‘Born to Fly’ explores the evolution of choreographer Elizabeth Streb’s movement philosophy – as expressed through her technique, lifestyle, artistic community, and relationships. The film also delves into the experiences of her dancers, revealing the voices and motivations of these gladiators who bring her work to life – often putting their physical wellbeing on the line. Intermixing vérité footage, archival material, stock images, and innovative graphic design, ‘Born to Fly’ declares the power, magic, and necessity of art in practice.
How might a film inspire a broad audience, hungry for a more tactile and fierce existence in the world?
Anticipating ‘Born to Fly’ at 2014 SXSW Film, we profile the film’s Director Cahtherine Gund. ‘Born to Fly’ screens as part of the Documentary Competition & sxSports programs on Saturday, March 8, Sunday, March 9 and Friday, March 14, 2014 in Austin, Texas.
Find More Information & Tickets for ‘Born to Fly’ at SXSW – HERE
How did you first meet Elizabeth Streb and find out about the Extreme Action Company?
Elizabeth was a visiting professor at Brown University 27 years ago when I was in college there. My friend was in her class (and [Elizabeth] was already doing this “fall from a high place and fall on your face” thing). We were all smitten. I was not a dancer, but I found [her work] really makes you feel free, and it makes you push yourself to places and ways you might not consider at all or even be able to imagine. So it was exciting at that point and then over the subsequent years, she and I became friends.
But the genesis of the film wasn’t until 2 years ago at her Action Maverick Award event at SLAM [STREB Lab for Action Mechanics] Every year she honors an action maverick – like Philippe Petit or Diana Nyad (who was the honoree that year), and has a fundraiser. I was there with my family, and she came up to me and said, “Do you want to drop a bowling ball?” I nodded. “At some point during the dinner, you’re going to climb up this truss 30 feet in the air, and you’re going to drop this bowling ball.” I was like “OK.” It was so insane and so random that she chose me for this. I went up there, balanced myself and bowling balls on either side of me fell to the ground – smashing two cement blocks. Then Zaire [Streb’s emcee] clapped his hands as signal for me to drop the ball to him. I got so scared that I would hurt him, but then I dropped it and he caught it! The adrenaline rush was like nothing I ever felt. The experience of being in it, and suddenly it was just one little piece of the action, I didn’t jump off a ladder, but I was so exhilarated. I came down, and she could see my speechlessness. She said, “I think we should make a movie together….I’m going to London in two months, come with us.”
I was ready for a new movie; the stars aligned, and we started filming. We went to London. I took my friend Albert Maysles [Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens]. He’s just a genius, at 83, still working, still editing. He filmed part of the “One Extraordinary Day” performance in London. It was a 24-hour shoot. The whole experience of making this film has been so profound because it’s not just about one person making it; it’s about all of us. On top of that, it’s not just about Elizabeth; we also incorporate her nine dancers and two ex-dancers, and that adds to the sense of collaboration. When you have eleven people from completely different places trying to put a finger on what motivates them, it has a more universal application. So suddenly you have all these different ways of seeing why we might do whatever it is we each need.
What was Elizabeth’s reaction like when you explained you wanted to document her work and life- especially many times in close quarters?
Yeah, that’s the hard thing about making a movie like this. There are a million ways to tell this story. You could talk about her scientific intrigue, and her brain and her drawings, ballet and the dance world, or you could talk about Cirque du Soleil and sports, and what that relationship is. She said, “I don’t know how you’re going to choose.” She was totally open to it. She shared 300 hours of her archival footage, and we were able to use it in a very cool way. We also had access to amazing dance photography from over the years – by Lois Greenfield, Tony Whitfield, and Tom Caravaglia, among others.. But I also wanted to include intimate vérité scenes. One highlight is the dinner party featured in the film – with ten of Elizabeth’s friends and her partner Laura [Flanders]. We really hit a home run with it, I mean you set this thing up, and you get this sense of who she is – that goes beyond interview questions. I’m not someone who likes to sit people down for an interview. Well, we did end up sitting her down for an interview towards the end of production, but I think that because we’d been working with her for so long, she’s so authentic and unguarded in the scene that it feels like I’m just sitting and talking with her.
