The dramatic story of one unforgettable athlete, Kevin Pearce; one eye-popping sport, snowboarding; and one explosive issue, Traumatic Brain Injury. A comeback story with a difference.
This eye-popping film seamlessly combines twenty years of stunning action footage with new specially-shot verité footage and interviews as it follows U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce and exposes the irresistible but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports.
An escalating rivalry between Kevin and his nemesis Shaun White in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics leaves Shaun on top of the Olympic podium and Kevin in a coma following a training accident in Park City, Utah. Kevin's tight-knit Vermont family flies to his side and helps him rebuild his life as a brain injury survivor. But when he insists he wants to return to the sport he still loves, his family intervenes with his eloquent brother David speaking for all of them when he says, “I just don’t want you to die.” Kevin’s doctors caution him that even a small blow to the head could be enough to kill him. Will Kevin defy them and insist on pursuing his passion? With his now impaired skills, what other options does he have? How much risk is too much?
Directed by twice Oscar®-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight, Countdown to Zero, Waste Land, The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom).
Made with support from:
LUCY WALKER, DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/WRITER
Director Lucy Walker’s documentaries have won over fifty film awards, and she has twice been nominated for an Academy Award®, first for WASTE LAND (2010), a documentary feature which also won over 30 other awards including Audience Awards at both Sundance and Berlin, and a year later for THE TSUNAMI AND THE CHERRY BLOSSOM (2011), a documentary about survivors of Japan’s 2011 tsunami, which also won the non-fiction jury prize at Sundance.
Her three previous feature documentaries are DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND (2002), BLINDSIGHT (2006) and COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (2010). BLINDSIGHT, about blind Tibetan students climbing Everest, premiered at Toronto and won festivals including Berlin. COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, about nuclear weapons, premiered at Sundance and played in Official Selection at Cannes. DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND, about Amish teenagers, premiered at Sundance and was nominated for three Emmys® (Best Documentary, Best Director, Best Editing) and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. She has also been nominated for two Emmys® for Outstanding Directing for Nickelodeon’s BLUE’S CLUES.
Lucy grew up in London, England and graduated from Oxford University before winning a Fulbright scholarship to attend the Graduate Film Program at NYU. She began her career by directing theatre and musical theater, winning awards at Oxford for her productions. While living in New York, she also had a career as a DJ and musician. She is currently based in Venice, California.
JULIAN CAUTHERLEY, PRODUCER
Julian is an award-winning director and producer whose projects have participated at festivals such as Sundance, Deauville, Berlin, SXSW and Tribeca. As producer, Julian is on the festival circuit with the award-winning documentary THE CRASH REEL following the dramatic fall and raise of snowboarder Kevin Pearce a traumatic brain injury survivor. Directed by two time Oscar nominated filmmaker, Lucy Walker, the film premiered at the Sundance film festival and has so far received the audience awards at SXSW and Dallas International Film Festival. On the festival circuit and in distribution in Europe is THE BEAUTIFUL GAME a documentary about the power of soccer to transform lives in Africa. Julian is about to start pre-production on the narrative film YOU WERE NEVER HERE with Katie Holmes, Zachary Quinto and Mireille Enos attached to star. Previous projects include narrative feature CROSSTOWN in which the promise of a better life is shattered when two families are confronted with the brutal reality of raising their children in Los Angeles. Tackling immigration issues the film stars Vivica Fox and Manny Perez. Julian is also partner/founder at Good 'n Proper, a production and management company.
PEDRO KOS, EDITOR/WRITER
Pedro Kos is an award winning editor and director living in Los Angeles. He edited the Academy Award nominated documentary WASTE LAND directed by Lucy Walker. The film received numerous awards including the audience awards at both the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival, and also garnered him the best editing award at the 2012 Brazilian Academy Awards. Pedro edited the documentary THE ISLAND PRESIDENT directed by Jon Shenk, which won the documentary audience award at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival. He was the editor and second unit director on ELEMENTAL a documentary feature directed by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee and Gayatri Roshan which premiered at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival. Pedro was also the editor and second unit director on Freida Mock’s SING CHINA! And previously he was the second unit director on Jessica Sanders’ film MARCH OF THE LIVING. Most recently he edited Lucy Walker’s new documentary feature THE CRASH REEL which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and earned the audience award at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival. He began his career as an editor on the making of documentary to Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD.
Pedro was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and raised both there and in New York City and Miami, Florida. He received his B.A. in theater directing from Yale University.
NICK HIGGINS, DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Nick has spent the best part of the last three decades living everywhere except his Scottish birthplace. Highlights have been Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Rio De Janeiro and a decade in LA.
