'You Can't Write This Sh*t': The Evolution of the Doping Doc 'ICARUS'
Everything changed when the filmmakers found themselves at the nexus of a breaking international sports scandal.
Jake Swantko, the DP of ICARUS, and Jon Bertain, the film's editor, appeared in a Sundance panel discussion at the Canon Creative Studio to discuss their collaborative work on this explosive documentary. ICARUS began as a film chronicling director Bryan Fogel's own journey as he attempted to improve on his 16th place finish in the 2015 Haute Route, a world-renowned bike race through the Alps. Fogel took a very unorthodox approach, however, spending the next year in the same blood-doping regimen as Lance Armstrong and then searching for someone to coach him through evading detection during his post-race urine test for performance-enhancing drugs.
What emerged was a story far different and far bigger than the filmmakers set out to tell when Fogel came into contact with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of a Moscow lab known as the Anti-Doping Centre. In order to tell the larger and more important story, however, Bertain, Swantko, and Fogel had to remain flexible with their approach and how they allocated their resources to document the emerging story. Clinging too tightly to their original narrative instead of following the story as it unfolded would have crippled their ability to document one of the biggest international sports scandals in history.
You can watch the full panel here. Below are the key takeaways from their panel discussion.
Technical challenges of matching footage led to creative breakthroughs
As complicated as it was featuring the director as the main subject of the film, Fogel also shot part of the footage on a $200 Canon Vixia camera as a video diary that needed to be integrated with footage shot by Swantko with a Canon C300, creating a significant challenge for Bertain as the editor.
"We have two totally different styles of media. What do we do?" said Bertain about his initial reaction to the knowledge that they were shooting on two different cameras. But then, Bertain explained, "The actual story started to help dictate how to use that stuff more." Bertain quickly realized that the narrative would drive his editorial decisions on how to balance the disparity between the images captured on the vastly different cameras.
When asked about his approach to the unique situation he was in as DP—having to set up his director to be able to film himself—Swantko replied, "The story just continued to evolve and the parameters of what we were shooting or how we were going to shoot things changed every day. A lot of it was, basically, Bryan and I communicating and making sure that we were getting the most out of the scene, but also allowing for a great deal of random [things to happen]...for the scene just to take off..."
When the story changes in the middle of filming the doc, go with the bigger story
Much like the scenes Swantko described, the story itself "took off" and without the willingness to break away from the story they set out to tell in order to follow the bigger story that was emerging in front of them, ICARUS could have easily been a much different film than the one Netflix purchased for $5M.
"...something changed on that trip. It started to feel like, 'this isn't the Bryan story anymore.'"
Describing the story's evolution, Swantko said, "So, you know, we finished that race and....we go to Moscow (Bryan and I) and we meet Crazy Grigory [Rodchenkov] and he takes us, basically, into the lab where he's doing all these tests and he's working for the anti-doping agency...we start shooting these interviews with him....and something changed on that trip. It started to feel like, 'this isn't the Bryan story anymore'...Bryan's relationship with Grigory definitely leads up to this point, but it started to feel like we were moving in a very strange and weird new direction."
As the panel discussion revealed, the movie became no longer about documenting Fogel's experience—going through the same blood doping regimen as Lance Armstrong and trying to evade detection—but instead shifted to focus on the story of Rodchenkov's involvement with the Russian state-sponsored blood doping program.
"Yeah it was no longer 'Bryan on a Bike'", says Swantko. "One of the big scenes was shooting Grigory going into witness protection and him getting his fingerprints and his DNA swabbed...to see how far something like this [went]...you can't write this shit. You kind of develop a style along the way... In a lot of ways, my style started to arrive more as the story developed."
Successful filmmaking is not about having the "best" camera
While Bertain had serious reservations when he first learned that part of ICARUS was being filmed on a $200 consumer camera, he and Swantko eventually came to the realization that the consumer grade footage from the Canon Vixia lent a sense of authenticity to the film that would have been missing had they shot everything on cinema-grade cameras. Not only that, but because Bryan Fogel was shooting a video diary of himself, the camera had to be small, portable and simple to deploy.
"We needed to have space where the audience could view Bryan very intimately and they felt like they were sort of part of his life in a weird kind of way."
Explaining the functionality of the Canon Vixia, Swantko said, "We needed to have space where the audience could view Bryan very intimately and they felt like they were sort of part of his life in a weird kind of way."
The major lesson filmmakers at all levels can learn from Swantko and Bertain's experiences on ICARUS is if you are willing to be flexible during your production, both in terms of gear and storylines, you may discover a much better film than the one you had originally planned to make.
ICARUS is now streaming on Netflix in the US and other territories.
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's video and editorial coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones.