Rory Kennedy on Laird Hamilton and Her New Movie “Take Every Wave”

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Copyright 2017 Moxie Firecracker

Rory Kennedy usually makes documentaries about complicated issues, with more than 30 films on topics like poverty, political corruption, domestic abuse, drug addiction, human rights, and mental illness. Her latest film is something different. Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton is the story of a man who became one of the world’s most accomplished sports figures even though he does not compete in organized events.

Your cinematography of the surfing scenes is remarkable. I kept asking myself as I watched, “Where is the camera? And how can it be so steady?”

To capture Laird on these ginormous waves was certainly something that I had never come across before in my own career. I explored using a drone or jet-ski or somebody in the water but they all had their own limitations and ultimately I really leaned on the helicopter shot. The thing is about these waves that is funny and interesting is that you can have a really huge wave and if you shoot it at a certain angle it looks teeny. And what I found is actually being below the wave looking up at it with a little bit of distance was the most dramatic shot but of course that means the helicopter needs to be below the wave. Don King has worked extensively with Laird and Don Shearer has also worked with him as a helicopter pilot.

You assembled an extraordinary collection of archival footage with some rare and very personal material. Where did it all come from?

It’s a bit of a scavenger hunt really trying to find the best footage. We went to Laird and Gabby first and foremost but there was also footage through the archive houses at NBC, ABC, and CBS, who had some archives that we used. Then reaching out to friends and family and really asking people to go deep into their garages and their basements to retrieve some of the footage, a lot of which has never been seen before. The footage of Laird rescuing his friend came from the production company that they had because that was something that they were filming as it happened. We were able to track it down and it was pretty dramatic.

Laird is married to a world-class athlete who competed in the Olympics, Gabrielle Reece. He is covered by sporting journalists but he does not participate in conventional competition.

He has a comfort in competing in say a foot race where there’s an objective winner but what bothers him in surfing competitions was the sense of judgment. Laird is probably one of if not the most competitive person that I know and there are pretty extreme stories about him in that respect but I think ultimately he didn’t want to bring that to his surfing experience. Part of what he loves about surfing is being out on the water and being in touch with nature and being up against these gigantic waves. And I think that you’re up against your own kind of personal chatter in your head that’s telling you to get off the wave and that you might die. You know that’s a pretty intense adrenaline moment, right? So then you add on other things to that like competition and judgments and all the rest of it and it might feel a little deflating or less interesting.

He is an extraordinary athlete and a big part of that is his exceptional mental focus and drive.

That was part of a huge part of what drove me to make this film. Surfing is really the backdrop of the film but the story is what you’re tapping into which is what drives a guy to surf and go up against 80-foot waves. He has the personal drive towards water. I think that manifests at his very young age. I think he was exposed to some of the biggest waves in the world and he was surrounded by surfers. From age two, three; he was in the ocean every day and going out into water that most of us would never even dream of going into even as adult. He had a childhood that was a broken home. He’s lived in poverty. He had an abusive family situation and I think the outside environment was also difficult where he was one of the only white guys in Hawaii at the time. There was a lot of anger towards people who were not Hawaiian and who were white who had brought a lot of disease and devastation to the island though. Because of all those factors he ended up really focusing and finding refuge in the water.

Even though he doesn’t have much formal education he and the other surfers have really PhD level understanding of the properties of water; the physics of it.

Their level of knowledge is striking. One of the scenes that we have in the film is Laird working with the Oracle team, Jimmy Spithill who is the captain of the America’s Cup because they really looked to him for expertise in terms of foil boarding. And these are guys are engineers and they’re analyzing with computer technology the most efficient way to get a boat to move across a lot of water and they’re looking at Laird for his personal expertise in that and I think there’s a good reason for it. When you have spent that much time as a human being engaging in something, you have kind of an instinctual understanding of it that they’re able to translate in pretty beautiful ways both in terms of the language that they use and the poetry and the beauty of it but also on a very technical level in terms of how it works and how a wave is formed. He’s incredibly articulate and knowledgeable about that.

Would you say that there’s a common theme in your films?

