ESPN’s 10-part documentary The Last Dance, about the Chicago Bulls’ last championship season, has enthralled the country. As associate producer, Zach Rothfeld ’17 played an integral role in shaping the documentary. Rothfeld answered questions from Emerson Today about watching hundreds of hours of video footage, and how majoring in Visual and Media Arts and minoring in Sports Communications at Emerson helped him jump into his career.
Q: What was the path that led you to be associate producer of The Last Dance?
Zachary Rothfeld: I took part in the Emerson Los Angeles program during the first semester of my senior year. I interned for Mandalay Sports Media (MSM), and through my time there developed a passion for documentaries. A few months after leaving LA, they offered me the chance to join the Last Dance team. I’m very fortunate that they had enough confidence in me to afford me the opportunity.
Q: Do you still work for Mandalay Sports Media?
Rothfeld: I do not. I was working on a project-to-project basis. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on the series and would be excited at the opportunity to work on another MSM project.
Q: You watched more than 500 hours of footage, taking 500 pages of notes of what you thought. Were you the only one who combed through all the videos?
Rothfeld: NBA Entertainment followed the Bulls in the ’98 season and accrued over 500 hours of behind-the-scenes footage. Before heavy production began, I watched through and logged what they had shot in ’98. As I understand it, I was the first non-NBA employee to go through the footage. After I finished, the producers and director used my notes as a guide to more efficiently go through the footage themselves.
Q: What surprised you from watching and learning so much about the Bulls?
Rothfeld: I don’t think there’s ever been a team that was so widely in the public eye. The team transcended the sports arena and entered the broad public sphere. The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were as likely to be covered on SportsCenter as they were Access Hollywood.
The level of pressure and scrutiny that Michael Jordan was under is something none of us can really relate to, and watching through the 500 hours of footage highlighted that for me. Every time the Bulls arrived at their hotel, there was a huge crowd of fans awaiting them. After games, when Jordan would walk to his car, there were countless fans screaming and clawing at him, desperately seeking a photo or autograph. Prior to this project, I never thought I could ever feel empathy for a celebrity of Michael Jordan’s stature, but through researching the topic and working on this series, I found myself feeling great empathy for the trappings of his fame.
Q: What else did you do as associate producer?
Rothfeld: I spent roughly six months going through the 500 hours of footage. Once that was over, I essentially served as a utility man, doing whatever was asked of me. Whether that was doing research to help formulate questions for our interviews, finding archival footage for certain topics, or creating sequences for our editors on Avid; I was willing to do whatever needed.
Q: Are you a Michael Jordan fan? Chicago Bulls fan?
Rothfeld: I’m born and raised in New York City, and so I’m a long-suffering Knicks fan. My fandom doesn’t coincide with the Jordan years, so I was thankfully spared from suffering any PTSD reliving those Knicks/Bulls playoff matchups! From this experience, I definitely appreciate all that Michael Jordan and the Bulls accomplished. I don’t think there had been a more intriguing and talented cast of characters on an NBA team before (or since).
Q: How much did you know about the Bulls championship seasons before the documentary?
Rothfeld: Prior to working on this film, I did not know much about Michael Jordan aside from his being considered a transcendent superstar. Once I knew that I’d be working on the series, I wanted to know everything. I read every book there was to read and did as much research as I could to become an expert on the topic. I wanted to become a resource of information that could be useful to our team.
Q: How did your Emerson College career help you in your career?
Rothfeld: From the second you begin your freshman year, you’re given the opportunity to make whatever you want of your experience. Whether that’s making student films, working in one of the student-run organizations, or simply surrounding yourself with similarly-minded creative people, Emerson allows you to develop in many ways. My time at Emerson encouraged me to follow my interests, and through both the Sports Communication and LA programs, I was able to get tangible experience that I’ve put to use post-graduation.
Q: Have you, or will you, meet Michael Jordan?
Rothfeld: I was able to attend one of the interviews we conducted with Jordan. It was startling to meet someone in person that I’d been viewing solely through our trove of footage over the past few years. I was impressed by the way he conducted himself, and relished the opportunity to watch Jason Hehir, the director, conduct the interview.
Q: What would you want to ask Michael Jordan? Scottie Pippen? Phil Jackson? Dennis Rodman?
Rothfeld: To be honest, I think our interviews with them covered pretty much everything. If I had the opportunity to speak with them now that The Last Dance has aired, I’d be curious to hear how revisiting the past may have reframed some of their experiences and feelings about their careers and the roles they played in the dynasty.
Q: What are you working on now?
Rothfeld: I’m currently taking some time to assess my options. After working on this documentary at a rigorous pace for nearly three years, I had envisioned taking some time to travel post-airing. With the current climate, I think I’ll settle for a few weeks of taking walks around Central Park (mask on)!
Q: What would you like to work on in the future?
Rothfeld: I find stories that deal with interpersonal conflict to be very interesting. It’s fascinating how we as humans have the power to hold people up or push them down, and how sometimes things that are left unsaid can be more harmful than anything else. And so, I think documentary is a really intriguing format to explore people’s emotions.
Q: Anything else you’d like people to know about working on The Last Dance or yourself?
Rothfeld: I will always be grateful for having had the opportunity to work on this series. I had the chance to work with some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I believe that the people you surround yourself with at the start of your career can help shape your work ethic and demeanor. During The Last Dance, each day provided new lessons and information that I’ll take with me as I continue my career. It served as a graduate school of sorts.