More than a few people have come up to Floyd Russ after seeing “Zion” to ask whether he had to use special effects to bring the story to the screen, though he quickly disabuses them of any such notion regarding Zion Clark, a wrestler at Massilon High School who has more than compensated for the legs he was deprived because of a rare condition known as caudal regression with unreal upper body strength.
“One of the first reactions I always got was ‘Wow, is that real? It looks like CG. And maybe that’s how people react to it because they’re just not used to seeing [that], so they think it’s fake and [I think] I’ll take it as a compliment [since] it just means that it’s really striking and you don’t know how to process in your mind,” says Russ. “That happened to me as well when I first saw a photograph [of Zion], but I just thought ‘Wow, we just need to show a portrait of this person’s life, their perseverance, of their struggle,’ and [because] I feel like Zion is in a David-and-Goliath type of story and worthy of an ivory sculpture [as] if he was living in the 1500s, I thought how can I do that in a documentary?”
In fact, Russ has sculpted something extraordinary with “Zion,” though the profile is decidedly a modern marvel. With a style as gripping and relentless as one might imagine Clark handles adversaries in the ring, Russ illuminates the strength he’s shown outside of it. After being shuttled from one foster home to another as a child, Clark finds a place at Massillon High School where he shows a talent for wrestling and his coach Gilbert Donahue develops a technique to get the most out of his natural gifts, taking on some of the top-ranked opponents in the state. While Clark may be tough to pin down when he’s wrestling, Russ does him justice by creating a mosaic of memory and sensation to immerse one in his experience of the world, your adrenaline pumping just as much as Zion’s does in preparation for a match as steadicams glide down the hallways, classrooms and gyms of Massillon High to show the energy he’s brought to the school, where he now inspires others after drawing on strength from a support system that now includes Donahue and his adoptive mother Kimberli Hawkins.
Just as Clark reached the heights of high school wrestling in Ohio during his eventful senior year, “Zion” has built buzz on Netflix ever since debuting last year at the Sundance Film Festival, eventually earning a spot on the shortlist for Best Documentary Short at this year’s Oscars. While on the awards trail, Clark spoke about the wild ride he’s had over the past 12 months and how he was able to deliver one to audiences, chronicling Clark’s life full of ups and downs in such invigorating and insightful fashion.
How did this project come about?
The story was really organic where I was just reading a lot of sports articles online. I love basketball and soccer – I grew up in Germany actually until I was 11 and I went to UCLA, so I follow sports. Mostly I try to dig into college recruiting and one of the ESPN backpages had an article about Zion. They sent a photographer out to take photographs of him [in Ohio] and they did a hundred-word article on him, and I clicked the link expecting it to be an ESPN “30 for 30” because when I saw his photograph, it was just crystal clear that this had to be a film. But when I saw the page, there was no video content at all. I knew there was more to it. I knew that I needed something visual because he’s so striking — just to look at him is something you can’t forget and when you hear him talk, he just really gets into your soul and into your heart. A week later, I couldn’t get this story out of my head, so I started messaging him on Facebook and Instagram, and contacted the coach through public school website and eventually talked to his mom and got everybody onboard.
This was shot over four days, but I’ve heard you say you spent months laying the groundwork. How did the process play out?
I really like to prepare for everything before we shoot anything, so I spent about eight months on and off interviewing Zion over the phone and Skype. The same with his coach and a little bit with his mom and a lot of what we were trying to figure out is what do we want this to be? What can we film? We wanted to make sure we were capturing this really important moment in his life, because this is a kid who’s going from high school to college and moving forward in his life, so we always knew that was going to be the ending of this piece. A lot of that eight months was assembling the puzzle and then the actual shooting days, some of it comes down to money of course and budget – what do we have access to, versus what’s a good time in their lives.
We wanted to make sure the wrestling season was in progress, and when we actually shot, it was towards the end of the wrestling season, so it was a really important time when all of these kids had been wrestling the whole season. A lot of it was talking with Gill, the coach who’s in charge of the wrestling team’s schedule to make sure that we had access to the practices and that there was also time to go to Zion’s house and film him there and interview everybody. [He also made it possible] that the school would let us shoot there. Massilon High School is a huge sports school — they have like a 16,000 person football stadium and they fill it up, so we were working with a lot of people to make sure they’d want us there. And they welcomed us with open arms. The first day we got there, we met the mayor and she said, “If you want to shoot in downtown, I’ll provide a cop for you. We’ll close down the street!” [laughs] Of course, we didn’t do that, but that attitude, you get that when you go to a place like Massillon.
Did you know the coach would play such a big role in the final film?