A great story.

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“Loving Vincent” — Interview With Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman

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On Huffington Post, I interviewed the directors of a remarkable new animated film, “Loving Vincent,” a story about Vincent van Gogh and inspired by his paintings. Each frame is an oil painting. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman described the process:

HW:We painted on canvas, seriously; I mean Vincent painted on canvas and we painted on canvas. When they were painting they were looking at the Vincent paintings and they were trying to get the same brush stroke. Piotr Dominiak, our head of painting animation, has been to all the museums taking photographs and we interviewed the experts at the Van Gogh Museum about which Vincent put the paint on, what type of equipment he was using, what exact color he was using so all of that research then went into us replicating and reimagining that on to our canvases.

DK: Our biggest problem that with animation was you have to obviously light the canvas and you need to light it evenly, while in a museum the lighting is directional, so you can see the shadows of the actual paint in them. It was a challenge to make sure the texture is visible on the screen and they were all sculptural.

HW: And once you’re committed to a big thick impasto stroke then they have to animate that. They have to scrub it out and leave it a little bit to the right, a little bit to the right, a little bit to the right. So for those big impasto shots they’re actually animating every brush stroke.

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Dolores Huerta and Peter Bratt on the New Documentary “Dolores”

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Dolores” is a new documentary that tells the story of activist icon Dolores C. Huerta, president and founder of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. If Ginger Rogers is known for matching Fred Astaire’s steps backwards and in high heels, Huerta was as responsible as the better-recognized Cesar Chavez for bringing the attention of the world to the rights of immigrants, women, and farm workers while raising eleven children as a single mother and constantly being marginalized and underrated because of her race and gender. I spoke to Huerta, who was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor by President Barack Obama, along with the director of the documentary, Peter Bratt.

In the film, we see you begin by sitting down in living rooms or talking to farm workers in the fields to encourage them to insist on fair treatment. What did you say to them?

Dolores Huerta: When you are organizing a group of people, the first thing that we do is we talk about the history of what other people have been able to accomplish; people that look like them, workers like them, ordinary people, working people, and we give them the list. These are people like yourself, this is what they were able to do in their community. And then we talked about the issues that they’re facing in their own community and then we would say to them, “Well, just like these other people did, they were able to accomplish all these great things. You can do the same thing. But the thing is that you got to do it because if you don’t nobody else is going to do it for you; nobody else is going to come into your community and solve your problems. So you have to take on the issues yourself. You’re the ones who have to volunteer to make the work happen.”

So we do a whole series of these little house meetings and you probably get a hundred and fifty people together and out of that group then you have a cadre of them that will come up and they’ll volunteer to do the work that needs to be done and that’s how the leaders are developed. When you go into a community you’ll never know ahead of time who the leaders are going to be. The leaders come up from the volunteers that do the work and it’s amazing because then they do these incredible things in their community that they never thought they had the power to make that happen. Basically, the message is: you have power, the power is in your person and you can make this happen but you can’t do it alone; you’ve got to work with other people to make it happen, you have to make a plan and you have to volunteer. And it works; it’s like magic.

You go out there and you find those people that have this burning passion that they want to change things and you basically are just giving them the tools. This is the way that you do it: you come together with a group of people, you pass petitions, you go to the city council, you go to the board of supervisors and you can make it happen.

Peter Bratt: She actually was telling me a story that she hopped on a Greyhound to northern central California, throughout the bus ride was expecting sixty to seventy people at a house meeting which had only one person, and she said she gave it her all because one person can be the most incredible leader that can change thousands of lives. That was a great lesson.

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

Peter Bratt: Dolores in my view challenges the three pillars of society. She’s challenging patriarchy and yes, that’s part of gender discrimination but it’s also racial. She’s also a Chicana; she’s a woman of color. The third one is as a labor activist she’s challenging the institution of capitalism, and I think those are the three great threats and that made her dangerous. I think those complexities combined to keep her in the margins.

The people who appear in the film are very candid and sometimes very emotional. How do you as a filmmaker develop a sense of trust so that they will share those memories and feelings?

