“We Needed a Killer Concept Trailer”: Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham on Crip Camp, Battling the Health Care System and Working with the Obamas
The 1970s: an oil and energy crisis, numerous coup d’états (some failed, some successful), a massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics, the rise (Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet) and falls (Richard Nixon) of world leaders, the beginning (Lebanon) and end (Vietnam) of drawn-out wars, and a New York-based serial killer who terrorized young adults because his neighbor’s dog ordered him to. Oh, to go back again!
Stateside, the ’70s saw further proliferation of rock music, drugs, second-wave feminism, the Black Panther movement and general political unrest and upheaval. Titled after a since-closed Catskills camp for disabled youth that was itself something of a liberation movement, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s Crip Camp documents LeBrecht’s camp experience as a hormone-raging teenager diagnosed with spina bifida. Aided by extensive black and white video footage shot at Camp Jened in the early 1970s (and rediscovered decades later), the documentary is a testament to a summer camp that dared to treat everyone as equals. The film also serves as a kind of superhero origin story. After the campers (and eventually, the camp) disbanded, many of the participants would reconvene under different circumstances, most notably to protest for equal rights for disabled Americans. A movement was born and, thanks to the tireless activist Judy Heumann (herself a former Camp Jened counselor), laws were passed and protected.
With Crip Camp now streaming on Netflix, I recently spoke with LeBrecht and Newnham about capturing the spirit of a revolution through archival footage and pop music, the strenuous fight for equal rights that continues to this day and working with the team at Higher Ground, a new production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama.
Filmmaker: Jim, how did your film career begin as a sound designer? You have quite an extensive list of credits on your IMDB page, from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to Bad Santa and a ton of documentaries.
LeBrecht: [laughs] This could take me forty hours to explain, but my trajectory was first through theater, then through film. After studying acoustics at UC San Diego as an undergrad, I was hired by Berkeley Repertory Theater to be their resident sound designer for about ten years. I then became aware of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and made the transition from theater into working on sound crews for motion pictures. For various reasons, I started my own company (Berkeley Sound Artists) in 1996, where we focused primarily on documentaries (feeling that it was an underserved market) and provided the artistic consideration I had picked up from my time working in theater. It was basically graduate school for filmmaking, a way to learn about documentary films as I was mixing them. I worked with filmmakers of all sorts, asked tons of questions and learned about structure, artistic choices, motivation and the like. I was very fortunate.
Filmmaker: Did working in sound design on other filmmakers’ work provide you with the confidence needed to oversee a project yourself?
LeBrecht: Well, there was still so much I didn’t know, and that’s partly why the collaboration with Nicole was crucial. I’d worked sound on three of her previous films and knew where her heart was and where her talents lie. Nicole was the one that had experience in knowing how to make a film, so we pulled upon each other’s strengths.
Filmmaker: Nicole, obviously this project is very personal to Jim, given the active role the camp played in his life in the 1970s and, in a more profound way, continues to play in his life today. Did that affect the way you approached this project as a co-director?
Newnham: It’s funny, because having directed documentaries for over 25 years, my previous films curiously have a number of the same elements that you’ll find in Crip Camp. Several of my films have been stories about the building of social movements, such as The Revolutionary Optimists, which was about young kids in Kolkata, India living in informal settlements and striving for change via grassroots organizing. I also co-directed a film called The Rape of Europa (which Jim did the sound design and mixing on), which viewed a particular moment in history (World War II) through a unique lens (the Nazis’ destruction of European artwork).
I had just finished a few projects very serious in nature when Jim approached me with the story for Crip Camp. He asked for me to direct and for him to co-produce. I was really excited about the potential to put a very personal lens on an important piece of American history that would hopefully shift hearts and minds around the subject of disability. In talking with Jim about a feature, he further made me aware of how we could relay to people this incredible story of civil rights. The more I read about it, the more shocked I became that it had been overlooked.
