a camera. It became an intrusion in what you’re doing.
But that’s not what I was upset about. I was upset with the fact that they didn’t make the movie the way they told me they were going to make it. They did a film for PBS [“Higher Goals”] that featured Gates and others, and showed that they had their priorities straight and they were going to get into college. Well, they came to me and said they wanted to do a full-length feature about that. So when they showed it to me, I was shocked. The film was just about William Gates and Arthur Agee. I had no idea.
Marx: I remember on his face, more than anything, some confusion when we showed him the film. It seemed he wasn’t clear on what he was watching, and how he should react. My guess is he simply confused at what point we made the distinction between “Higher Goals” and Hoop Dreams. And it’s not surprising, because we ourselves weren’t clear about it until well into the process.
James: When we got to the part when Arthur is kicked out of St. Joe’s he said, “Wait a second, stop the film.” And he said, “This is unfair, the family didn’t hold up their end of the payments. That’s just the way it is.” And we said Arthur was treated differently than William. William had the president of Encyclopedia Britannica in his corner paying what his family owed. He said, “I disagree with what you’re doing here,” and I remember being pretty firm with him and saying, “This is how it happened in our eyes, and we stand by it.” We also told him there are positive things here, like him pushing William to be a better basketball player and student.
We kept watching, and my guess is he wanted to feel better about the film, and he saw evidence there to make him feel better, so by the end of the movie, he was feeling good about the film.
Marx: We walked out thinking, “Wow, we sort of dodged a bullet.”
James: When we were leaving I said to Frederick, walking down the hallway, “Take a good look, because we’re never going to be back.”