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South By Southwest 2014 Interview – BORN TO FLY director Catherine Gund

BORN TO FLY - At SxSW 2014
by Jason Whyte

“Elizabeth Streb is a quirky, cool, 64-year-old action hero who walks down skyscrapers in golden boots and persuades her dancers to bungee jump off bridges with no rehearsal. She pushes herself and her and those around her to the very edge, and this film is constructed to make viewers feel the same way, pushed to the limit, going up, going down, sweating and laughing, terrified and passionate. Streb’s mind and her drawings wrought with the music, photography, history, personalities and questions about power and trust make Born to Fly more of an event than a movie. Try this at home!” Director Catherine Gund on BORN TO FLY which screens at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.

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

Yes, this is my first visit to SXSW! I will be there with Elizabeth, her partner Laura Flanders, our associate producer Jessica Ruffin, and my oldest child Sadie who’s looking at University of Texas at Austin for college. Streb and I will conduct a Q&A after the first two of three screenings. Also, Streb will be giving a talk at The Contemporary, signing books at the Barnes & Noble, and generally making her presence known. People have asked me how come they haven’t heard of Streb before. I’m happy to bring her wild energy and unpredictable insights to a broader audience.

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

Some of my earliest filmmaking was during the late 80s and early 90s at the peak of the AIDS crisis in NY. It wasn’t so much about being a filmmaker as it was having a need to show the world what we were all going through, and to make sure those we had lost would never be forgotten. I co-founded the ACT UP affinity group DIVA TV to provide counter surveillance against the cops but also to show our friends and lovers how gorgeous they looked as they put themselves on the line, how they looked to each other, not how they were depicted scary and alone on the nightly news. Our videos themselves became actions.

Movies have emerged as a way for me to learn, question, communicate, and explore along with my audience. I search, follow and jump (though never wearing a red lycra body suit like Streb’s extreme dancers) and I have moments of revelation, of reeling. I’ve made many documentaries over the years and each one both builds on and diverges from the last. There’s “Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance” about the controversial performance artist and his disciples and the portrait I painted about a visionary elementary school teacher Albert Cullum in “A Touch of Greatness” which was nominated for an Emmy after airing on PBS. There’s an OB/GYN committed to women’s reproductive health in war torn provinces in “Motherland Afghanistan” which aired on the Sundance Channel. And a few others. My daughter and I coproduced my last project, “What’s On Your Plate?”; a film, book and curriculum about kids and food politics which aired on Discovery’s Planet Green. And now this new flying ride of a film: “B2F = art to the Nth degree.”

How did this whole project come together from your perspective?

Streb asked me to drop a bowling ball at one of her events, from 30 feet in the air into the hands of her emcee Zaire Baptiste, standing directly below me. I was horrified, but I did it. Six weeks later, I flew to London to record “One Extraordinary Day” which preceded the London Olympics. Magic upon magic. I knew I had something to put in the ingenious hands of editor Alex Meillier. “Born to Fly” is the destination of this particular journey.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

It was all a dare: for me to drop the bowling ball; for Streb to appear, consent and sometimes even to revel in our partnership; for nearly three hundred Kickstarter supporters to join when there was little to go on, for more to give more when that time came, for the dancers to keep falling, for the dancers to keep getting up, for the former dancers to remember and enlighten, for each and every one of my collaborators to bring their best selves and to make a movie. That’s a challenge. It’s an action enterprise and as Elizabeth Streb says in the film, “Being careful in an action enterprise is really frowned upon at STREB.” We were all Streb for the last year and a half; rebellious and outrageous, fearless and fearful, brave and plain daring.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

When we were shooting the dinner party scene at Elizabeth and Laura’s loft, people were enjoying themselves and chatting and all of a sudden the cacophony of voices became one focused conversation about TIME, during which all of the guests including Elizabeth, Bill T. Jones and Catharine Stimpson challenged each other to think in a way that zoomed in on and out of the meaning of history, perception, dimensionality until finally, Catharine said, “You see Streb, we all have to learn to live with mystery and we all can nibble at the mystery and gnaw at the bone of mystery and the bone of mystery is made out of steel and so that’s what we do, we nibble at it.”

