Producer Brian Yang on ESPN Brittney Griner Doc

"Linsanity" producer Brian Yang dishes on making "Brittney Griner: Lifesize," about another famous basketball star and her first season playing in China.

ESPN has these really cool documentaries about women athletes called Nine for IX Shorts. Director Melissa Johnson (No Look Pass) and Producer Brian Yang (Linsanity) team up to make this documentary about WNBA star Brittney Griner and her first season playing with China’s Zhejiang Golden Bulls. Yang shares a little about the making of Brittney Griner: Lifesize with CAAM.

How did you get involved in the project?
Really funny story. I was at a friend’s BBQ and met a woman named Melissa Johnson who turned out to be a director who made a movie called No Look Pass, a doc about an Asian Harvard basketball player. If that sounds familiar, it’s because I was involved with a movie about an Asian Harvard basketball player too: Linsanity. I’d heard of her film and she’d heard of ours, so we had a laugh about it. A few months later, Melissa reached out to me about helping her make Lifesize after ESPN had greenlit the project. It was that random.

What was your role in making the documentary?
I was a producer on it. I’ve had experience working in China before so basically I was the guy who set stuff up, hired local crew, found places to stay and shoot, arranged transportation and managed the budget.  I also sourced out post-production people back in L.A. and did a lot of archived footage hunting and negotiating.  I always say a producer is just a project manager.
WNBA star Brittney Griner plays on a Chinese team, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.
WNBA star Brittney Griner plays on a Chinese team, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls.

Did you travel to China for the shoot? Do you speak Mandarin?
We did. There was a little bit shot in Houston, Griner’s hometown, but most of it was shot in China—Taiyuan, Hangzhou and Shanghai. I do speak Mandarin, and it’s totally necessary for a project like this.

What was the most fun or exciting about making it? What was the most challenging?
I got to see a world I didn’t know much about—women’s basketball in China. I love hoops, but even I knew zilch about the WCBA (Women’s Chinese Basketball Association). It was really interesting getting a glimpse into that scene to see how the league was run, a player’s life, what an American import goes through while there. Most challenging…there were lots of challenges, but I’d have to say the one that sticks out the most was getting a shot of Brittney in the Shanghai subway. Thousands of people, a 6’8″ African American woman, cameras trying to discretely film her attempting to blend into the crowd…it worked out, but that wasn’t exactly a super smooth process.

Any special moments that you want to share? 
I think the process is always the thing. You grow close to the people you’re working with so hopefully you get along. I love the idea that now Melissa has China experience and got to work with some local people to see what production in China is like a little bit. I’m always advocating that people should go try China out. Just getting outside of the U.S. time-to-time is a good thing. I’ll always look back on this experience with fondness because of the people who came together to work on it.
Nine for IX is made by ESPN Films and espnW. All documentaries are directed by women, about women in sports.