Baseball has “Bull Durham.” Golf has “Caddyshack.” Basketball has “White Men Can’t Jump.” Hockey has “Slap Shot.” Even dodgeball has…well, you know, “Dodgeball.” And yet tennis, the original sport of kings, has somehow never achieved the cinematic comic heights of its fellow athletic pursuits, or so thought Jeremy Sisto as he was batting balls back and forth one day with “Bones” and “Community” writer/producer Gene Hong. It quickly become obvious to both that a game which leaves its participants wearing their emotions so nakedly on their face was a natural source of big screen drama, and the fact that the primary emotion seems to be anger could be mined for comedy.
That particular origin story might suggest that Sisto was interested in creating a vanity project for himself, yet one could hardly say that when he plays such a boorish character in Jimmy, a tennis pro past his prime whose penchant for drinking before matches and crude sense of humor has made him a bad match for potential doubles partners. With nowhere else to turn after his most recent teammate leaves him, he asks his brother Darren (David Walton) to ditch his substitute teaching job to join him on the court, though the last time the two played together, it came to a bitter end after Jimmy left Darren for another partner who could enhance his career prospects.
For Sisto, the film not only provided an opportunity to luxuriate in such bad behavior, but to work a different set of muscles. Besides the ones he flexes on the court, Sisto is also making his feature debut as a co-writer and a hands-on producer on “Break Point,” marking a professional milestone for the actor who grew up in front of our eyes at first as a heartthrob in such movies as “Clueless” and then became a figure of authority on such shows as “Law & Order” and “Suburgatory.” Shortly before the comedy hits theaters, he spoke about the film’s long journey to the screen, being able to play tennis in between takes and how much work it takes to make a movie.
It was a long process, especially from the time that me and Gene were throwing around story ideas for a tennis dramedy. A couple of years passed before I actually went back to him and asked if he wanted to revisit the idea and develop it. He said, “Yes,” and from there a script was written. We went and tried to sell it everywhere, and it ended up at one company. We were there for a couple of years, and it went through many rewrites, but the script got better and better and then we didn’t end up having it at that company. That’s fairly par for the course, but it was very exhausting, and there was certainly a feeling that I was getting that this was the last hiatus, that I was going to put energy into it. I really had very little time, and that’s when I got lucky enough to meet Gabriel Hammond [at Broad Green Pictures], who really made this thing happen. He was an excellent partner, and we went on to make this movie, which was one of the best experiences of my life, although at times very challenging and frustrating.
How did tennis come about as the subject that you gravitated towards?
Gene and I were actually playing tennis, and we just noted that there was not a great tennis movie, in our opinion, and we thought it was obvious that there should be. Doubles tennis – any team where you have one other player and you’re on the court at the same time, there’s an obvious dynamic there that would lend itself to two characters who operate very differently, and have a big altercation in their past. The story just grew out of that kernel of understanding.
Yeah, the character came largely from the idea that there was a lot of comic real estate in a world like tennis, which has so many etiquette rules, to have a player that enjoyed making people uncomfortable by crossing the boundaries. That was a great start for a character, then Gene wrote to what he thought my strengths were, and we continued to write more and more in that vein. By that time, the character had been developed it was pretty easy to understand. It was a lot of fun to write lines for this character.
Who gets the credit for thinking of putting dick joke lyrics into Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” to sing?
That would have been Gene. [laughs]
Was it fun to play someone still working towards maturity well past the age he should be?
It was something that I felt pretty close to at that time. I was on the verge of getting married and starting a family. I could definitely relate to the feeling of not wanting to let go of my youth. Perhaps I wasn’t as desperately unhinged by it as Jimmy, but I could definitely relate, and at the time when we first conceived it, the characters were considerably younger. But because it took as long as it did to put together, the characters kept getting older, so there was a concern if it would be believable that someone of my age would still be in the game? It is. There are guys that, especially in doubles, who are older than I was at the time of the movie, so it worked out really well.
In a way, it became even sadder when a guy who’s nearing 40 – I was 37 at the time – has not let go of that youth. In this time, in our world, that is really what I’m seeing more and more, a lot of guys who are around 40, and they’re like, “Oh, man, I’m a little behind. I should really become cool heading off to the next stage of life, but I’m not.”
Yeah, it did have a very relaxed feel and a lot of good friends [came in] – J.K. [Simmons] and Amy [Smart] I’ve known for a long time. But, no, David [Walton], I had actually only met once, but we were quick friends. He’s just a really cool guy and easy to bond with, so that was great. Josh Rush was also such a unique and specific guy, with such a great and powerful personality, that, again, it was very easy to get past any kind of newness in our friendship. We were all making fun of each other by the second day. Then my mom and stepdad were in it. It was a great experience for me, but ultimately, it was making a movie, so there was a lot to think about, not just because I was a producer, but because I was intent on not feeling like the last five years of my life had been a waste. With the energy I had spent on this film, I had to stay focused on the end game.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
The tennis days tended to be pretty crazy because you were never 100% sure that you had everything you needed. But there was also the hot tub scene. We were behind schedule, and the scene turned out great – it was the best scene in the script, but it was a risk for us, so we were like, “We’re going to hurry through this one?”
Yeah, but it was also energizing. I’m like a kid, if you give me a ball and a hoop, or a ball and a bat, I’ll be playing and sweating and pissing off the makeup people. But just getting an opportunity to do it and not piss anyone off … it was great fun. There were days that it was just too much, especially the early ones, but because David and I were just so happy to be able to be doing this as at work, we would play in between every shot, so by the end of the day, we were exhausted.
There’s a scene where you’re volleying the tennis ball back and forth as you recite the lyrics to “Bust a Move” to each other. How many takes did you have to do to get it just right without dropping the ball?
I think it was 25. I remember it well. Everyone was like, “Let’s move on.” I was like, “No, no, no.” It took a while.
Yeah, though it depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Sometimes I feel proud, and other times I wonder if it was worth the struggle. As I tell the story more and more, it makes me realize how hard we all worked, and that it is an accomplishment to be able to make one of these things and be happy with it. To be able to be within the center of the creative process was really rewarding for me.
“Point Break” is now available on VOD and will open on September 4th in Los Angeles at the Universal CityWalk Stadium 19 and in New York at the AMC Empire 25.