The Hollywood Shorties may be the most important basketball team no one has ever heard of until now. Formed by a group of veteran recognizable but typecast film and television actors, The Shorties were the first ever all-dwarf hoops squad. Competing in charity event, at schools, during half time of NBA games, The Hollywood Shorties providing a pint-sized version of the sort of comedy-sports-entertainment the Harlem Globetrotters had made famous. More importantly, they found themselves at vanguard of a movement to see little people as more than just filmic curiosities, and to for the first time, be taken seriously as athletes.
Director Ryan Steven Green world premiered his documentary THE HOLLYWOOD SHORTIES at SXSW after years of research and interviews and the resulting film is a triumph. In addition to shedding the light on a forgotten part of Americana, Green’s film is inspiring. These are stories of taking an idea out into the unknown, of finding an audience where there was none, and lifting up a whole group of people as entertainers to be valued for more than just their lack of size. The film covers every angle of the team, its history, its internal battle over whether there should be more comedy or more basketball, and the environment that eventually lead to the end of the team. The interviews are honest and do not shy away from controversy – some decades-old resentment at the dismantling of the team still exists.
Throughout, Green proves equally adept at telling a story and eliciting a strong emotional response in the viewer. This is a film that has a bit of everything. It’s funny, its touching, it has amazing montages of incredibly recognizable actors, and it is socially important. In the wake of the inclusion movement, it would be easy to overlook other groups which did not get the publicity of larger groups like African-Americans, Women, and Gay Civil Rights groups. [And honestly, I’m not meaning to make so many ‘size’ based references, they aren’t puns – just the one comparing the Shorties to the Globetrotters].
But the true stars of film are the athletes themselves, men who know their own star power and sought to use it to showcase something else entirely. Green has mined Hollywood, and dug up the most amazing clips of the Hollywood Shorties’ ‘other’ careers. With roles as Ewoks, Leprechauns, Munchkins, etc., it is easy to see why these actors, and often extremely talented showmen and funnymen, were eager for another outlet to demonstrate their skills. The montages he has crafted together are practically a film production time line in themselves. But what he really does well is let the men tell their own story, and really restore The Hollywood Shorties to their rightful place in the history of sports.
I had a chance to sit down with Ryan Steven Green to chat about the film at SXSW.
BEARS: How did you first hear about the Hollywood Shorties? Before you even thought about doing a movie, what’s your first memory of the team?
Green: Sure, that’s a great question and, I don’t know that I can tell you, because it’s one of those things like at Christmas time we always have strawberry waffles, and that’s my family tradition. Probably my first memory has to do with my dad’s classroom. My dad was a public school teacher for 36 years in the Arcadia School District. When I was very young, I would visit him in his classroom, and probably my first memory is seeing the Shorties photo in his classroom. He’d keep a photo of me, a photo of my sisters, a photo of my mom, and forever, he had a photo of the Hollywood Shorties. You’ve probably seen it, it’s the Shorties with the Laker Girls. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in the background, towering over everybody.
BEARS: Photobombing, yeah.
Green: And so, I never, early in life, assumed or knew that there was anything more to the story than, “Oh check it out, Uncle Larry and Uncle Scott got to be on the Forum floor with the Laker Girls – and one of them was Paula Abdul.” I don’t even know if I ever actually went to see them play when I was young. If I did, I don’t have memory of it.
BEARS: So, you are related to some of the Hollywood Shorties?
BEARS: It’s funny, ‘cause that’s not in the film.
Green: I don’t point it out. It’s always the temptation when you’re doing a documentary to turn the camera on yourself and make it about you. And it’s like, it’s not hard for me to resist that, and I don’t mind that the slip shows a little bit. I mean, dude’s name is Scott Green. But it’s not overt, and I like to keep it kind of under wraps in that way. It’s something to say in an interview like this, and not in the 85 minutes of the film.
BEARS: No that’s cool. I like that you are related to them and I like that that’s not what the movie’s about. So I’m assuming that the pitch started with your relatives. How did you tell them like, “Hey, I want to make this movie about you”?
