AFTER stunning audiences at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Floyd Russ’ short film Zion has now arrived on Netflix. Russ’ film gives insight into to the life of Zion Clark, a wrestler who was born without legs and grew up in foster care, and is a powerful portrait of a young man that refuses to be beaten by the extremely tough hand life has dealt him.
James Prestridge of Close-up Culture caught up with director Floyd Russ to learn more about this inspirational story.
Q: The trailer for Zion gave me goosebumps. How were you introduced to Zion Clark’s story and how did this short film come to be?
A: I FIRST learned about Zion’s story when I stumbled across an ESPN article in 2016. I was expecting to see a video but it was only 100 words and a few still images. But the images were so striking I could not get him out of him head so I decided to reach out to his coach and him over social media. We slowly struck up a conversation about doing a short film together. I interviewed him, his coach and his mother over social media for about 6 months on and off before we finally shot the doc.
Q: How much time did you spend with Zion through the making of the film? Did you have time to form a bond?
A: I THINK we actually bonded a lot over chatting over those six months, in a way it was like long distance online dating! Getting to know each other slowly, building up trust slowly.
Then before we shot, I went out a week before any other crew came out and spent every day with him – going to practice with him, hanging out with his mom and him at home, grabbing lunch with his coach. Just getting to know him and his friends. Everyone at the school was really supportive.
Q: What struck you the most about Zion and his story?
A: THERE isn’t one thing. The bottom line is Zion had so many things stacked against him, the fact that he overcame them is a great testament to his will power and strength, but also at the support he was able to find in Coach Gil and his adoptive mom Kimberly. A lot of other people in his place would not have been able to do that sadly.
Q: ‘Possibility is a question of perspective’, is the tag line for the film. Do you think this is a film that will really strike a chord, especially as a lot of younger generations get accused of being lazy and expecting things to be gifted to them?
A: I CAN only hope so. I think we all take things for granted to a certain degree. It’s not something that can just be taught by watching a film I fear, but hopefully it will make people stop and think.
Q: As a sport of tradition, individuality and clear visual struggle, I always think amateur wrestling lends itself so well to film. Did that help in telling Zion’s story?
A: TO be honest with you, I knew almost nothing about wrestling when I started this project and as I learned more about it, I found so much resepct for it. I’ve always respected athletes, the dedication, hard work and passion that goes into it shouldn’t be discredited, but the history, strategy and team aspect of wrestling gives it a depth I did not even know existed.
I love learning about things when I do a project, hopefully just like the audience. But I think the film shows this isn’t about wrestling and it’s not a sports doc – it’s a lot more than that.
Q: You have worked with cinematographer Gregory J Wilson and editor Robert Ryang in the past. What was the visual style and pacing you were looking for in this 10-minute short?
A: YES, Robert and I go way back, the trust we have and the eye and emotion he brings to editing is something you can only build up over time. Greg and I have done several other projects together over the last few years.
This project was all about trust, not just between Zion and me, but also between me and my crew. We kept it very small and made strong choices during the shoot. Long steadicam shots combined with powerful portraits that then get interrupted by handheld, all focused around creating a cinematic portrait that feels timeless. It’s most important to me to use a location in a way where we can shape existing light so we still have freedom to let our subjects move around and observe them. Greg is great at minimalistic approaches that give me that freedom. And Zion himself is really photogenic, so that helped a lot too!
In terms of pacing, I really like to keep the energy flowing in waves, up and down, just like the emotional rollercoaster that Zion has had to go through, he really has had a rough ride filled with extreme lows but also extreme highs. Robert is great at navigating those waves with finesse.
Q: Zion is part of Netflix’s recent focus on non-fiction short films. What does it mean to you to see a platform like Netflix supporting this type of work?
A: HONESTLY, it’s a dream come true. When they reached out to us at Sundance I was shocked with excitement. I hope the film reaches as many people as possible around the world, and their great platform helps us to exactly that.
Q: You’ve been making short films since you were 12 and have told many impactful stories, like Fans Of Love – Love has no labels ad. What do you want to do with your voice as a filmmaker
A: THAT is a tough question, in a way filmmaking itself is like the tagline of Zion. It’s all about perspective – my favorite thing about filmmaking, whether documentary or narrative, is that you can transport the audience into someone else’s’ perspective. To make them feel and think outside their comfort zone, that’s really my only goal as a filmmaker.
Q: What is next for you? Do you want to stay with shorter content or move towards a feature?
A: I LOVE doing short form and branded content but I am currently working on getting my first feature and serialized show into production. Plus I have a baby on the way so 2019 is going to be a wild year!
Q: Lastly, what did you take away from your time making Zion and what do you hope the audience takes away?
A: IT may sound like a cliche, but hard work pays off. And if it doesn’t, keep working, it will eventually.