Spotlight on The Last Great Circus Flyer doc & interview with director Philip Weyland

There’s something so inherently fascinating and magnetic the first time I heard the name The Last Great Circus Flyer. It’s one of the seven documentaries playing at TCFF I look forward to the most. The film focuses on Miguel Vazguez, who performed ‘the greatest feat in all of circus history’ during a Ringling performance in 1982. Vazquez’s “Quad’ was a premiere attraction at Ringling Bros., and the largest circuses in Europe until 1994, when, at the apex of his career, Vazquez unexpectedly quit flying.

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Check out the trailer:


TCFF Screening Time(s): 
10/23/2015  (10:30 AM)  |  10/25/2015  (7:00 PM)


I had the privilege of chatting with director Philip Weyland about the genesis of the project, approaching Miguel about making it, his opinion about circus as a form of entertainment, and more!

THANK YOU Mr. Weyland for taking the time to share these wonderful and fascinating insights about your film.

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Q: What motivated you to film a documentary about trapeze performer Miguel Vazquez?

A: As a kid in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I’d been fascinated by circuses. The circus was the place to go to see people perform all sorts of mesmerizing and “impossible” feats. During that time (and for many previous decades), trapeze was THE most important act in the circus.

The triple somersault was considered to be the most difficult trapeze trick until the early 1980’s. There were very, very few performers who could do the triple somersault. It was said by circus historians that more trapeze artists perished from attempting the triple than any other circus act.

LastGreatCircusFlyer_YoungMiguelI was very aware of the history of trapeze and when I read in 1982 that a 17 year old performer, Miguel Vazquez, had completed a quadruple somersault in performance with Ringling Bros. with his brother Juan as the catcher – it was – well – rather unbelievable! I had never even heard of Miguel Vazquez or his flying troupe, “The Flying Vazquez”. It was all over the news – Tom Brokaw reported this first Quad for NBC, the New York Times covered it extensively, etc.

In the years following, Miguel became the master of this “Quad” trick. There were a few trapeze performers who eventually did a Quad – but they never approached the frequency and consistency with which Vazquez performed it. I remember a quote from a circus historian who described Miguel as “…being alone in his greatness”.

In about 1994, I used one of the early internet search engines to see where the Vazquez act was performing. Someone had incorrectly posted an entry – with Miguel’s photo – reporting that he had died in a trapeze accident. Unknown to me, the poster had confused Miguel with a different performer. I thought he’d died. I stopped going to the circus.For 14 years.

In 2008, on a whim, I searched YouTube to see if there were any old clips of Miguel doing a Quad. Didn’t take long to discover that the 1994 post was wrong. Miguel was alive. I couldn’t believe it. I searched the internet for additional information – and surprisingly, there was very little to be found.

I thought it was bizarre that so little was known about this great athlete, someone who had been a huge draw for Ringling for nearly a decade performing what had been called “The Greatest Feat in all of Circus History”. I thought it would be a great subject for a documentary. It was and is.

Q: How did you approach Miguel about making the film? Was he immediately on board the project?

A: After tracking down Miguel, I wrote him a long letter detailing my interest in doing a documentary. He and his brother Juan agreed to meet with me. I flew to Las Vegas from LA to meet them. There was some reluctance. They had left the world of circus and trapeze behind. My impression was that they couldn’t understand my great interest and passion for the project. I think they were a bit wary… of the project and me. I got the impression that they would just rather let the past stay where it was. They had no great desire to tout their past accomplishments. But I did.

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To help alleviate this “wariness”, I invited Miguel to come to LA for the day and visit the set of “Boston Legal” where I was working at the time. Miguel met Bill Shatner (who was quite interested in Miguel’s career) , spent a few hours on the set meeting my co-workers and watching the filming. My goal was to convince Miguel I wasn’t addled. I guess I was successful because shortly after that, we agreed to go ahead with the documentary. I figured it would take about 5 years to do the documentary. I sure didn’t tell them that. It took six years to complete!

Q: Congrats on your directorial debut. What are some of the challenges as well as best moments of making this film?

A: Oh – I could speak for hours – days – about the challenges and “best moments” of making this film.

I figured out early on that the fewer number of people involved in the making of the documentary, the better. After the initial stages of the filming, I shot most of the film myself. In an interview situation, I found that the interviewees were far more relaxed when it was just me in the room.

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I felt honored during the interviews and location filming that so many performers openly shared their thoughts about the past and the present.

I quickly figured out that I would have to edit the film myself. I had certain POVs and story points that I wanted to emphasize and only I could really put it all together piece by piece and be happy with the final version. I’d edit and then work with a tech person who’d put my edit together cleanly.

Funding! Always a challenge. About half way through the filming, I was very fortunate. I showed a rough cut of what had been shot to a longtime friend, Mark Charvat. He really liked what he saw and provided the additional funding to complete the film.

