Four episodes in, ESPN’s blockbuster docuseries The Last Dance has cemented itself as appointment Sunday night viewing. The 10-part examination of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty has already claimed the title of the network’s most-watched documentary ever. Director Jason Hehir is watching it all unfold in real-time as he and his team race to finish editing the last few episodes of the series. “We’re running on fumes and trying to finish this thing strong,” he told Fortune by phone from his New York City apartment.
Last Sunday’s third and fourth episodes took a step back from Jordan and shifted its attention to the eccentric rebounding talisman Dennis Rodman and the offense-minded head coach Phil Jackson (including his youthful exploits taking acid and thinking he was a lion). Naturally, a lot of memes showed up on Twitter during and after the broadcast, which Hehir says he loves.
Ahead of the next pair of episodes airing tonight, Hehir spoke about the highlights of what he’s seen from viewers so far, as well as what to expect going forward as the series crosses its halfway point.
Fortune: You’re through four episodes so far. How do you feel?
Jason Hehir: I feel good. We’re still working. It’s great to see people’s positive responses and that we’re getting good viewership numbers, but we also are trying to finish this thing strong and not get complacent with the final couple episodes. We’re running on fumes, but it gives us a great energy boost for the final few weeks of this.
What’s still left to do?
We just finished the actual editing of the final picture lock of Episode 10. So now Episodes 8, 9, and 10 we’re in different phases of sound design, color correction and closed captioning, and subtitling and translation. This is going to 185 countries via Netflix, so that process is pretty painstaking. The creative process is pretty much done as far as putting the story together and all the parts where they belong.
You’re editing all of this while seeing the real-time response of viewers, who are starved of sports content right now. What has been the most interesting observations that you’ve seen from the audience so far?
Some of the more subtle stuff. I knew to expect some of the obvious things, like Michael looking at the iPad [and watching rival player Isaiah Thomas, who played for the Detroit Pistons] and Michael’s responses to some of the more controversial moments in the doc—everyone’s depiction of the Pistons rivalry on both sides from the Pistons perspective and the Bulls perspective. We knew that was going to resonate.
But some of the smaller, more subtle production decisions like the “former Chicago resident” description of President Obama. Those were little inside jokes in the edit room that I’m surprised took on a life of its own. And the memes I’ve seen, the way that people have been absorbing this in the Twittersphere rather than just as television viewers has been fun. Also the response to the music, which is arguably the most important aspect of any film that I do. To see people responding to the music so positively and saying that they’re really enjoying how we’re matching music to picture is really gratifying, because we put an enormous amount of thought into that.
Some casual NBA fans or non-watchers might be surprised to learn about coach Phil Jackson being into a hallucinogenic drug like LSD. Were there any moments in the series along those lines that took you by surprise?
There’s very few stories that I didn’t know because I’ve done years of research on this thing going into it. But we heard some stories that are coming up in later episodes about the way Michael used to motivate himself. Sometimes he would take slights that people had directed at him and he would just magnify them and embellish them in his own head to the point where he needed to exact revenge. And then there were times when he would take slights that didn’t even exist, that he had conjured in his own head. He would exact revenge on people who didn’t even deserve it. He just needed something to motivate himself. So those were fun to uncover.
And then just the background to get both perspectives on some of these indelible moments in the NBA. To hear Charles Barkley talking about that great ’93 Finals series [between Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and Jordan’s Bulls], and Charles tells us in Episode 6 that one of Michael’s performances in a game of that series—Charles says that was the first time he realized there was someone on Earth better at basketball than he was. It just gives you an idea of the elite level of competition that these guys are undertaking, and the opinions they had of themselves and the opinion you had to have of yourself to go out there and perform at that kind of level. We’ll hear from Reggie Miller about the heartbreaking loss that the [Indiana] Pacers had in the ’98 Eastern Conference Finals. And then of course the Bulls and the [Utah] Jazz had some tremendous battles in ’97 and ’98.
We also had no idea what to expect with the behind the scenes footage. So to see some of the candor and the rawness that these guys exhibited, especially as the season goes on and they get more used to the cameras being around—I think you’ll see in some future episodes some stuff that I’m still shocked that Michael allowed us to include. But I’m glad that he did, because it was a gutsy thing of him to do. He certainly could have pulled the plug on some of the shots that we included in there, but to his credit he never did that once.
So Michael has watched the series in full, then? Have you had any sort of review or reaction from him so far?