You mention your bowling ball experience. Was it a similar immersive experience filming the dancers firsthand?
Oh yeah, I mean I had become close to all the dancers and certainly Elizabeth. I mean, Elizabeth getting ready to walk down London City Hall – which you see in our promotional photos, it was terrifying. When we were shooting their performance on the Millennium Bridge – 7 dancers bungee-jumping over the Thames having never rehearsed it, it really brought tears to my eyes. I just felt like they’re these tiny people, and they’re all alone. That’s why I love the one shot in the film where Daniel [a STREB dancer], he’s about to jump off the bridge and it really looks like he’s about to take his life, like jump off a building. He puts his arms up in the air and then he dives off, and my heart gets stuck in my throat everytime. How do you rehearse that kind of thing? You can’t. There’s this moment, and he just does it. The rehearsal is the performance.
What was the filming process like? I imagine you wanted to give a unique visual perspective to this dynamic art form in your cinematography.
Exactly. When we started out, documenting the work seemed like a challenge because it is so fast and dynamic, but I think we really lucked out with the beauty of it. That is what distinguishes it from extreme sports and from the circus, however you might be able to put it into words, the element of artistry is what ultimately makes you speechless, takes your breath away. You’ve got the extreme sports quality. Like with the Winter Olympics, they do the half pipe, and risk their lives. They practice; they rehearse; and they just put themselves out there. It’s very similar to what STREB is doing. But to me, there was an incredible visual achievement in the work she was doing, and my goal in the film was to reveal that achievement – to just get to this point where you could see a purity, a deeper understanding. It was important to me that it be beautifully shot – that it really try to show every angle of the work, both spatially and temporally, like with the slow motion. Most of the time, we worked with Kirsten Johnson, who’s a brilliant vérité cinematographer. We also shot with Al [Maysles], Ian McAlpin, John Foster, really huge talent on the camera side. The question was: “How do you capture something so physical and something so visceral in two-dimensionals?” How do you capture the sublime? The deeper understanding? It was a challenge, but they succeeded.
How helpful was Kickstarter and how do you see its evolution helping independent filmmakers?
That’s a great question because Kickstarter has been not only receptive but proactive in their partnership with us. I didn’t know anyone from Kickstarter before, but because we decided to shoot this film and STREB was heading to London six weeks later, we needed it to literally kick-start our film, and here was this crowdsourcing platform. I think there’re some amazing pros and some cons to the model, and they’re evolving along with the community. They’ve hired some film specific staff who’ve met with us and asked about feedback and how to improve it and future ways to collaborate and work with filmmakers specifically. I know their music and gaming specific staffs are doing the same in those communities.
Really though, there’s a beauty in the crowdsourcing model in the sense that we now have upwards of 300 people invested, literally invested in what happens to this movie from the beginning of it. This is always something I’ve always been interested in because of the social justice basis of most of my work. So I want to know what the community wants to know and needs before I even begin making my film. If I want to make a piece about kids and food – like my last film What’s On Your Plate?, I want it to serve a purpose. In that sense the collaborative process of film is natural for a crowdfunding campaign because then you have your audience built in already. It gives you a renewed opportunity to conceive what your project is.
Opening for a weeklong engagement at Film Forum on September 10th.
About Catherine Gund
Catherine Gund, the founder of Aubin Pictures, is an Emmy-nominated producer, director, writer and organizer. Her media work focuses on the arts, LGBT issues, the environment, and other social justice issues. Previous productions include WHAT’S ON YOUR PLATE? (Discovery); A TOUCH OF GREATNESS (PBS; Emmy-nominated); MOTHERLAND AFGHANISTAN (PBS).