Filming Dennis Rodman’s ill-fated N.Korea goodwill tour

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This article was originally published on NK News and The Guardian.

Colin Offland was sitting at breakfast with his family reading the newspapers, he said, when he decided he had to make a film about Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea. He’d never made a feature film before – just a few TV programs and adverts with his company Chief Productions – but he knew that this was too good a story to pass up.

That idea became the film Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang, a rollercoaster documentary following the former Chicago Bulls basketball player as he attempts to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula with a motley crew of fellow ex-NBA players and an Irish gambling company, all while giving his “good friend” Kim Jong Un a birthday to remember.

Of course, it doesn’t all go according to plan. In the face of massive press coverage and criticism of Rodman, sponsors pull out, tempers fray and old habits die hard. It’s a complex tragicomedy, balancing the absurdity of the North Korea-Dennis Rodman connection with a sympathetic and nuanced eye not usually seen in documentaries about the DPRK.

HOT ROD

Offland first stumbled on the story in September 2013, when Dennis Rodman, in collaboration with gambling company Paddy Power, decided to return to North Korea to put on a basketball game. He’d been to North Korea before, in February 2013 with Vice and the Harlem Globetrotters, and having befriended Kim Jong Un on his first trip, Rodman was going back to train the national team and organize a U.S.-North Korea game.

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 27: Filmmaker Colin Offland of "Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in Pyongyang" poses for a portrait at the Village at the Lift Presented by McDonald's McCafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

“I remember seeing in The Independent that Paddy Power made this announcement they were gonna put on this basketball match with Dennis Rodman and the North Koreans,” he said, speaking on the phone with NK News.

“I read that announcement, I was sitting at breakfast with my children, and for some reason I said to them ‘I’m gonna make a film of that’ – how I was gonna make a film of that I had no idea.”

Offland had visited North Korea in the past as a tourist and followed developments in the country closely, and felt that his understanding of the country, and film production experience, made him the perfect filmmaker to chronicle the trip. This was his pitch to Rodman’s people, who were already looking into giving the scoop to an American crew.

“I just came in and told them I don’t think you’re ever gonna get away with taking a big crew in there, especially Americans.” he said. “So then I gave them like a proposal, what I thought the documentary was about, and eventually between (Paddy Power) and Rodman they granted me the rights to it. It was a scoop, actually.”

Funding the trip entirely out of his own pocket, and bringing a small crew, Offland embarked on the project not quite sure what to expect – but they got a taste early on. In a scene which takes place early in the film, the night before Rodman departed for the first of two trips to North Korea which feature in the film, he gets emotional, explaining his motives for putting on the game and traveling to the DPRK.

Filming this scene early in production, Offland said, he and his team realized that, as he puts it, “Oh my god, you know, this is good, this is gonna be good.” Taking place the week North Korea announced thepurge of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, there was a sense that the film crew – and the NBA players – were embarking on something really significant.

“I thought ‘hang on a minute there’s a lot of stuff happening here,’” he said. “You know I never knew how the documentary was gonna come together, but I just had a feeling that stuff was happening.”

The purpose of the first trip was for Rodman to train, and choose, the North Korean players who would face off against the NBA players, but for Offland and his crew it was a chance to build trust with officials and establish that he was working in good faith.

“I knew what we had to do was to build up trust, and the North Koreans didn’t want us making a documentary,” he said. “But between Paddy Power and Dennis Rodman, they did want a documentation of it. I think actually the film was used as leverage to make the event happen, weirdly, so I’m on the back of the train and then later I’m driving this thing.”

After a relatively low-key initial trip to North Korea, the crew and Rodman arrive back in Beijing to a press fanfare. In a particularly memorable scene, they are mobbed at the airport, having to fight their way through a scrum of media to escape. While they were in the DPRK, it seems, the world’s media has taken note of Rodman’s trip. And not all the coverage is positive: much of it is critical, condemning him for his supposed friendship with Kim Jong Un and the timing of the trip. It’s all a bit overwhelming.