Not so far. I mean, he’s seen all these episodes, so any reaction that he would have had he gave to us when he watched the rough cuts. And to his credit he watched these rough cuts just like all the other executives, and he had his own notes on him. But Michael’s notes, I’m happy to say, were always in the interest of improving the show. He would recommend shots to put in or a moment from a game that meant a lot to him. Or he told us that one of the things that really created the schism between he and [former Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause was that he traded away Charles Oakley, who was his enforcer on the court and his best friend off of it. So he asked us to put things like that in, and it just enhanced the detail-oriented telling of the story. But he never once said, “Take that answer out, don’t put this in, that’s unflattering.” He had the power to do that but he never once did.
Even just through text message or email, he never said anything like, “You did a good job with the show,” or, “I didn’t like this,” kind of things?
No. There were group notes that came from the [Nike-owned] Jordan brand, and there were group notes that came from the NBA, group notes that came from Netflix and ESPN. So we had a lot of executive cooks in the kitchen up to the head of Disney who were watching this thing. Especially under quarantine. It’s kind of the great equalizer—no one has anything to do, everybody’s stuck at home, and the size of those homes vary greatly between my apartment here in New York City and where Michael lives [in Jupiter, Fla.] and where [Disney chairman] Bob Iger lives [in Brentwood, Calif.]. People are stuck inside their homes and they’re eager to see the content that the rest of the world’s going to see as soon as they can get their hands on it. So it’s not that level of personal interaction that we’re having, but the message is being sent nonetheless.
How about any of the other main figures in the show? So far you’ve spent a lot of time in dealing with the likes of Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson? Have you asked them for their thoughts?
I haven’t. I got a really nice text from [former Bulls player] B.J. Armstrong, because I did his podcast the other day and we’ve been in touch since I interviewed him a couple of years ago. But, you know, Scottie, Phil, and a guy like Rodman… Phil is difficult to get to regardless, and Scottie’s not a guy that I want to be bothering all the time, asking how he likes the series. Dennis Rodman—who knows how to contact that guy?
A lot of people on social media naturally mentioned Obama’s presence in the series. Out of the 100-plus people you interviewed, who were you the most surprised to see actually agree to speak with you? Someone like Rodman, perhaps?
Yeah, Rodman definitely was one of the white whales. He’s the guy, if I had to guess who was never going to sit down with us, it would be Dennis. We also got Michael to do an extra interview. He was contracted to do two, and he agreed to sit down for three, so that was a tremendous surprise. It helps the series enormously. And then there was guys like [former Bulls player and current Golden State Warriors head coach] Steve Kerr, who I’d always wanted to sit down with and pick their brain, and were so present and thoughtful and incisive.
I like the technique in the series where you show interview subjects previous interviews with other people on an iPad to get their reaction. Is that something you planned to do all along?
I did plan to do that all along, especially with Michael, because Michael doesn’t know me well enough for me to read off a piece of paper what someone like Gary Payton or Reggie Miller or Isaiah Thomas said about him or those teams or the series they played in. It made more sense for me to just hand him an iPad, have him hit play, and record his visceral, immediate response to what these people were saying. It was really valuable because it was almost like a time machine. You give him that thing, and as soon as he hits play it’s a portal back to prime M.J. in the nineties. And he gets that look on his face, and you can see that fire start to burn again when he hears people talking about these series that were such battles. When he hears people talking about these things in real time you can see that his soul goes right back to the days when those gams are being played.
Episodes 5 and 6 premiere this Sunday. What can we expect? And, in general, what remaining episode are you most excited to see how the audience reacts to?
Episodes 5 and 6 I think people are going to really respond to the Kobe Bryant material that’s in there. The NBA had cameras behind the scenes for that ’98 All-Star Game in Madison Square Garden. And that’s a collection of some NBA legends who are playing in that game. Kobe was the youngest All-Star ever and, in that game, he’s only 19, but you can see the seeds of this relationship that blossomed with Michael over the years. Planted in that game. And Episodes 5 and 6 are really kind of tandem episodes about Michael’s rise to global fame, and the perks of that global fame with endorsements and everything that comes with being such an icon. The price of that global fame in Episode 6 is that inevitably, people are going to want to poke holes and take you down when there’s nothing left to talk about how perfect you are. They want to poke holes and show how human you are. So it’s the upside and the downside of international acclaim that we examine there.
As far as what episode I’m most looking forward to people see, it’s almost like choosing a favorite kid. But as the series goes on, I think we start to show more and more of the humanity of all these guys. I’m proud of all the episodes, but as the series goes on I get more and more proud because we’re telling stories deeper into the series that are not just about superstars, but about human beings.
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