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

The people who helped me say what I ended up saying, or more than saying, what we ended up making other people feel; those people are my touchstones, the ones I slam into, press into, the people who helped me interpret and understand and recreate feelings and physicality in this film. I revere those who partner with me to find the drive and the magic.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

This movie feels inevitable, everything falling into place as it did. The night after Elizabeth and I talked about me accompanying her to the Cultural Olympiad, I happened to be with Albert Maysles who asked what I was up to next. I blurted out my new found excitement for this new found project and when he heard what was in store for the landmarks in London, he said he wanted to go too. Miraculously, and many thanks to the support of my Uncle George whom the movie is dedicated to, Albert went with me to film in London. His patience, persistence and vision are beyond inspiring. He confirmed my passion for the title Born to Fly and he turned 87 on the day we finished our sound mix. I hope having tiny movie cameras in everyone’s pocket will not obfuscate the vital contributions that can come from a patient viewer, recording without interrupting, waiting to see, pausing to listen, and learning. Al has done that repeatedly and he continues to do that today.

We had five cameras in London because it was all day, just one day, and although people had assignments, it was mostly a 24 hour free for all. When we got back to New York, Kirsten Johnson took over much of the filming. She’s responsible for wonderful verite in the dinner scene as well as several rehearsals and performances, some slo-mo, some establishing tripod shots, some roving, roaming, direct cinema. She rents the best camera for the scene she’ll be thrust into. No matter what she’s shooting, it’s rich and intimate, solid and beautiful. She’s a people person and she lets her good vibe lead her in new situations.

I knew we were going to integrate archival footage of varying qualities and I valued the consequential texture. Shooting on multiple cameras with different camera people didn’t phase me. Each of them did an ace job with their given scenes. I am also happy to report that on this film, my editor and I wasted little time having to pine for missed shots.

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

This is our world premiere and I want to see if others also feel physically moved by my particular, collaborative, intentional mapping of words and pictures on top of Elizabeth’s mind, body and history. The SXSW crowd that loves movies and action and innovation, that’s the ideal audience for this film so I’m thinking it will be a great fit.

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

Next we’re in Sun Valley, then Cleveland, and then other festivals. We’re looking forward to our theatrical release starting with NYC’s Film Forum where we open on September 10. Our world sales are being handled by Jan and Diana at Films Transit. We’d love this bird to fly far and wide.

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?

I want to show this OUTSIDE of a cinema! My fantasy is to have this film projected on the side of a building with the sound blaring into the square and people coming out of a subway and looking up and taking it in, being taken in, kidnapped right there by the unexpected quality of the sublime, something that makes you shake and quake and brings all your beliefs into question. As Streb has taught me, having both feet off the ground forces you to be in a state of emergency. There’s a boundlessness beyond the material world.

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

Zaire Baptiste, the STREB emcee extraordinaire, starts off every show by asking people to turn their phones ON, to photograph and tweet and share their experiences. There’s a circus atmosphere. I love the idea of people layering their own creativity on top of mine, my team’s and STREB’s, of truly interacting with art and meaning by producing their own art and meaning. But if they’re texting happy birthday to a friend, I’d think, “Wait until you’re outside and then actually call your friend, that might carry more meaning.” Maybe that’s the mother in me.

I’m hoping the experience of seeing this film is so riveting and physically invigorating that no one will even remember that they have a phone. One of the best things for me about going to the movies is that I don’t think about all the noise from the rest of my day, for that brief moment in time, 83 minutes in this case. Look at the extent Elizabeth goes to forget her name; we may not all be able to scale a tall landmark in order to achieve that purity, but we can start by submitting ourselves to the movies.

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?

Work on projects that make you sing in the shower or skip down the street, that make you lose your footing and your wording, that make you cry on the bad days, that push you to your own limits because otherwise, what’s the point? Filmmaking is a supremely collaborative art form, so make the most of that. You stand to learn so much about yourself. Find people who challenge you and encourage you and who dedicate themselves to the project, people who have great ideas and even better problem solving skills. My mantra for life is “Think Deeply. Solve Problems. Make Art.” You definitely have to do the first two things if you want to partake of the sublime possibilities offered by the last.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?

Too much pressure. It takes a village!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2014 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 7-15. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jasonrcwhyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/06/14 10:17:24
last updated: 03/06/14 10:21:37
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