A Day at Donner Pass

October 4, 2011

Sam and Sam

A "brief" recap of Donner Pass is in order. This day was monumental for us and our film, thus this blog post is of equal stature. I know it is long, but please, bear with me until the end, because if you don't you'll never find out what happens to the film crew dangling over hot lava! Just kidding, please just read.

October 1st put Sam at Donner Pass with Nelle Fortenberry, producer, and member of the Board of Directors of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Michael's son, Sam Fox - an ambassador of the Foundation, as well as several supporters from the Lake Tahoe area. Because Sam is donating the money he raises to MJFF, the foundation is including a segment of him in a video for their annual benefit, and hired our services to film it. The night before filming the segment, Nelle treated us to a delicious dinner at Stella in the town of Truckee near Lake Tahoe. Marion and I donned our best formalwear, (and by formalwear, I mean the last clean shirt I had), and reunited with our favorite support director, John Bernhardt, who, happily, has made a full recovery.

Storm's a'brewin' in Tahoe

The food was delicious, and our conversation with Nelle compelling. Mostly, we talked about Sam and the nitty gritty of the project and film, but Nelle also shared with us some of the exciting developments at the Michael J. Fox Foundation regarding groundbreaking treatments for Parkinson's. She is excited about new therapies that will ease the suffering of Parkinson's patients, significantly increasing quality of life. And she is hopeful that, with continued funding, a cure is within reach. Listening to Nelle speak so passionately on the real possibility of a cure for Parkinson's reinforced the impact of Sam's efforts and the role that the documentary can play in rallying people around the cause. Post-dinner, we talked strategy for the next day, then said goodnight and fell into our bunks. Exhausted, as always, from dealing with the usual twist and turn of daily events ("Sam's here, no he's here"), I desperately needed sleep. Unfortunately, Marion and I unwittingly chose the parking lot of a train station as our sleeping accommodations for the night, and were gently awoken by the sound of screeching horns and clanging metal every two hours as freight trains rumbled by.

Needless to say, I awoke at 6 a.m. the next day feeling fresh as the morning dew. In keeping with my Den Mother job description, I was delegated to go buy breakfast food for our visitors, so I forced myself out of bed, fueled by the prospect of hot coffee. After throwing bagels, donuts, and yogurt into the cart in zombie-like state, I started driving to Donner Pass, but was suddenly stopped by a road block assembled for another film crew shooting a car commercial. The road to Donner Pass coils around the mountain terrain like a paved python, providing an ideal environment to showcase the handling of a sports car to sell to thrill-seeking customers. It's also just so darn pretty. Being in Tahoe reminds me that my job is awesome, and that at least I'm not one of those Production Assistants planted along the road with a walkie-talkie until someone tells them to move. I waited for the state trooper to wave me along, and kept my fingers crossed that a Ferrari wouldn't drive through our shot further up the road.

Sam, Nelle, and the crew filming an intro segment

I met up with the rest of the crew, and we led Nelle and Sam to the location Marion and I had picked out to film the two Sams meeting. The scouting of locations is a delicate art, requiring tact, and the consideration of several factors. Throughout the filming of this documentary, we often drive or hike to beautiful and remote locales that require no effort to seem...well, beautiful and remote. But while Donner Pass is literally minutes from some of most dramatic wilderness I have ever beheld, it is also the location of a popular ski school, conveniently accessible to residents of the Bay Area via I-80, and surrounded by power lines (great cell phone reception.) Situations like this particular one, in which we need to depict Sam in a "wild" setting, to illustrate the ruggedness of his journey to the audience, challenge us to consider our surroundings more carefully than usual. This is not to say that we're faking it or creating any illusions here folks, but we, as filmmakers, are given an instant before the viewer makes their judgement. Thus, the sound of a car going by, or the site of a telephone pole in frame is distracting to a viewer unfamiliar with the setting, and can jeopardize the credibility of the director, the crew, and especially, the subject. Even without the civilization factor, we want to film Sam in beautiful scenery in order to accurately, and aesthetically portray the PCT in our film. (Not an easy task, considering - some of you may have noticed -our subject is a moving target.) So, when we get the chance to film him in any kind of wilderness, we take full advantage of the opportunity, and when we film in a populated area we choose our shots with care.

