'Make At Least One or Two Passion Projects a Year': 'Zion' Director Floyd Russ on His New Netflix Short
'Zion' is a documentary about a teenage wrestler born without legs. At only 11 minutes long, it's one of the few short docs to ever get picked up by Netflix. Could this be a trend?
After graduating from UCLA, Floyd Russ (a director with Tool of North America) moved to a city he always wanted to live in, eager to become a filmmaker. The only problem was that in film school, nobody told him how to make money as a filmmaker. Finding himself on the ground with no reel to show, he poured himself into working on what he could, from gigs at post-facilities to music videos to ultimately, advertising. Through his work on commercials, not only did he meet many collaborators on Zion, including the film's producers Greg Beauchamp and Carter Collins, but he also honed his craft as a director.
"Telling a story in 30 seconds, or 60 seconds, or 2 minutes is super hard, but it's also amazing to be able to appreciate every second in 30 seconds," explained Russ to No Film School. "Hopefully that builds over into 11 minutes in Zion, or two hours in a feature."
So when Floyd Russ first came across the incredible story of Zion Clark, he knew he had to make a film about it. It wouldn't be a typical documentary verite piece, but a visual tribute culled from both his aesthetic in commercial work and the inherent dynamic of Clark's character. "I like to bring a very organic, cinematic quality to the story that is totally real, and that comes from the people that I'm interviewing," said Russ. "I wanted to bring a bit of the style and personality to the film that is inherent in the sport of wrestling, in Zion's personality, in the way he looks, and in the way he acts. All the choices were born out of the idea that we wanted to create a tribute that lends itself to being a little bit towards larger than life." The result, which caught the eye of Netflix in becoming one of (or possibly the) shortest short docs on the platform, is Zion.
Floyd Russ sat down with No Film School to talk about gaining trust, filming a documentary with a fiction production style, and why it's so crucial to put your money where your mouth is on at least one or two passion projects each year.
No Film School: The storytelling in Zion matches the very larger-than life story of Zion himself, and it's heavily stylized the way you don't normally see in non-fiction. Was there a script here? How did you decide the structure and how you would shoot it?
Floyd Russ: I started talking to Zion about eight months before we shot. I talked to his coach too. I live in New York, so I tracked him down over social media and the school's website because it's a public school. I called the athletic department and got referred to his coach. His coach told Zion to get back to me because he hadn't gotten back to me in like two weeks when I tried to track him down on Facebook. He then put me in touch with his mom. I talked with the three of them off-and-on for about eight months, doing pre-interviews and talking about what we might film, just getting to know Zion's background, getting comfortable with him, with all three of them.
I went there about a week before we shot, alone, and stayed in a nearby motel. Every day, I hung out with Zion, drove him to school, picked him up from school, had dinner with him, hung out in his house, and met his friends. I would go to the wrestling practices and just sit in the corner and take photos. I would think about what to shoot. "They have bonfires in the backyard with him, so what can we shoot there? Let's make sure that there's a bonfire going on. That might be visually interesting," I thought. He didn't have any friends for a large part of his youth, so just a simple shot of him hanging around a fire with friends, knowing the context of what he's gone through, is a huge symbol.
Russ: [DP] Greg Wilson and three other crew members drove over from New York with all the equipment. We had three great local students help us. Our team was super small. We had a total of about seven people working on the crew—eight, including me.
We didn't really light. I remember we used one light the whole time. I wanted to make sure that everything was blocked very organically. Both in the edit and in the script, I already had an idea of how it should flow and what the arc was. We didn't set out like, "This has to be 10 minutes and this has to be 20 minutes." We just edited it based on what we thought was the best edit. It's not a two-hour documentary because he's 19 right now, and is still living his life.
NFS: After you had spent this time deciding what to shoot, when it came to production, how did you actually film? I'm sure it was very different from a typical documentary.
Russ: We had a lot of passionate people jump on. Panavision really gave us a great package for a fraction of the cost. We basically had a Steadicam operator, an AC, and a DP. Our producer, Carter, did 10 different things and I did 10 different things. We had a local sound guy, but that was it. The PAs that helped us were crucial people to have on set because we were not doing it like a typical documentary where we hang out and see what we get. We were shooting the whole day for 12-hours, the way you would shoot a feature. We were there for four days shooting 12-hours a day, breaking for lunch.
Everything was structured around what Zion was doing those four days. There are two practices that always run from 2:00 to 6:00 p.m. After that, we'd say, "What can we do? Can we go to [Zion's] friend's house? Yeah, let's go over there. On Friday, let's us do a little bonfire thing, and Saturday morning we'll come back to your house and we'll shoot you waking up, getting ready for the day."
All of it was structured organically into his life. But for our crew, and for us, it was like a full-on 12-hour day with multiple location moves. We were pushing the gas 110%, but that's the point of doing a passion project. Otherwise, there's no reason to do it.
"We were shooting the whole day for 12-hours, the way you would shoot a feature...But everything was structured around what Zion was doing those four days."
NFS: Doc filmmakers often shy away from filming this way partly because it's hard to work with people who are not familiar with being on a set, who are not actors. People aren’t always good at being themselves in this kind of environment, in a way that doesn't feel fake. How did you manage that?
Russ: I’m not exactly sure except to say that part of it is that I give complete dedication to every subject, like the interview, for example, with Zion’s coach. If it's emotional, I am right there crying with them. We have the trust. Of course, every situation's different. I mean, for us, these are wrestlers who are passionate about what they do. They take it seriously and they listen to their coach.In a way, I could say the coach was also my AD! He had them at attention.
