“We didn’t want to make a rugby league film. We wanted to make a good film that was about rugby league.”
Director Lee Hicken has certainly achieved that goal with his latest film As Good As It Gets? that premiered in Leeds last night.
Although detailing the events of Leeds Rhinos’ remarkable historic 2015 treble-winning campaign – and a journey that started almost 20 years before – it produces a fascinating insight into so much more.
Largely adopting a ‘talking heads’ approach, crucially it has all the main protagonists – Leeds head coach Brian McDermott and the trio of legends who were to leave at the end of the campaign: captain Kevin Sinfield, totemic prop Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai.
With Rhinos veteran Jamie Jones-Buchanan, who played an important role as one of the film’s producers in bringing them altogether, plus Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, they perfectly depict the drama, intrigue and colour of a memorable route to that famous end game.
Within it there are candid reflections, frank admissions and plenty of revelations as well on flashpoints along the way.
Zak Hardaker talks for the first time about the incident that led to him being thrown out of England’s 2013 World Cup squad – getting drunk, fighting in a Leeds nightclub and then unsuccessfully trying to explain away a black eye to his coach Steve McNamara.
With a mischievous smile on his face he also recalls at times getting in at 4am and then being woken up by Burrow beeping his horn just two hours later ready to take him to training.
All of that, of course, was quite surreal to watch on a big screen at Everyman Leeds cinema yesterday afternoon just hours after England full-back Hardaker saw his 14-month drugs ban for taking cocaine made public.
Watching Sinfield talk about his emotions about being controversially dropped by McDermott in his final season, and then McDermott offering his thoughts on the same subject, the film really gets to grips with what was clearly a difficult time for both.
2015 had the storybook ending, but the more we talked about it the more the film became about that dynasty. It wasn’t just about 2015; that was almost the exclamation point on a much bigger story.‘As Good As It Gets’ director Lee Hicken
Similarly, Burrow speaks with real honesty about his own relationship with the coach and also reveals how he had the chance to sign for one of their biggest rivals when he, too, was told his position was no longer certain.
Of course, as we all know, everything came together in the end as Rhinos cleaned up winning all three trophies, and Hicken has done a wonderful job in illustrating just how the events of that brilliant year did feel so Hollywood.
The opening credits scene, with images of children playing in the streets of Leeds, is perfectly set to The Enemy’s We Live And Die In These Towns while Rhinos fan Matthew Lewis – best known for his role in the Harry Potter film series – narrates the film.
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington along with the BBC’s Clare Balding are also pressed for their thoughts in an enlightening tale.
It is rare for rugby league to be the main subject matter of a film. Aside from the famous This Sporting Life, featuring Richard Harris with scenes filmed at Wakefield Trinity, in 1963, there has been little else of note.
Neil Morrissey starred in Up ‘n’ Under, based on Jon Godber’s play, in 1998, but Hicken – who follows up his Leeds United film Do You Want To Win? – hopes this will reach a far wider audience than just rugby league fans.
The fact that Amazon Prime Video picked it up during production suggests it will.
With Rhinos having become such a force in Super League, winning eight titles since 2004, Hicken said: “2015 had the storybook ending, but the more we talked about it the more the film became about that dynasty.
“It wasn’t just about 2015; that was almost the exclamation point on a much bigger story.
“But that made us think how are we going to make a feature-length film tell from Gary (Hetherington) and Paul (Caddick) taking over a club on the brink (in 1996) to 2015? It’s a lot of ground to cover. But I think we got the pacing right to be able to give context to what happened in 2015.
“The period between takeover and ’15 is something I wonder whether it will ever be done good again with a core of local lads.”
Jones-Buchanan originally asked Hicken if he would contemplate working on a rugby league film and, being a Leeds fan, he knew it would be possible if he could get everyone on board.
“Speaking to Brian McDermott was an important one and speaking to Kev and not just saying, ‘will you do an interview?,” he said.
“We asked if they’d be super honest and as open as they can be otherwise we haven’t got a film.
“Everybody was up for it and everyone delivered really; it could have been a 15-hour series and still been pretty interesting.
“I think we’ve managed to create something that’s really special for audiences, both in the UK and beyond.”