Nick has had the pleasure of collaborating on several projects with two time Academy Award Nominee Lucy Walker including THE CRASH REEL (Sundance 2013), COUNTDOWN TO ZERO (Sundance 2010) and 3 short documentaries about Olympic athletes, the highlight being THE SECRETS OF THE MONGOLIAN ARCHERS. Other notable collaborations include Bess Kargman's ballet documentary FIRST POSITION (TIFF 2011; IFC/Sundance Selects) and THE COACH (Winner of Best Short Doc at TriBeCa 2013). Nick has also shot on numerous projects with Academy Award Nominee Morgan Spurlock including COMICON (TIFF 2011) and A DAY IN THE LIFE. In addition to Independent feature documentaries Nick is a frequent DP on NAT GEO science shows, documentary style commercials and he's a founding member of THE DEPARTMENT OF EXPANSION.
Up at Sundance in January 2010 I noticed that many locals were wearing stickers that said "I Ride For Kevin", and I connected it with the sad news story of an Olympic hopeful that had crashed in the half-pipe there. Then that summer 2010 I was invited to be a mentor and to show my film Waste Land at a retreat for Nike's top sponsored action-sports athletes -- it's worth noting that what we call extreme sports, the sponsors call action sports. At the back of my mind when I accepted the invitation was a sense that the world of extreme sports might be a good one to make a documentary. I love to explore fascinating, inaccessible words in my films, and I like to offer the audience a ticket to ride inside a world they can't normally access (Amish teenagers, blind Tibetans, Everest climbers, Rio's garbage pickers, Japanese tsunami survivors). But mostly I was happy to help out a friend who wanted to inspire young sports stars to use their platform for social change.
At the retreat I met Kevin and his brother Adam. It was early days after his accident and Kevin's head was shorn, his eyes were looking different directions, he couldn't read or stay awake for long, he kept re-introducing himself to me because his memory was so impaired he couldn't remember that we'd just been talking -- and yet he still had a star quality, I found him completely charming and compelling and was drawn to talk to him and Adam as much as possible. It seemed like a tragic story, but it seemed like the story was short, sad, and finished, so I didn't instantly think that it would make a good film. I didn't want to make a two-act film about a hopeful who had crashed. Or a sappy rehab story that didn't really earn its keep. But then I started to notice that Kevin was desperate to keep up with the other athletes around him. His brother told me that if he hit his head again he would die, and that he wasn't allowed to snowboard again, but everything he wanted to do was active and dangerous and he lit up when he talked about his passion to return to the sport. I wondered what he would do next and I realized that the story wasn't over, it was about to get interesting. In Ovid's Metamorphoses we have stories of the shield that never fails and the sword that never misses, and this seemed like this. Kevin's life was snowboarding, but it would kill him if he returned to it. Suddenly I saw a dramatic three-act film. I didn't know what was going to happen but I wanted to film him to find out.
I also heard that Kevin's crash had been filmed by a passer-by, even though he hadn't been competing when he crashed, it was just an early-morning practice session. I realized that even though I hadn't been able to film with Kevin pre-accident, that there would be lots of footage to license in order to tell the story with verité immediacy. I looked around at the retreat and noticed that the athletes were being filmed by Nike and also filming themselves nonstop, and it occurred to me that there would be a great deal of this footage and that extreme sports stars are filmed both on and off the slopes more than perhaps anyone except reality tv stars, so we would be able to have a lot of choices in the editing room. Adam also told me that he'd filmed some very early post-accident hospital scenes and so we could find footage to tell that part of the story as well.
The more that I started to think about making a documentary about Kevin, the more interested I got. Sometimes I have an idea for a film which initially seems very promising, but the more you turn it over in your mind, the less interesting it gets (maybe there's already been a film in the same space, or it's hard to get access or footage, or you start to realise that the answers are pretty simple and obvious, or the people aren't as open or interesting as you first hoped). But no matter how much I thought about Kevin, I got more interested.
I head Kevin talk about his brother David who has Down Syndrome, and his remarkably supportive family, I wondered what it must be like for parents to have two sons with intellectual disabilities, and how the crash would have changed the relationship between the brothers. I knew that this would be a very strong part of the film.
