Bringing Gymnastics To The Big Screen

Some thoughts from Stick It writer-director Jessica Bendinger

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This particular newsletter is long overdue. (I feel like I’ve been writing that a lot lately. Just a couple of months of Olympic-level exhaustion, Jewish high holidays, and misdiagnosed infected wounds.) All the way back in April, I published a loooong oral history of the movie Stick It, the best gymnastics movie ever made. (Sorry American Anthem!) After, I promised you guys newsletters with extras from the many interviews I did for the story, about a dozen in total, I only delivered on one—this newsletter featuring some extras from French gymnast and Missy Peregrym stunt double Isabelle Severino.

Now that we’re in a very temporary kind of lull in gymnastics—very temporary what with worlds coming up in a couple of weeks, wtf?—I decided I would finally give you guys the Stick It extras I promised all those months ago. So please enjoy this newsletter featuring extras from my conversations with Stick It writer/director Jessica Bendinger. (Bendinger also wrote the classic movie Bring It On, which features my favorite vampire slayer, Eliza Dushku. Faith 4 Eva.) 

Over the course of two phone calls, I spoke to Bendinger for approximately three hours. We covered a lot of ground in those conversations but because I wasn’t writing a book on the movie and because I had already far exceeded my original word count limit, some interesting parts were left out.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

As I wrote in the Vice story, Bendinger was a serious gymnast when she was younger until a growth spurt effectively ended her burgeoning gymnastics career. She worked out at Muriel Grossfeld’s gym in Connecticut. This was one of the early serious training centers in the U.S. Marcia Frederick, the first U.S. woman to win a world titlethe 1978 gold on the uneven barstrained there, and Bendinger was a student at the gym around the same time. Here’s are links—part 1 and 2—to a documentary about the gymnasts at Grossfeld’s gym.

Jessica Bendinger: Marcia Frederick, she was at Muriel's gym. Marcia and Leslie Russo were kind of the biggest gymnasts out of that gym at the time. Leslie was an elite who was competing nationally. Really, really pretty. In terms of having the girl that you aspire to [be] in the gym, Leslie had perfectly feathered hair, from my memory, very pretty. And also stood up to Muriel. As a younger person, watching somebody fight with the head of the gym was very much like, ‘Whoa, what's happening here?’ She was a teenager who was going through it. I didn't have siblings so this was also where I was seeing some of the adolescent dynamics play out amongst older kids...I competed there and went there, pretty much fourth grade through sixth grade, seventh grade. And then I grew six inches in one summer [and] I lost my center of gravity. I just started chickening [out] and I knew it. I just didn't have it anymore. And so they held me back to level three after I'd been third in the state on floor. I just wanted to get up to two. My mom was like ‘the commute, the money, the height.’ It was a reality check. So I stopped. 

As it was for me and I imagine for many others, gymnastics was more than something that Bendinger enjoyed and was good at; it filled a very specific emotional hole in her life at a time when things were particularly chaotic for her outside of the gym.

JB: When you're the only child of divorced parents, very young parents who have a lot of other stuff to do and are stressed, to be able to do something that commanded adult attention, like a standing back tuck, or a back walkover.

For the most part, I had very young parents who fucked up a lot. And I think that gymnastics became a place for me to control my destiny. I had no control over anything else that was going on and neither did my parents. And I saw that. So that double layer of no control I think, made me want to control my body and what I could do, and having a sense of agency and autonomy from a very young age and gymnastics was the vehicle for that.

I had a lot of chaos and uncertainty. That was just my reality as a child. And there was a lot of guilt and shame, I think, on the part of the adults understandably, around the lack of resources, lack of control, a lack of whatever. Also, I think gymnastics was a great babysitter in some ways. You know, it was letting you play dangerously. Jonathan Haidt at NYU talks about the need for you know, kind of healthy amounts of adventure and healthy amounts of risk in children's lives so they can learn their edges. 

I got hematomas. I hated bars. And I was in the days of really just a horrible—I'd say it's the worst era of bars.

Dvora Meyers: I went to this gym that had equipment from the 70s in the 90s, we had the oblong-shaped bars that didn't have a lot of give to them.

JB: I remember I could never get the catch, like that wraparound into the catch. I can't remember what it's called.

DM:  When the bars were still really close together.

JB:  You're like wrapping around you're like coming down and wrapping around with your waist from where it was so awful. And they had these shorts with pads on them for our hips. I could never get [the] grip I was very panicky around grip changes and stuff and I got very nervous letting go, which I think is an appropriate metaphor for me. I see my own control issues with my family and the world and my own blossoming self...That's why Stick It was very easy for me to write in lots of ways

DM:  Stick It, as you just said, was easy for you to write because of all this sort of emotional baggage.