Green: It was Christmas 2012. “Circle the Wagen” was pretty much done, I was still making tweaks getting ready for our premiere [“Circle the Wagen” is Green’s excellent doc about a VW Bus Roadtrip across America and VW Cuture]. I was in the mindset of, “I’m looking for my next film,” and we’re sitting around the Christmas table. And it was my Uncle Scott, who’s in the film, that said, “What about The Hollywood Shorties?” I was like, “Hollywood Shorties?” He goes and gets the photos out of his office — we’re looking at the photos again. And it literally hit my ear as if it hearing it for the first time. It was totally brand new – the only thought I had was, “What family has stories like this? This is ridiculous!”
BEARS: So you had your story, and did your Uncle Scott help you laying the ground work for getting the interviews.
Green:The consensus coming out of that Christmas dinner was, “You should really talk to your Aunt Lydia.” Aunt Lydia was married to my Uncle Larry. Larry was on the team for 20 years, roughly. Larry’s life was not an exemplary one, you could say. He’s been dead these last 10 years, his memory has been kind of swept under the green rug, essentially. Lydia divorced him in the mid-80’s — 1985 I believe — and moved back to her home in Michigan. She had been estranged from the family for almost 30 years. I had a memory of her, I had a memory of their house together. But I didn’t know how to get in contact with her. Just e-mailing around and asking around came up with contact info. There was a series of missteps and miscommunications – no responses, these type of things ensued over the next several weeks. I feared that she was dead, you know?
BEARS: And you were gonna be the one to have to tell the family that?
Green: A lot of the Shorties are deceased at this point. But lo and behold, she finally called back. Totally knew who I was, totally excited that I called. Didn’t take any convincing. We spent probably 10, 12 hours over a couple of conversations on the phone talking about The Shorties: who was on the team, when did they play, essentially that was the bulk of my early research. Aunt Lydia just welcomed back in as if I was still her nephew Ryan. Of course, I was four years old when she left LA.
BEARS: How fun is that? “Oh, I’m a filmmaker now, by the way.” We live in LA and Austin, where everybody’s a filmmaker. But a family member in Michigan would totally be kinda psyched about that.
Green: When she was in LA, she was in the film industry, too. So, she’s an Ewok, she was in “Under the Rainbow,” you know, she did this whole thing when she was in LA. My whole pitch to her was like, “Hey, are you ready for your return to the silver screen?”
Green: The names were known immediately. There was some level of contact, too, because while my Uncle Larry was around, The Shorties were still around, too. That meant that my Uncle Scott still had contact with them but because Uncle Larry had been deceased for a decade, those contacts have kind of fallen away. But never fallen away to Aunt Lydia. Aunt Lydia was a district coordinator, supervisor – I can’t remember the title – for the LPA [Little People of America] in her district in Michigan. So, she’s like, “Oh yeah, you want to talk to so and so? Here’s their number. You want to talk to so and so? I’ll call ‘em for you, they’re a little bit reclusive.”She became, quite literally, a producer on the film. She’s not titled as such, ‘cause she didn’t want it, but that is what she did for me. She paved the road in terms of getting in contact. But the main person I needed to talk to was George Rossitto [manager of The Shorties].
BEARS: I love the way the film is not just about the basketball team, but also the history of it – how it came from softball, and then also the movie industry and the roles they were getting – that really puts them in context. Can you talk a little about your approach to the design of the film, because documentaries are very different from narrative films. You can put anything you want in them, so you’re able to shape it by your research.
Green: Absolutely, and as you also know, there’s so much you leave out. This could’ve been several different films. It’s not a cause film at all. And yet, if you wanted to, you could still probably read into it as a cause film.
BEARS: There were parts of it that made me cry, because it was very powerful. At the beginning, when they were talking about how for the first time they could feel that they were competing and they were being looked at as humans and athletes, that part to me was emotional. I could see how the film could’ve really gone that way. Not that it should’ve – at all. I liked that it went there.
Green: You don’t have to state it overtly, and the people who approach it with an open mind and want to learn will get it anyway. If I were to say things like, “Hey, we’re the same as you.” I mean, of course I got those things in interviews, “We’re the same as you, we’re just shorter.” But you get that from the story. You get that because you understand it, rather than being told that that is the case.
BEARS: Yet you don’t really have a story without the Hollywood angle to it. These are trailblazing athletes, using whatever cinematic notoriety they had to make a social statement.
