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SxSW 2015 Interview: T-REX directors Drea Cooper and Zack Canepari

T-Rex: On the fest circuit
by Jason Whyte

"17-year old female boxer Claressa "T-Rex" Shields from Flint, Michigan dreams of making Olympic history. To succeed, she'll have to stand her ground inside and outside the ring." Directors Drea Cooper and Zack Canepari on T-REX which screened at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

First time and we will be at all three screenings!

Tell me about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

In a nutshell, we are documentary storytellers. In 2009, we partnered and created California is place, a short doc series about The Golden State. It helped pave the way for our commercial work and eventually opened the doors for us to make T-REX. And before we worked together, we were documentary storytellers; Drea with film and Zack with photography. Currently, we are both based in the Bay Area.

How did your movie come together from your perspectives?

We were researching a documentary series about teenage athletes of all sorts and our research led us to Claressa. But with her story, the stakes were just so much higher because she was overshadowing any other stories we were looking at. Within a week of reading about her, we were on our way to Flint to meet her. It was her 17th birthday and we met her family, hung out in the city of Flint and saw Claressa's incredible charisma we knew that this was a story we needed to follow.

Right when we arrived in Flint, a radio piece about Claressa called "Teen Contender" premiered on NPR. One of the story producers, Sue Jaye Johnson, had been following women's boxing ever since it had been officially announced as an Olympic Sport the year before. When we first met Claressa, she put us in touch with Sue Jaye. We all decided to team up together and away we went. Then as the film progressed deeper into post-production we brought on an additional editor, Jean Kawahara. Directing and editing can be a challenge for directors, so Jean's fresh eyes went a long way in getting through the material. And our relationship with the folks at ITVS and Independent Lens has been fantastic. Their funding support made this film possible. And they've been such a supportive group of people. We really couldn't be happier with that relationship.

What was your #1 challenge with this movie?

Editing was a bear. 15 months, 400 hours, ultra marathon style. Licensing material wasn't easy either. Without getting into the details, we'll just say that the Olympics aren't an easy partner for independent documentaries. We wrote lots and lots of grants. Despite many rejections, we got the support of ITVS and Independent Lens who have been fantastic partners for the film.

If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought "I had something"?

We were there for a lot of firsts. Lots of big moments for T-Rex. Claressa's prom. Her first international tournament. Her first loss. Her biggest win. Her high school graduation. We really watch this young girl become a young woman. But one particular moment was very memorable. Claressa was preparing to leave for the Olympics and her mom wanted to go with her to London. Her mother has substance abuse problems and has never left the country nor even been to a single one of Claressa's fights. But Claressa is loyal to a fault so she indulges. They have a dinner at Applebee's where Claressa tries to lay the ground rules for the trip but it doesn't go well at all and Claressa is distraught. Back at her Coach's house, Coach Jason gave one of the most inspirational "stay focused" speeches I had ever witnessed. And this teenage girl soaked in every word. She ended up going to London alone and the rest is history...

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Coffee and vodka? It's pretty simple. Claressa was an easy character to follow. She's charismatic and vulnerable. She's candid and resilient. She's tough at times but she's also super sweet at other times. Her story drove us. She drove us. In general, producing and shooting the movie is the easy part. Editing that 400 hours of material down to something watchable is when things get tough.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and the relationship to the director of photography.

We shoot our own stuff and we had already been working together for more than three years when we first started T-REX. So for us, two cameras come naturally or four cameras. We shot mostly on 5Ds because we felt this would give us the most versatility and intimacy. There are a few big challenges with those cameras but their size and flexibility and signature look go a long way for what we are trying to do.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

It is our World Premiere so there is obviously quite a bit of excitement about that. After three years, our baby is taking its first steps. Especially at such a great festival. That is definitely exciting. But more than anything else, we want to see how a theatre full of people reacts to the film. We have shared it with small groups and we've tested in theatres but never 250 people at once. That should be very cool!

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?

There are a few other festivals coming up but they haven't officially announced yet. We'd love to have a great NYC premiere but that's down the line.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

We live in Oakland and the Grand Lake Theatre is still one of our favorite theatres in the world!

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

Ha! Send over T-Rex to talk to them!

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

Filmmaking is collaboration. Do not do it alone. Find the right people. They are out there.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

Impossible question. BARAKA? Probably LETHAL WEAPON 2.

Amen to LETHAL WEAPON 2. Respect.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our now 40+ filmmaker interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 04/11/15 03:16:03
last updated: 04/11/15 03:21:41
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