I also thought it was fascinating that the world of extreme sports posed questions that I couldn't answer. When I watch big-wave surfing or mega-ramp skating or half-pipe snowboarding my eyes are so glued to the screen that my eyeballs might as well be sucked out of my head. But half of the reason I'm mesmerized is because it's clear that the stakes are life and death. There's no room for error. I find myself thinking that mistakes are inevitable, and any mistake could be fatal. And Kevin's story dramatizes just how dramatic the stakes are. Kevin's story is an exemplary study of risk and reward. Snowboarding is a breathtakingly beautiful sport and those who excel at it are modern-day demi-gods, bringing humans closer to the art of flight, and garnering praise, adulation, and fortunes in lucrative sponsorships wherever they go. And yet their lives are fraught with danger. The risks they take to get to the top are truly extreme. And I was horrified to learn that the crashes become viral hits on youtube. What innate response do extreme trigger in us? What's happened to moderation in our lives, why this push to the extremes? What sort of society of spectacle have we become that kids are competing gladiator-style, where the X Games resembles nothing so much as the Hunger Games?
Another fascinating angle is the controversy about head injuries in sports, TBI in mountain sports has an obvious relationship with CTE (cognitive traumatic encelopathy from repeat small hits) in the NFL which was making major news headlines. The question of how much health danger is too much in sports was clearly a pressing one with no clear answers but very high stakes, which again made Kevin's story potentially very dramatic, important and zeitgeist.
So there were many, many reasons I wanted to make the film. And one big one. Which is to simply make a great film. I am a filmmaker sort of a documetnary-maker. I don't want to make films that are "just another documentary", that are simply adequate. I don't want to use film to make a story that just as well could be a book or a news item. I want to elevate the genre, push the boundaries, find material that will yield the most dramatic richness when you start to work it. It's hard to get excited about making a talking heads movie, with pedestrian interviews with people telling you what happened. I want to make the most cinematic documentaries possible, films that take you on the emotional ride that the subjects are taking, and deliver as much visual excitement, emotional intensity, cinematic power and narrative payoff as a classic fiction film. I trained as fiction filmmaker and choose to work in nonfiction to tell stories that are more compelling than fiction and not less. I saw the potential to do that here, so I started talking to Kevin and his family about making a film of his story. Fortunately they were as keen for me to do it as I was. Kevin's doctors felt that it would give him a sense of purpose, something to do since he wasn't allowed to snowboard, and that it would be helpful for him to see himself on screen to see his progress. So we began to shoot.
Being a documentary filmmaker is a tremendous responsibility, and never more so than when you're working with a sensitive subject like Traumatic Brain Injury and people who are suffering hugely. It's even harder when you fervently admire the people you're documenting, as I do Kevin Pearce and his family. But what makes it easy is when the people you are filming have the courage to be completely honest about what they are going through. That vulnerability and openness is what the audience can connect with, and it's what electrifies the emotion of the story. The Pearce family is no stranger to disability, with Kevin's brothers and father all being dyslexic, as well as David having Down Syndrome. And their philosophy is not to be ashamed of any disability or struggle, but instead to share it honestly and bravely, and this was critical to the success of the film. Of course I'm proud of the intimacy of the film, and I have many tricks and experiences that I've learned (this is my fifth film) in order to help achieve that, but the best trick of all is to work with people who have the rare courage to be emotionally honest. The same courage it took to pursue an Olympic dream was now manifest in Kevin’s willingness to talk about his injury and share his story, and his determination to be all that he could be with his brain injury. I saw a wonderful opportunity to take people on a journey through Kevin's life -- the vertiginous heights of his snowboarding fame, and the devastating lows of his brain injury. In so doing, we’d reveal the psychological make-up of a champion athlete as well as the day-to-day reality of being a brain injury survivor. And get to glimpse this remarkable family reveal itself through their actions.
We spent two and a half years filming Kevin and the Pearce family. I wanted to collaborate with cinematographer Nick Higgins because of his gift of knowing where to point the camera during verité shooting, and his understated shooting style meant we were able to capture all the emotions and drama inside the family without being obtrusive. I like to work with a very small shoot crew to preserve the intimacy so our basic crew configuration was just myself recording sound with Nick shooting and sometimes our producer Julian recording sound also. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are those around the Pearce dinner table in Vermont, as Nick's sensitive, observant cinematography captures Pearce family’s pain and struggle to support and guide Kevin through his recovery.
