You know the name, made household thanks to the talented middle child, Giannis, and his takeover of the NBA as the Greek Freak. But Rise, which is now streaming on Disney+, tells the story of the entire Antetokounmpo family, how parents Charles and Vera immigrated from Nigeria to Athens, how the family supported each other and each other’s dreams while fighting to make ends meet before three of the Antetokounmpo sons went on to play in the NBA.
Director Akin Omotoso is no stranger to this inspiring story, following Giannis and his family’s climb for almost a decade. He’s also got experience pursuing his own dreams coming out of Nigeria. Dime spoke with Omotoso about willing this project into being, pulling inspiration from classic sports movies and NBA2K, and getting access to Giannis to help best tell this story.
Rise is clearly about much more than basketball. What are some of the larger themes you wanted to make sure were expressed in this film?
Omotoso: Definitely the theme of overcoming [adversity] and the idea that your circumstances don’t have to define you. Like the Giannis quote from his MVP speech, when he talks about when he’s honoring his mom and his dad, when he says, ‘As a little kid, you don’t see the future, your parents see the future for you.’ For Giannis it’s a love letter to the sacrifices Charles and Veronica had to take on to really raise them under very difficult conditions, growing up stateless, and having to run from the police. All while never losing sight of the fact that they wanted to give their kids a life or the dream of a life that’s better.
I think that texture of a family working together is something that we can all take a piece from. And that has always been the inspiring thing. They live their life. You see them as a family, you see how they conduct themselves. They’re so authentic. And I think those pieces are what attracted me to the story. And I think it’s what we try to infuse the film with so that when you leave it, you leave with that feeling of ‘We can do it.’
This project was years in the making for you. Can you talk about how you got to this point and the overall experience?
So there are two stories because the one that involves me was more about dreaming about the film. Just falling in love with that story when I first read it in 2013. I was just going, ‘Wow, if I ever make a film about a player, it’ll be this guy.’ This is before the two MVP awards, before he’s a world champion all the wonderful accolades he has achieved, so I was just responding to the story. I just let it percolate in my head as time went on, then in a parallel universe, Giannis and his agent Yogas and producer, Bernie Goldman, pitched the story to Disney and Disney agreed to make the film.
They hired a writer, Arash Amel – Arash writes a beautiful script – and I find out by reading an issue of Sports Illustrated where Giannis was on the cover. I read that Disney was about to make a movie with him and I phoned my agent and I was like, ‘You got to get me in that room so I can tell them how I’ll make the film.’ And I kept the magazine by my bedside, looked at it every morning, looked at it before I went to sleep saying, ‘I’m not moving this thing away until I know they’ve got a director.’
And so it took a year. They watched my film Vaya, my agent phoned me and said, ‘Okay, they love Vaya, so now here’s the script.’ I got it at 10:00 PM, read it, and finished it by midnight. It was great. I was crying. And I said, ‘I’m ready.’ And I went into that room, man, and I had nothing to lose. I just spoke from the heart about how this is something I’ve been dreaming of for seven years because that had now happened in 2020. So I just spoke from the heart. Took seven weeks and the night Giannis won the second MVP was the night I got the job.
What was it like working with Giannis [and his family] on this project?
It was amazing. I’m also happy that he was an executive producer. They so generously opened up their [world] to us, where they would give us feedback. We would be able to ask them questions. As a filmmaker, especially for me, I really strive for authenticity. So when you are working for that authenticity, there’s nothing better than having the people involved ask very nuanced questions. And Veronica was so generous. She had her phone number for all of us, Yetide could ask her questions or Dayo could ask her questions about Charles. And Giannis and Thanasis, whenever we had those meetings, it was always Giannis, Thanasis, his mom, Kostas, and Alex.So they were always a great, great resource. And, and that for me again, was another dream come true.
The movie was shot on location, even going as far as to film in the same gym that the Antetokounmpo brothers learned to play basketball in and that Giannis occasionally slept in. How do you feel that impacted the film?
Again, when we’re striving for authenticity, it’s like, well, we are here in the place that the thing happened. So we are tapping into and we’re continuing a legacy. So even though we’re shooting Uche [Agada] sleeping here, Giannis might not have slept here, but he slept somewhere on this court. And so we are tapping into that energy.
I truly believe in those things, especially with filmmaking, that you can tap into it and it can give it a level where we understand that to be in Athens and to be able to be in those spaces with the house in the film (which is right next to one of the houses they stayed at), feels like we are gathered for something bigger than ourselves. And what it does is, it lends the authenticity, but it reminds everyone that we’re not just here making pictures. We’re here documenting a moment in time in a very, very, very spiritual way that hopefully speaks to something bigger than us.
To take it back to sports for a moment. What are some other sports movies or stories that you think you took inspiration from in telling this?
Well, we had a movie night every Saturday/Sunday when we were in Athens, where we watched a lot of films that inspired us like Remember The Titans and White Men Can’t Jump. And also, our basketball choreographer, Aimee [McDaniel] had worked on a number of films, one of them being The Way Back. And we really liked how the basketball in The Way Back was done. She was actually the first person we hired. So, having Aimee there and looking at some of her work, just having the opportunity to go, ‘All right, so then this scene.’ Trying to get the nuances and trying to understand how people were making these films. Everyone has their ideas about how to interpret it. And I would say for me, I always felt like what I try to do in the film is, while you’re capturing basketball, you’ve got to remember it’s also a film.
I read in the press kit that you were inspired by NBA 2K a little bit, how did that specifically impact the end result?
Well, as somebody who plays 2K and loses at 2K, I was just interested in the idea. Because if you’ve been watching basketball like I have, I don’t know how deep you are into it, but you notice the evolution of coverage, the evolution of how the game is shot, the evolution of how everything is packaged. So, because you’re constantly watching that, you just think like, ‘Oh, well this is a language that I want to try and put in the film.’ And so there are a couple of shots that were definitely 2K-inspired.
‘Rise’ is available to stream now on Disney+