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The Medicine Game: Writer & Director Interview

On September 24th (that’s TODAY!), The Medicine Game airs on PBS World at 8pm ET. The film is a seven year chronicle that runs alongside the lives of Jeremy and Jerome Thompson. It follows the boys as they grow into men, and uses lacrosse as a focal point to their journey.

The Medicine Game promises to be entertaining as the story is a good one, but I think many people will also find it eye-opening and educational, and this latter part pushed me to try to learn more before seeing the film tonight on TV. I was lucky enough to catch up with the film’s Writer, Jason Halpin, as well as the film’s Director, Luke Korver, via email, and they answered some pressing questions for us!

Check out our interview with Jason Halpin and Luke Korver below, and to find your local broadcast information, head on over to the World Channel’s Medicine Game page.

Why make this movie? Is there anything about lacrosse that made this the right time, or the right sport? Or is this film bigger than the sport?

We decided to make the film in 2006 because we felt that the relationship between lacrosse and contemporary Native American life was something that needed to be explored. This film was always about the characters first and foremost, but having the sport of lacrosse infused in the story really makes a unique film, and draws upon an even wider audience that we could not have reached without lacrosse.

How willing were the subjects of the film (Jeremy and Jerome) to be involved initially? Did it take time to gain trust and understanding for this lengthy project?

They were really excited about being a part of the film, but I don’t think they understood how much their lives would be on camera at the time they agreed to it. Neither of us knew that it was going to be six years of filming, but luckily they enjoyed having us around and were open to everything that comes with being a part of the documentary.

As far as trust goes, we formed such a close bond so quickly that I think the trust was always there, it’s kind of hard to explain really. The film delves into some touchy subjects and Jeremy and Jerome never shied away from those. They are proud, honest, and courageous young men, and those qualities make them not only great characters on screen, but also role models for anyone watching the film.

What did you know about lacrosse before going in to this? Did you realize any of your assumptions to be incorrect as you filmed and learned more? 

Luke: I didn’t know anything about the sport going into it. I grew up in Chenango County about an hour south of Syracuse, and I don’t think I had seen a lacrosse stick in person before, let alone a lacrosse game.  I went to Syracuse University for four years and never caught a game. It’s pretty remarkable looking back now, just how oblivious I was to the sport at the time.  Almost immediately, I gained a huge respect for the game, and now I’m pretty bummed that we didn’t have lacrosse in my high school. I would’ve played for sure.

Jason: Like Luke, I knew little about the sport. I may have caught one game more than him while at Syracuse, so it’s fair to say that neither of us knew much. Before we began filming, I don’t think I appreciated the skill associated with facing off, or the speed of the game. When I first saw the Thompsons play, I could tell they were the best players on the field just by having played sports myself growing up, but it took a long time to understand why Jeremy made winning a face-off look so effortless and how Hiana was able to score seemingly at will.

This film spans about 7 years. Were there any points where you thought that this would never truly happen? How did you keep going? 

Luke: There were a few times when I felt like it wasn’t going to end well. When both of the boys were in their third year of community college, and it was looking pretty bleak, at least in terms of getting the ending we were hoping for. I knew I would get it done, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take. For the most part, this was a one or 2 man operation, which is almost unheard of when you’re talking about completing a feature length documentary. The thing that kept us going was not wanting to let down the people that had supported us and believed in us along the way. We filmed a documentary back in 2003 that we never finished and it still haunts me to this day, so we weren’t going to let that happen this time.

Once I edited a few scenes together, dropped in some background music, and saw that we had something, it pushed us to keep going, and to believe that we had something special here.  About once a week, for about 5 years, I’d get an email from a fan of lacrosse saying that they had seen the trailer or had met the Thompson brothers, and they were begging to know when the film was going to come out. That was just more push.

Probably the biggest motivator was not wanting to let the Thompson’s down. They put a lot on the line for this film, and Jeremy in particular really works to use his life, and the mistakes he’s overcome, as an example for younger kids. I bought into his vision for the film and we were not about to let him down.

Jason: Luke and the Thompson family did all the heavy lifting to make this film happen. I don’t think many people know that he is an extremely accomplished filmmaker who was beginning to make a name for himself in LA shortly after the film began. Separately, I was living in Brooklyn and attending law school during the first three years of the film. We both had a lot of other things going on in our lives, and matters were further complicated by our lack of funding early on. It would have been easy to walk away early on but for our connection to the Thompson family. You’d need to meet them all together to understand – they are just amazing, genuine people who care for strangers like cousins.

For me, spending an afternoon with everyone at Jeremy and Hiana’s graduation party gave me the desire to contribute whatever I could to making sure their story was told, and I think being asked at least once a month by someone who knew we were working on the film about the status was what kept us going.

How did you raise funds for this film? Were people looking to get involved the moment they heard about the idea? Or did it take time and convincing?

Luke: We applied to VMM (Vision Maker Media) for funding, were turned down once, and re-applied 2 years later and received partial funding for the project. They came up huge and helped us out at ever step of the way, and not just financially. That being said, I sunk a ton of my own money and an unimaginable amount of time into this film. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, so you can imagine how much I spent just on flights back and forth anytime I needed to film part of the story. I don’t regret it at all, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone else go the route that I did.

Was this film primarily made to educate people, or tell a story? How did you decide on the ultimate direction?

Our first objective was always to tell a great story, which we knew existed.  But in order to tell that story, you had to get your audience up to speed on the game and what it means to the Haudenosaunee way of life.  It’s a delicate balance because you don’t want to stall your story for too long while you explain context and back story, and we hope we balanced the two successfully.

When we set out to make the film, the thought was that we would document the history of lacrosse as told through those who brought the sport to the world. We took the film in a different direction when we met Jeremy and Hiana, learned of their life-long dream, and saw the obstacles in front of them, which they were determined to overcome.