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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.