“Winning at all costs”: 5 Questions with Jason Kohn, director of "Love Means Zero"

In 2007, director Jason Kohn won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury and Cinematography awards for his audacious debut documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet), a film about kidnapping and corruption in Brazil. Now, with his second nonfiction feature, Kohn returns with an equally entertaining, but widely different portrait—of legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, a feisty mentor to such Grand-Slam stars as Andre Agassi, Borris Becker, Jim Courier, Venus and Serena Williams, and many others. In the tradition of Errol Morris’ The Fog of War, Kohn presses his main subject on an array of issues from his mercilessly fickle favoritism to his falling out with prized pupil Agassi. Confronting a man who stubbornly resists self-reflection or personal culpability, can Kohn break the teacher and win the match? Kohn speaks to DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman about the personal story at the film’s core and the comparisons between Bollettieri, Donald Trump and King Lear.

I’m a huge fan of your first film Manda Bala, which couldn’t be further from Love Means Zero in terms of its subject. What makes this film personal to you?

Jason Kohn: The “A” plot was always about Nick and Andre [Agassi]’s relationship, but the “B” plot developed into this argument between Nick and I, and getting him to acknowledge the cost of his achievements. Because it was such a struggle to get to that moment, it really became a part of the story. And I think that’s why it became such a personal film.

How did the project come about?

At first, it was just a gig. I needed to work and I hadn’t made a movie in a long time. I didn’t really think I was going to make documentaries again. Manda Bala was so unbelievably difficult to make. There wasn’t an obvious path for me to make a career out of documentary at that time. It was too difficult to get budgets to make documentaries to survive. Then I started to make TV commercials, because I had to. But I hated it, and did it for three to four years, and then I quit. Then, after six or seven years, the documentary industry changed dramatically, with real budgets for nonfiction films. So I thought why don’t I do something like an ESPN “30 for 30”? So I tried it. And then this ended up becoming a feature film with Showtime and then it became a personal film.

When I thought about your relationship with Nick in the film, I felt like there were some connections to Errol Morris’s interview-based films with Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, where you’re waiting for some kind of guilty plea and catharsis. Do you feel that comparison is fair?

I ran into Errol when I was still in editing, and I told him I was making a film about a recalcitrant 80-year old man who refuses to acknowledge his past, and we had a laugh. The comparisons are there, but I never thought I was trying to get an apology out of Nick. Even when I gave him that letter, I was just trying to jog his memory. With Fog of War, a lot of audience members were looking for McNamara to apologize for the Vietnam War. I didn’t have a specific goal with Nick other than for him to remember and acknowledge the other pieces of the story that he doesn’t feel comfortable with. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but it wasn’t so specific. I wasn’t looking to elicit an apology from him. I was just hoping to get the blinders of communication open.

I also feel like there’s a strong real-world resonance with Morris’ work and our current political situation with this idea of denial and the incredible way that people deny culpability for their actions? (I know another powerful old white guy with a Florida estate.) Was that your intention?

What’s funny about every movie you watch today is that it’s also kind of about Donald Trump. It’s hard not to see all art through this political situation. There are obvious comparisons: of someone who is obsessed with winning at all costs, of someone who is not considered the emotional toil he’s wrecked on other people. But I feel a little uneasy about being too broad about it. I don’t want to indict Nick, but it may not be fair to the actual victims of Donald Trump, which is essentially all of us. I remember one of the first reviews of the film compares Nick to the main character in The Act of Killing. But that’s not fair to the victims of Indonesian genocide.

For me, this is a story about fathers and sons, and fathers and daughters. It was a direct rip off of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, one of my favorite films, which is an adaptation of King Lear. When I start doing the research, I saw the figure of a recalcitrant patriarch refusing to acknowledge the price of his empire-building. So to me, it had so much to do with Nick and Andre, Nick and Jim [Courier] and Nick and Boris [Becker]. So I didn’t see this as a political allegory as much as a story about family dynamics.

I’d also like to talk about the visual landscape of the film. Your last film MANDA BALA was stunningly shot, and I know it’s not the first thing people are talking about with Love Means Zero, but I feel like the setting, and the way the camera glides around the estate, is another character.

We shot the main interview at the Colony Beach Tennis Resort, the site of his first Academy which was closed several years ago and is now being eaten by nature. Again, when I saw that, the first image that came to mind was the last sequence in Ran when his first castle is being burnt town. The symbol of Nick’s success, being the place of his Academy’s birth, seemed a powerful metaphor to play with. My visual reference was definitely Ran. I naively went into this film saying it was not an archival film. I thought I was going to shoot expressionistic visuals of tennis balls flying in slow motion. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt so cliché. Every time I saw something tennis-related to shoot, I choked back a little vomit, because I was embarrassed at how bland it was. It was a slow coming to Jesus that this was actually an archival film.

Paula Froehle