'Crash Reel' Director Lucy Walker on 'Unwatchable' Snowboarding Films and HBO

Steve Pond
The Wrap
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'Crash Reel' Director Lucy Walker on 'Unwatchable' Snowboarding Films and HBO

Lucy Walker would like to make one thing clear: "The Crash Reel" is not a snowboarding movie.

Yes, the documentary that premieres on HBO on Monday night focuses on top showboarder Kevin Pearce, and it contains some spectacular action footage. But Pearce's career as a snowboarder came to an abrupt halt at the end of 2009 when he suffered traumatic brain injury in a horrific training accident, and the reverberations from that injury are the real subjects of Walker's film: His slow recovery, his dawning realization that the thing he loves might kill him, the risks and lure of extreme sports and the power of family in accepting disability and overcoming devastating injury.   

"The Crash Reel" is both thrilling and wrenching -- an emotional cautionary tale assembled from three years of intimate footage shot by Walker and decades of existing video painstaking assembled by the two-time Oscar nominee, whose other films include "Waste Land" and  "Countdown to Zero."

After a Sundance debut, a film-festival blitz and an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles, the film premieres on HBO on Monday night; in a reversal of the usual release pattern, it will receive a full theatrical release from Phase4 in December.

How did you become involved in Kevin's story?
I met him on his first outing from the hospital in 2010. It was the very early days, and he kept reintroducing himself to me because he couldn't remember meeting me. I was shocked by the story, and initially I thought I could help him find another filmmaker to make a nice film that told it. But I didn't think I would do it myself.

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What changed your mind?
I met this kid, and he looks like an all-American star athlete. He's such a lovable, hard-working kid, and he's gone from Olympic hopeful to brain-injury survivor in a moment at his age, right before the Olympics. It was such a story. But I was still thinking it was a sad personal story, that it wouldn't have the wider resonance that I would want to take on.

But then I got to know him, and found out there was all this footage, and that I could really make a cinematic film. Not a talking-heads film telling people what happened but actually taking that journey. These kids who snowboard are shot by their friends, they're on TV, they're shot by their sponsors, their fans, their families ... We ended up with 18 terabytes of material from 230 sources. And of course the sport is so visual and so kinetic and so fun to edit with.

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And he was so honest. His family has the philosophy that if you have a disability you shouldn't be quiet about it, you should share it honestly. They've been through dyslexia, they've been through Down syndrome with one of Kevin's brothers. When I heard about Kevin's brother, I thought, What is it like for a family to have two boys, one with Down syndrome and one with a brain injury? And what is it like between the brothers? One was a superstar and now has a new disability, and one was born with a disability.

I kept thinking about it: What is it like for Kevin not being allowed to go back and do the only thing he wants to do? It's what he wants, and yet if it he hits his head again he'll die.

The story's not over at all – it's about to get really, really interesting. At the start, I thought, I'll help you, but it's not for me. And by the end I was thinking, gosh, I think this is my next film.

(Right: Lucy Walker with Kevin Pearce at Sundance, 2013.)

For much of the film, I sat there thinking, When is this guy going to realize that he can't do this anymore? And I'm sure that those thoughts must have gone through your mind as you were filming him.
I know. I was terrified. There was a long stretch where I thought, My God, I'm filming this kid we all love commit suicide in slow motion. I had a pit in my stomach the whole time. It was brutal. I had no idea where it was going to go, and for a while there it really didn't look like we were going to have a happy ending.

There's a long history of snowboarding and extreme-sports films, but the others almost all celebrate dangerous stunts.
Yeah, there are a million snowboarding films. But they're all unwatchable. It doesn't matter how high the production value is, they're just trick-trick-trick. Once in a while they'll try to craft an emotional moment out of the fact that somebody meets their mentor or goes off a peak where somebody died, but it looks so unearned. It's so unskillful.

From the sport point of view and the photography point of view, they're sumptuous. But from the filmmaker point of view, they're unwatchable. And we almost lost our minds because we set ourselves the task of watching all these films. It was torture.

And yet, we felt like it was such a dramatic, emotional world, why shouldn't there be dramatic, emotional films set in this world? So I had this hunch that if we could get the footage to tell the story emotionally, there was an opportunity here to use our craft and really be filmmakers and make a proper film with a degree of control and precision that could be really exciting.

It was a pretty herculean task, but I also think it's my best movie. And I feel like this is my swan song in documentary. How can I top this? I don't know how I could find a story that is as satisfying and incredibly rich. Every day was like Christmas in the editing room, working with this material.

The release plan is unconventional -- an Oscar-qualifying run, then an HBO premiere, and then a theatrical run five months later.
Exactly. It was probably the toughest of my films to get financed, and I didn't want a dodgy financier. It's a sensitive subject, brain injury, and you have a big responsibility to the family, so you need to work with a financier that you trust. And I knew I could trust HBO with my life, which is so not true of most financiers out there.

So I felt really good about them -- but at the same time, I've got to say that my dream was to go to Sundance and do the up-all-night bidding war and get a theatrical release and have a doc that's a hit.

I wanted it to be a big-screen film, so I'm really excited that we're going out in theaters. Does it matter that it's been on HBO? I don't think so. Phase 4 are crazy enough to go after HBO in the U.S. I think it'll work, but who the hell knows? It's an interesting experiment.

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