Making a documentary about Olympic champion swimmer Missy Franklin seems like a no-brainer. Just 17, Franklin was one of the shining stars at the 2012 London Games, winning five medals and quickly garnering millions of fans. Documentarians Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito were well ahead of the curve in betting on her as the winning horse, connecting with the Colorado high schooler more than two years earlier. But, it turns out, the project had as much to do with luck as it did with the veteran filmmakers' foresight and preparation.
"It was kind of happenstance," explains Brock by phone during a morning break from editing. "I like to think that we're smart enough to figure these things out before they get revealed to others, but the reality is you don't always find these stories."
Their forthcoming documentary "Touch the Wall" -- a reference to the finish of a swim race -- offers texture and detail only possible because they discovered the narrative so early. Franklin is the leading lady with U.S. teammate Kara Lynn Joyce, nearly 10 years her elder, playing the supporting role as a bit of a mentor while attempting to make her third Olympics.
The L.A.-based duo, who have worked together on multiple productions for almost a decade, came across Franklin by chance. Barbeito, originally from Colorado where the Franklins live, had a connection to Missy's father, Dick, through a separate project. Before Brock and Barbeito knew it, they were documenting the pursuit of a longstanding dream held by one of America's newest darlings.
The movie promises plenty of unscripted scenes as the viewer follows Missy's journey into the hearts of countless would-be fans and supporters amid access not typically provided -- especially to a person who somehow manages to exceed just impossible expectations.
"Grant and Christo practically lived with us for three years," the 17-year-old Franklin told The New York Times through email. "They went with us everywhere from local little meets to the Olympics. We forgot they were there most of the time, so what they filmed was real moments in all our lives, including swimming. They captured the good and difficult times for all of us."
Just one of the stories that comes out in presenting Missy's ascension to fame is surprisingly the young phenom's aversion to practice early in her career, showing that even incredibly gifted gold medalists need time to build a work ethic and internalize the lessons from those who swam before them. That, of course, is contrasted with glimpses at the fruits of everyone's labors. There is footage of Missy and Kara Lynn getting inked with Olympic ring tattoos after making the American team, and stealth shots of Franklin's parents' reaction in the Olympic audience -- filming was technically banned within the competition grounds -- when Missy captured her first gold medal.
Like Missy's own training regimen toward reaching her supreme goal, however, the two filmmakers have faced their own set of obstacles along the way.
"Funding is always the biggest challenge," says Brock. "We've diverted a lot of our efforts to fundraising that we'd love to just keep focused on making the film, but that's the reality.
In turn, they started a Kickstarter campaign to hopefully maintain their equivalent path to Franklin -- to eventual success: completion and distribution. Brock and Barbeito haven't paid themselves once to this point, operating solely on their own, draining personal bank accounts and maxing out credit cards to afford such shooting necessities as travel to Omaha, Neb., the Florida Keys and the trip to London, as well as repeat visits to Denver, on what Brock calls a "medium-budget film." In the end, it's all with the design of doing one thing, which is sharing Missy's story.
"This is why you have to be passionate about what you're doing," Brock adds, "because you can't get through those years if you're not getting some sort of payments. You've got to take your payment in the satisfaction of what you're doing."
The supplemental financial support will also help retain a secondary editor for the movie, and offset some of the cost of affording the expensive theatrical rights for music and Olympic footage. Though they remain a bit off the pace needed to receive any funding at all -- Kickstarter requires that a project reach its financial threshold or none of the money is allocated -- Brock remains optimistic they'll hit their mark by the Tuesday deadline.
"We're confident we can rally the troops, and we also feel confident that we can get some more well-funded donors. We're working on that.
"Beyond that," Brock continues of the hurdles in producing the film, "trying to find time with the Franklins. Missy's a teenager and there's a lot of people who ask things of her, and we really didn't want to interfere with her life, or her ability to get where she wanted to go. That was really a challenge because Missy, basically every 15 minutes of her day is accounted for. We would need to talk to her about something that happened, but, she had homework to do."
Brock, from Philadelphia, has a background in sports features and editing, and grew up with plenty of his own athletic heroes, but most of which who ultimately didn't meet the code of desirable moral behavior. He says Missy is different.
"It's so rare that you find someone like Missy who is really, really good at what she does," he explains, "but also really a good person, and that's one of the things that we latched on to very early on in the story.
"I mean, there's countless stories of this woman. Yes, she's young" -- 16 during the bulk of shooting -- "but she has these kinds of values … that are values that we should all have. It's one of the reasons that we can feel so passionate about it, because I feel like she is that sports hero that we could all follow."
From her innate inclination to respond to every single piece of fan mail she receives -- setting the Franklins back thousands of dollars in postage and signed photos -- to taking it upon herself to call each coach, assistant, swimmer and host family at each school that helped during her collegiate recruitment once she finally chose Cal, the film's anecdotes of Missy will flow almost as fast as her world record times in the water.
Brock and Barbeito are targeting the end of the year for their feature-length documentary's debut and plan to have some form of large premiere, following that up with mass distribution. They have high hopes of the final product.
"It's going to entertain and inspire," Brock concludes. "I think it's going to be the seminal swim film. It's going to be swimming's answer to 'Hoop Dreams.'"
For more information about "Touch the Wall," check out the the Kickstarter page.
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