Alison Klayman talks WNBA doc Unfinished Business

Sabrina Ionescu in Unfinished Business. Photo credit: Julia Liu.

Alison Klayman spoke about her documentary, Unfinished Business, which looks back at 25 years of the WNBA through the New York Liberty.

The documentary first premiered last summer during the 2022 Tribeca Festival. Interestingly enough, the film’s premiere came during the WNBA’s 25th anniversary. Klayman tells Solzy at the Movies that while she usually doesn’t linger on the same subject, she hopes that someone will commission a series. While this documentary runs just over 90 minutes, there’s definitely more than enough material to make a documentary series. ESPN, are you listening?

Outside of New York, people can watch Unfinished Business on Prime Video–starting on May 13–or a special ESPN2 broadcast on May 14. According to the press release, the film will be available for Prime Video subscribers starting May 15. In or around New York City, audiences can attend screenings at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn, taking place May 12-18.

Alison Klayman
Alison Klayman

It’s nice to talk with you again.

Alison Klayman: You too. How are you doing?

I am doing well.

Alison Klayman: Good. I’m just getting over a cold but hopefully, you can hear me okay.

You’re coming through fine on the phone.

Alison Klayman: Okay, good.

What was the genesis behind making Unfinished Business?

Alison Klayman: In a lot of ways, it was really a personal one for me. I remember when the WNBA was founded. It meant so much to me as a middle school basketball player and a fan of the idea of women having equality in sports. It was like, yes! It was such a huge moment. I lived in Philly—the Liberty were kind of my team since there were no Philly teams. As the years went on and I hadn’t really totally been keeping up with things and I had this opportunity to get this kind of access to the Liberty, it just felt really urgent to tell this story that puts both what’s happening right now and the really bright future that’s clearly here and on the horizon for the league, along with this big moment of it starting and everything that happened in between. I couldn’t believe that a movie like this didn’t exist and was really excited to tell it and hopefully inspire a lot more storytelling around women’s basketball.

How long was the initial cut?

Alison Klayman: Somehow, when I make film, the initial cut is never a runaway length but I would say it was probably around 100 minutes at its longest. The real thing is, as we start the edit and I’m working with the editor and he’s screening—Brian Goetz—so is this a series? (Laughs) There’s definitely always that moment. But yeah, I feel like it came together. For me, it’s always a great exercise in kind of boiling down to a feature-length watchable arc. It means you lose some things but yeah.

I feel like with 25 years of history, it’s got to be a challenge to fit all that into 90 minutes.

Alison Klayman: I know. I am inviting any distributor to commission me to make a multi-part. I’m ready. Normally, I wouldn’t linger on one topic but I do feel like there’s so much more to make here. Hopefully, this film can whet people’s appetite to want to watch more, but you’re fully right. There’s so much more. There’s so much more there.

Yeah. I imagine it’s a nice change of pace from having to follow Steve Bannon around for over a year for The Brink.

Alison Klayman: Oh, man. Could you think of anything more opposite than hanging out with DiDi Richards to me Jazmine Jones? It was really so fun, too, as opposed to being tableside at those meetings with Bannon, being courtside at these games, screaming to my team, “Go there and get the shot.” It was really, really fun.

Teresa Witherspoon in Unfinished Business.
Teresa Witherspoon in Unfinished Business. Photo credit: Julia Liu.

With growing up a sports fan, is it hard not to get starstruck when you’re interviewing these players?

Alison Klayman: Definitely. The legendary players, as they are called the original Liberty players, I felt a connection to my younger self, from when they were on the court at Madison Square Garden and on TV, and I was watching them. I brought my 1997 WNBA t-shirt to those interview days and asked them all to sign it, which is not really something I normally do. I was incredibly excited. The thing that really moved me was that I wanted to know it all. To your point, there’s so much more that’s not in there. I really got into it because that’s how I do interviews. I always want my interviews to be minimum three hours long.