JB: The emotional part was easier for me having been lucky enough to benefit having been a big beneficiary of therapy. But writing was hard. And Liz Tigelaar, who is a huge gymnastics fan—she's now a showrunner of great note and great success—Liz looked at my first draft and she was like, ‘It’s not working.’ I hadn't outlined it and kind of written this kind of ebullient vomit draft. And she was absolutely right. 

[Ed. note: I will definitely be making use of the phrase “ebullient vomit draft” with an editor at some point in the future. How mad can they get at me for receiving a vomit draft that is also ‘ebullient’?]

One of the particularly noteworthy features of the film that I didn’t go into at all in the oral history was the use of music. The soundtrack is chock full of early aughts hits and some hidden gyms, I mean gems; many still appear in my iTunes playlists. A lot of the acrobatics were cut to the music. Some of these vignettes have the look and feel of music videos, which makes sense, given Bendinger’s background in directing music videos. The first meet in the movie, a little intrasquad to determine which gymnasts would be sent to a qualifying competition, was basically a montage of the gymnasts’ flips and twisting, moving images overlaid, tumbling presented almost kaleidoscopically, set to Electric Six’s Dance Commander. I asked Bendinger why she chose to present the gymnastics and competitions this way instead of a more straightforward presentation.

JB:  Meets are boring. Anybody who has been to a meet will tell you meets are fucking boring. And even as much as I love gymnastics when you watch them on TV, it's kind of merciful the way they're edited. 

DM: They definitely can be.

[Ed. note: This might be an unpopular opinion, but gymnastics is generally a sport best watched on TV. That doesn’t mean I think that NBC does a remotely good job of presenting the sport. They cut so much out that it’s basically impossible to follow the narrative of the event. I mean, they didn’t even show Yeo Seo-jeong, the Olympic bronze medalist on vault in Tokyo, during the vault final in the primetime broadcast. But following gymnastics live in the arena can be really difficult, especially in an all-around or team final where multiple events are going simultaneously. And what you see and how well you see it depends on where you’re sitting. I’ve done most of my live gymnastics viewing from the media section and those are usually not the best seats in the house. I often relied on the jumbotron to follow the events that weren’t bars. That’s not to say I don’t like going to the meets because there are things you get from watching in the arena that you wouldn’t get from being home on your couch—such as seeing things happening on the sidelines, the energy in the arena, or getting covered in chalk—but for pure gymnastics viewing, TV might be the best option. It’s a shame, then, that NBC does such a terrible job of bringing it to people at home.]

JB: I think my own trauma is part of it. In the waiting between events for me as an athlete, I was a total head case. I did not do well in that environment. And you're trying to make it escalate. You're trying, as a storyteller, you're trying to escalate it. [You] need to be entertaining and escalating things as you go. So it's harder than you think. Real-time meet shit is boring. 

I think I just liked what I liked and I knew other people liked it too. Having directed music videos, of course, I had a real comfort zone and cutting to music. I wanted to lean into that as much as I could. My parents are musicians. My mom's a professional musician, my dad, a jingle writer. I grew up watching ads being cut, which is cutting to music. 

When I watch it now, I'm like, ‘Wow, it's like wall-to-wall music cues.’ Even Diane Warren, who I know from my local coffee joint, when she finally saw the movie, she was like, ‘God, you have a lot of music.’ 

[Ed. note: Diane Warren is a renowned singer/songwriter/producer. She has written a lot of big hits including “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which was performed by Cher, and “Because You Loved Me,” sung by Celine Dion.]

I think we had like a million dollars in the music budget. We had a huge music budget, unheard of now. Much of that was taken by the Green Day song and the Blink 182 [one], and Missy Elliott.

[Ed. note: The music video for the Missy track “We Run This” features 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominque Dawes, film stars Missy Peregrym and Vanessa Lengies, and clips from Stick It in addition to a Missy Elliott dancing stick figure. It’s pretty excellent.]

JB: Troy Takaki, the wonderful editor, was a drummer, and I hired him because he was a drummer. Not all film editors have great musicality. And I wanted to make sure there was great musicality. So you know, you have a music editor, which is a separate job. Troy, to his credit, could cut to music without the music editor; we were giving our edits to the music editor to refine.

Another particularly noteworthy aspect of the film that I failed to explore at all in the oral history were the visuals. While this was mostly due to lack of space, it also had a lot to do with my own weaknesses as a viewer and writer—my visual acumen isn’t the sharpest and I tend to miss a lot of important visual storytelling elements. Anyway, here are some of Bendinger’s insight into the visual elements of the film.

JB: Daryn Okada, the DP, really understood the levels and we needed levels built up. Gymnastics is a sport of levels right, hierarchically? In terms of judgment, I'm judging you. I'm deeming you inferior or superior. And so that is what's so brilliant about what Daryn did is that it’s built into the landscape of the movie. It's working you psychologically without you knowing you're being worked.