We also put in a huge amount of work in sourcing and scouring through archival sources. It was not as if we were handed a bag with all the archival material. On the contrary, it was the hugest excavation project trying to figure out who had been filming and how we could get a hold of the footage. In what I am guessing might be a record, we looked through 18 terrabytes of material comprising 11,000 clips from 232 archival sources. We wanted to track down every last piece of footage that was needed to tell the story. Some were traditional archival sources like the Olympics or news reports, but most were informal sources such as friends, family, sponsors, snowboarding context, sports magazines, Kevin's fans. We had different people named Florian in three different countries who contributed footage. Hundreds of different people around the world who didn't even know one another held pieces of this jigsaw puzzle, and it was a Herculean job to figure out who they were, and persuade them to let us see and license the footage. For example the scene of Kevin's life-saving crash was pieced together from footage from five separate people who each held a different crucial angle. Kevin's actual life-changing accident was caught on tape by a passer-by, who out of sensitivity to the family chose not to put it onto youtube. And we show that footage exclusively in the film. But it was a different tape shot by a different person that shows Kevin at the bottom of the halfpipe where he lay unconscious. And it was a different camera again that captured him being loaded into the life-plane. And another which caught his friends reacting. Etc. I was inspired by films like Senna which were built out of competition footage and Capturing the Freidmans which was constructed from home movies. The Crash Reel is built from competition footage and home movies and more - I think in future as we are filmed more and more frequently there might be more films like this that have the dimensionality of many different kinds of sources that are retroactively combined to tell a story that hadn't originally been filmed by a single crew.
Editor Pedro Kos (who also cut Waste Land and my short film Crooked Lines) was my top pick for the job. We had a tight 7 months before Sundance, where we knew we wanted to premiere, but despite the pressure every day was a true creative pleasure as we worked the vast array of material to figure out the story and how to tell it. It was also an extensive research and writing project. It wasn't immediately obvious how much the friendship-turned-rivalry with Shaun White had been fueling the two athletes in the build-up to the Olympics, but as I unearthed more footage I started to see how the two had been pushing one another, and as I called up more footage and dug around a bit more, the material revealed a to-the-death sports rivalry that needed to be told. It was while I was at Sundance 2012 (with my film The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom) that the tragic news hit of Sarah Burke's crash, in exactly the same spot of the half-pipe where Kevin had crashed on December 31st, 2009. Then she died, and the media connected the two stories and it was clear that she was part of the film too, and I wanted to pay tribute to her, and dramatically underscore how easily Kevin's story could have gone the other way. Our heart went out to her widower Rory Bushfield and to her family, we were sickened that they were confronted with medical bills and we were horrified that so many athletes go uninsured.
We have launched an advocacy and awareness campaign called #LoveYourBrain, inspired by Kevin's words in the film to Trevor Rhoda, the young man who can't find his own elbow and ran over his brother after suffering two Traumatic Brain Injuries. There are many initiatives on several fronts surrounding veterans (estimated 400,000 veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with TBI), incentivizing helmet use, concussion awareness and training, and encouraging and mandating that athletes have medical insurance. In January we were invited to screen at the X Games as the very first official movie there. A couple of days later a snowmobiler named Caleb Moore suffered a horrible crash, although initially he seemed to be doing okay and everyone was more worried about his brother who broke his back and separated his pelvis in a separate accident that same day. Caleb's crash went viral and everyone thought he'd be fine. But then a couple of days later he died from the injuries, and we were left to circulate the same pleas for financial help for his family, sickened and saddened. I chose to call the film The Crash Reel to confront "head on" this culture of the spectacle of glamorous crashes. Every athlete and actions sports films company will have their own "crash reel" or goriest crashes that prove enormously popular on youtube. It was hard for us to work on the scene with all the crashes, but I wanted to include in the film what exactly these sports can result in, and how popular these crashes are. But instead of showing a quick clip of a glamorous crash, I wanted to show the whole entire story of a crash, Kevin's crash. Kevin's goal in making the movie was to raise awareness of what risks his friends are running. He loves the sport and wouldn't want to change it, but he does think people should know, and when sponsorship contracts forbid athletes from talking about their injuries, and injured athletes are exiled from the community and not given screen time, there's a distorted sense that accidents are rarer than they are. I didn't want Caleb to die. I was horrified to find that our film was grotesquely prescient and apropos. I was relieved that the X Games have suspended the snowmobiling event pending a thorough review of its safety, and I hope that they will do that with all their events.
I am a huge music fan, and another reason I love to collaborate with editor Pedro Kos is that we share a passion for and common taste in great contemporary music. The emotionality and adrenaline-fuelled drama of our story is supplemented with a lyrical yet energetic contemporary soundtrack which we had tremendous creative fun in creating My last two films were both scored by Moby, but this time we went for a more eclectic soundtrack. We would try to find the tracks that worked optimally for each scene. Luckily for us, all the amazingly gifted artists whose haunting, memorable music we desperately wanted to accompany our images agreed to license their tracks for our exceedingly modest budget (great credit to Matt Biffa who managed to secure the clearances to the songs that Pedro and I chose).
