It’s been a typically busy week for documentarian Jonathan Hock. The Hastings-on-Hudson resident, who moved to Westchester from Manhattan with his wife and two sons several years ago, is back in the city helming a promotional video shoot for an organization working with inner-city youth. The subject matter’s consistent with Hock’s M.O., which is focusing his camera and efforts on heralding the underdogs and underserved in all corners of the culture. To wit, his most recent feature-length theatrical release, Fastball (narrated by Kevin Costner), explores the titular pitch’s mythos and magic by gathering animated testimony from Hall of Fame players (Bob Gibson, Derek Jeter et al), scientists and journalists regarding its centuries-spanning history. But it also devotes a significant section of time to underappreciated could-have-been flamethrower Steve Dalkowski, whose led a troubled life since near-missing his moment in the major leagues.
Hock, whose additional credits include directing multiple installments of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series and lauded docs on athletes like once-prodigal former NBA player Sebastian Telfair, also claims nearly 10 Emmys on his shelves. And this Sunday, he’ll be heading closer to home for the Pelham Picture House’s screening of Fastball, after which Hock will answer the audience’s questions. But first, we peppered him with ours, whether about getting athletes to open up on-camera or finding a place to call home behind the scenes in Hastings.
How long did it take you to adjust to the speed of Westchester life?
It was very quick, because it was just so nice to have a little quiet, and our neighborhood is so fantastic. [Hastings] really feels like a small town more than kind of just a bedroom community where people shuffle in and out. It has its own personality. That was a lot more of a social environment than we were really expecting. It felt really right.
Has anyone or anything you’ve encountered here served as muse for your work?
For me, it’s just a really healthy environment to work in for feeling and being creative. There’s energy. It’s not a dead feeling place, and I think that’s really important. I don’t know if there’s a particular thing, but just generally being in a mindset to be creative. It’s that kind of place.
In general, and in Fastball, your work reflects the human side of what you’re covering. Where did that empathy take root?
I think that word empathy is the key to the whole thing. The filmmaker’s greatest tool is not a particular camera lens, but the idea of being able to really try to feel the story from the character’s point of view. I think I was taught that by Steve Sabol from NFL Films. Steve was a person who could only see the story from the human side, and I think he took this game, this sport, and found a way to to treat it as something that something that spoke to the human endeavor. Our job is not as journalists, our job is as storytellers. That doesn’t mean you fabricate. It means you allow yourself to feel what is happening within the heart and soul of your subject. It’s a humanist approach, and I find that it suited me and my temperament.
How do you get athletes to relax and speak beyond sound bites?
You don’t make the story about their feat. You make the story about them. They’re human beings like the rest of us with feelings of triumph and loss, and they make mistakes and they try to overcome. [Documentarian] Albert Maysles, who I was fortunate to get to know, pioneered the use of the camera in a natural setting, and people being very natural with him in the room. He said people don’t really want to keep secrets from you. They just need to know that they are accepted for what they really want and what they really want to be and become, or what they feel they once were [or] once did. Even Nolan Ryan or Hank Aaron or Derek Jeter—these are people who haven’t always had the easiest or the greatest relationship with the press, but once you engage them on their terms, then you can pursue anything with them. That’s what I really try to do when I sit down in a chair: navigate as quickly as possible to the heart of what really matters to them.
The common thread of all the interviews in Fastball is their being in awe of the game.
They are. The game is bigger than them. And as high a pedestal we place them on, they know that to be good at this game, at that level, is extraordinarily difficult. And they have reverence for how hard it is to be great and how fleeting it is when you figure out how to be great. The younger guys in the film—Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen—they don’t have that perspective yet, so it’s really great to intercut them talking about the same thing where they have a little more swagger.
Was the idea to allow non-baseball fans to connect with their stories?
Right, that’s the idea—that film can take something that almost no one else can do and bring it to a place that’s an analog for what we all do every day in our own lives. The other thing about baseball is that when someone’s throwing a hundred miles an hour, it’s the limit of human performance. On the other side of the equation are the batters. Being able to track a ball moving at that speed is also the limit of human performance in terms of the ability to make a decision to recognize where the ball is heading and swing. We witness it, I think, on a very primal level, so watching a great fastball pitcher against a great hitter has this almost instinctive, visceral appeal, and the drama of baseball really flows out of that.
In its own intellectual way, it’ kind of gladiatorial.
Yeah, but it’s gladiatorial in a really particular way. It’s not, you know, boxers punching each other or tennis players smashing the ball back and forth. It isn’t a back and forth. It’s one guy doing one particular skill, which has nothing to do with what the other guy is doing, but they have to it at the very limits of human performance. That’s the thing that’s really unique about baseball.
And what’s ultimately so seductive about an underdog story like Steve Dalkowski’s?
I think losing is always more exciting than winning, and I think our longings are always more compelling than our achievements. I am definitely drawn to people who either begin with very little or end with very little, because there’s not a lot of drama in LeBron James, for example.
Lastly, is there any public person fighting against all odds right now who compels you as a filmmaker?
Someone I’m very excited about who has a local connection now is Shoni Schimmel, the basketball player who was just traded to the New York Liberty, who practice up in Tarrytown and are playing at [Madison Square] Garden. I started filming her in her junior year of high school. [With] her family coming off of [Oregon’s] Umatilla Indian Reservation and [Schimmel] making her way to University of Louisville and going to the National Championship game and becoming an WNBA record setter and All-Star Game MVP as a rookie, she represents not only a people who have yearnings, but a people whose yearnings have been deliberately suppressed by the government. [It’s] extraordinarily inspiring. I know their season starts the same day as we have our screening at Pelham, so starting the second game of the season I’ll be watching everything she does. And I’m just so proud of her, and so happy for her and her family and all the people that she represents every time she plays. It’s truly an impressive and inspiring human story that’s taking place right in our backyard now.
But just to be clear, people can always DVR that first game in deference to attending your screening.
[Laughs] Oh yes, she’ll have about 29 more games or something like that.