Why Naomi Osaka agreed to let Netflix do a documentary on her

It was Naomi Osaka’s idea to be followed by cameras and make a documentary series about her life.

This may come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the sports headlines lately. In May, the 23-year-old tennis star was fined $ 15,000 by Roland Garros officials after withdrawing from post-match press conferences. She said the experience of being asked repetitive questions, or those that made her mind “doubt”, took its toll on her mental health. When the tournament responded by threatening her with additional financial penalties or suspension if she continued to “ignore her media obligations”, she withdrew from the competition altogether. In June, she also canceled her plans to play at Wimbledon.

But “it was she who wanted to tell her story” in the new three-part Netflix series, insisted Jamal Henderson, one of the executive producers of the project. (Osaka and her family don’t run a press to promote the project.)

Per Henderson, Osaka and his team began discussions about creating a documentary or podcast with the SpringHill Company – LeBron James’ development and production company – in 2019.

“She was still very much on the prowl – she had won a few majors, but she wasn’t where she is now where you can get a Sweetgreen bowl with her name on it,” said Henderson, who is the chef in charge. content in the Lakers player’s business. “We all decided the best idea was to do something that documents his life and what it feels like to be the contender that beats Serena. [Williams] and has all this pressure to be next.

In 2018, Naomi Osaka, right, beat Serena Williams at the US Open.

(Corbis via Getty Images)

When Henderson pitched the idea for an Osaka document to Netflix, which had a pre-existing relationship with SpringHill, he said the streamer suggested the athlete meet with Garrett Bradley. Although the young filmmaker had yet to get an Oscar nomination for her documentary ‘Time’, “Netflix was following her like everyone else and knew she was clearly on the rise,” recalls Henderson.

As with “Time” – the story of a mother trying to free her husband from a 60-year prison sentence – the idea with “Naomi Osaka”, which premiered on Friday, was to avoid interviews with its topic or other discussions. heads. SpringHill has helped Bradley secure access to move his camera around prestigious tournaments like the US Open. Osaka’s parents – Haitian Leonard François and Japanese Tamaki Osaka – have handed the documentary filmmaker years of footage from their personal video archives. And Naomi Osaka never set any restrictive ground rules, allowing Bradley to film until she felt the project had reached its natural conclusion – a process that ultimately took two years.

The athlete and filmmaker first met at the 2019 US Open. Bradley had never made a film with someone she had not previously had a relationship with, and said she was initially “out of [her] comfort zone ”by working with someone she didn’t know. But during a day together in Queens, New York, Bradley shared his vision with Osaka. Because the tennis player was barely an adult, Bradley said she was hesitant to attempt to create a definitive portrait of herself. Instead, she wanted the series to be a coming-of-age story without a linear structure – taking a genuine approach and avoiding “recapping a timeline that we could just read on Wikipedia.”

A woman in a black turtleneck with a black background looks up left

Garrett Bradley, seen here at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, wanted to take a real approach to filming Osaka.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

That day, Bradley “went with [Osaka] wherever she needed to go ”: press, car rides, dinners. Her intention was to get a feel for how the athlete moved around her space, but she also quickly realized how much headroom a tennis player is shaping their game.

“Tennis is a mental sport, so it’s a sport of solitude, in a sense,” Bradley said. “It was something I had to be aware of – that I had to be with her without requiring a lot of conversation. It was a lot of energy work. “

In a conversation with The Times, Bradley spoke of a trip that took her with the athlete to New York Fashion Week, a Black Lives Matter event, the Australian Open and Haiti, where the Osaka’s father was brought up.

Why do you think Naomi was open to docuseries when she is generally reluctant to share with the media?

I think part of making a movie with someone, no matter who they are, is that you are really with them. And the role of the press, in her universe, is not there to be with her. They are there to watch her and, in the worst case, project themselves onto her. I tried to reinforce the fact that I wasn’t in a rush as much as possible, even in terms of where I was physically. It was important that I see what she was seeing, to show her watching the press, for example. In many ways, I think it shows the building blocks of where we are today. She was contemplating, figuring things out, but she has a very clear perspective at this point.

Did she tell you that there would be times before big tournaments when she would need time away from the cameras?

We haven’t created ground rules per se, and in fact, I haven’t given it too much thought. … There is a balance that you play in making a documentary of what is really worth it. Is it more worth capturing something or supporting a person? First and foremost, I care about the people I work with, so I make decisions based on my own empathy and instinct at all times. I think this can be a controversial thing to say as a director, but it’s still the way I work. There were times when being there without a camera was important. And also why having her own camera was important for what she needed on her own trip.

Yes, in some of her most personal moments on the show, such as following the death of her mentor Kobe Bryant, Naomi films herself.

It certainly had to do with the pandemic, but I had also just finished a movie that was really focused on a woman who had been self-recording for 21 years. Something I really took away from this process is that the story will be created for you if you are not in charge of yours. What does this have to do with the Black family archives? I wanted to give Naomi something for herself that she can hopefully carry on. It’s totally for her, and it will continue to make sense as she moves around the world.

There are a lot of images of her at tennis press conferences. Did you understand that she was not enjoying these experiences at the time?

When I was sitting in those rooms with her filming the press herself, I could completely understand what she was going through. But I also thought that she had always been very strong under these circumstances. When she speaks, she is incredibly clear and incredibly precise. She speaks deeply with fewer words than most of us can. I think anxiety is something she has identified with over the past few weeks. … I’m not sure she would have expressed it as anxiety by then. It takes time to get to this place. And it also takes time to build up your strength and decide how to use your voice.

Naomi has gained a reputation for being shy or soft-spoken. Do you think this is fair?

I think we have different perceptions and a different set of projections that we put on women – and black women – in the public sphere. She is an incredible leader of her generation in that she really chooses how and when she wants to use her voice. I think it’s a sign of power, more than vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that she has nothing to say or that she never smiles. This means that she chooses when she wants.

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