Peter Bratt: I have some history with Dolores. I’ve known her for a little while and I think there was initially a great amount of trust between her and myself and Carlos Santana whose idea this was, and I also knew a few of her daughters from years back. So I think initially there was trust but you still have to prove yourself and earn even more trust. The most important thing as a director is you have to create a safe environment where you make the person feel safe enough to open their heart and reveal the soul; that’s ultimately where you’re trying to get. We interviewed probably about fifty people and the ones that we selected for the film were the ones who we felt truly opened their hearts and spoke their truth.

What has surprised you in terms of how far we’ve come and what has been the most persistently frustrating?

Dolores Huerta: Women are now 50 percent of the law schools and medical schools, so we can look at all the progress that we’ve made, but we can see all the progress that we still need to make and now with the voter suppression going on and with the racism rearing its ugly head we know that we’ve got to really step up our game on the progressive side and get people to vote because a lot of people aren’t voting. They’ve taken civics out of our high schools. People were asleep but I think they’re waking up now. Trump has given everybody a good kick and people are waking up and realizing they’ve got to get involved. That’s the message that we want to send with the film; for people to get involved at the local level, at the community level, at the state level and international level because we can’t afford to let the right wing take over our country. My son Emilio is running for Congress to continue the fight for social justice.

Peter Bratt: Sometimes I just want to put the covers over my head and stay in bed and I feel like no matter what I do it’s ineffectual and I get depressed. So for me having spent these last few years with Dolores, to see her not just doing the work but impassioned about doing the work and getting out there at the grassroots level and she still goes out into the fields in 100 degrees to organize this farm operation, she’s still doing it in the school boards, on water boards, she’s been getting people involved and to see her so engaged and relentless. The fortitude is awe inspiring and yet there is this joy and this passion while continuing to do the work, It encourages me to like quit feeling sorry for myself and get back out there. To me as a filmmaker that’s the biggest reward, to see people lift themselves up and recommit themselves.

A briefer version of this interview originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

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Tribute: Jerry Lewis

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We mourn the loss of one of the great figures of 20th century entertainment, Jerry Lewis, a performer who was at the top in nightclubs, movies, radio, and television. He was a successful and innovative director of film as well.

He was an extraordinarily gifted physical comedian.

He liked to describe his act with Dean Martin as “the handsome man and the monkey.”

After Martin left him, Lewis was devastated. In one of his most successful solo films, “The Nutty Professor,” a sort of reverse Jeckyll and Hyde story, he essentially played both roles.

Lewis became a director who learned every technical aspect of filmmaking, down to loading the camera. He invented the instant video feedback system that is now standard.

He was also a superb dramatic actor, most notably in Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy,” playing a kidnapped talk show host, opposite Robert de Niro.

He was also a tireless, if sometimes controversial, fundraiser for muscular dystrophy with annual Labor Day telethons.

Shawn Levy’s insightful book, King of Comedy: The Life and Art Of Jerry Lewis, has the best description I’ve seen of the complicated relationship between Lewis and his audience. His talent could be overwhelmed by his voracious need for attention and his barely hidden hostility. He had a rare combination of ferocious commitment to entertaining, putting everything he had into it, but holding a great deal back, never showing us who he really was, as any truly great entertainer should do.
But at his best, with Martin and working with director Frank Tashlin, he was as good as it gets.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Interview: “Glass Castle” Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton

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For WheretoWatch, I interviewed Destin Daniel Cretton, writer/director of “Short Term 12” and now “The Glass Castle.”

It’s not necessarily experiences that we have all gone through but I do think that there is something about The Glass Castle that still resonates and feels very familiar. We may not have gone through something to that degree but I think everybody has a Rex Walls in their life. Everybody knows what it feels like to want to love somebody so badly and have the struggle of how difficult that can be with someone who is either an alcoholic or has ups and downs in their life or who can’t be what we need from them. And it’s incredible to watch somebody like Jeannette go through something like that and come out the other end, not just learning how to accept that part of it but to take it and make it something that makes her so much of a better person. That’s really inspiring to me.

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