As a female filmmaker, the ability to lift up someone like Judy Heumann—one of the great civil rights leaders of our time, who so many people (including me) weren’t aware of and what she had accomplished—was another reason I was excited to jump into the story. Jim also, quite frankly, made it sound like a really fun party. Working with Jim was as well, discussing the incredible music that was birthed out of this incredible period in time (not to mention the incredible sense of humor and sense of joy that ran rampant throughout). Those were the elements that drew me to the project and we decided to work on it as co-directors.
I took the lead on architecting this story and figuring out its shape (that also involved Jim and I working with the editors, of course) and bringing Jim’s core truths (the things that he wanted to make sure the audience knew) to the forefront. Each of the deeper themes in the film came as a direct result of Jim’s passion regarding what people might not understand and what they would need to. We worked together quite intensively, having long conversations that turned into quasi-interviews we recorded. We’d then play back those recordings and use them as scaffolding for the film’s narration. The idea was always that Jim would be the character guiding us through the story, leading us through the world of the camp and pulling us through the political history of the time. It took years of personal and probing conversations with Jim, and subsequently putting him in the edit room, to help put it all together. He was like a compass needle that would guide us back to the truth of the story. I don’t have any level of experience when it comes to being a person with a disability, so the collaboration was a revealing one for me. I’ve made many films about communities different from my own, but to share co-director credit with someone who really has that lived experience was a different experience altogether.
Filmmaker: Crip Camp is a worthy addition to a genre we might call “the 1970s,” where social unrest, tumultuous political battles, and a sense of demonstrating your belief in a worthy cause was vital to daily American life. The documentary is obviously about that period in time, but it also feels very much in the style of a documentary made during that decade as well. I’m not sure Woodstockian is a term, but—
Newnham: That was a guiding principle for us from the very beginning. We wanted it to feel like the films of that period and were lucky enough to work with Mary Lampson [Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A., Emile de Antonio’s Milhouse] as a co-editor on the project. Mary had edited numerous political documentaries from the 1970s and was herself involved in many of these movements. There’s a radical, revolutionary feeling to the footage the video coalition known as the People’s Video Theater shot at Camp Jened in the early 70s. We wanted to continue that feeling. We didn’t want our current-day interviews or modern footage to distract from that. The footage shot by the People’s Video Theater was a huge influence on our style, as was the news footage of Evan White, the journalist who covered the 504 Sit-in from San Francisco in 1977. These were radical, activist filmmakers that inspired us and we wanted our film to share their ethos.
Filmmaker: The score is also heavily crucial in establishing the culture of the period; it’s infused with familiar hits and deep cuts.
LeBrecht: It was very collaborative. I would propose a lot of music to our editors and to Nicole. The music ranged from things I heard while attending Camp Jened to music that was important to me from that specific period. We worked with some of those cues for a while and things would change or we couldn’t obtain certain pieces of music we wanted. But in the long run, that’s one of the things we’ve been hearing from viewers, that the music is very accurate to the time. People of my age group are like “You took me right back to that time, man, far out!”
Filmmaker: What were the biggest issues you faced in working with the archival videotape footage? I imagine the material had to be “cleaned up” and digitized.
Newnham: The People’s Video Theater shot their footage (that you see in our film) on a Portapak using half-inch video. But to back up a bit: it’s miraculous that we were even able to track that footage down. Jim had this memory of the People’s Video Theater visiting the camp in the early 1970s, and of them handing him a camera, putting the Portapack on the back of his wheelchair and letting him give a tour of the grounds. We doggedly set out to find that footage.
In my months of doing online research, I discovered a listing in the back of an old video magazine in a library. It read “crabs epidemic at Camp Jened for the handicapped, by the People’s Video Theater.” Thanks to that listing, we discovered the real names of the people who ran the collective and tracked down one of the founders, Howard Gudstadt, at a radical bookstore in San Francisco, of which Howard was a member of their board. We had to leave a note, as they wouldn’t provide us with Howard’s contact information. He emailed us back about a month later and said that he was midway through transferring the footage with his colleague, Ben Levine, at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) in San Francisco. I believe they had a NEA grant that supported early videomakers and the transferring of their material, and that was the project they were working on.