With Zion, he's been exposed to a lot of reporters, though not to a big film camera like this. He is a very cool operator. He is a pretty quiet, subtle guy when you get to know him, and that's good for the camera because he doesn't get camera shy. He doesn't start smiling or laughing. He's pretty under control.
Russ: Those are all risks that you take going out there. We went out there and didn't know exactly what we were going to get. I mean, nobody there's ever seen an Alexa with an anamorphic Panavision lens. This is like an 80lb camera on a Steadicam, you know? It's totally ridiculous!
We're going to a live wrestling high school match in rural Ohio, and we're shooting it, and the referees are like, "What the hell's going on? You guys can't just run on to the mat." We're like, "Okay." So a lot of it is just, " We're just going to go do it.” If something wasn't working, we’d wait and do it differently or change it and see what happens. We didn't use more than half the footage we shot, easily, because of things that didn't go right.
One of the first things we shot was the bathroom shot with all of these kids in their underwear. That was the first shot we got, actually. I had already met them, spent the week there, and all the parents said that they were cool to film the kids, everyone had to sign releases, all that fun stuff. They were excited about it. They love Zion, he's a friend and he's on their team, so they were pumped to do it.
However, it was pretty funny to be like, “Hey, this is the camera. This the DP. This is the operator. Hi, nice to meet you. Cool. So we're going to shoot you standing in your underwear in the locker room!" It was the perfect ice-breaker. Imagine being 17, 16, or 15 years old and these people from New York drive out with this huge camera and they are shooting you doing what you love to do. That aspect, I think, was actually a lot easier than I thought it would be.
NFS: Zion played at Sundance, and it's now streaming on Netflix, which really doesn't happen to many short films.
Russ: I think we're the shortest short on Netflix. There might be one shorter.
NFS: It’s rare that I see a film even under 30-40 minutes on there.
Russ: We were never going out for Netflix. That's not something you do. You don't make your short and think it's going to be on Netflix. I mean, they emailed us and my jaw dropped. I was like, "What?"
NFS: Netflix reached out to you first with interest?
Russ: They emailed us three days before Sundance because they had seen a preview link or something. I mean, it wasn't sent out by a sales team, but they saw it from the festival programmers. I think Mike Plante, the senior programmer at Sundance, had sent it to Netflix. It was acquired very similar to how features get acquired at Sundance. I owe him a big steak dinner, and Zion does too, because otherwise, I don't know if they would have ever bought it.
NFS: That would be very cool if this was a growing trend for Netflix.
Russ: I mean, honestly, they haven't said that it's going to be. I think we might be a little bit of a test case for Netflix, and hopefully, we do well. Hopefully, they do more of it because it's both sad and good that everyone is watching things on their cell phones now. People are pausing and stopping things every 10 to 20 minutes. Vimeo is thriving off of shorts and hopefully, there will be more platforms that start showing them.
"I think we might be a little bit of a test case for Netflix, and hopefully we do well."
NFS: Considering the journey that you've been on with this film, being a potential test run on Netflix showing very short shorts as well as creatively boundary-pushing for a documentary, would you give advice to other filmmakers to take similar risks?
Russ: Yes. I have this rule that, if possible, make at least one or two passion projects a year that are financed by yourself or by friends, where you’re actually going out-of-pocket. Creatively, your mind goes to a place where you're like, "This has to be good," instead of, "I'm going to try this out and let's see what happens." Well, when you're actually paying money for your own work, your own passion project, you have this pressure that I think is a really good pressure to have.
I've done that in the past with narrative shorts and music videos where I went over budget and went out of pocket. Some of them burn and crash. Only one out of many, many projects will really take off. That's why short filmmaking is an art. It takes risks to make it. I wasn't expecting to get into Sundance. I was never expecting to have this on Netflix, but it somehow happened, and it only happened because I made that rule for myself where every year I want to make one or two things that are passion projects.
Russ: When I break down any documentary I do, whether it's a commercial or Zion, I break it into a narrative arc. What's the introduction? How did you meet this character? For me, an inciting incident is very simple. You see Zion and it's like, "What's going on here? This is a very, very striking disability. What's happening with this guy?" Act Two is seeing him wrestle and getting better at wrestling. A climax is losing the biggest match, but getting a standing ovation. The resolution is finding confidence and that he's going to go to college.
I do that with every story. We have more stylistic narrative films with the biggest budgets, but documentaries have always been this thing where, "Oh, you only need four people, and it's supposed to have no lights and not super manipulated."
I don't think that's true anymore because we're in this age where cameras are cheaper, they're more accessible. Phone cameras work great. We get to start pumping style into documentaries, and I think that's super exciting because I think this is the best time to be making documentaries. There are more places to put them. There is a niche audience and the internet is making it possible for people to find content that is important to them (or helping them discover things they didn't know they cared about). To me, it’s definitely the era of the documentary.
This is a very cheesy thing to say, but it took me eight months to go film Zion because it wasn't just about establishing trust between him and myself. It was also about making sure that it was worth everybody's time. Going to shoot something is just the beginning of another six months of work with, you know, editors working for free, along with colorists, composers, animators... I wanted to pull out all the stops on this, and I wanted to make sure that it was really going to be worth it.
Those eight months were really about making sure that not only were the shots there but that this was really going to be something special for everybody. Not just for Zion, but also for everybody who's going to work on it. People do rush into passion projects too fast. I've done that in the past, and those are the ones that don't end up that well. That's why I say, if you're going to spend your own money, make sure that it's really worth it. There's no way to know how a project will turn out until it’s done. At least know when you're ready to go spend money and shoot something.