Interviewed by Samantha Wright
Entire Article: http://sjindependent.org/report/jeff-lowes-metanoia-wings-its-way-to-telluride/655
Adventure filmmaker and photographer James Aikman of Boulder, Colo. had never met Jeff Lowe before agreeing to direct Metanoia, and was tapped to take the lead on the project only after Self and Lowe saw his film High and Hallowed premier at MountainFilm in 2013.
Aikman has created films and promotional content for Sender Films, National Geographic, Eddie Bauer, Mountain Hardware, Evolv and other organizations. He specializes in bringing the outdoor adventure lifestyle to the big screen and telling true stories about athletes at locations around the world.
The San Juan Independent’s Samantha Wright caught up with Aikman by cell phone as he was driving across Colorado earlier this week, making his annual pilgrimage from Boulder to Telluride to attend MountainFilm.
Samantha Wright: What was it like working on a film whose subject you thought was dying?
Jim Aikman: When we were filming post-production it was definitely a race for the finish. We were pretty sure Jeff wasn’t going to be there for the release of the film, which obviously would make things different than they are. Jeff is actually doing pretty well.
I was hesitant to take the job, because I was unsure I’d be able to deal with the subject matter. There were lots of moments of putting my head on the desk for maybe 10 minutes to cry and then come back to work.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time with people suffering from such a severe infirmity until this project. It was really cool for me to get to know Jeff. I didn’t know him before the film so it was amazing, getting to know someone with such a full life who is such a different person now. In some ways I know Jeff better than anyone in the world, and in other ways I don’t know him at all.
It’s almost like I was writing a biography of somebody because he couldn’t really tell me about himself. I had to get it through interviews and writing.
SW: What were some of your aesthetic inspirations and challenges in making Metanoia?
JA: Early on in the project, the first challenge was, ‘How do we shoot this in an interesting way?’ Finding out how to shoot a subject in a wheelchair in an apartment in an interesting way is pretty challenging.
The subject matter did give me the opportunity to have some fun with different types of metaphors and get a little weird with it, which was an awesome opportunity. A lot of the story and a lot of what he went through was pretty out there. Some of it is very cosmic stuff, so trying to paint that experience visually was a really cool opportunity.
SW: When you started working on the project, Jeff Lowe really didn’t want to be portrayed in his current state. How long did it take to bring him around and realize that was an important part of the story?
JA: The film hadn’t found itself yet when it came to me. At first Jeff was making the film and it was just about his experience on Metanoia. It was kind of a love story for the Eiger. It wasn’t so much about his transformation as it relates to today.
Connie, as producer, saw the value of that thread. Really, that’s the story – how did this experience on the mountain transform his ability to be such a badass even now? It was really Connie who saw it going in that direction.
Then there is all this historical background. It’s important to know what he did who he was in order to fully understand the irony of what’s going on now.
At a certain point Jeff kind of stepped back and accepted the fact that we were going to know his story as best we could, but that he wasn’t telling his own story.
As that all evolved, and I came on, they were ready to say ‘Here’s what we’ve got. Let us know what you think the best way to tell the story is.’
They really liked the style of moving around in time instead of in a linear fashion. It’s my personal style, but also one that lends itself well to the parallel story threads going on in the film. There are a few very similar cruxes in his life, and I wanted to tell them alongside each other so that certain thought points would come through at the same time.
SW: What were the cruxes in his life that you brought out in the film?
JA: The biggest one was his personal transformation, going from being a young man to someone who would be a good father and husband, and leave a good legacy.
I don’t want to say he had demons, but he had to find his place in the world the way anyone does. Obviously being such an exceptional person, that goes into the lesson.
In the second half of the film, that really comes through.
I can’t imagine for Jeff what it’s like to sit in the theater time and time again and see all of this weakness picked apart and put under a microscope. But he does it. That shows how well he’s come to terms with all the hard times he’s had in his life. Not everyone has that opportunity.
SW: For him to sit there time after time after time and watch it play out before him must be incredibly cathartic.
JA: I think the whole filmmaking process has been a catharsis for him. At first it was really hard for him. He fought back pretty hard about my decision to include a lot of the missteps that he had in his life, but in the end, the humanity of the film is the most important part of it.
SW: That’s what people really love about the movie, is that it’s so much about the human condition.
JA: I think climbers are a good case study for the human condition.
SW: What was the hardest thing for you about this film project?
JA: Working on a film where the producers are also the subject is super challenging. They have their own vision of what their story is, and it’s such a hard thing to step back and see it the way I see it.
The other big challenge was how to end it. The story is still ongoing, but we wanted to finish it in time for Jeff, which created a strange, inconclusive element. We decided to end it on as strong and positive a note as we could, to show Jeff overcoming. If we had finished a year later, the ending would probably be a lot different.
There were decisions about how to visually represent some of these very abstract concepts that Jeff experienced. That was a challenge.
Another challenge was Jeff’s life was so rich with material and stories and experiences and adventures. It was really difficult to hit on which ones were relevant to the story that we’re really telling here. This isn’t a biography; this is a film about an experience.
So it was hard for Jeff to leave some of these things out of the film and for me to navigate all those different stories and find the ones that would strengthen the film rather than taking away.
SW: I imagine you had to come to a very strong understanding of what the film was really about.
JA: That was the part that was missing when I came on board. We just had a film about Jeff. That is not a film.
SW: How are you feeling now that the film is out in the world and it’s being so well received?
JA: Great. To be totally honest, I have a hard time watching the film. But I’m very happy it is done and I think watching it now, there is a lot I would do differently, but I can’t really think of it that way because I am equally tied to my own vision, as well as satisfying Jeff and Connie’s that they are paying me to create.
SW: How did Jeff and Connie initially find you?
JA: They were at the premier of my last film at MountainFilm. They liked it and thought that my approach to that film was what they were looking for with theirs. They had been through a number of different filmmakers and none of them worked out. And they courted me for a couple of months. I didn’t know if I could tell a story like this.
SW: Ultimately, do you feel like you succeeded in telling the story?
JA: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think if you ask the three of us, ‘Is this the film you would have made on your own?’ we would all say no, but we have kind of arrived at a place where we are at peace with it. I don’t think Jeff has ever been 100 percent satisfied; what he had in his mind was very difficult to grasp. So I don’t know that he could ever have been 100 percent satisfied.
SW: What year did you come on board with the film?
JA: Summer of 2013. About two years ago.
SW: It seems amazing you were able to pull it all together in a year and a half.
JA: It was a big push. There were a lot of obstacles. But, I feel ready for anything now.
SW: There’s a lot of anticipation for this film being screened at MountainFilm this year. What do you hope that people who see the film will take away from it?
JA: It’s about treating adversity as an opportunity to grow rather than as a bummer. The opening line of film speaks to that. Climbing is this amazing metaphor for how we can approach challenges in the rest of our lives. It’s really just about facing challenges head on, and how much stronger you are when you come out the other side of that. Jeff is living proof of that.
SW: What does MountainFilm mean to you as a filmmaker?
JA: It’s the reason we do this. It’s like the holy pilgrimage. We are all so grateful to have it, because it really fuels so much and it gives us a chance to do this amazing crazy job.
Learn much more about Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia and watch the movie trailer here: