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She Got Game: Mighty 'The Pistol Shrimps' Coming to DOXA

Vancouver filmmaker takes us courtside with hilarious story of LA basketball league.

Frederick Blichert 23 Apr 2016TheTyee.ca

Frederick Blichert is a Vancouver-based writer completing a practicum at The Tyee. He is a student at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism and writes for various film publications.

''You’re either with us or against us. And may God help you if you're against us because we will dunk on your ass so hard!''

That's how actress and comedian Aubrey Plaza introduces her basketball team, the Pistol Shrimps, in Vancouver-born director Brent Hodge's new documentary playing at Vancouver's upcoming DOXA Film Festival.

Best known for her work on Parks and Recreation, Plaza was involved in reviving a women's recreational basketball league in Los Angeles a few years ago. Now with 26 teams and counting, the league is a major success story. The players are comedians, actors, models, mothers, musicians, and more. They have sponsors, superfans, and even a dedicated podcast providing commentary on every game along with absurd asides and a half-time ''Sock Report'' from hilariously clueless announcers.

Hodge is no stranger to eccentric subjects. He was last at DOXA with A Brony Tale, his look at the adult men who also happen to be hardcore fans of the animated children's series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In The Pistol Shrimps, Hodge reteams with his Brony Tale executive producer Morgan Spurlock -- best known for unconventional documentaries like Supersize Me -- to tell another story about a community coming together, this time around basketball.

It's hard not be drawn in by the players, each completely endearing in her own way. While Plaza's star power lures us in, her teammates and rivals have no trouble keeping us invested. Hodge introduces us to a headshot photographer who spends her spare time pretending to be a contestant on The Bachelor in an elaborate and ridiculous social media hoax. We hear from a musician who came out as gay around the time she joined the team and finds a deep sense of belonging with other women living their own truths.

A comedy writing duo shares some of their experiences trying to break into show business between games, while two models bond over their shared understanding of the industry. And an entertainment lawyer describes the support she gets from her boss when she leaves the office early every Tuesday to beat rush-hour traffic to the game.

The city of Los Angeles is almost as compelling a character as the players themselves. It's hard to imagine such an eclectic and entertaining group of people building a cult following for an amateur sports league in any other city. Passion for their game comes through the jokes and goofing off at every level.

Like the players whose stories he's telling, Hodge never takes himself too seriously. In one segment, he switches gears to imitate a BBC nature documentary -- complete with faux David Attenborough narration -- to describe actual pistol shrimps. The team's namesake is a tiny, deceptively powerful sea creature. Its one large claw cocks back and shoots compressed air bubbles that, the players tell us, can shatter glass. Somehow this odd, mostly unknown animal seems like the perfect mascot for the film as well as the team.

The story takes a turn to the suspenseful when we learn that Plaza, one of the team's most valuable players, has injured her knee and can’t play the season's final games. Do the Pistol Shrimps still have a chance for victory without her?

The film plays at DOXA (see sidebar) and has been picked up by NBC for its comedy-streaming site Seeso. The Tyee caught up with Hodge on the sidelines of the festival. Here's what he had to say.

The Tyee: How did you come across the Pistol Shrimps as a subject?

Hodge: I was in New York and ran into Aubrey Plaza in a coffee shop and just got to talking. We did a Chris Farley documentary last year, so [we] talked about Farley and we have a few mutual friends in the comedy industry. We just kinda said, ''We should do a film sometime together.''

I told Morgan Spurlock about it, and we did a bit of research and realized she's on this basketball team in L.A., and they play weekly. I called a friend, and said, "Can you go see if this thing's real?" And so he went that night, and he said, "This is the most hilarious thing I've ever seen. There are half-time dancers, there's a coach in a pony outfit, there are commentators." So we started right then.

What's it like to work with such a large team of 'performers'?

Really quickly, I realized that the story didn't have that much to do with basketball and it had a lot to do with these girls. It had a lot to do with their lives and what they bring to the table, and so I just started exploring that.

To put Aubrey in the forefront would just be ridiculous. It's not just one person telling the story of this league. A lot of people made it happen.

There wasn't a league before, and they're going against all that and creating their own. And all of a sudden there's about 500-plus women signing up to do something on Tuesday nights. They used to go have a glass of wine with their friends and now they're all part of this team.

What made you want to tell a story about women?

When the film came out, it was like, ''Oh wow! I guess we just made a powerful women story,'' and I didn't even really think about that. They're just so funny. These women are all lead characters. They all could have their own show. I just thought it was so great and so funny.

I really respect that they let me, as a male filmmaker, make this movie and I think there's just such a great relationship with them and a mutual respect. They trusted my vision, and I trusted their story, that it was going to be something big.

You can look at feminism, you can look at the power of women, and I think there's a lot of talk about it. But you don't have to work too hard -- you just have to look around you and it's happening. These women are huge role models and they're not standing up and making all these huge statements. They're just working really hard at creating something.

That's the kind of thing I want to document. I don't want to talk about the power of women, I want to showcase it, I want to show it, and it's right there in front of me.

How is it working with Morgan Spurlock?

I remember going to see Supersize Me 10 years ago and leaving the theatre thinking, ''Finally there's a documentary out there where I don't feel so horrible about myself, and yet I still learned something.''

Morgan's big statement on the films that we make together is that if you can make them laugh, you can make them listen. And I've always kind of kept that in mind.

The Pistol Shrimps makes a major point about community and isolation, and building that in a big city like Los Angeles. You show that while having a lot of fun. I think the message gets across. There are some hilarious human stories out there and they still get the point across.

Is there anything else you'd like audiences to know?

We're all Canadian. Our whole crew is still Canadian. The editors are all Canadian. The music is Canadian. It's a Los Angeles women's story, but the crew, Hodgee Films [Hodge's production company], has stayed true to its Canadian roots.

And I think a lot of the intimacy of these stories is coming out because we're foreigners. We come down to the U.S. and it's all still kind of wide-eyed for us. I think when you're filming in a foreign place, even if it's just Kelowna, like, the [next] town over, you don't see that stuff every day, so you're filming it from a different perspective.

My crew is super important to me. They're like my rec league basketball team. They're my Shrimps. So the fact that they're all Canadian keeps it all very grounded for the stories we want to tell.

The Pistol Shrimps plays at the Playhouse on Wednesday May 11 at 7 pm, and again at the Vancity Theatre on Sunday, May 15 at 5:30 pm as part of Vancouver’s DOXA Film Festival. For more information, visit the DOXA website.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  [Tyee]

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