The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Athlete A.
As you began this project, what did what you learned that differed from what you saw in the news?
Bonni Cohen: This was still 2017. We had followed the Nassar story but he hadn’t gone to trial until January of 2018. This was still in the beginning phases of him being caught and the survivors starting to come forward. At that point it still wasn’t clear how big a story this was, so probably much like you we were following the news and it seemed horrible and tragic, but it hadn’t risen in our minds to incorporate these other abuses that we learned were taking place at the institutional level. We got involved with Jennifer Sey and started to think about what she had done in 2008 in her book, which was to go back decades to elite gymnastics in the U.S. and focus on how this “win-win” style of coaching was creating eating disorders and forcing gymnasts to compete with broken bones. Girls were living this obedient, tragic, abusive lifestyle inside the gym away from their families, and this view was hidden from the public who watch the Olympics every four years. As we started talking to Jen and [attorney] John Manly and the reporters, we began to realize this story was much bigger than we realized and we became more interested in this trend of institutional abuse that seems to pervade different corners of our country. That’s when we started percolating the idea of going deeper into that sphere.
We had this idea, what if we could talk to everyone that had a key link in the chain that led to the uncovering of this story?
How did you decide what to include and how to show how the puzzle pieces fit together?
Jon Shenk: That was the main question in the beginning, because it is so overwhelming. It’s likely there are at least 500 survivors of Nassar alone, not to mention dozens of other coaches even going back to when Don Peters was coach of the Olympic team in the late seventies and early eighties. He is also known to have sexually assaulted his athletes. So it was a very big story. Early on we had this idea, what if we could talk to everyone that had a key link in the chain that led to the uncovering of this story? That led us to the Indianapolis Star. They had gotten a tip surrounding the lack of policy at USAG about going to authorities when they received complaints about sexual assault in their gyms. That general story led to Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard; the three gymnasts who first contacted The Star about Nassar. Later on we found out about Maggie Nichols, who almost simultaneously within USAG had reported Nassar internally, but it wasn’t known until much later because USAG didn’t go to the police. And even when they did, the FBI mysteriously didn’t do anything for a year. So there were all these puzzle pieces that kind of fit on the same timeline but also kind of didn’t, so we tried to narrow it down to the key people that led to the unraveling of the Nassar mystery. That was an organizing principle that made things a little simpler for us as we went through production.
BC: And we need to call out our editor, Don Bernier. This is the third film we’ve cut with Don. It was really a Herculean editorial task. In the edit room, structurally, we must have pulled the film apart about three or four times to try and get it right, because as Jon describes, there are all these different threads. We really relied on Don as a third set of eyes to keep shifting our perspective and bring us back to the origins of why we were making the film and which pieces of information you need first in order to go on the next part of the story. It’s probably the hardest film we’ve ever edited.
JS: In our edit room, as in many edit rooms, we have an index card system where one scene leads to the next and sometimes it’s color-coded. We also had a whole other wall that was like a sort of like an investigative murder board. I always thought it looked like something that Carrie would use on Homeland. We had pictures and timelines and ribbons connecting things, dotted lines, straight lines. It was tough enough to keep it in our heads, let alone put into the film coherently, and we owe Don a great deal.
Making a film like this is challenging not only because of the pieces but also because of the visuals. I was really struck by how you made this so interesting cinematically.
BC: Well, I’ll let Jon answer most of this because he also photographed the movie in addition to co-directing. In addition to what Jon shot so beautifully, we also had the whole other separate element of this vast archive. It required a whole team of people to work on, from excavating Russian gymnastics archives and talking to gymnasts from the eighties to ask them to find their VHS tapes in their garages from national competitions. That was a substantial part of why we believe the film feels so cinematic, but obviously the other piece is Jon.
JS: Before we move off the archival, we owe a great deal to Rich Remsberg, the archival supervisor and Serin Marshall, our third producer. They are both incredible archivists. Serin worked with an assistant we had in the office, Yael Chanoff. We would literally get boxes from people’s garages and they went through all those boxes. These were from people who had taped the Olympics or the trials or their local news, that sort of thing. A lot of things were not online. And one day, Yael yelled “Oh my god, there’s Nassar.” It was the clip from the mid-nineties where you see Nassar come out to the floor to treat a gymnast and the announcer says “There’s Nassar. He keeps all the women together,” and that became the introduction to Nassar. The team of people looking for that stuff did a huge service to the film.
The original visuals we did were a challenge too. What do you show? Reporters at their desks only goes so far. At one point we thought about the ranch and whether you can go there anymore. Are the Karolyis still living there? We got a tip about an excellent drone operator out of Austin and said, why don’t you go down there and see what you can do, don’t worry about the film at all. Just scout around. The law in Texas is that you can fly anywhere if you don’t set it down. We said what we’d really like is a dolly shot like you’re on the ground and he said okay, and we described a few others. So we had some photos and storyboards we sent him, and that night he came back to show us what he got on his scout, and that’s the footage you see in the film. He never had to go again. He did a terrific job and every second of footage he got from the ranch was gold.