While I wanted to document the Quad and the athletic feats Miguel and his family accomplished, I also wanted to show the audience what they were doing now. It’s like when you see someone from college and say “hey…what’s so and so doing now?”. In the beginning, that was one of the things I was most curious about. However, during the initial concept of the film, I did not know how this would be fully accomplished. But – fortuitously, there were several events that took place that solved most of this problem. We also filmed at Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil. “Le Reve” at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Circus Vargas and several other locations to assist in answering the “What are they doing now” question.

One of the best moments was filming Miguel’s youngest son Christian from the ages 4-9 and his “experiences” with trapeze. It’s one of the highlights of the film.

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Q: Would you tell me a bit about your background working in the entertainment industry and whether or not it influences your interest in circus, particularly the trapeze acts?

A: I went to Texas Tech and majored in theatre. After college, I worked as an Equity director and actor for about 10 years before moving to Los Angeles. I occasionally appeared as an actor on TV and movies. I also worked as a dialogue coach on several of the “Star Trek” motion pictures and on the television series “T.J. Hooker”, “Beverly Hills 90210” and with William Shatner on the 2011 comedy series “S#*! My Dad Says”. When not working as a dialogue coach with William Shatner, I’ve worked as his stand-in for over 30 years.

My theatrical background has had no influence on my interest in trapeze. What interests me is people who can do or create things I could not possibly do. We all have our own talents. Trapeze isn’t in my repertoire!

Q: With the exception of shows like Cirque du Soleil, the traditional circus like the Ringling Bros. Seems to be a dying form of entertainment nowadays. What are your thoughts about that.

A: Circus is certainly changing. All forms of entertainment are changing. As an example – many lament the dearth of intelligent, adult movies claiming that superheroes have captured the focus of movie studios and left the intelligent films behind.

The circus too is striving to appeal to an audience that differs greatly from the past. Many now lament that the circus of the past had far more big acts that featured “star” performers. The circus of the past catered far more to adults than the present incarnation. The circus of today is geared more toward a younger crowd – children that would rather view a fire-breathing dragon than a wire walker or trapeze performer.

I myself don’t consider Cirque a circus. It’s a magnificent theatrical display that features gymnastic elegance and ability, choreography and a more “sophisticated” – maybe that’s not the right word – production that may or may not contain some traditional circus acts. For me – it’s really a different form of theatre rather than a different form of circus.

As a result of the change in the artistic direction of traditional circuses comes the meaning of the title – “The Last Great Circus Flyer.” The late 1980’s marked the end of the “star” performers with Ringling. Miguel and “The Flying Vazquez” were featured and billed performers. That era has passed. And with the passing of that era – no matter what a trapeze performer may accomplish – he will never gain the public acclaim that once was achieved beginning with Jules Leotard and continuing with Alfredo Codona, Tito Gaona and ending with Miguel Vazquez. A young trapeze performer once said to me “Someone could do a quintuple somersault – and nowadays – no one would care. And Tom Brokaw would not bother reporting it.”

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Q: What do you want people to take away from this film?

“The Last Great Circus Flyer” is about people that have their high moments and low moments – as we all do. It’s a film about people. Good people. Talented people. It’s about a performer who accomplished what was considered “impossible” – and was able to continue doing the “impossible” until 1994. The film is not just a “tribute” film. The film touches upon circus and trapeze subjects that have never been discussed, to my knowledge, in any other circus/trapeze film. When you leave the theatre, it’s my hope that there will be an understanding and an appreciation and most of of all a respect for these trapeze performers that would not otherwise have existed had you not seen the film.


Are you a fan of circus and/or trapeze acts? Let me know your thoughts about this film and the interview

TCFF 2015 Opening Night Recap: A New High doc + Lenny Abrahamson’s ROOM (2015)

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Oh what a night! As they do year after year, TCFF 15 opened with a bang… this time with an inspiring, and beautifully-shot documentary A New High! The theater was packed and it’s always nice to find snacks waiting on each of our seats at Showplace ICON Theater (thank you KIND Snacks & Chipotle!)

I was going to skip the after party Mixer but I didn’t as I got to hang out with my friend & fellow TCFF staff Kristen G. and meet Mike Johnson, the director at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission featured in the documentary!


It’s always such a treat to meet the real people involved in the film you have just seen, but in the case of A New High, it’s especially a blessing given how much what Mike’s done inspired me. Nice to see a film that’s so uplifting despite the heavy subject matter, we need more film that celebrate light instead of darkness.

More pics from the night’s festivities, thanks to TCFF photographer Dallas Smith & Jake Hinkley!

