HBO Sports this week will premiere Derek Jeter 3K, an inside look at the New York Yankees shortstop and captain’s quest to reach and ultimately surpass the 3,000-hit plateau. The show, produced with Major League Baseball Productions, is the latest in a line of critically acclaimed and viewer favorite HBO sports-related documentaries.
The writer responsible for Derek Jeter 3K and many of HBO’s other award-winning efforts, as well as projects with the NFL, MLB, ESPN, NBC and elsewhere, is Aaron Cohen.
Cohen has won 14 Emmys and a Peabody Award, and has twice received the Dick Schaap Award for Outstanding Writing. His writing resume includes McEnroe/Borg: Fire and Ice, The Curious Case of Curt Flood, Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush, Assault in the Ring, Ted Williams, Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals and this past December the 24/7 series on the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. He was a producer and writer of the ESPN Films documentary The Fab Five, and was a senior producer and writer for the ESPN Film Renee, which will air on ESPN this fall. His territory also includes the Olympics, Wimbledon and the ESPYs.
Big Lead Sports spoke with Cohen about Derek Jeter 3K (premiering on HBO July 28), working with sports legends such as Bob Costas and the pros and cons of writing about the icons of sports.
Big Lead Sports: What was it like working on the Derek Jeter project and what type of reaction do you anticipate?
Aaron Cohen: I’m really excited to see what people think of Derek Jeter 3K. Last month, when the folks at MLB Productions told me about it, my one thought was that the show would succeed or fail based on how much access Derek gave us. I was wrong. While he gave the producers all the access they could have hoped for, he practically turned it into a feature film with the way he ended up getting to 3,000.
BLS: How would you compare it to other projects on which you’ve worked?
AC: Working on it felt a lot like working on 24/7 because the whole hour-long show was put together in about two weeks. But it also took on its own unique tone and style. I think Yankees fans were always going to love the show no matter what. But I’m a die-hard Mets fan, and I found myself really compelled by it. Hopefully that’s a good sign. I think it’s a great look back at his road toward 3,000, and then also an unprecedented glimpse behind the curtain he’s kept up for so long.
AC: On one hand, you definitely have to write in different voices for different narrators, but also, good copy is good copy. And there are lines Liev’s voice can get away with that very few other narrators could. I learned the foundation of how to write for sports television from Costas and another mentor of mine named Brian Brown, who produced Bob’s show on HBO years ago and has written the opening Olympic tease at NBC for at least the past half dozen Games. Costas gets all the plaudits he deserves for being maybe the best sportscaster ever, but it’s easy to overlook what an amazing writer he is. People sometimes ask me if I can hear the different voices in my head. The answer is absolutely. Sometimes in my sleep.
BLS: Your job is to take fans into the background story of what people are seeing. What are the challenges, especially when the subjects are such icon personalities?
AC: I grew up wanting to write for Sports Illustrated, but then found myself in TV and was fortunate to have some mentors in sports television who are fantastic writers, and encouraged me to follow in their footsteps and write in this sphere. When I first started, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I have come to enjoy watching something and then figuring out the best way words can enhance the video, and fit into the bigger puzzle of the piece. Sometimes it’s about noticing something subtle on the screen and riffing off that. Other times, it’s best to just get out of the way and keep it simple.
BLS: What has been your favorite among the projects with which you’ve been associated?
AC: I think from a creative perspective, the project that continues to be the most satisfying is 24/7. I’ve been working on the show for more than four years, and it still hasn’t gotten old for me. I think one of the great strengths of the series is that it encourages all the creative people on the show to, simply put, be creative . . . to be aggressive in their creative approach. Sometimes in television you get stuck to a template. On this show, we’re always looking for new ways to present the characters and tell stories. While we’ve featured some of the same fighters a few times, it’s a cool challenge to try and keep it all fresh. And then with the NHL show, getting the access we did with the Penguins and Capitals, and being able to present hockey in such a cool light, was a ton of fun. One of the most rewarding things for me over the past few years has been talking to people who love the show but are not really sports fans at all. To me, that’s a sign we’ve done something right.
BLS: Which project has been the most challenging?
AC: Every time I have to write something new, it feels like the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I am most intimidated in life by a blank “Document1” screen in Microsoft Word. It could be a two-minute piece or an hour-long documentary. There’s always sort of a fear that the well is going to run dry.
BLS: Is there a different flow to writing hockey as opposed to boxing?
AC: I think the same general rules apply. If there’s great drama, get out of the way. There’s nothing that you can write that is going to be more compelling than the best emotional moment in the ring or the ice, or on the field. Show me, don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear from the narrator that winning this game or this title means a lot to the athlete. Let the athlete illustrate that, and find something else for the narrator to say that makes another complementary and more nuanced point. In any event, I think hockey and boxing are actually pretty similar with regard to their physicality, but overall, it’s incumbent upon the narration to follow the pace of whatever story is being presented.
BLS: What is coming up on your agenda following the Jeter project?
AC: The next 24/7 for the Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz fight [schedule to premiere on Aug. 27]. It’s the first boxing 24/7 we’ve done in almost a year, and the first Mayweather show in two years. Hopefully (and this is just me talking) it will be followed up in the spring with a Mayweather-Pacquiao fight (and 24/7). That would be my one sports wish for 2012. Among other things, I’m also starting work on the second season of a cool project for the NFL Network and NFL.com called The NFL Season: A Biography. We do weekly features on the league in all kinds of conventional and unconventional ways. The narrator is Wendell Pierce, from The Wire and Treme. So it’s neat for me to get to write for his voice.
BLS: Do you ever leave great work on the edit board just because there is not enough time to tell a full story?
AC: Ha – I wish! With our turnaround, I’m usually happy to just get the first idea out the door. Actually, I think everywhere in TV, there are always parts of a story you can’t tell. Details that would make the book, but can’t make the movie, so to speak . . . All these shows are a ton of fun to contribute to. Beats working for a living