By LIZ BUTTON
Rye High School freshman Zack Samberg got the chance to combine his two loves, basketball and film, when he created and co-directed a behind-the-scenes documentary about an underdog basketball team from a mostly Mormon high school in Utah that took the 2012-2013 National Championships by storm.
The 21-minute documentary, called “The Book of Lone Peak,” held the top short film position on iTunes for 10 days when it first went on sale Jan. 28.
“It has been kind of a crazy experience considering I was an eighth grader when [filming] started. I never thought I would make a film this early in my life,” Samberg said.
In “The Book of Lone Peak,” Samberg, now 15, and Ben Altarescu, 25, a New York University Film School graduate, explore the spiritual story behind the athletic talents of the Lone Peak Knights, who hail from Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah.
To make the film, Samberg and Altarescu took two trips to visit the players in their home state of Utah, which is an enclave for those who follow the Mormon religion and home to Brigham Young University, the largest religious college in the U.S.. Utah is home to countless Mormon communities, and church steeples dominate the prairie skyline.
As an eighth grade student in late April of 2013, Samberg, who currently plays basketball at Rye High School as well as lacrosse, said he was captivated when he saw the team play in Massachusetts at a championship game he attended with his father, who works for sports company Five-Star Basketball, where Samberg interns and writes for the company’s website.
Samberg said seeing the Knights come out of nowhere to dominate a top team from California at the National Championships was like watching a true underdog story come to life. That game inspired Samberg to take his Five-Star press pass and go talk to the players in the locker room.
“They literally looked too good, from everyone’s point of view,” Samberg said.
But talking with the players, Samberg said he learned how the teammates used their common faith and the friendship they built since the second grade to sustain their strong chemistry as a team.
Samberg said he was intrigued to find out the team’s top three players—seniors T.J. Haws, Eric Mika and Connor Toolson—planned to go on Mormon missionary retreats in Europe for two years following graduation, at the peak of their basketball careers, before returning to join the rest of their teammates to play for BYU. The short film explores what drives these players to defer their dreams while serving a higher purpose for God.
“I realized that it was a bigger story than just one article [for the website],” Samberg said. “I knew I had this story, but I didn’t really know how to do it.”
Over the remainder of the year, Samberg and Altarescu, who Samberg met through a family friend, teamed up on the project. The duo shadowed the players and filmed their lives over two trips to Utah lasting several days each. Following that, the two filmmakers entered a long editing process in which they put the film together and incorporated game footage the team had compiled over its historic 2012-2013 season.
“Their faith plays a huge role in their success. They really played well as a team,” Samberg said. “With Mormonism, they share the ball really well just as [their religion teaches them] to give back. Their religion serves to keep them out of trouble and helps them keep their priorities straight.”
Samberg said before he began to film, he did not know much about Mormonism beyond the “Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, but learned a lot during the process of making the film and bonding with the players.
“Basketball is the least of their priorities. Family, faith and school all come before that, and then there is the fact that they don’t even play on Sundays because that is their holy day,” Samberg said.
Mormonism, defined by the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which identifies itself as Christian, was founded in the 1820s by Joseph Smith. In the 1840s, a group of Mormons followed religious leader Brigham Young west and made its home in Utah. Mainstream Mormon beliefs center around following the edicts of the Bible and the Book of Mormon and devotees consider their leaders to be prophets and Apostles.
Samberg recently filmed a segment about his experience for Fox Five Sports and another segment that will soon air on either a Fox News broadcast or Good Day New York, he said.
In the future, if he and Altarescu can get clearance from the Mormon Church, Samberg said the duo plans to visit the team’s top players during their mission and continue filming them through their return to Utah, where they will reunite at BYU in 2016.
Samberg said his filmmaking experience has bolstered his personal interest in film and inspired him to seek out film classes at Rye High School next year. He said he has always been inspired by true life stories and likes keeping up with current events.
When it comes to considering a career in film, Samberg said he is just taking things day-by-day, but would be very encouraged to keep it in mind as a future goal, especially “if stories like these keep coming.”
The Book of Lone Peak
Released Jan. 28, 2014
Purchase on iTunes and