Asking players like Teresa Witherspoon, Kim Hampton, Crystal Robinson, and Rebecca Lobo the play by play of how they got into the sport, how they came to WNBA, what the early years were, what it’s been like since, but really, from how it felt for them, I really got the sense, and I was kind of surprised, that they were just so pleasantly surprised and grateful to have that kind of in-depth interview. I was surprised because I would have thought, oh, man, they’ve probably been asked these things a million times. I think they just really appreciated that kind of level of interest in their experience of it all and expressed sometimes feeling disconnected from what’s happening now because the league tries to keep the past in focus as they go forward. A league that’s also facing challenges and could use more funding and all that kind of stuff—it’s hard to keep it all going. I just feel like these women had such great stories and I was struck by how appreciative they were to sit for a nice interview.

Talk about not being funded. I was thinking about that last year when Brittney Griner was sitting in a Russian jail cell. If players were paid better, they wouldn’t have to go overseas to make some extra money.

Alison Klayman: Yeah. I really felt like that story reached the mainstream consciousness in such a striking way. I felt like everybody knew about what was happening with her and I think that it was a spotlight on what she was going through but also on this bigger, bigger story. An artist that I like in Miami, named Teepop, she made a poster of about Brittney Griner’s detention and sent me a copy. I had it out on the gate facing the street on my street here in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. I got it laminated so it could withstand the weather and had it out there. I would see people stop—a mom with her kids kept telling about who that was. It was really interesting to see people totally recognize what it was and being a part of the conversation was so great when she was really, I mean, the best news.

How meaningful was it to premiere the film at Tribeca last year in the same year that the New York Liberty were celebrating their 25th anniversary?

Alison Klayman: When I arrived at the premiere, it was everything. When I arrived at the premiere and not only was the entire team dressed up waiting in line to do the red carpet, but so was the coaching staff, the support staff. It was sort of like everyone that I ever saw around the team, supporting the team at Barclays, was there dressed to the nines, ready to have their picture taken. I just was like, this is the best night ever. Just starting out on this incredible foot—you know my films. Is it has been somewhat elusive for me. It doesn’t always work out that way for a documentary to have a premiere that’s really celebratory, in terms of the subject also being there and having it be this moment. I really think this was a first time that I kind of felt that and it felt like such a inclusive and egalitarian moment where just everybody was a star as they should be.

After the premiere—it was a lot of work as to produce this film. We had access to the team, but also, it was Covid protocols in the beginning of the season. Again, there’s sort of an under-resourced pro basketball team, living a crazy schedule. Getting what we needed without bothering the team too much, it was sometimes challenging. When the movie finished playing, I had people from the team and had some operations saying, like, you did it. I’m so sorry for anytime we ever said no. It just felt really great. It really felt like everyone saw themselves reflected up on the screen. So it was an awesome night.

Were you working on the film at the same time that you were working on Jagged?

Alison Klayman: Yeah, I feel like it was a waterfall from Jagged, White Hot, and this film. The ideas for all three of those films had already started in 2019 as The Brink was in release. Between then and end of 2021-2022, all three of them were finished. I had a very, very busy pandemic time, which I think, really, in some ways, is good. You’re lucky to be able to figure out a way to work, be employed, and keep yourself busy. It’s still awful. Everyone was safe and the sets were safe. I also had a baby the week after the Tribeca premiere, my daughter, Shane, was born. That was really the three films and then Shane was the mic drop. It was like, Alright, everyone, taking a little break to hang out with this baby and enjoy the moment.

What are the challenges that come with directing these films simultaneously or back-to-back-to-back?

Alison Klayman: It was back-to-back in terms of production. You can’t really be filming multiple things at the same time. I think it also really helps that two of the films, Jagged and White Hot, are interview-driven—in Jagged’s case, archival and interview-driven. The production is different stages. We had to be mostly done by the time I started filming the Liberty season because that was much more verite, and having to live on their schedule for a longer chunk of time. It’s that and having incredible teams of different producers on different projects. In a way, I had my editor, Brian, somehow manage to work on all three. He only worked partly on White Hot and sort of leapfrogged from Jagged to WNBA and different editing teams work with him or a different team leading White Hot. What’s kind of funny is you really need to have great teams but I still kind of work with the same circle of key creatives: director of photography, main editor. I had the same music supervisor across White Hot and Unfinished Business but I had different composers on all three films, different producers on all three films. Does that make sense? You can have some people come along with you and the other way you get it done is you have different teams. Because for me, I really make all my films—I do every interview, I direct every shoot. That’s the one thing you can’t have them going on at the same time.

