Katie Bender – The Will To Fly

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By: Ruth Hill



Making a showing at the Artemis Film Festival in Los Angeles, The Will to Fly is about Olympic aerial skiing champion Lydia Lassila who returns to the sport as a mother to perform the most complex acrobatic maneuver ever performed by a woman, fulfil her childhood dreams and make history. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with one of the directors of this documentary feature, Katie Bender.

What inspired you to pursue a career in film?

Before working in the film industry, I trained underneath Lydia Lassila as a young gymnast 17 years ago and then later with her on the Australian Aerial Ski Team. I was a junior athlete to Lydia and witnessed firsthand the most part of her inspirational story.

Our team trained in Utah and I lived there for about six years. When I wasn’t training, I used to listen to movie soundtracks so I knew somehow I wanted to be involved in the film industry. I enjoyed learning how to edit on my own on my computer when I had time. So once I stopped training for the Olympics when I knew making the Olympic team was out of sight, I immediately enrolled in a school in California and enrolled in their film and digital media program.

When I graduated, my first internship was at a movie trailer company in Los Angeles. I ended up working there and I really loved it. It was so stimulating to be working around all these really talented editors on motion picture films,but then my Visa ran out. Basically,  once I started working in  the film industry, I was just really committed and knew that was what I wanted to do.

What inspired you to make The Will to Fly?

Lydia had just returned back to aerial skiing as the defending Olympic Champion, and I couldn’t believe she had returned to the sport as a mother. I was watching Lydia train with her baby son Kai in the pram parked beside the water jump. At that time, Lydia also explained to me what her goals were leading into the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. She explained that she wanted to attempt a jump called a “full, double- full, full”, which is a quadruple twisting, triple somersault (three flips, and four twists); a very sophisticated acrobatic trick that only the men had accomplished.

Lydia was one of the most determined, unwavering athletes I had ever witnessed. Since the beginning of her aerial skiing career, her dream was to be regarded with the same level of prestige and prowess that male athletes had received by jumping the same acrobatic manoeuvre as them. That trick is only the final chapter to her incredible story. For me, understanding Lydia’s back-story and the complexity behind the quadruple twisting, triple somersault, I realised that if I didn’t tell this story, then no one would. So it was then that I asked Lydia if I could produce a feature length sports documentary about this conquest.

How does this film reach out to people who are not overly interested in the Olympics or sports?

You don’t have to take an interest in the Olympics to enjoy The Will To Fly. Before shooting the film, we knew we wanted to structure the The Will To Fly for a broader audience beyond just sports fans. We were inspired by other sports films constructed this way like Senna and The Crash Reel. We wanted to make sure that anyone could connect with this woman’s journey trying to achieve the impossible, and that aerial skiing was just the vehicle to tell this story. Part of the success to balancing the sports side of the film was including Lydia’s support team, her family. The Australian Institute of Sport assisted paying for Lydia’s son and carer to attend training camps and competitions in the lead up to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games.

Lydia has an amazing, humble family, and they are integral to the success of her sporting career. Lydia’s Sicilian mother Phyillis, and her Finnish mother-in-law Leena, helped Lydia look after her baby Kai throughout her Olympic campaign. At 2 years of age, Kai could speak Italian, English and Finnish, all at the same level! Kai was such a natural when filming that people asked if we had staged certain scenes, which of course we hadn’t! This intelligent, sweet, supporting son was such a heart stopper that earlier on in the edit we actually had to strip a lot of him out because the film was becoming ‘The Kai Show’. We also showed the incredible support by Lydia’s husband Lauri, who is an ex World Cup mogul skier from Finland. Lauri understands what Lydia is preparing for and is there for her the entire time. To see how her support team comes together is heart warming for anyone.

How did you hear about the Artemis Film Festival?

Someone connected with the film festival contacted us through Twitter.

What has been the public reception of your film?

Since we are in Australia and we are an independent film, we don’t have a lot of mass marketing going on for the film. In Australia, some mainstream cinema chains have picked us up so at least the word is getting out about our film, mainly through word of mouth from people who have seen it. We are getting amazing feedback and amazing press, but for us, I think it’s going to be a slow burn. Not everyone has seen it yet. Everyone who has seen it takes away a very positive experience from it. We are working very hard to see that the film continues to reach a larger audience.

It’s great to be showcasing at the Artemis Film Festival as we start to build an American audience.

What were the biggest challenges in filming this documentary?

There was an obvious risk shooting a sports film that revolved around a risky manoeuvre. What if Lydia get’s injured? Or, what if she fails to attempt the trick? Although making a non-fiction production must be a fluid process, from a production perspective we had an awful lot on the line in the 2 years of filming leading into the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Although I wasn’t worried in the slightest, I knew of Lydia’s tenacity and capability, and I believed she was going to do everything to make sure she achieved what she set out to do.

Do you have any other upcoming works you can mention?

Leo, who directed the film with me, has two feature-length films he is writing and working on, but they are in early development. I want to continue on with sports production for TV or film. Currently, we are still busy nurturing the film.

We have developed an impact campaign for The Will To Fly, which is tailored around the main awareness topics explored in the film, which include themes like pursuing your dreams, leveling the playing field and inspiring female empowerment.

I believe young girls need to see more sports stories being made on our female athletes so that they too can look up to female role models in the media. The Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) have written an empowering study guide, which reflects the impact topics through the film. The study guide will be placed into the Australian curriculum in 2016, primarily targeted at years 7 – 12 and tertiary students. Understanding how sport and champion roles models impacted upon me when growing up and how that resonated in other areas in my life, made me feel compelled to create this study guide for future generations.

Why are indie films so important?

Making a film in Australia as an emerging filmmaker sometimes felt impossible and at times it was. The Will To Fly was three and a half years in the making and it wasn’t easy. Finding funding for the film in the beginning was very difficult and a piece-meal process.

Making an archive-heavy sports film is not a cheap task. The Will To Fly features four Olympic Winter Games and many major sporting events, spanning over 20 years. The archival expense was roughly the same amount to the production costs for the entire film. Most major sports films have a company like ESPN or major production companies behind them. We were truly an independent production.

We were in the edit suite for a total of 30 weeks. Editor Jane Usher cut the foundation of the film and then we flew out Ellen Dimler, a top movie trailer editor from Los Angeles, to work with us on the sports action side of the film. There are certainly some movie trailer techniques in the film that help separate the sports action to the main edit. This helped with changing the pace in creative exciting ways. The music score by Thomas E Rouch was six months in the making. Thomas crafted a powerful, emotive score, which has helped mould all of the attributes of the film together.

After listening to Katie discuss the determination of Lydia and the way in which her story has influenced so many people, I cannot even tell you how ecstatic I am to see this documentary film at the Artemis Film Festival. Katie is one who has a heart for strong women in sports (and strong women in general) who go against the odds and accomplish incredible things. And she is one herself, who has been instrumental in attempting to alter the landscape of sports films in her own country and she is now ready to take on the world. I plan to catch the U.S. premiere of this film on Saturday, April 23 and I hope that all of you will visit the links below to find out more about the film, the filmmakers and most importantly, how you can possibly have your very own opportunity to see this film for yourself.

The Will To Fly film:
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