On Wednesday, we spoke with ESPN columnist Bill Simmons about Grantland, his fancy new website, which launched with much hoopla – and Reality TV Fantasy Drafts. But Simmons also conceived of and produced the critically acclaimed 2009-10 documentary series “30 for 30,” so it seemed like an entirely appropriate gambit to quiz him at great length about his chances of winning an Emmy.
Fresh off a victory at the Peabody Awards last week, Simmons and ESPN have submitted the collection of sports films for consideration under the Outstanding Non-Fiction Series banner, and there’s a better-than-average shot it will at least garner a nomination. Not only did the movies tackle topics as diverse as Michael Jordan’s brief baseball career (“Jordan Rides the Bus”) and the relationship between Colombia soccer and drug cartels (“The Two Escobars”), but the series reeled in big-name directors like John Singleton (“Marion Jones: Press Pause”), Barbara Kopple (“The House of Steinbrenner”) and, oh, Ice Cube (“Straight Outta L.A.”).
Simmons called us from his home in Southern California to discuss.
Bill Simmons, how are you?
Excellent. So, the Emmys. What are your odds?
I’m a bad person to ask because I’m naturally pessimistic with all this stuff. We didn’t win the Sports Emmy, so it’s just, who knows?
I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but do you think “30 for 30” deserves to win?
Well, we did this series that’s 30 documentaries, probably 34 hours of television total. We used an independent film model for it and I don’t think there’s ever been anything even attempted like that in television before on cable or conventional free TV. It just has never happened. And I think maybe ten or eleven of them were really, really, really good and really re-watchable. God, I thought all of them were at least watchable. I couldn’t be prouder seeing the 30 collectively.
Which is the high point, in your opinion?
“The Two Escobars.” I was really proud of that one because I just don’t think people would have trusted ESPN to pull something like that off three years before. That was one that I just thought the degree of difficulty was off the charts. [Directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist] had a year to do it. The interviews they got and the fact that it was done in another language with subtitles — that easily could have been a movie with actors.
What were some of the crazier ideas that people pitched to you that you nixed?
I wouldn’t say we rejected any, but there were logistical hurdles along the way, like rights. You couldn’t really do one that was centered around NFL highlights because the NFL Network is a competitor for us and we just couldn’t have gotten the rights. We spent a year developing the master list of ideas and figuring out which filmmakers we were going to go after. I thought it was interesting that a lot of the ideas in the initial list that I thought for sure we were going to do, we didn’t end up doing.
One of the initial ones was about Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, and the rise and fall of those guys, which I thought, of the last 30 years, was one of the top five or six stories. And we ended up not doing it because both of those guys wanted to get paid. We just felt like on principle we couldn’t do that.
Did anyone who initially turned you down sign up later?
The answer is yes. Actually, that was strangely vindicating and satisfying for everybody involved because to have somebody not want to be involved and then come back a year later and say, “Hey, so, yeah, I really like the series. I’ve been rethinking about maybe getting involved.” It’s like, all right, screw you.
Did you let them back in?
No way. There was a couple of directors though that who really would have been good fits but I can’t totally blame them because [ESPN] didn’t have the greatest track record of working with creative. That was something we had to change as we did the series. And I think one of the achievements of the series is that we didn’t really meddle. We really tried to let people realize their vision. I think if you talk to the directors, I bet you could find five or six off the bat that would say they’ve never gotten more leeway creatively from any production studio. That’s something that really meant a lot to us.
On a scale of one to ten, how excited were you when Ice Cube signed up?
A solid nine and a half — although I was confused because I didn’t know he owned a production company. This was another thing that we had to kind of figure out on the fly: a lot of celebrities own a production company, but that doesn’t mean they should be producing documentaries. And you know, a lot of times, the celebrity is the front man for somebody else, and you think you’re involved with the celebrity and then he’s not involved at all and it’s really like his buddy from elementary school who’s running it. You learn to have a pretty good bullshit detector for that stuff. We were lucky — Ice Cube has a real company that has real people working for it who knew what they were doing.
Can I pitch you a completely ridiculous idea that I honestly think you guys should have done?
A documentary about Scott Baio’s utter dominance on “Battle of the Network Stars.”
Don’t laugh, but “Battle of the Network Stars” was on the initial list — I wanted to do the first one [from 1976], but the problem was, it didn’t fall within the framework of the series because it was supposed to be celebrating our 30-year anniversary, starting in 1979.
You just reminded me — that was my favorite idea. Maybe it was my favorite idea because it was my idea, but it was the best idea that I thought we had that we didn’t do. I also wanted to do a whole documentary about how Rocky Balboa ended the Cold War, and play it totally straight and interview all the people who were in the movie like they were the real characters, and do it as if it was really a documentary about this. Needless to say, nobody else wanted to do it.
If you win an Emmy, you’ll go up and accept it, right?
Yeah, [fellow executive producers] Connor Schell and John Dahl and I, we went up and accepted the Peabody. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if [ESPN senior vice president and general manager] John Skipper accepted it because I just don’t think a lot of people who run a successful media company would have greenlighted this whole project. So I feel like he should go up and accept it, and out of anybody, he should be the proudest of it.
I assume an Emmy would be the first domino to fall on your quest for an EGOT?
In the what?
Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony. Back in the "Miami Vice” days, Philip Michael Thomas coined the acronym and said that he’d win all four awards.
How did I not know this? I love Philip Michael Thomas!
Yeah, it’s pretty fantastic lore.
That’s tremendous. So, my next thing, after the Emmy, I’ll have to do some sort of Autotune song for my podcast that would win, like, a hip-hop Grammy. I think Oscar would be the easiest of the four, to be honest — I can act. I’ve proven that on digital shorts. A Tony would be, tough. I can’t sing. Wait — I could write a play. I could write one of those plays like whatever the play “About Last Night” was based on. Just, like, guys shouting at each other and making sex jokes. I could do that. So, the "T" could be easy.
Before I forget, let's discuss a topic you pretty much own: "Teen Wolf." How about a documentary about that?
Well, MTV, they turned it into a TV series. They’re ruining the brand. I’m pretty upset about it.
Have you seen a trailer for the show?
I’ve been staying away — I don’t like remakes. From my generation, there were a bunch of movies on all the time and we didn’t have alternative channels, so you had to jump in and watch. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore with this current generation. There are so many choices now there’d be no reason to watch a movie 20 times. But in 1985, you didn’t really have a lot of options.
If nominated, “30 for 30” would like match up at the Emmys against highbrow stuff from PBS, like "American Masters" and "American Experience." Can you take them?
I mean, those have already all been nominated, though. We should get extra bonus points for being like a new original idea, right? At least as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to talk myself into any reason we can win.
Do you have your speech written already?
Well, the thing is, if we won, I feel like we wouldn’t be on the real show. We’d be on one of the shows that happens three weeks before at, like, the Ramada Inn. Isn’t that how it works? That’s how it will play out, probably. I’m not going to get too excited.