Basically, when we filmed Zion, he was already 18, so technically he was already an adult, which makes everything a bit easier, but his coach is not just a coach, he’s a father figure. He’s a guy saying, “Hey, you should talk to this guy Floyd. He’s from New York and I looked at his website, his work is good. I don’t think this guy is fooling around. We should see if he really wants to shoot this.” That was all the coach. He was a huge part in making sure that Zion would pick up the phone when I called him and just like any teenager, you imagine this director’s calling you and you don’t know this person, Zion’s not the type of kid who’s going to go look at my website and say, “His work is cool. Yeah, I want to work with him.” [laughs]
Some people have agents and managers – Zion, of course, doesn’t have that, but for me that was Gill and it became so clear [what an important person he is in Zion’s life] in now only how their relationship is now, but on every level, it checks out because if he hadn’t told Zion to try wrestling back in the day, he’d be a totally different person. The fact that the coach let him shed the prosthetics so he could wrestle is what the whole story is about. It’s not about Zion being good at wrestling, it’s not about [Zion] almost making it to championships. None of that stuff matters. All that matters is that he started wrestling and that’s the reason he stopped using the prosthetics and he started using his body the way it is.
One of the things I love so much is how it has this relentless quality, which is part of the editing, but also because of all the steadicam work, which had to be planned in advance. How did you know how far you’d want to push that energy?
Some of that stuff was planned, but a lot of it was really organic. I had my camera with me all the time, but that’s a different camera. A lot of the cell phone footage in there —some of it I shot with [some] provided by family, but the four days were really with our A-team and our Panavision package, and we had a really small team of people that I’ve worked with [before]. It was really tight for two reasons – first off for budget, but I also think it’s the best way to keep it intimate. You can’t go into Zion’s house [where they’ve] never had a film crew, except besides maybe some reporter from a local TV station with one camera and one person, so here we are showing up with this huge Panavision camera, a steadicam, but the point was to just go with a tiny team and just try to make it as comfortable as possible. I [also] always say I don’t want to light it all [because it] really messes up any inner performance. It makes it so fake.
The first day [the crew] arrived, it was almost an eight-hour [drive for them] from New York and they arrived super late, like at 2 a.m. Then the next day, I’m like, “There’s a wrestling match. We’ve got to go shoot this wrestling match.” And we had never been to this gym. It was some other school that’s 45 minutes away, so we got to this gym and we talk to the coach, we talk to the principal and we show up with this [big camera] package and everybody was like, “What is going on here? Why are these people here with this giant camera?” And the referee’s stopping the match, like, “You can’t. You’re running on this mat!” So the same way that wrestling works, the energy and the focus of [filming it] is so intense and planned so meticulously, but when the match and the filming started happening, we just had to throw the camera into the middle of the practice [or] the middle of the match and there’s so much energy that comes out of it organically. The steadicam operator actually had a wrestling background, so he understood a lot about the movement and it helped him move a lot around the wrestlers.
There’s a little bit of animation that was in there used to great effect – did the mosaic quality of the film allowed you to incorporate a bunch of different elements?
We [actually] had two pieces of animation originally and in the edit, we ended up killing the second piece, [which] was so hard because our animator who was working just out of the passion of his heart put so much love and work into it and the second one just ended up not really fitting into the edit in the way I had imagined. But I was really, really adamant about having the animation in there because it just shows us this little glimpse of Zion’s [early] life. We talked to as many people as possible, but we just couldn’t find any photographs or any kind of record of him wearing prosthetics because that time in his history with those foster parents was a pretty tough time in his life. He has no relationship to those families and they probably would’ve never even kept photographs of him during those ages when he was around four to six, so it was about choosing the right tool for how can we bring this to life. Animation was always something I wanted to integrate into it and that’s the style that Ivan [Girard], the creative director, is really good at — I find it has this beauty, but also this dreamlike quality.
Speaking of dreams, a year removed from Sundance, what’s it been like traveling with it and seeing it go out into the world?
Just you saying that, I got a smile on my face. It’s funny because I was talking to a friend about how a year ago, we were sitting in New York talking about, “Wow, what are we going to do next?” And now he has a feature at Sundance and I have this crazy ride with Zion that’s totally too good to be true. It’s just been unreal and I feel really lucky that I got the chance to tell [Zion’s] story. It’s almost two-and-a-half years total since I started this whole journey and it’s just so cool that it’s still going on. I went to a high school the other day [where] we went into a wrestling meet and when I talked to the wrestling coach, he’s like, “You did ‘Zion’!?!? All my kids love that!” And I thought, “Wow, high school kids know this film, it’s only 11 minutes and they’re really affected by it.” That was always one of the goals — to make sure that we can get kids’ hearts as well as adults who are going to show kids this movie.