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San Sebastian: Sturges, Ortiz on ‘Chasing Niagara’

The biggest, and most artistically ambitious, big waterfall kayak movie ever made is unveiled by Red Bull Media House at San Sebastian

SAN SEBASTIAN –Is a new breed of genre auteurs emerging? Rush Sturges’ “Chasing Niagara,” produced by his River Roots label for Red Bull Media House, tracks the preparations of Mexico’s Rafa Ortiz, one of the world’s best and most daring big waterfall kayakers, to run the 167-foot Niagara Falls. Attempting it in a decked canoe in 1990, Jesse Sharpe died in the attempt. Training takes Ortiz, Sturges and fellow kayak star Evan Garcia to the canyons of Veracruz, to the 189-foot Palouse Falls, where Ortiz makes the second descent, a height world record set by Tyler Bradt, who joins the team. The kayaking set pieces are superbly and intricately shot, whether tracking kayaks lacing through whitewater dark rock gorges, or an overhead shot which homes in to a nightmarish accident. Whether Ortiz will make an attempt on Niagara, and what on earth will happen then adds sustained suspense to the film. These elements – the spectacle, suspense – lend, in action sports terms, generic punch to the movie. But what emerges is a remarkable homage to friendship in sports as Ortiz’s friends dedicate three years to his training and stand by him as he begins to wonder if he should really run Niagara at all.

A coming of age movie, Sturges said at San Sebastian, “Chasing Niagara” depicts one of the joys of action sports: How they sustain and grow deep friendship, based on memories of joy shared. Variety caught Sturges and Ortiz at San Sebastian a day before “Chasing Niagara’s” world premiere:

The action scenes are spectacular and there’s a constant sense of suspense of about whether Rafa will run the falls or what will happen when he does. But “Chasing Niagara” emerges, and is a much better film for doing so as a humanist story about the growth of friendship and the sense of responsibility. I wonder if you can both comment on that.

Rush Sturges: I agree. This isn’t the film I set out to make, to be perfectly honest. For me, when the project ended, I was so hungover from the project, it was such a hard journey. I didn’t think we had a story to tell. After looking at it from an outside perspective, it became something much different. We grew a lot as filmmakers and athletes. So what you said is how I feel about the project, that it’s about friendship, the journey. I’m happy we were able to tell this kind of story.

Rafa Ortiz: On one hand, “Chasing Niagara” is about a character, Rafa Ortiz, with his friend Rush Sturges. But I lived a parallel experience, about a character called Rush Sturges, who was trying, with his friend Rafa Ortiz, to make a film which had a story, that transcended everything he had made up to that point.

The film begins with a death, or so it seems. It then rewinds, literally. It has a mock silent film credit opening, takes in archive footage and builds inexorably towards the attempt on Niagara. It looks like you put a lot of thought into the structure and work into post-production?

Sturges: Before this I’d made many kayak movies… I’m an athlete. But the real story has been the process, for me. I have never told a feature-length story before. This was almost two years from the end. I’m doing a lot of the editing as well. I’ve had to learn this structure to make a movie that won’t just appeal to my core demographic of friends. I love making those films, but I had to really step back from that in order to make something that I can show to someone who’s never done kayaking before. So it was a lot of work in the post-production side.

For the Niagara sequence, you had a six-camera set up. I get the feeling that “Chasing Niagara” pushes the envelope not only on running waterfalls – there’s one first descent of , a second of  – but also in technical terms on how kayaking movies are shot: In its length, elaboration of set-ups, and sheer number of shots  I wonder if you could comment…

Sturges: Red Bull really gave us a big opportunity on this one, they gave me a lot of creative freedom to do my thing and make the movie that I wanted to make. Never before in kayaking have we had this type of support from a company like Red Bull Media House, so it was, really, as clichéd as it says: “Red Bull gives you wings”. They gave us this opportunity to tell a story.

Some scenes are so elaborate that they look as if they could have been recreations. The opening “death” sequence, for example:

That was filmed with just two cameras: A GoPro with the kayaker’s and from a helicopter and there was no recreation at all. But it’s interesting you say that because when I showed the film to my parents and they said that they thought that people were going to think that it was re-enacted. I should put a disclaimer at the start of the film, saying: “Everything in this film is real.” There was no re-enactment.

At the same time you have an enormous amount of shots, when you’re doing one of the kayaking setpieces, you cut, cut, cut – an extraordinary amount of work.

Sturges: It’s actually crazy how much is not in the film that happened along the way. We had an entire day, so many people who knew that incident, and at a certain point it was like too much, so we had to cut back. That was the hard part – trimming out. There was a lot of the stuff that were big moments but that didn’t quite make the final cut.

“Everest” is about people whose action sports passions kill them. The level now of achievement in world class action sports is so high that you really are pushing the envelope on possible death situations. I wonder if you could comment on that.

Sturges: “It’s a very fragile environment that we’re in, when you’re pushing it to that extent, and as we say in the film, compared to when Rafa looked at that waterfall five-six years ago, his perspective has changed so much over the course of time and I think in the end it was about choosing life over death, that’s the message of the film. It is becoming harder and harder to make an impact, because you have to keep stepping it up. So I think it is an important story because it’s also saying that at the end of the day it’s totally fine to walk the width. If you’re not feeling it and you don’t think that you can do it, don’t do it. And I think that’s good for Red Bull too, because Red Bull has a history of doing a lot of these huge stunts and it couldn’t have been more supportive the whole time.

Ortiz: I think my not running Niagara leaves for a bigger challenge, to make something appealing and interesting, because in the end if I had ran it, you would basically just tell the story and have an epic action story.

What are you working on now? I guess it will inevitably have something to do with filmmaking.

Sturges: I want to definitely make another kayak movie, but I want to get into more narrative fiction feature filmmaking, kayaking-based, but more adventure-based, with actors and for the whole family.

Ortiz: As kayakers, we paddle these crazy rivers, these really remote canyons, we access these places where really the only way to get in there is kayaking, so often the only way that we have to document a trip is filming each other. So for me, the whole filmmaking business is running a waterfall, getting out of your kayak, and going on camera to film your buddy, that’s how it all started.

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