A special note about David Pearce. I have never seen anyone who is as eloquent about having Down Syndrome as David is. The family is full of scene-stealers, but for me David steals the show. It was shocking when I interviewed him that he could talk to candidly and clearly and his struggle to accept his disability. His eloquence is a true testament to how he has been raised by his remarkable family, as well as to his intelligence and thoughtfulness and courage. And his ability to articulate and say out loud what everyone else is thinking is the most brilliant dramatic device as well as a true communication gift. The final scene in which Kevin and David challenge one another to accept their disability was the most profoundly moving and inspiring scenes I have ever filmed. It's also an example of how nonfiction can out-write fiction: I wonder if any genius screenwriter, if I'd shown them the cut of the movie up to that point and asked them to write a final scene, would have been able to write something that so powerfully tied up the movie. I almost didn't film that final scene as we'd already cut a perfectly workmanlike ending and we'd already gotten into the film festival. But a note from Executive Producer Dan Cogan proved key. He mentioned that the ending wasn't as strong as the rest of the movie. And of course I had to take up the challenge. So two days before Thanksgiving, while my fellow producer Julian Cautherly was in the neonatal intensive care unit as his wife had just had a baby prematurely, and my regular DP was unavailable as he was spending the holiday with his family after missing it the previous year for our first Thanksgiving shoot, I scrambled to find a DP and plane tickets. And as soon as that scene happened, I knew that we had the most powerful ending to any documentary I could remember and couldn't wait to get back to the editing room and start editing it. When we had our World Premiere as the Opening Night Film at Sundance 2013, David was in the audience and he loudly sobbed, howled and whimpered during the screening, which I found completely harrowing. But when he got up on stage for the Q&A and was asked how it was going, whether he was able to accept his Down Syndrome, he answered that now he had seen the movie he could accept his Down Syndrome, and I was moved to tears, thinking that there was no higher vindication than that of all of our wonderful team's immensely hard work.
Kevin catapulted onto the professional snowboarding stage in 2005 at age 18, soaring above others in his division and quickly becoming the athlete to watch in the ever-evolving sport. In 2007 and 2008, Kevin earned back-to-back Quarterpipe victories at The Oakley Artic Challenge as well as two Air & Style victories. At the end of the 2008 season, he became TTR (Ticket to Ride) Champion.
Kevin’s professional ascent happened at a time when snowboarding tricks were evolving rapidly. His sporting rivalry with Shaun White introduced airbags and foam-landing pits into the sport, reflecting the lengths each was prepared to go to to achieve Olympic glory.
In the 2009 Winter X Games, Kevin brought home the Silver Medal for Superpipe, making him a strong contender to win Gold in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Then on New Year’s Eve 2009, while training for the Olympic trials in Park City, Utah and practising a trick on the half-pipe that would guarantee him a medal if successfully executed, Kevin suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. Although he was wearing a helmet, the accident left Kevin in critical condition and he was in a coma for a week. Post injury, Kevin had a whole raft of health problems: from language to vision, motor skills to memory, impulsivenesss to poor judgment. But despite the fact Kevin’s half-pipe career had ended, his determination to overcome the catastrophe through vigorous rehabilitation and training inspires his family, friends and fans every day.
A Vermont native and the youngest of four brothers, Kevin comes from a very strong family support system. Kevin’s father, world-renowned glass blower Simon Pearce, and his mother Pia Pearce, taught their sons from an early age to find happiness doing what they love. Kevin is grateful for his parents' commitment in helping him overcome the challenges of dyslexia during his school years and encouraging his love of snowboarding. This support system has also been crucial to Kevin’s recovery. It has empowered Kevin to work as hard toward recovery as he did toward the Olympics.
Kevin continues to be an important part of the snowboarding world. He has been commentating at events, like Winter X Games, since late 2011, and on December 13, 2011, Kevin got back on a snowboard for the first time. While he admits that not being able to compete is something he has to come to terms with every single day, he does not feel defeated and he is enjoying being back on snow.
A passion for educating the public on important issues has long been a priority for Kevin, and post-accident his activism has only grown. Kevin is a Sports Ambassador for the National Down Syndrome Society, crediting his older brother David, who was born with Down syndrome, as a huge influence in his life and career. Kevin is also an advocate for education and research on Traumatic Brain Injuries and their prevention, highlighting the importance of wearing a helmet.
While Kevin’s life and career path have been altered, his passion for snowboarding is unchanging. Kevin continues to be part of FRENDS, a group of professional riders who promote camaraderie within the sport.