Garrett Bradley’s three-part Netflix docuseries about Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka arrives on the streamer at a particularly fraught time in the athlete’s career.
Named simply “Naomi Osaka,” it debuts one week before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, where the 23 year old will compete after having recently withdrawn from the French Open and Wimbledon. Bradley, recently Oscar nominated for “Time,” examines in the docuseries a two-year period of Osaka’s life as she defended Grand Slam titles and became part of the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously attempting to come to terms with her overnight fame.
Osaka, the first Japanese-born player to win a Grand Slam and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, faced global criticism when she quit the French Open after refusing to attend mandatory post-match press conferences; she subsequently wrote an essay for Time magazine defending her decision to drop out of the competition to focus on her mental health. Osaka, whose father is Haitian, has been living in the U.S. since a very young age and has fielded questions about her racial identity over the course of her athletic career.
Bradley spoke to Variety about making her commissioned first series, Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open press conferences and having final cut as a director.
In your 2020 documentary “Time,” the main subject Fox Rich is an extravert compared to Naomi Osaka, who appears to be an introvert. As a director, was it challenging to make the switch from following a garrulous subject to a reserved subject?
There were so many differences in terms of process with this project. Up until this project so much of my work to date has really come out pre-existing relationships that I have with my community and with people that are in my life. This was the first time I was entering a space and working with someone who I had no prior relationship with at all. Naomi is also a really deep, contemplative, internal person. She’s constantly in the state of observation, which isn’t passive in any kind of way. To me, it’s just as active as somebody like Fox who maybe appears to be more externalized in her thought process. It really became about thinking through who Naomi is, but also thinking through tennis, which is a mental sport. It’s also a unique sport in the sense that you can be really physically fit, but if your head space isn’t where it needs to be, it really affects your play and your game. The challenge as a filmmaker was, how do I illustrate that? How do I illustrate that headspace? How do I make something visual that is inherently internal?”
Did Netflix approach you to make this series?
Yes. It was my first time working (on a commissioned film) which was exciting, really scary and totally out of my conference. But also, really cool.
When did you start filming?
In 2019 at the U.S. Open and we finished filmmaking at the beginning of 2021.
The series features several press conferences sequences. One is after Osaka lost to Coco Gauff at the 2020 Australian Open. It was particularly painful to watch because you could tell she didn’t want to be there. Were the press conference scenes included in the series to underscore Naomi’s recent decision to not attend the French Open press conferences?
None of the edit was really taking into account what’s happened most recently (in Osaka’s personal life). What you see in this series are the building blocks of what’s happened in the most recent weeks with Naomi. As a filmmaker, seeing her constantly contend with those spaces was something I was naturally drawn to, because in order for us to understand her head space, is to see her environment. The environment is the secondary character, and (audiences) don’t always have the privilege of seeing those rooms. So that was important from the beginning that we see her routine and her structure because it was a part of who she is.
When you say, “building blocks of what has happened,” do you mean when people see this series, they might better understand Osaka’s decision to skip the press conferences at the French Open?
Yes. Exactly. I hope that in watching the series, we have a more empathetic standpoint. An empathetic lens for why somebody would want to hold onto their voice. It can be really overwhelming, and you have a lot of opinions around you and a lot of people who aren’t always necessarily your age, in your life. Naomi has done a really beautiful job of trying to navigate that without a whole lot of precedent.
Osaka is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. She reportedly made more than $55 million in prize money and endorsements in 2020. Did you have to show each of the brands who endorse her a cut of the film to get their approval? Her image is obviously very important to each sponsor.
No. I didn’t have to show the cuts to any of her sponsors. Thank god.
The series features sequences of Naomi filming herself. Why did you decide to give her a camera?
The reason why I wanted to give her that camera was twofold. On one hand, it was really practical wanting to be with her when we physically couldn’t be with her, especially during the height of the pandemic. But it was also something that I know to be true as a filmmaker, as a Black woman, which is that the narrative will be set up for you if you don’t create your own narrative. That was something that I learned from Fox. That was something that we know intrinsically as Black Americans, in terms of the Black family archive being a representation of ourselves in a way that mainstream media often neglects. So, I wanted that to be something that she knew was available to her and that hopefully she can carry with her even beyond the series.
We see Osaka go from being coached by Jermaine Jenkins in episode one to her current coach Wim Fissette coaching her in episode two. The film offers no explanation for the change. And while Osaka’s boyfriend Cordae appears in the film, the audience is not told that he is her boyfriend. Why not?
Cordae first and foremost is an artist and I’m never interested in imposing and defining people. That’s how he sees himself and so that’s how I wanted to present him to the world. Their relationship is one that’s private and that’s between the two of them. As far as I was concerned, it was really about these two incredible people that are dominating their own fields in their own way and how can we see them for that at face value? I’m more interested in the essence of things. In some ways the technicalities and the details can get away from evoking the overall spirit of a situation or of a moment. Athletes have lots of different team members that rotate throughout their lives over the course of different seasons and (Jenkins) was one of them. I felt like going into the rabbit hole of how that happened, why that happened was actually less important than we have a new season, and we have a new team.
The film had a number of prominent executive producers including LeBron James and Maverick Carter. Did you have final cut of the series?
Yeeeeaaaah. I mean, it was a conversation that we had as a team. For the most part, the essence of what I made is what I had intended, but it was a different process. It was a new process. One that I was really open to and excited about. As an artist and as a filmmaker, I’m really here to play with as many different forms as I’m given an opportunity to. I don’t hold myself too tightly to any one particular form or process and this one was new.
Did Osaka also executive produce the film?
No. She’s not a producer on it. But she did see different versions of the cuts. That’s always important to me that the people who are the central figures of a film have agency and see the work before it goes into the world. I was really glad that she had time to watch it several times. While it was awkward watching herself in an intimate portrayal, she is happy with how it turned out. It was a sensitive process and a collaborative one.
Why was this the right time to make a film about Osaka?
That question is something that I was really sensitive to because she is so young, so, it was important for me to not (shoot something that) was trying to define her in any kind of way. This really is a snapshot of this moment in her life. I think there will be many, many more documentaries made about her and with her that are going to look totally different and feel totally different. But there was a desire to show her journey, and what that journey was ultimately going to look like and be, none of us knew.
When you signed on to make the project, you were supposed to follow Naomi to the 2020 Olympics. Why not draw out the film to include this year’s Olympics, where she will be competing?
At the end of the day, Naomi is going to continue to do amazing things in her life and like all documentaries, you have to make a decision on when you’re going to stop because life continues. She is going to continue to reach many different milestones and we could have, as far as I’m concerned, kept filming for years. There was something really nice having the series come full circle — we started the U.S. Open and then we ended at the U.S. Open, and that to me felt like a really beautiful conclusion to her journey.
“Naomi Osaka” debuts on Netflix on July 16.
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