This is also when things start going wrong. With the cold reality of media criticism bearing down on them, Paddy Power pull out of the event, and under extreme stress, Rodman begins binge drinking to deal with his worries and begins behaving erratically. By their first evening back in Pyongyang – this time with the ex-NBA stars in tow – it’s clear that Rodman is no longer in control of his drinking. In a particularly memorable scene, he gets extremely intoxicated at a state banquet held in his honor on the first night, veering between singing jovial karaoke one minute and drunken, angry hollering the next.

“What we realized that night was that there was no control around him – it wasn’t like his sponsor Paddy Power was there,” Offland said. “When he was going off I was thinking ‘oh my god we’re at the mercy of Dennis’s behavior here much more than I’d anticipated.’”

Despite this fear, the fact at the back of Offland’s mind was that Rodman was friends with the most powerful man in the country, and in North Korea, that means everything.

But Rodman’s behavior begins to take its toll on the team, and there’s even the suggestion, with sponsors threatening to drop them under a barrage of negative press, that the NBA players might pack in all in and go home. It’s around this point in the film’s chronology that he makes his now-infamous appearance on CNN, where he rejected calls to assist in the release of American prisoner Kenneth Bae and shouted at interviewer Chris Cuomo.

Offland, however, never had to worry that he wouldn’t have a film: “anything that was gonna happen was gonna be interesting,” he said, and thanks to the agile diplomatic skills of team member Charles Smith the game is back on track. And after a training session with the North Korean team, the game is on: in another memorable scene, as the NBA players wait to come out onto the court for the big match, the crowd outside begins roaring as Kim Jong Un himself enters the room.

“I’ve been to European cup finals, World Cup Finals, some of the biggest sporting events ever,” Offland said. “I’ve never experienced that atmosphere before. It was hair raising, that feeling was absolutely incredible.”

“It was just so exciting like ‘my god this is happening,’ Kim Jong Un’s in the room, this is such a bizarre place to be.”

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The game itself is probably the highlight of the film. The NBA players dramatically underestimated the speed and skill of their opponents, and are narrowly defeated by the North Korean team in an exhilarating match. But it’s not the result that matters – although the locals in the crowd are certainly pleased with it – but the fact that, despite all the obstacles, it’s taken place at all. It all gets a bit much for Charles Smith who, as the rest of the team celebrate in the dressing room, has to take a quiet moment to process the emotions of the past few days.

MISSING KING

Amid all the jubilation after the game, there was also the incredible possibility that the film crew might be able to interview Kim Jong Un himself. Rodman and the crew, along with some other guests, are invited to spend the next few days relaxing at the Masikryong Ski Resort – with the possibly that the Supreme Leader himself would be in attendance.

“Dennis was gonna be the one hoping to ask the questions,” said Offland. “And had hinted that he would be open to that – I was just going along with Dennis. You know, that would have been the biggest scoop of all time.

“Dennis had asked me what I’d ask him and you know my question to Kim Jong Un would have been ‘Why did you want this event?’ I wasn’t going for anything more in depth than that – any question I was gonna ask was gonna be in the context of the match.”

To the disappointment of Offland, however, the interview didn’t materialize: Rodman’s binge drinking continued throughout their trip to the ski resort, and Kim Jong Un didn’t show up, and the crew fly back a few days later. Had Rodman’s behavior been better, maybe the weekend might have been very different.

“I’ve gotta say I was personally gutted that Kim Jong Un didn’t turn up,” said Offland. “For me that would have meant a natural continuation of this, and more positive things could potentially happen.”

“The ending just felt like, oh god well that’s … is that the end of that whole thing?”

Despite the disappointment of the end of the film’s production, “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in Pyongyang” has already received critical praise for its nuance and touching portrayal of a complicated man visiting a complex country. And though Offland said he’s heard from Rodman’s agent that the friendship between the former Chicago Bulls player and Kim Jong Un is not over, he thinks it unlikely either of them will be heading back to North Korea – although, he said, the result of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election might change that.

“Well, unless Donald Trump gets into power … you never know,” he jokes. “Dennis and Donald are tight.”

You can watch “Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang In Pyongyang” on Showtime

All images courtesy of Chief Productions

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