Katie Bender and Leo Baker interview

Victorian creative team Katie Bender and Leo Baker are soaring to great heights with their project The Will to Fly, released nationally on 10 March. 

The Will to Fly tells the inspirational story of aerial skier Lydia Lassila as she battles the odds to pursue her dreams and soar to great heights.

Producer/Director Katie Bender and Director/Cinematographer Leo Baker talk about their experiences bringing this historic story to screen. 

 

How did this project come about and how did you become involved?

Katie: I trained under Lydia Lassila as a young gymnast 17 years ago and then later with her on the Australian Aerial Ski Team where I witnessed a large part of her inspirational journey. It made a strong impression on me.

After sport, I studied film and digital media in California, then in 2012, I was working in Hollywood for the world’s leading motion picture marketing firm, Trailer Park Inc. Work became my life and I didn’t have time to exercise, so I knew I wanted to somehow combine my two passions; sport and film production.

When I visited Lydia at the Utah Olympic Park water jump facility in Park City, she was returning to aerial skiing as the defending Olympic Champion and was also returning as a mother! Lydia told me she wanted to attempt a jump called a “full, double- full, full” - a very sophisticated acrobatic trick that only the men had accomplished before now.

That trick is only the final chapter to her incredible story and I realised that if I didn’t tell this story, then no one would. So it was then that I asked Lydia if I could produce a feature length sports documentary about this conquest.

 

What excited you about capturing Lydia’s journey and bringing it to the screen?

Katie and Leo: Knowing that Lydia was on a steadfast mission to achieve “the impossible”, and that we had the opportunity to showcase a story on this incredible Olympian and young mother was incredibly exciting. She was one of the most determined, unwavering athletes I had ever witnessed.

Her dream was to be regarded with the same level of prestige and prowess that male athletes had received, by jumping the same acrobatic manoeuvre as them. We knew that if we approached it cleverly and positioned the film well, we could target the film at Australia’s leading movie going demographic in all age groups: females.

This could be a challenge, but could also be ground-breaking, especially with the recent surge of film with strong female protagonists.

 

What key challenges did you face along the way?

The journey to get this film to the screen was incredibly challenging.

It was hard selling Lydia’s story as a film throughout the entire production. The majority of the film industry had not heard of Lydia Lassila, or understood much about the success of Australian winter sports team. Many film distributors would not watch the edit, and categorised the film as “just a skiing film”, or as an even more niche “aerial skiing film”.

We realised we needed to craft a powerful impact campaign to accompany the film that could generate social change, or at least change some minds. We began researching and developing a plan focusing on the need for more recognition and support of women in sport.

We had great material for a feature presentation with Lydia’s story, but we also knew that we had to construct this material for a mainstream audience.

We treated aerial skiing as the vehicle for telling Lydia’s story, which we structured classically like ‘the hero’s journey’. Throughout the edit we actually sought to cut down the aerial skiing footage as much as possible – showing only what was necessary to convey the story. This took quite a disciplined approach because there were so many spectacular moments to choose from, but we had to stay on target with our narrative.

The reason films with Olympic content aren’t made is because of the prohibitively expensive cost of accessing the Olympic archives. With Lydia’s story this was unavoidable, as so many of the defining moments of her career took place at each of the four Olympic Games she attended. Sourcing these archives became one of the biggest challenges. This took Katie years, as she was not only sourcing the sports archives from around the world, but also negotiating prices for access.

The challenge has paid off though because it has set this film apart and exhibits so well on the big screen.

 

What were your individual roles in the process and how did these roles evolve over the course of filming?

Leo: We both wore many different hats on this film, and although we played to each other’s strengths, there was a lot of crossover in our roles. All in all we found that the combination of our skillsets formed a viable toolkit to get through all the tasks (and curve-balls!) that came our way.

In pre-production this consisted of overseas planning, equipment purchasing and creating the blue-print for how we were going to structure and capture the content we needed. A lot of this blue-print could be constructed from Lydia’s existing story, and we also knew her intentions so could plan accordingly.

When we first went shooting overseas, we knew we were hunting moments that had to be captured as they happened. We took sound recordist Dane Cody so we could hand off the (sometimes overlooked in documentary) responsibility of sound. This proved to be a fantastic investment that allowed us to get more up close and personal with Lydia throughout her struggles, as well as capture the amazing sound details of each environment and event.