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A NEW HIGH Documentary

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I have been blessed that in my life I haven’t had any experience with the struggles the people in this film went through. Residents of a Seattle homeless shelter it’s homelessness, addiction, abuse, and at times, it wasn’t by their own choice as their family did horrible things to them. But really, one does not have to have been addicted to drugs or alcohol to relate with their stories. As the tagline of the film says… everyone defines their mountain. Some of us can be *addicted* to seemingly harmless things, but if that takes over our life and take our focus away of the important things in life, that is something we have to deal with as well.

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A New High focuses on a diverse group of men and women who underwent an unorthodox recovery program that uses mountain climbing as a means of rehabilitation. After one year of intense physical and mental conditioning, the team will attempt to summit one of the most dangerous mountains in the country, the 14,400 ft Mt. Rainier. The project was spearheaded by former Army Ranger Mike Johnson, a director at the Union Gospel Mission in downtown Seattle. Right away we saw how much Mike believed in each and every single member of the shelter and he constantly encouraged them to succeed.

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The film asked the question, ‘will their personal mountains be too steep to overcome?’ Even though they had to train hard for this arduous mission, Mike emphasized that it does not replace the most important thing about overcoming their addiction. It’s not so much about reaching the summit of Mt. Rainier, but reaching the recovery goal they have set for themselves. I love the vast splendor of the mountain, beautifully-shot and skillfully-directed by Samuel Miron & Stephen Scott Scarpulla. It looks stunning visually, but it’s also an intimate and personal film that makes the audience care about them.

The journey to the summit amidst unpredictable weather is an arduous challenge for even the most experienced climbers. So it’s riveting to see how each recovering addict face their demons head on, mentally and physically. Not everyone reached the top but I think each has come farther than they imagine possible and that alone is so uplifting. If you are looking for adventure, drama, action, and encouragement in a film (and really, who doesn’t?) I highly recommend this one when it plays in your city. And see it in as big a screen as possible for those panoramic shots atop the mountain.

In the Q&A after the film, Scarpulla revealed that he & his co-director also had to train for mount climbing as well in order to make this film, and in a way they have to work much harder to be ahead of the other climbers to film them! Talk about dedication and their labor of love definitely paid off on screen.


ROOM

What a stellar pick for the first gala screening of TCFF this year! I actually have seen it two weeks ago at a press screening and so I can’t be more thrilled to see this as part of 2015 lineup. It’s likely going to end up in my top 10 of the year… it’s the most well-acted piece, from a female lead no less, and one of the most emotional experience I’ve had all year. I knew going in that I’d be shedding tears as I cry a lot watching movies, but this film is emotionally heartbreaking in the best possible way.

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This film isn’t so much about the suspense about a mother (only known as Ma) & her 5-year-old boy Jack escaping captivity. Even if you skipped the trailer (which I did), it’s clearly spelled out on IMDb what the premise is about. But knowing that fact doesn’t spoil the film in any way. There’s still plenty of suspense and heart-rending moments leading up to that… but more importantly, what happens after. It’s hard not to be affected by the plight of these two, as most people simply can’t imagine or even relate the trauma they’ve been through. The film certainly made you think about the little things in life we take for granted and make us appreciate them a lot more.

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I read that Brie Larson isolated herself for a month and followed a strict diet in order to get a sense of what Ma and Jack were going through. This is the first time I saw her in a prominent role and I was blown away. There’s a moment where she just stares into the ceiling in silence, all her anguish and desperation in full display, it takes skills to be able to convey such deep emotion with no dialog.

Her dedication and immersion in the role clearly showed and she had a believable chemistry with Jacob Tremblay who played the boy. Tremblay was equally fantastic, definitely one of the most promising young actors I’ve seen in a while. Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide excellent supporting roles as Larson’s parents, especially Allen as she had far more screen time. I also have to mention Tom McCamus as Allen’s new spouse who has some wonderful scenes with Jacob.

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This is the second film from Lenny Abrahamson I saw, the first one being Frank. He’s certainly no stranger to filming bizarre, unusual situations and dealing with character experiencing great emotional distress. I haven’t read the novel it’s based on by Emma Donoghue, so I can’t comment on how faithful it is to the novel, but I think the story translates well on screen thanks to Abrahamson’s intimate and astute direction.

ROOM is not the flashiest Fall release, but though it may appear understated, it sure packs an emotional punch. I’m glad I got to see it and I sure hope it will gain traction during award season and I for one would love to see Larson (and Abrahamson for directing) get a nomination. In a similar way as A New High, even though the film deals with a dark, even dreadful subject matter, it’s not at all depressing. In fact the opposite is true as it celebrates the triumph of love and the power of humanity.


So that’s my Day 1 recap folks! What’s coming up for Day 2?


Stay tuned for more TCFF 2015 daily journal in the next two weeks! Let me know your thoughts about either one of these films!