SXSW ’13 Interview: Josh Izenberg on Skating with “Slomo,” an Inspiring Doc on a Neurologist Turned Spiritualist

The filmmaker behind this year's Best Documentary Short talks about how his dad led him to find the incredible subject of his new film, a former doctor with a...
SlomoJoshIzenberg

There is no shortage of great characters to be found at SXSW, usually as many outside on the streets of Austin as there are inside the film festival’s theaters. Yet even in a city that prides itself on “keeping it weird,” there’s never been one quite like John Kitchin, the 69-year-old star of Joshua Izenberg’s documentary “Slomo.”

A one-time neurologist who had all the markers of what many would consider the good life, complete with a marriage, a Ferrari, and even an exotic animal farm, Kitchin now skates the Pacific Beach Boardwalk alongside the Mission Beach of San Diego, listening to opera music and wearing a blue tank top and a grey fishing hat, a considerably stripped-down lifestyle that wasn’t brought about by financial calamity but the discovery of a rare disease that began to prevent him from recognizing faces. Rather than trying to readjust what he had to accommodate his condition, Kitchin recalled some advice a mentor once gave him to “Do what you want to do” and used the diagnosis to hit the reset button to live a life on limited means while finding his joy in rollerblading.     

If putting us in the company of this remarkable man with a syrupy Southern accent as smooth as his skating was all that Izenberg achieved within the span of his 16-minute long short, it’d be more than enough, but what “Slomo” achieves is an equilibrium akin to the one Kitchin seeks in his own life, detailing how the former doctor has applied his scientific expertise to his spiritual beliefs in a wondrous and witty way. Shortly after the film won the Best Documentary Short prize at SXSW, Izenberg shared how he first got in touch with the man who rechristened himself “Slomo,” how he and his crew achieved the amazing gliding shots that capture Slomo in action and making changes in his own professional life.

How did you first learn of John and get to know him?

My dad met John in med school at Wake Forest in the late ’60s. They were friends then and they fell out of touch, and my dad was in San Diego and bumped into John on the boardwalk a few years ago in his new incarnation as Slomo. He was really surprised to find a guy he last had known as a professional neurologist was suddenly skating up and down [the boardwalk] to opera music. He was telling me about this guy and Slomo had this Web site [where] I read his treatise on “The Zone,” which is his philosophy on movement and subjectivity. I really felt like there was a lot there, so I got in touch with Slomo and told him I wanted to do a film on him and we went from there.

Up to this point, it appears you’ve primarily worked on narrative films. Was it different for you to tackle a documentary?

Yes and no. Very different in as much as I didn’t have control over the story. I didn’t know where it was going to go when we started. It changed a lot. There wasn’t a script we were sticking to. We had to find the story as we went. Post-production took a lot longer. We racked up a lot of footage we didn’t end up using, so that part of it was new. At least in the narrative stuff I’ve done, you know what you’ve got. On the flip side, the narrative [experience] was helpful because it gave me a foundation to create a story structure and Slomo somewhat adheres to a narrative story structure, so it was helpful.

How much time did you spend getting to know John before filming and what was filming like?

I spent two days with him before we started shooting, although there was a lot of time that elapsed between when I first hung out with him and we went back to shoot. I’m in San Francisco, I went down to San Diego for a long weekend and then I spent about a day-and-a-half talking with him. I had a skateboard, so we went skating up and down the boardwalk and I got to see his world a little bit. Then I went back six months later with a camera guy and a cinematographer and we started shooting.

You just mentioned a skateboard – was that part of how you got that amazing
gliding effect that’s in the film?

Actually, the [cinematographer] Wynn Padula, who got involved in the film before I knew this, turned out to be a rollerblader, so he was on rollerblades with a glide cam, just a handheld steadicam, and I was on a skateboard behind him with the sound recorder and the boom pole and all that. So we had this little parade between the three of us going up and down the boardwalk.

You had spoken about your father’s relationship with John, but was there anything you personally connected to?

Definitely. I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t feel personally inspired in some way by John, although I tried to be somewhat objective. I didn’t want to present the viewer with too much of a one-sided argument for this is how you should life your life, but I’m interested in people who do what you’d call a life shift, people who become a different person. I’ve always been fascinated by the [fact that] in society we’re sold this idea that there are certain points where you have a choice of what your path is going to be and stick to it. For some people, it doesn’t feel right and they wonder if maybe at some point they’re going to want to change. John’s an example of a guy who did change completely and it’s amazing. When you see photos of him from his neurology days…I didn’t actually see any until way later [in the production], and it was surprising to see him in a shirt and tie.

Did you find it difficult how portray how his condition affected him? I thought the animation that illustrated John’s philosophy in particular was well-done.

As far as the skating and his ideas about how lateral movement affects the brain, I had to talk to him a number of times because I knew right off the bat that it was a little bit complicated to convey verbally. So we thought to animate it would be the right way to do it. We were lucky to hook up with Alligator Planet, a production company in San Francisco that does animation in a hand-drawn, old school way, which was good because it made something that could’ve been really complicated a little more simple.

But this idea that as you accelerate, you stimulate this whole part of the brain that also governs feelings of higher consciousness, it’s pretty detailed stuff and it took a little bit to refine that. We had to ask him about that theory a number of times and have him say it a few different ways to get him to finally put it out there in a way that was digestible. The same thing with the vision stuff. Again, [it was] kind of complicated so we spent some time trying to get John to sum it up succinctly, then had to come up with some visual accompaniment to make it understandable.

How did you get interested in filmmaking in the first place?

I studied screenwriting at the University of Michigan, which I think I did because it sounded like a really cool major. I didn’t really have any other reason beyond that. Then I wanted to do that for a bit and I realized I didn’t really like the process. There’s a lot I liked about it, but just trying to hustle as a writer – I went to Los Angeles at the certain point and it just wasn’t particularly gratifying. I decided it would be much more fun to have a camera and try to shoot stuff myself, so I got a DVX and I set about trying to make a movie. I’m proud of it, but I had no idea what I was doing and it was a little messy process, but it got me started, so that was how I got into actually making films.

Have you shown “Slomo” to John?

Yeah, I showed it to John before going to South By. I thought it was important that he see it and I was nervous, of course, and I was really relieved to find out that he liked it. He felt it was a good portrayal and accurate and then he came out to SXSW and was a hit. He came with me to the first two screenings, he got up on stage of a Q & A after the second screening and after both screenings I’d see him and people were standing around him, talking to him and wanting to know more about him, so I took that as a sign of success. I wasn’t sure how he’d [react], coming out of his world in San Diego out to Austin, but to have people giving him all this attention, he seemed to really dig it.

“Slomo” will next play the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina on April 5th, the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Ashland, Oregon on April 7th, the RiverRun Film Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on April 13th and April 20th and the Independent Film Festival Boston between April 24th-April 30th. If that’s not in your neck of the woods, follow the film on Facebook and Twitter for further dates.

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