While away, I was in charge of all principal photography and Katie would sometimes shoot a B camera angle. Katie had established relationships with everyone in Lydia’s world, so would organise interview content, schedule interviews, while managing overseas travelling logistics. We actually had $60,000 worth of filming equipment rejected at Chinese customs due to a problem with our carnet documents. But somehow Katie managed to talk her way into China with a special invite by the Chinese Olympic committee.

After some test screenings and a short break from looking at the content, Katie and I reworked some of the sequences with trailer editor Ellen Dimler, who has a speciality for action cutting and re-energising some of the sequences that needed the right amount of punch.

These sequences were further emphasised with sound effects, a particular passion of Katie’s, with design by Simon Walbrook and further FX editing by Brendan Croxon. Both Katie and I were really specific that the sound mix should provide the right level of energy where it counted. We briefed Doron Kipen from Music & Effects that certain sequences needed to be treated like an action film. Doron appreciated the brief but I still think we nudged him beyond the volume he was comfortable with at times!

We both worked closely with composer Thomas E Rouch. Katie and I were in search of an original score to complement and amplify the range of emotions they were exploring throughout the film.

Our skills really came to the forefront during the edit and post phase. Katie worked with an ex-colleague from Trailer Park creating the movie trailer, and Katie was also the mastermind of the marketing plan. I dealt with all the technical hand off of both the audio mix and picture conform going to other artists and post houses.

By the time we were approaching our distribution phase, although still financing the film, we felt we had assembled the ‘dream team’ for the release which could support us through sponsorship endorsements, sales and distribution management, engaging top film PR, and working with impact Producers.

We’re managing an awful lot on our own so sometimes feel like we have our own little distribution machine in our home. We’re lucky we have allowed this film to take over our lives or we just wouldn’t have been able to get it to the stage it’s at. We are incredibly supportive of each other.

 

What did you take away from the experience and what did it teach you about documentary filmmaking?

Katie: Making a film in Australia as an emerging filmmaker sometimes felt impossible, and at times it was. The Will To Fly was three and a half years in the making and it wasn’t easy. Finding funding for the film in the beginning was a very difficult and piece-meal process.

After a year of struggling to find funding and get the production started, I had come to a crossroads.

I knew I had two choices. I either quit the film, or Leo and I handle everything ourselves. We chose the latter and for the first two years of shooting the film we played many roles through the production, with very little funding. Subsequently we found ourselves ‘in the depths’ of independent filmmaking, a sometimes bleak and worrisome place, but we had a newfound motivation to conquer this project on our own terms. Having said that, we have both vowed to never be in that position again as it is completely unsustainable, and we are by no means saying it is a necessary path for all emerging filmmakers. Leo was just as dedicated to this project as I was, I couldn’t have made it without him.

What I took away from the experience, and would advise for emerging documentary filmmakers:

  • Do not wait around to make the documentary, shoot the story today, even if it’s with your iPhone.
  • Always listen to your instinct, always follow your heart, and don’t let other people dictate the worth of your production to you. Only give your energy to the people who believe in your story.
  • Prepare to be labelled and rejected by everyone. Being able to detach yourself emotionally is key so you don’t let any creativity get zapped from the precious filmmaking process.
  • If you’re independently making a film for the first time, you need to learn how to be a businessman/woman, and not just rely on film grants to fund your entire production.

 

The film premieres on International Women’s Day – was this an important part of the message of the documentary?  

Katie and Leo: The Will To Fly has a very clear social impact focus, to make people think, feel and act differently around the issues affecting women in sport.

At a convenient release date for us, International Women’s Day was the perfect day to synergise with to bring more focus to this movement. This is primarily a changing minds impact campaign, bringing awareness and driving a positive change in community attitudes and beliefs around gender equality.

We also have an educational premiere, which will be held at the Lido Cinema on 10 March where we will be promoting the launch of our Educational Study guide. The guide will be placed into the Australian curriculum in 2016, primarily targeted at years 7-12 and tertiary students.

 

What message do you hope audiences will take away after viewing The Will to Fly?

Despite any setback, if you truly believe in something, and set your mind to it, you can achieve anything in life. 

 

The Will to Fly is released nationally in cinemas on 10 March.