San Sebastian: Savage Cinema Sets ‘Meru,’ ‘Steve McQueen,’ ‘Degrees North’

Section’s movies underscore film industry’s embrace of action/adventure fare

Sundance Meru
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

MADRID –“Meru,” “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” and “Chasing Niagara” feature among eight titles at San Sebastian’s Fest’s 3rd Savage Cinema, a pioneering initiative to profile many of the year’s best action sports/adventure title at an A-grade fest.

Launched in 2013 by San Sebastian, in partnership with Red Bull Media House, and expanded this year to eight titles, Savage Cinema highlights action sports filmmaking’s drive towards broader audiences as, in response, the film industry also embraces action sports/adventure movies in multiple ways: Major festival platforms, production, and distribution.

Some analysts argue the biggest breakthrough for action/adventure sport fare would be if a major fiction movie achieves blockbuster B.O: Baltasar Kormakur’s Working Title-produced “Everest,” distributed by Universal, will attempt that Sept. 18. But the industry is evolving in the way it makes extreme sport fare.

One case to point: Savage Cinema-selected “Meru.” Hailed by Variety’s Dennis Harvey as “one of the best sports documentaries of its type in recent years,” “Meru,” directed by Jimmy Chin and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelvi (“Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love”), turns on a trio of climbers’ – one Chin – as they launch two attempts to climb the supposedly impossible-to-scale Mount Meru Shark’s’ Fin in India’s Himalayas.

“Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” another Savage Cinema title, chronicles McQueen’s failed attempt to channel his passion for road racing into a film and also, like Robert Redford before him, morph from a Hollywood leading man to independent filmmaker. The movie nearly broke McQueen, financially and emotionally.

Savage Cinema forefronts the ongoing technological revolution in extreme sport moviemaking.

A flagship production of Verbier-based Timeline Missions, co-produced by Red Bull Media House, Guido Perroni’s “Degrees North,” for example, tracks France’s Xavier de la Rue, a multiyear Snowboard World Champion, plus Sam Anthamatten, as they attempt to carve out new big lines in Svalbard, in Norway’s Arctic archipelago, and then, joined by and Ralph Backstrom, move on to Alaska. De la Rue and the crew experiment with para-motors (think a hang-glider with a rather steam-punkish circular fishing net and multi-blade propeller strapped to the tail) to access unreachable terrain and film the otherwise unfilmable.

Likewise, for “Meru” Chin told Variety’s Steve Chagollan that for the 2008 first summit attempt, thwarted just 150 meters from the top, he used a “very rudimentary” first-generation handicam. “And then between 2008 and 2011, the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) video revolution happened and the 5D (Panasonic TM900) came out where you were able to shoot with much more cinematic quality-type footage at high def.”

Of other Savage Cinema titles, made by pro kayaker and filmmaker Rush Sturges’ “Chasing Niagara” recounts the three-year build-up, taking in the rain-forest rivers of Mexico, to freestyle kayaking dare-devil Rafa Ortiz’s attempt to paddle over the Niagara Falls. Ortiz conquered Mexico’s Big Banana (a 130-foot drop), and Washington State’s 198-foot high Palouse Falls, equaling a world record. The question is whether, finally, he will balk at Niagara.

Michael Oblowitz’s “Heavy Water: The Life and Times of Nathan Fletcher” profiles Fletcher – a scion of a royal family of surfing and key figure in Big Wave history, a prodigy at 11, burnt out at 16, back in the saddle at 23 scoring two perfect 10s at Tahiti’s Teahupoo, pioneer of the paddle-out movement – and his good friend, the late Sion Milowsky.

Following on a Sundance U.S. Documentary Audience Award, Friday’s Aug. 14 U.S. theatrical premiere of “Meru,” which Music Box Films opened at seven theaters for a $98,000 gross, emphasizes how action sports is breaking out of fan base-only distribution.

But that in turn reflects some action sport titles’ increasing focus not only on daredevil feats and fly-on-a-mountain- wall cinematography but also human psychology: Meru has defeated so many good climbers. It may well defeat you, it may well remain unclimbed for all time. That for a certain mindset is an irresistible appeal, Jon Krakauer, ever one to pinpoint the human story behind big climb drama, comments in the film.

Also in Savage Cinema: Produced by ITM Film and director Jon Long’s The Earth Network, “Search For Freedom” is a feature essay on shared core motivation – the experience of freedom – driving the build of the action sport movement, into modern-day cultural phenomena. 25 of its pioneers, creators or modern legends – think skateboarders Danny Way, Tony Hark, surf’s Kelly Slater, base-ski pioneer Shane McConkey, big mountain snow-boarder Jeremy Jones – try to explain their feelings against a backdrop of extreme sport visuals.

“When I first conceived the movie, it was to tell a story about a cultural phenomenon,” Long commented. But, having interviewed dozens of people, “the concept of freedom kept coming up again and again with so many of them that I wanted to look deeper into what that really meant.”

In other signs of larger industry acceptance, “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” was selected for another major festival, playing 2015’s Cannes Classics, then pre-sold by a high-profile sales company, London-based Content Media, to major territories distributors, such as, by Cannes, eOne/Hopscotch (Australia/New Zealand), Marco Polo via Bossa Nova (France), eOne (Germany, Scandinavia), Iwonder (Italy), the Works (U.K.).

Equally, taking best producer kudos at the Beverly Hills Festival, “Search For Freedom” is distributed worldwide by Universal, and by eOne in Canada. It saw a one-day U.S. cinema theater release, mostly on June 10.

2015’s Savage Cinema will also feature two shorts: Jon Herranz Hernandez’s tale of attempting a Dolomite 8C route, Panorama, with his 62-year-old father, Savage Cinema’s first Spanish title; and “Paul,” from Dutch Victor Van Linden and Robert Van Wingerden, about a 13-year-old kid from a Cape Town township who dreams of becoming a surfer.