When scouting locations for Donner Pass, Marion and I drove down to Tahoe a day early to look for areas along the trail that are:

a. pretty

b. protected from the highway

c. protected from the wind, and

d. are void of any eyesores like telephone poles or chubby sunbathing nude couples.

So money, baby

After some searching, we managed to find a location that fit all of these qualifications, and filmed the Sam and Sam rendezvous. Having just completed 70 miles, Sam continued to the parking lot to take a well-deserved nap. This gave us the opportunity to talk with Jennifer Johnston, senior director of research at Elan Pharmaceuticals, which specializes in neurological diseases like Parkinson's, who also happens to serve on the Michael J. Fox Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. An avid trail runner, she heard about Sam and Run While You Can and decided to get involved by joining him for 100 miles after donations from her colleagues exceeded $5,000. Jennifer rightly anticipated that Sam would be mentally and physically exhausted, and made it her mission to keep him on pace. One of the most difficult aspects of Sam's journey on the trail is that no one is there to motivate him, share his gripes, or even just talk to him, so Jennifer, with her seasoned knowledge of the trail and optimism was a welcome partner.

Sam coming in at Donner Pass


The rendez-vous

The Amazing Pacer, Jennifer Johnston


Back at the parking lot, a small group of supporters from the Tahoe area had gathered and cringed as Sam unbound his feet from the confines of athletic tape and soggy sneakers. While Marion, Nelle, and the film crew scouted another location for the interview, I had the privilege of meeting Run While You Can's amazing supporters, who brought the most useful gifts: food and checks. Chloe's friends Kate and Steve came from Reno with a box of pastries and a cooler of beer. Sam's aunt, Cynthia arrived with a table full of snacks, including homemade beef jerky! Tattie, a Tahoe native, and member of the trail-running community, (aka. my new heroes after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run (seriously, it will knock your smelly running socks off)), brought a check along with kind words of advice and encouragement.

Arriving at the Support Point


Sam's hardcore fans


Towards the end of our fete in the dusty, windy parking lot, carrying a pie and gluten-free treats for Marion, Michelle Turley, wife of current PCT speed record-holder Scott Williamson, arrived. For Scott, who started two weeks before Sam, hoping to break his personal best, this is his THIRTEENTH thru-hike on the PCT, all of which have been unsupported. An unsupported thru-hike means that instead of relying on a support crew, he mails packages of food and other needs to himself along the trail, sleeps in a tent, and walks alone. While it is natural to assume a rivalry between a record-holder and an attempting record-breaker, Scott and Michelle have been nothing but gracious and supportive of Sam and Run While You Can, and we were all honored that Michelle stopped by. Good luck Scott!

Sam and Michelle finally meet

With our new friends in tow, we set up chairs by a small lake close to the southbound trailhead. There, Sam and Sam finally got to sit down face-to-face to talk about fears, hopes, dreams, challenges, and what it's like having a parent with Parkinson's. While Ben and Jon-Michael covered the setup, careful to keep Jeff's hovering boom-mic out of frame, Nelle orchestrated the interview as MJF's Sam asked thought-provoking questions. After the interview, we said goodbye to Sam and Jennifer as they made their way to Barker Pass, and filmed a few final segments of MJF's Sam introducing Sam to the camera, in manner of Bear Grylls or David Attenborough. We were so appreciative of Sam and Nelle's trust in our crew as well as their patience with not only the whirlwind day, but also with the actual gusty wind. After we wrapped on Sam, we packed up and headed off to Barker Pass, as the day faded into our rearview mirror and we began to plan for the next.

Nelle orchestrates the interview


Sam talks to Sam


Thank you for staying posted!

Cecily "Crazy Legs" Mauran