At the start of this clip, we see the gymnasts warming up for the intrasquad competition I mentioned earlier.

JB: I had done a video, which is somewhere online, for a band called Wop Bop Torledo that was a one-hit wonder in England. I did a whole Busby Berkeley video for them. And I loved the effect and I loved Esther Williams movies as a kid. The original impulse is definitely Esther Williams, for sure. The secondary one was Busby Berkeley and then tertiary is Big Lebowski, [which starred Jeff Bridges, who played Burt Vickerman, Haley’s coach].

DM: There was the line that really hit me when Haley said to Burt [Vickerman, Haley’s coach] something along the lines of “You didn't owe it to me to be a decent coach. You owed it to me to be decent human being.” Him being a good coach is almost beside the point. He just needs to be a good person, really. And as we’ve learned over the last few years, so many coaches have forgotten their own humanity and the humanity of their athletes. 

JB:  That's very well said. I think [that] at its worst, sports is very transactional. Coaches had a very transactional relationship with the parents and the athletes. It is a very tragic tax that parents pay but more tragically, in my opinion, young people pay with their innocence. Their trust is preyed upon. Transactions can be predatory.

The “I am Spartacus” energy at the end of the movie, right?  I am standing up in solidarity. The rebel, unhealed, acts out criminally; the rebel healed becomes a revolutionary, which is criminal behavior for the greater good, disruptive behavior for the greater good. And I'm very proud of that, that that kind of social justice awareness is embedded in the movie.

I had asked Bendinger about whether she felt pressured to add things by the studio. I was especially interested if she felt pressure from the higher-ups to insert a romantic interest for Haley, who, in an unusual twist for a movie in the early aughts centered on a young woman, didn’t seem remotely interested in dating or romantic entanglements of any kind. 

JB: I always believe when you're writing a protagonist, their biggest enemy is themselves. I come at it from a much more matriarchal perspective and a much more Jungian perspective, which means your shadow, your villain is frequently internal. And given what she [Haley] was going through, from a perspective of trauma, a love interest would have been inappropriate. It would have been trauma bonding. For her to be in a relationship at that point would have been really sending a bad message from a perspective of psychological well-being. I remember very distinctly feeling pretty adamant about that, that this was her journey. This was really about her, her relationship to herself and Burt [her coach] and her teammates in the world. There was no room for a love relationship. The short answer is yes. The studio tried to shoehorn that in and it didn't work. So I will just say they really tried it. Fortunately, the DNA of the original script was so strong that it withstood the meddling...The movie is very close to the spec. I mean, it's shockingly close.

You shot things and inserted things for the studio, but then when they see it back, they really recognize [they] don't need it. So a lot of times what you're doing when the studio's meddling is helping them regulate their anxiety; they are having a lot of anxiety about the investment of capital. So your job is to just help them regulate that anxiety. And so sometimes that means shooting stuff you don't agree with and knowing you're not going to die on that hill. Because you know when you cut it together, it'll work and that they will know it'll work as well. But in that moment of them trying to appease an unsatisfied master, they just have to check those boxes. It’s just the reality of anxiety regulation in Hollywood. 

Finally, Bendinger about the challenges of creating movies that are ostensibly for women. It seems that every time a Bridesmaids-like film comes out, there are dozens of articles wondering if people will buy tickets to a woman-centered comedy. Every project is treated as the very first of its kind and the funding fate of future similar projects seems to hinge on whether or not this new one is successful. This is not the standard that movies that focus on men, particularly straight white men, are held to, regardless of how many of those films turn out to be flops. A million of those movies can fail but it won’t stop Hollywood from making more of them, but if a movie or TV show featuring women or people of color or any other marginalized identity flops, that’s often taken as proof that there is no audience for this kind of work. 

JB: The missionary work is just exhausting, just convincing people of what’s true.

DM: And constantly having to do it. It's not like you prove it once and then you're good. I've been fortunate eventually to work with an editor at Deadspin, who, in 2012, got it and was just like, ‘Here, you have free rein, do whatever you want for the 2012 Olympics.’ He really got what I was doing. But most of the time, it's exhausting, [with you saying], ‘Okay, but look at how many girls do gymnastics, look at the readership for these articles, the engagement level, etc.’ 

JB: I was listening to Adam Grant, who's an acquaintance of mine. He has a new book out called Think Again. I was listening to him talk to Gwyneth Paltrow yesterday. And he was talking about logic bullies. He was saying how women in positions of power often become logic bullies. They were talking kind of about the bad rap women can get when nobody understands, like, if you are at all feisty, and if you have had to push, you are accustomed to doing a certain level of missionary work that becomes annoying. And so you become a logic bully. Of course, it's not our fault that we've had to become this way. 

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