Green: They were dudes, in their 20s, having the time of their life, living in LA. The fact that there’s this sort of social conditioning in the film industry to see them as freaks and mystical creatures of some sort, it’s so integral to the story, so I wanted to treat on it, but I didn’t want to make it “the” story. Certainly in their own promotional materials and the ways that they presented themselves, the Hollywood angle was totally integral to the whole thing.
BEARS: They put it in the title of the team.
Green: Even in like the pitch materials they would send to people to try to get bookings and stuff. It’s right at the top — Tony Cox “He was an Ewok,” Tommy Madden was in Laverne and Shirley. Whoever was in something and especially where you could see their face front and center. And it changes – all these promotional materials – because of who’s hot at what time and what shows they’re in.
BEARS: I can’t imagine as a child getting to meet a movie star, but also getting to meet a movie star, if you’re like seven years old, who’s your height.
Green: They’d always stick around after games, sign autographs. You could meet them, talk to them. To me, that was like, the power of what they were doing? They didn’t state it overtly, sometimes more, sometimes less, like, “We’re the same as you” type message.
BEARS: I’m very interested in the montage. That had to be a nightmare. Tell me about that, how you found all those films, and also, I’m sort of curious about the legality of showing all those clips, did you have the rights to any of that?
Green: We didn’t pursue the rights to any of that. I read a bunch, I talked to my lawyer, and we’re perfectly within our rights to use it under fair use. Nevertheless, fair use is a defense and not an affirmative, positive assertion. License is alway better. But I read about a film about wrestling ( I can’t remember the title of it right now), it was the culture of masculinity and pumping iron. It’s rise in the ’80s through the WWF and NFL. The film was a total tear down of that message – steroid use, corruption, and all these things. They had over 800 clips and decided, “F You – we are not seeking any licenses for any of this stuff and you guys aren’t gonna do anything.” They got letters, but their lawyer, with the fair use argument, was able to flick them off, just like fleas on the back of a dog.
BEARS: Well, because that’s not the story they’re telling. They’re not telling the story of that clip, right? They’re telling a larger story and just using it as an example.
Green: And it’s necessary, that’s the thing. What it protects most is historical documentaries. I mean, there’s no other way to tell the story except to cull from that material that happened back then. My lawyer is totally confident so it’s off of my brain at this point. In terms of putting it together, I did start that conversation about legality from the beginning. I didn’t want to put in all that research and get all this stuff together if I wasn’t gonna be able to use it. My lawyer said “Dude, give it all the teeth you want. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to.” It was its own production – you could put it that way. It was myself, it was Charlie [Pecoraro] from “Circle the Wagen,” it was my cousin Matthew [Green]. It was two interns. All researching and trying to find clips wherever we could.
BEARS: I think a lot of that stuff doesn’t exist digitally.
Green: No, forgotten. Like The Shorties’ stories, just totally forgotten. You can see from the quality on screen. Where’s this coming from? Somebody shot a screen? Thank God. Because it’s the only form of it that’s in existence now.
BEARS: The Hollywood Shorties story had disappeared and you’re doing a great job bringing it back. How did you feel about the fact that it had disappeared? It was amazing- how big it was, how many people it touched, and then the fact that nobody knew about it, and there’s no record of it on the internet. That’s really bizarre.
Green: We assume in the 21st century that if it’s not on the internet it didn’t exist. I mean, this happened 30 years ago. This is recent history and it’s utterly gone. It’s a lesson to every documentarian – there’s hidden treasure, there’s gold out there. The feeling I had while I was making this is – I was constantly looking over my shoulder going, “Really, nobody’s making this already? There’s nothing? I’m alone out here? How can this be?”
BEARS: “Do I need to work faster?”
Green: Exactly. I was really anxious about posting things online. There was that sense of like, “We’re in on a secret here, and let’s keep it that way so we can get it done.” Meanwhile, somebody’s making a film about “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie,” and several of The Shorties were Garbage Pail kids. So they’re interviewing Kevin Thompson about the Garbage Pail Kids.
One quick thing I would say is, I’m a filmmaker, I have been for 20 years now. I’ve never had the sense that I was born to make a film until this one. The reason it’s not been made is because there is and remains nobody else to make it. I was literally born to make this film. It sounds super hubristic but I think there’s no other way to state it. It was waiting for somebody to come along but there was nobody except for the nephew of Larry Green who just happens to be a filmmaker.
THE HOLLYWOOD SHORTIES world premiered at SXSW.