By Darryl Houston Smith and Jan Houston Smith 

This summer we had the chance to speak with current Burst CEO Bryant McBride. McBride, formally the highest-ranking minority executive in the history of the NHL, about his latest project –“WILLIE”.  This highly-anticipated sports documentary is based on the life of the legendary hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree and has already been acclaimed as an instant Canadian sports classic.  “WILLIE” is much more than that. It is a universal story about love and friendship that will speak to the hearts and minds of many people across the globe.  Like other recent documentaries on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and TV’s Mister Rogers. “WILLIE” has a lot of award buzz and it should be on everyone’s fall “must-see” list.  McBride who is a producer of the film has been a success in each of the many different fields he has chosen to pursue.  With “WILLIE” he wanted to combine his success in business with his love of hockey and use film to get the message out. McBride has once again followed his mother Julia’s first lesson that you can be anything you want – even a movie producer. 

The film was made in a hurry but it is so well crafted.  Can you tell me a little of what was behind the choice to move so quickly?

We have this earnest, humble, gracious, wonderful person and we wanted his inspiring story out in this troubled time. We edited the film as we went along which is not the usual process. But our decision to do this was validated when I saw RBG, the documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and further validated when I saw Mister Rodgers because they had characters and stories that were inspiring and about good people — heroes really. That why we did this film in a hurry.

Were there particular films you were trying to emulate?

We were influenced by a few things. One was the documentary Icarus which won the Oscar a few years ago about the sports drug scandal in Russia. Much of Icarus was shot vérité and we wanted the same for our film. We wanted the audience to feel like you are there in the room during the interviews and there when he was giving speeches to children. We did our best to make it current, not just the day-to-day of Willie’s life, but also for the lives of the children he worked with in 2018-2019. The other influence was Hamilton. A lot of people have taken really disparate, smart entities and smashed them together and come out with something amazing. Probably one of the greatest of these that I have ever seen is Hamilton. Hip-hop in the revolutionary war? How the heck is that going to work? And it does, it’s brilliant. To take hockey and mash it with social justice issues is pretty unique and I hope we did it justice.

Oh definitely, it does. What do you feel are the qualities of better films?

This is all very subjective, but for me, it starts with the visual. It should be beautiful and it should instruct you from an imaginative and creative standpoint. A good film forces you to see and think amazing things. True emersion is great film making. People in our film know that Willie gets into the Hall of Fame, but I hope it is still riveting.  

It doesn’t matter if you know the ending?

It’s like the Titanic.  You know the ship goes down but you are watching every moment.

I thought I was in the room, sitting on one of the sofas waiting to hear.

That was the whole idea as well as the big reveal in the film which was very contentious – when to disclose Willie’s eye injury. We wait for two-thirds of the film before we do that and that was a big debate. Some people will go in knowing he has an eye injury, but most of the world doesn’t. After the audience becomes attached to him over the first hour of the journey – how hard it was and all that he had to do – and then we tell them that he did it all with just one eye. It really hits home.

How did you establish trust and confidence with your eight-person production team?

To me, it is a big chunk of my life’s work. Somebody gave me an opportunity, somebody gave Willie an opportunity and hockey is just the vehicle. It is about STEM, it’s about brain surgery. All that any child of color needs is a chance and that was very clear to us early on. As a team, we were a bunch of “others” — female filmmakers, minority filmmakers, LGBT filmmakers. We chose very carefully people who otherwise would not get an opportunity so there was a togetherness from day one. We were an island of misfit toys. We had a higher calling. Willie’s story deserves to be honored and to be told in an artful way. Here’s something the sums up our commitment: of the eight of us, six are investors in the film.  It never happens that the crew puts their money in. 

Was it a challenge to be working with so many non-professional actors, many of whom were in their 70’s and 80’s?

It really wasn’t a challenge at all.  This speaks to the brilliance of our director, Laurence Mathieu-Leger. She has a wonderful touch with people. She makes them feel at home, so comfortable so quickly, better than anyone I have ever seen. I had known these people for 20 years. They trusted me because I brought Willie back to hockey and they were grateful for that and happy to see their friend get the recognition he deserved. Laurence, however, got them to share stories I had never heard. It resulted in authenticity.

When did you feel that this project was inevitable?

Day one. Laurence said we have to make this movie.  We sat down and talked it through, how we thought it should be and very quickly we were finishing each other’s sentences. I called my friend Frank Nakano at JP Morgan Chase, who knows Willie and has known me forever and told him about the project.  He asked, “How much do you think this is going to cost?” I said, “I think a half a million dollars.” He said, “I can get $200k”. I hung up and told Laurence, “JP Morgan Chase is in for $200k. Let me make a few more phone calls.” I called hockey friends and within three hours we raised half a million dollars. It was the power of the story.  

