The highly anticipated new tennis series on Netflix, Break Point, premieres on 13 January.
Before the world gets an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the sport, ATPTour.com spoke to executive producer James Gay-Rees and showrunner Kari Lia about what it took to produce the series, how it compares to F1: Drive To Survive, what surprised the crew about how filming unfolded and more.
How much goes into a big task like this?
Kari: It’s an incredible amount of work. ‘Drive To Survive’ has been such a success for [production company] Box to Box, but we knew this was going to be very different. Tennis is a different kind of game, there’s so many more matches. In the end, we probably filmed too much in the beginning because we were so excited to get a sense of how these tournaments feel, how can we convey what it’s like to be there, what’s it like to feel live tennis…
It took us months of learning what are really the pivotal moments, the moments you don’t want to miss. Some tournaments we would have only two or three cameras and we would try to film specific people. At the Grand Slams, it was different. We would have four or five cameras every day and we had people we wanted to follow, win or lose.
It took us a while to hone in on how we wanted to do it but the crucial thing was making the experience and making it feel like something you’ve never felt before. In the end, I think we had five times as much footage as they had for ‘Drive To Survive’, but we very carefully learned how to work with that footage. It took a lot of work.
How much footage are you talking about? Thousands of hours?
Kari: That’s a good question, I tried not counting them up [laughs]. A lot, I would say thousands.
James, is there ever such a thing as ‘too much’ when you’re doing something like this?
James: There is a correlation between how much coverage you need and what ends up on screen, it’s a vast multitude. It is a question of being in the right place at the right time to some extent. Kari, [executive producer] Paul Martin, and myself basically work out which players we are going to try and follow. You try and place a bunch of bets on different players, some of them pay off, some don’t, stuff happens like injuries, they go out in the first round.
The temptation is to cover those players as much as possible. You need to be around. We’ve learned from other shows that it’s better to be with the athletes as much as possible or they tend to not like us coming in and out of their lives. Otherwise it’s a start-stop process and you have to rebuild it every time. There’s no way around it, you’ve got to put the hours in. The more hours you put in, the increased chance of success.
How much more complicated was tennis than F1, where all the teams are all at one place?
Kari: It was way more complicated. I think what everyone on our team learned quickly was that we had to recalibrate and actually start from the beginning. You have 128 players playing different rounds all the time, you could go mad quite quickly. You have to cut your cloth accordingly because you need to be really focussed about who you are coming to film and why.
It was complicated, but I think James and Paul did an incredible [job] in terms of access to the players. By the time the filming team showed up, the groundwork was already laid and we started to understand why it was worthwhile to put time into filming because it’s not easy whether they win or lose. The people were ready to film and ready to tell their stories.
James: The difference between those two shows is Formula One is completely contained precincts. The product is the product every weekend, same drivers, they can’t escape you. Compared to tennis, where players may play that tournament but not the other tournament, you have to constantly evolve the matrix.
The access to the players was a lot easier than Formula One drivers, they are more open, they are individuals, not part of a wider team with huge PR teams. It’s harder to track but once you get it right, the access is easier.
How did you arrange the crews?
Kari: We felt it was really important that the players needed to feel comfortable with who was filming. We assigned certain shooting directors with certain players and they would stick with that player for the whole time, at least we tried to do it that way. They built that trust and that relationship. It was fantastic, it made a real difference, especially when you’re going into a Slam or a difficult situation, they were able to build that trust.
How many people are involved in a shoot on-site?
Kari: There’s usually about 20 people on-site on our total team, sometimes a bit more. Let’s say if we are following Frances [Tiafoe], you always have a shooting director, sound, an assistant producer. Behind the scenes you’ll have a showrunner, executive producers, series producer, series director, line producer, production manager, you’ll have a whole back office of people actually running the engine.
How do you figure out what moments to use and what moments not to use?
James: We sit down with the team early on as the narratives start to present themselves, and write down what we have to work with, which of the players are popping? Like at Indian Wells, Taylor Fritz won the tournament and we asked, ‘Where’s that going to go from here? What can we do with that storyline?’ You just start to look at your lines of narrative, in isolation and how they co-exist.
We’ve obviously finished filming now but we have to finish the next five episodes. You want to pay off storylines and see where it organically goes. It’s a very unscientific process, it’s an emotional process where you see how these characters develop. It’s an embarrassment of riches, so many great stories. You get really invested in these characters. These tennis players don’t know me from a bar of soap, but I’m all in on these players now. You get very attached to people even though it’s a filming process. It’s challenging, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s an enjoyable process.
Were there moments that you were surprised what you were seeing and catching on film?
James: [Fritz winning Indian Wells] is a really good story. The team had amazing access to him in that moment. He makes a deep run and then has that injury before the final, to be on the inside for that feels pretty special. The Nick Kyrgios journey has been fascinating, that’s been amazing to be a part of. Then some of the female players, Ajla Tomljanovic has a great story this year. She was a great partner to us and had lots of highs and lows over the year. She is someone who we didn’t necessarily see coming and she is a big part of the series, rightly so.
How do you figure out the editing?
Kari: It’s all part of the creative process. It’s part of the joy and part of the pain. It’s a team effort. We talk about but also you have to watch the footage and it tells you what the story is and we respond to that. We are always thinking about the audience, like ‘What does the audience want to know here? What’s this story really about?’ Then we try and listen to the people who are filming, what are they trying to tell us? What are they trying not to tell us? It’s a lot of hard work.
When did the editing process start?
Kari: We started editing about two weeks into the job. We only start editing once a tournament is finished and we know what the story is. We don’t know what’s going to happen [while filming], but as they say truth is better than fiction, so we follow what happens for real and that’s the story we tell.
James: You’ve got to start editing before the end of the season, you’ve got to get ahead of it otherwise you’d never make it in time. It’s the same with Drive to Survive. I don’t remember the exact point we started editing but it was in the middle of the season.