Would you have ever thought in a million years that one of your documentaries would get broadcast on an ESPN network?

Alison Klayman: I mean, yeah, because I always wanted to do—just like I always wanted to do music, I really wanted to do sports, too. I think it’s really exciting. I think it’s storytelling about women’s basketball that I haven’t seen on ESPN before. To be honest, I think it’s not any kind of like, eat your veggies or this is good for you—that’s why you should pay attention to second class treatment. I think the goal is to be just top tier exciting sports storytelling. I hope that ESPN audiences see it and get excited about WNBA even more.

I’ve been telling my family about it. I grew up in Kentucky so college basketball, especially Kentucky basketball, is a way of life.

Alison Klayman: I think Jazmine Jones was at Louisville. Now she’s practicing with the Mystics. She’s not with the Liberty anymore but she’s obviously one of the stars of this film. She’s so great. There are a couple other players on the 2021 roster from Louisville so I totally get it. I think what’s great about this is think about how exciting college basketball, March Madness, on the women’s side has been the last few years. It’s just like, that’s a good reminder—there’s nothing about women’s basketball that’s less interesting inherently than men’s basketball at all. To me, it’s really the quality of the storytelling and the level of attention that it gets. I got into the WNBA currently because of making this film and working on it, even if it was just an idea for a couple of years, to the point where now I watched the draft live. I have season tickets because it’s fun. This wasn’t made as a branded content commission. It’s a true passionate project of something that I think is overlooked by a lot of potential fans of the WNBA.

I live in Chicago so we have the Chicago Sky.

Alison Klayman: Yeah, you do. You should go. It’s so fun!

Part of it is also my film schedule.

Alison Klayman: Oh, yeah.

I don’t even know what my schedule is until maybe two weeks in advance.

Alison Klayman: I bet you could get last-minute tickets. Just think about it. Think about going for a game. It’s a real fun thing to do with friends.

Yeah. What do you hope people take away from watching the film?

Alison Klayman: I hope that I take away a newfound understanding about what the WNBA is and an excitement to follow it, to be totally honest. A lot of people might agree, in principle, yeah, I support women’s sports. But have you actually literally taken the time to check out some games? They’re on Amazon, ESPN, or sometimes a little all over the place to find but they are probably on something that you’re already subscribing to. Or even go to one if there’s one in your city. Truly, it’s so fun and talking about it, not denigrating the coverage or storytelling around it, but actually consuming it is honestly the way to support it as just a regular person. I think the same way that even if you’re not quote unquote a sports person, there’re so many great characters and stories and in the same way that quote unquote maybe not sports people have gotten into series about cheerleading, college football, golf, or tennis, this is just as interesting and I really think that there’s still a little bit of a stigma that we need to break.

Thank you so much. It was so nice getting to catch up. I only wish that I was at the premiere last year but the late credentialing made it impossible to plan.

Alison Klayman: It was so terrible…In fact, I’m really glad that you were still able to see it. I’m so grateful and I really appreciate that you reviewed it. I’m always excited to talk to you so it’s really nice to catch up.

I’ll be on the ground this year for Tribeca. I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing in the evenings unless I get tickets confirmed for screenings.

Alison Klayman: Alright. Well, maybe there’ll be a Liberty game for you to go to. I need to cross check with the Tribeca dates. Okay?

Alright. Talk to you later. Bye.

Alison Klayman: Take care. Bye.

Unfinished Business will be released in select theaters on May 12, 2023 and on Prime Video starting May 13. A special ESPN2 broadcast will air on May 14.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.