New documentary focuses on obsessive UK basketball fans
Director Jason Epperson interviewing a UK fan for "The Sixth Man"
When the film company producing “The Sixth Man: Rise of the Big Blue Nation,” a new documentary about the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball team’s irrepressible fan base, first started shooting footage for the movie at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, they decided to put the project on the back burner for the time being. Everybody involved with 4 Rocket Surgeons, the production company that includes director Jason Epperson and producers Lee Cruse, Steve Bates, and Tim Bates, didn’t have the time necessary to dedicate to a feature documentary; besides, after the exodus of the previous team, which saw five players enter the NBA Draft after the end of the season, expectations weren’t very high for the following season.
"The Sixth Man" producers (from left to right) Lee Cruse, Tim Bates and Steve Bates. With the director, they formed the 4 Rocket Surgeons production company.
As their luck would have it, the team, led by freshman Brandon Knight and ascendent senior Josh “Jorts” Harrelson, shocked the sports world by progressing all the way to the Final Four in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. While the Big Blue Nation, as the legion of local and far-flung Wildcat basketball fans are known, relished in their team’s success through an emotional season, those involved with “The Sixth Man” were kicking themselves for the missed opportunity.
The director and the producers vowed they wouldn’t sit another season out, and cameras were rolling even before the 2011-12 season began, beginning with the hoopla surrounding fans trying to get tickets to Big Blue Madness – the first public showcase for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. Any citizen of the Big Blue Nation knows the story line: led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats not only made a return appearance to the Final Four, they cut the nets down in New Orleans as the tournament champions. And the filmmakers were there to document fans’ fervor.
“We got lucky,” said Cruse, a popular media personality in the Lexington area, “like catching lightning in a bottle.”
Cruse was approached by the director and other producers to help make a movie about UK, even before a specific focus for the movie was established.
“We knew we wanted to do something on UK, but we wanted it to be different,” Epperson said. “There’s been a ton of documentaries about the players, about the program, about Rupp. Those movies have all been done. We didn’t want to do the same movie.”
As an area filmmaker, Epperson got a big break in 2007 when he was chosen, out of nearly 20,000 submissions, to be one of 18 finalists in the reality television show competition “On the Lot,” produced by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett. Epperson missed the grand prize, but was the show’s runner up, and a lot of film work opportunities arose from the exposure.
Prior to “The Sixth Man,” Epperson has worked on a number of feature productions and commercial and promotional projects, but as an avid UK fan, as with the others involved with the documentary, the idea for a film about Wildcat basketball always loomed in the back of his mind.
The documentary, which was nearly three and half years in the making, will be released in late October on DVD and will be available in a number of local and state retail providers, and there will be two public screenings at 9 and 11 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Kentucky Theatre (the night before this year’s Big Blue Madness).
Along with following obsessive fans, the film is also stocked with a number of high-profile interviews with characters who share in the passion or can speak about the rabid fan base from a point of authority, such as Josh Hutcherson from “The Hunger Games,” “Treme” star (and Lexington transplant) Steve Zahn, Josh Hopkins from “Cougar Town,” Laura Bell Bundy, ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Rece Davis, head coach John Calipari, and even Duke villain Christian Laettner.
“I hate to say it, but you’re going to enjoy listening to Christian Laettner talk in the film. I didn’t want to believe that,” Epperson said. “When we interviewed him, I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t do it. He was a nice guy. He’s got a great personality and he appreciates us and this program.”
The members of the production company admit that as far as documentaries go, “The Sixth Man” is a feature made by UK fans for UK fans, but Cruse says the film still addresses the issue of fans who take their obsession with UK basketball too far.
“We talk about how they can take things over the top. There’s a dark side to it,” Cruse said. “But, again, we’re all Kentuckians, we we’re biased a little. It’s not a hit piece, it’s more of a love letter.”
To help pay for the promotional costs for the film, the producers have launched a Kickstarter project, which can be found here.
For more information about the movie or to see a trailer, visit www.sixthmanmovie.com.