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Floyd Russ, Klay Thompson, Warriors

Exclusive: Director Floyd Russ talks Klay Thompson documentary

In Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, Klay Thompson tore his ACL, ending his season. The injury crippled both the Warriors’ hopes at a three-peat, and their dominant, dynastic run. Thompson’s recovery caused him to miss the entire 2019-20 season.

On May 6, 2020, fans were given a rare glimpse into Thompson’s recovery process with the short documentary, Above the Waves. The six-minute short film was created by Translation and directed by award-winning director Floyd Russ, alongside his creative production partner, Tool of North America.

Instead of a montage of workout clips, Russ instead chooses to dive into Thompson’s psychological struggles in getting back to the court. The documentary takes the viewer on a unique journey into Thompson’s mind through rehab.

You can watch the short film here:

Director Floyd Russ talked to ClutchPoints about his film and provided insight into his unique approach to the documentary.

Calvin Fong: Could you start just by talking about how you got into this project and what drew you to Klay’s story? 

Floyd Russ: I’ve been a huge fan of the game since I was a kid and watched his injury during the Finals last year live. It was a heartbreaking moment to watch, even as a Laker fan. We’ve seen a lot of physical rehab stories in the past, but the fact that Klay’s injury in a way was the final nail in the coffin of perhaps the most epic run any team has ever had in NBA history makes the story one of a kind. When the agency approached me about it, saying the focus was about the mind and not the body, I was all in because Klay is the perfect player for such an approach, of course. 

CF: Oftentimes a documentary about a player’s recovery from injury focuses on intense workouts and sessions in the gym. But your film rarely goes in that direction and has a different focus and tone. Why did you choose to focus on the mental aspect of recovery, and what made you want to tell this story from that angle?

FR: I  started to talk about that before, but stylistically and personally I am much more interested in the psychological angle of any story. It’s where true emotions, motivations, passions come to life. This was about taking it one step further and mixing a grounded documentary — the doctor scenes, the gym scenes, the PT scenes with us actually starting to enter the mind of Klay Thompson. Therefore, our palette expands to surrealist imagery where we see the world the way he thinks about it. 

CF: I like how you portrayed the psychological struggle, and I just wanted you to delve into how you tried to capture the essence of that mental battle for Klay. I also love your short film, Zion, that you’ve directed. And in there, there was a clip of Zion Clark wrestling himself. In this film, there’s a scene of Klay playing chess against himself. Can you elaborate on what goes into your thought process in trying to portray the battle against yourself in overcoming obstacles?

FR: Thanks for noticing. Personally, I think the greatest battle we have is with ourselves, not just in sports. In many cases we are the ones holding ourselves back, or we must be the ones to challenge ourselves. But specifically here, it’s about Klay wanting to become better than he was before. He’s not comparing himself to anyone else; he realizes he has to focus on himself in ways he never did before. At the end of the day, contempt is the worst thing you can have in any character to be honest.

CF: You have a water motif throughout the film. The film begins and ends with water, and there are lots of water scenes in-between (water exercises, a court immersed in water, etc.). What does the water represent, and why did you choose to use it as an underlying motif?

FR: That’s all based on Klay. He grew up near the beach and the ocean has always been a way for him to focus or relax or reflect. So we wanted to bring his professional world into the water therapeutic world, so to say, and bridge the two.  

CF: Lastly — and this is more of me asking as a fan — what was it like to work with Klay Thompson behind the scenes? As fans, we always see Klay as this quirky, quiet, often hilarious personality. What was he like to work with during this short film?

FR: He’s a pro in terms of being on set, maybe from Space Jam 2, but he understands the process with crew and us wanting to get a lot of looks done. Very easy-going and chill to work with. Honestly, you can tell he’s from SoCal. Very good sense of humor so you can joke with him any time. His dog and brother were on set and super chill, too.