When screenwriter Mark Rizzo told his agents he wanted to do a basketball movie, he was handed his dream job—adapting the international Spanish hit comedy Campeones into an American movie for Bobby Farrelly. In Focus Features’ Champions, Woody Harrelson plays a tough, obsessive minor-league coach whose dream of working in the NBA is derailed when he is court-mandated to work with a team of players with intellectual disabilities, the Friends.
For Rizzo, the opportunity to use his knowledge of basketball to help structure a comic story of remarkable characters was thrilling. What he didn’t know at the time was how much working with the Friends would deepen his love of the game.
We spoke with Rizzo about what he learned writing the screenplay for Champions.
How did you end up writing the screenplay for Champions?
I had recently switched agencies, and I had this preliminary meeting where they asked me, "What are you interested in?" I told them, "You should know that I am obsessed with basketball. I still play and I want to write about it.” When the idea of adapting Campeones came across my agent’s desk, she told me, “Here’s a basketball movie. Take a look at it and see if you'd be interested.” So I watched Campeones, and I was floored. I was flooded with ideas about how to adapt it. When I met with the folks of Gold Circle and pitched them on what I'd like to do with the adaptation, I got the job.
What did you see as your chief creative challenge in adapting the Spanish film?
For me, it was making sure that the disabled people in the movie carried as much story and as much agency as the non-disabled people. That was really my sole focus. I wanted to give them as many choices and emotional arcs as any other character would have. The other thing I did was drill down a little bit deeper into basketball, getting into the nitty-gritty of the game. For example, like Marcus in the movie, I'm obsessed with the pick and roll, and I wanted to feature that in the film.
Did you end up writing with the actors in mind?
One of the things that I'm most grateful for is that the producers and Bobby trusted me enough to collaborate with them to the very end. I was constantly tweaking the script, so Woody's voice was definitely in my head as I was doing all of those rewrites.
How did you write the Friends’ characters to fit the actors?
We were in the midst of pandemic when the film was shot, so my involvement with the actors was limited to seeing their audition tape. But I got feedback from Bobby and the producers about what their strengths were. Aa a writer, you hope that the actors like the material and that they elevate it in some way. In this film, each and every member of the cast did exactly that. I was blown away by how the funny scenes were just funnier with them in them. They made brilliant choices that I could not have imagined.
Did you spend much time with athletes with disabilities before writing the screenplay?
When I got the job, I was determined to get some experience around that. My first call was to the Writers Guild to get in touch with the disabled writers committee. I told the head of disabled writers, "I want to do a good job representing all the characters. Can you help me talk to some people?" He put me in touch with Gail Williamson, who is an advocate and a talent agent who represents a lot of disabled actors. Her son, Blair, is an actor and a person with Down Syndrome who was on a basketball team in North Hollywood. I shadowed his team at their practices and I went with them to the Special Olympics. I embedded with them a little bit when I was writing the first draft of the script and then met with them again when I was doing rewrites. The players and their coach were really wonderful, rolling out the red carpet for me.
What did you learn from working directly with those players?
The biggest thing was the joy with which everyone approached the game. In a way, they were like every other team I’ve been a part of. They were very serious about the game but also took enormous pleasure in playing.
The other thing that I took away from following them was the commitment of their coach. He was, in some ways, the opposite of Marcus. He coached them hard but never in a mean way. I was so taken by the dedication of coach Mike that he inspired an entire scene in the movie.
How did working with those players and on this movie enrich your feelings about the game of basketball?
Every Saturday, I still play, albeit poorly and in a hobbled manner appropriate for my age. There is just a great deal of joy to be had in the game. And when I watched these players play, they showed me just how much pleasure. I really hope that translates into the movie. I hope audiences feel the love that I—and the actors playing the Friends—have for the game.
Were there particular scenes that turned out better than you imagined?
Many. But there is one scene when Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) and Marcus (Harrelson) have this confrontation about Johnny giving him the stink eye. Their performance reminded me of this theory of acting that one of acting teachers, Philippe Gaulier, proposed. He thought of acting as a game being played between different people. I saw in that scene between Woody and Kevin the peak expression of Gaulier's idea of pleasure and gamesmanship.
What do you hope people take away from the movie?
I hope people take away this: If we meet people where they are, disabled and non-disabled alike, we are all capable of extraordinary things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.