How did make sure all the collaborators all want the same thing, all the same agenda and are trying to make the same movie?

Great question. We had our disagreements along the way.  I had a certain vision of the movie and Laurence sketched out hers and it was a little different. It was another linear great sports story and it did Willie justice. Fine. But there is something bigger afoot. There is this cloud and we have to address it. We had a chance to push back in a way that is also educational to the hockey community. We knew they would watch our film, Willie is beloved in the hockey community. We had this captive audience and we could deliver some messages they ordinarily would not hear. Racist stuff is happening still in the NHL. Racial slurs in the penalty box. The drumbeat of kids being harassed all over the country. We had a chance to address that. I hadn’t thought of that. We had to show that. And we had to show young women and men of color. Laurence figured out a way to weave it all together. We had 8.5 hours of footage that we didn’t end up using because we would have had a 3-hour movie. We managed to find a way to touch on all these threads without losing the arc of the story of Willie O’Ree getting into the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame. It allowed us to move around with Willie O’Ree as the centerpiece. Laurence, about a month in, she told me about the historical stuff about Willie’s great, great grandfather.  And I thought, she’s better at this and take your ego and put it aside and listen to someone who is a brilliant creator. 

Was Laurence always your choice to be the director?

Absolutely. She suggested it. I didn’t set out to do a movie, I wanted to get Willie O’Ree into the Hall of Fame. That’s all I cared about, just to see my friend get recognized. That alone would have an impact. But when she said, “Let’s make a movie”. I thought if we had a vehicle that could deliver scale to that objective, wow. That’s when I said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” She’s my neighbor. I have been following her career and was always thrilled with everything she did visually and from a story standpoint. She was always the choice, she understood the gravity of what we were doing, the importance of it.

How do you determine if someone is truly worth collaborating with?

Flexibility is a big driver where someone can subject their ego. I am impressed by people who are great listeners. Everyone on our crew is a great listener. You can disagree at the end of the day, but if you don’t listen you won’t have anything to disagree on. To me, that’s the key. 

How do you encourage people and processes to achieve the best?

It’s all about getting great people. I really work hard at it. That includes listening.  It’s Vince Lombardi, “Pick them up when they are down and knock them down when they are up. “ I don’t suffer bullshit from people.  I don’t suffer people are who are condescending and arrogant and pat me on the head. 

How do you engineer to take advantage of serendipity?

I am an entrepreneur. I build things. I am not afraid of risk. I am going fail sometimes, but if I fail it will only because I didn’t get it done not because someone put me in a box and said you really shouldn’t do that because you don’t have the capability. I am at my core an entrepreneur and filmmaking is entrepreneuring.  Reid Hoffman [one of LinkedIn’s founders] described a start-up as jumping off a cliff and building the plane on the way down. It is true. You can’t plan it all out. I didn’t plan for Justin Trudeau to be in the movie. We contacted people who were close to him and reached out. We knew it would be a great scene at the end. I just needed to convince Justin Trudeau to do it, and I did.

How do you not waste time? How do you get everything you accomplished?

I don’t sleep a lot, unfortunately. I try to be as efficient as I can be. I run a start-up now and it’s a pretty big business and I work on Sundays when it is quiet and I can think. I work six days a week all the time and I pack in as much as I can because I want to make a difference. My whole mantra now is to do things that are important and things that have a purpose. That’s how you attract people to the team. They want to do something special. I have been able to create and work on a number of projects where you feel that lift because it is something important. 

What checks and balances did you face managing the budgets?

There are certain mission-critical gating issues. The first was the NHL footage. I went to Gary Bettman [NHL Commissioner] who gave me my shot 20 something years ago and laid it out there. I am going to do this in a way that is affirmative and positive and promotes the game but I will need the NHL footage at no cost.  Gary said yes and we were launched.

What is money well spent and what isn’t?

Every penny counts. I put my own money into everything I do. I don’t ask an investor to put money in unless they know my money is side by side. People don’t have a sense of urgency when they are not respectful of people’s dollars and making their money work hard. I tell people I don’t raise money, I raise investment capital that works hard.  Even if you don’t do well on a project, if investors see how hard you work and how hard their money is working they have a sense of belonging and get satisfaction. I have been lucky.

Have you ever had to handle a more difficult task in your career?

Oh yeah. This project was fun. When I am in a project and I know I need an additional half a million dollars to get from here to there and I risk my home to do that, that is hard. People don’t see that side of entrepreneurship.  When you are looking at the edge of the cliff and not sure you are going to make the next payroll, that is hard. 

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