During sitdowns at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one reporter asked director Lucy Walker how she had found her most recent film subject—former snowboarding superstar Kevin Pearce—adding, “You’re not exactly known as a sports documentarian.” For the next 90 seconds Walker smoothly analyzed the humanistic nature of documentaries, the worth of good filmmaking and pointless categorizations, without ever venturing into a “how dare you”-toned rant, though, quite frankly, she could have. In her time as a documentarian, Lucy Walker has made some of the last decade’s most striking films. And before certain eyes glaze over at the use of such superlatives, here are the facts: in 2006 she simultaneously climbed Mount Everest and filmed her second doc, Blindsight, capturing Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man to conquer the mountain, while he attempted to bring six blind students to similar heights. Four years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Waste Land, which followed Brazilian dump workers as they recreated massive art masterpieces with garbage, alongside contemporary artist Vik Muniz. She was the only female director nominated that year. She DJs, too, calls Moby a friend, and probably could have been a lot of things, but after winning a Fulbright to study film at NYU, she met Barbara Kopple, one of the world’s preeminent documentarians, and here we are.
On Monday, her ninth film, The Crash Reel, premieres on HBO. The documentary begins a few weeks before Pearce’s Olympic debut, shaping an understanding of the snowboarder in just a few minutes—enormously resolved and humble, a zen human beast that has mastered his life and sport. Then, with painful real-time footage, Pearce crashes headfirst while attempting a new trick, suffering a traumatic brain injury that leaves him in a coma, temporarily paralyzed. Thanks to its steroidal components, the natural drama of the film holds a grip on par with a good Hollywood blockbuster—the career-ending injury framed in the world of action sports, the family forced to rebuild, and an athlete’s ingrained inability to let go of a dream. After a heavy weekend spent weighing the reality of it all, we got Walker on the phone to discuss her penchant for difficult stories and her acclaimed, accidental career.
How tolling was it for you, making this film?
It was emotionally, a rollercoaster. When I made The Crash Reel, I wanted people to take that emotional ride that Kevin and his family have been on and really experience it. Of course, the story is extremely uplifting, I’m pleased to say. We’re so ecstatic that the story ended up being so inspiring without being sappy. It’s deeply positive. At the same time, there were long stretches in there when I was very worried about Kevin, and I thought, “My god, I may be making a film about an amazing young man who’s killing himself.”
At what stage of the story did you come in?
I didn’t meet him until after the accident. When I met Kevin, I was completely struck by him. He was incredibly charismatic even though, at that stage, his hair was shorn; he couldn’t stay awake for very long; he kept reintroducing himself to me because he couldn’t remember; his eyes were looking in different directions and he was clearly just injured very recently. Initially, I thought, “Gosh what a sad story about an Olympic hopeful who had fallen to earth, crashed, and is now suffering from this traumatic brain injury.” And then I realized that this story wasn’t over. It was about to get very interesting because here was a remarkable young man and he wasn’t going to stay where he was. He was going to move forward and I wanted to know what he was going to do next. I didn’t know what that was going to be, but I saw that he was determined to get back to the top of his sport. And yet, I heard from the doctors that if he got on a snowboard and hit his head again, he would die.
That’s a heavy knot to untie—
It seemed like an impossible choice. He was this very young man and I really related to him, because I think we all have those situations in life where our first dream is taken from us and then we have to decide do we dig deep? Do we give up? Do we fly off? Do we spiral? What do we spiral into? It seemed like I didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was so charismatic, I wanted to find out.
Your interview with Shaun White had some golden content. It’s a pretty serious get considering the competition and backstory between him and Kevin. He had to know he wouldn’t be painted in the most positive light.
I think the strength of the film is that Shaun and Kevin are so honest and so emotionally aware and open. I think it’s a fantastic story of sports rivalry and how two guys who were deep down great friends and had known each other since they were seven and eight years old. Kevin was a different sort of athlete from Shaun. Shaun is one of those uniquely talented athletes like a Tiger Woods and a Michael Phelps. He was winning from the get-go, whereas Kevin was the kind of kid that worked his way up. So they had these different paths and suddenly there was this moment when Kevin was beating Shaun.
Understanding that rivalry is the key to understanding how they were driving themselves to such great prowess before the Olympics, because they knew they needed to get these tricks that were so challenging. One of the most dramatic sequences is when Shaun invents the foam pit for the first time that he can snowboard into, and Kevin invents the air bag. It’s the perfect example of “necessity is the mother of invention.” They were both so driven that they were both becoming inventive. You really see how passionate these young men are. It’s something to watch.
How does it feel putting such a great amount of life force into something that may not have immediate repercussions on the world of action sports—its lagging emphasis on health insurance, for one?
The film is a bit of a Rorschach test. People will see different things in it. Some people will see the passion and the snowboarding and the excitement and other people will see the horror and the injury and the cautionary tale. What we tried to do was really tell the story and all the questions the story raises are clearly dramatically played out, but I don’t think we tell people what to think. The sport is beautiful. It’s thrilling. It’s evolving in our lifetime. The creativity of these kids who are making these tricks up season-by-season and teaching themselves and each other—there’s so much camaraderie.
We do have a campaign that we’re running called #loveyourbrain. With that we’re trying to do some sensible interventions. When you make a film, you observe a lot and you have the responsibility to report on your observations. Some of the observations that we were perturbed by was that not enough kids were insured, not enough kids wore helmets, not enough survivors of traumatic brain injury get enough help or have enough support, especially veterans coming back.
How do you pick you stories?
You know, I’m always just looking for whatever is going to make the best film. It’s tough to make a documentary, so I’m always looking for “What is the best possible film I can make here?” And I think with this film I saw the opportunity to make a really crackerjack, exciting, compelling, watchable movie. So if I’m interested, then I feel like I have a good chance of getting other people interested. That’s my best bet.
Why did you settle on documentaries, in the end?
I was lucky. I wasn’t a good actor. I was more shy, so I started directing in school because nobody else was doing that and then I realized it was a fun way to be around these creative people and to have all the fun of putting shows on. I realized I could go to film school and I thought that sounded fun. I managed to get a scholarship—I was very lucky. Then when I was there, I thought would make fiction films, but then one year a fantastic documentary filmmaker came to be a guest teacher, and I was hooked. That was Barbara Kopple, who’s a legend. She taught us everything we needed to know. I feel like there’s a lot of happenstance in how we all find the things we’re passionate about, often it’s a really inspiring teacher that makes a personal connection.
What’s driven you to stick to the medium?
There are so many things I could have pursued. I feel really happy that I randomly wound up making documentaries. I love that I get to meet these incredible people and introduce people in the audience to these remarkable people that they’d never get to meet in their life.
The Crash Reel premieres on HBO Monday, July 15 at 9pm. For more on the film see here.