Howard and Ben generously agreed to let us use their footage in our film and we helped find funding to pay for the rest of the transfer. A lot of the footage had never been seen before and it was a complicated technical process to transfer it (but the Bay Area Video Coalition handled all of that).
Filmmaker: So there was some luck involved.
Newnham: There was some incredibly good fortune, definitely, in that we happened to be able to find them and that they happened to still have the footage of Camp Jened. Ben had held onto it for a long time and took it everywhere; he told us that he had moved homes 17 times since he shot that footage. We wanted to say thank you to whoever made sure that that footage stayed safe for all that time and that we were given permission to use it. When you think about it, Jim started making our documentary, Crip Camp, when he was just 15 years old. Almost 50 years later, we picked it back up and ran with it.
LeBrecht: We did our finishing work at Different by Design. They did painstaking work in trying to help in the cleanup of the black and white video and color correction overall.
Filmmaker: What was your plan for developing structure via the edit? At times we’re toggling between 1971 and the 1980s with the present day, and it’s a pretty fluid transition. We’re continuously going back and forth between these different periods of time.
Newnham: That was the contribution of one of our editors, Eileen Meyer, who played around with the language at the beginning of the film that ultimately allowed us to freely jump through time. That was revelatory, as it freed us up to explain some things over the course of the film (that otherwise would have required people saying it outright). For example, when Neil and Denise Jacobson first pop into the story in the present day, you realize that they’re married. It doesn’t make much sense as to why that matters, but it feels right. It gives you a bit of a sense that you will be following people’s life’s trajectories without the addition of a more standard, chronological structure. Eileen has an unusual and brilliant way of editing archival, so that the archival is perceived in order of what it’s representing in the story. As a historical artifact, I think it helps you move through the film in a way that allows the viewer to receive information on multiple levels simultaneously.
Filmmaker: How were you originally pitching the project to potential investors? Obviously the camp is at the core of the story, but it grows into a depiction of social upheaval by the time we transition to the second half.
LeBrecht: We knew we needed a killer concept trailer that would do a bit of the talking for us. The power of the black and white footage itself was pretty stunning for a lot of people to see.
Newnham: The truth is that we didn’t know how we would pitch it until we first did years of archival research and knew we’d be able to color in the throughline from the camp all the way through to the establishing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The characters we met at Camp Jened would be the key, so initially at the time that we were pitching the film at IFP Week in 2017, from the very first conversations I had with Jim, we were talking about the connection between the camp and their eventual exodus out to Berkeley. We knew that the 504 Sit-in of 1977 could potentially serve as the climactic moment that we could build the narrative to. As for the number of details pertaining to how we were going to do that, we didn’t yet know.
Filmmaker: Why was that?
Newnham: Because until we obtained the funding to launch a really intensive archival search (and the subsequent carving out of time to extensively comb through it), we couldn’t identify the throughline from Camp Jened to the ADA. That was a hypothesis we were sending out into the world to investigate through the process of making the film.
Filmmaker: Jim, had you remained in touch with other members of the camp throughout your life? Or did it take a dedicated tracking down and reaching out to see who was available to reconnect and appear in the film?
LeBrecht: Truthfully, I had drifted apart from many of the folks throughout the years, but Judy Heumann and I had reconnected a few years before Nicole and I began working on the film. I had seen Neil and Denise in town at various gatherings in the local disabled community (which is really huge in the Berkeley/Bay Area region) and there had been an email chain of about fifty people from camp that I wasn’t initially aware of. When Nicole and I got plugged into all of that, we had contacts for people through the Center for Independent Living (CIL) and such. It wasn’t that hard to get back in touch but indeed, I hadn’t really talked to people like our camp counselor, Lionel Je’ Woodyard, for a long time, nor a few of the other people.
Filmmaker: As your film makes clear, it’s just as important to fight for the passing of laws that protect disabled rights as it is to subsequently protect those laws. They’re constantly being threatened via a lack of local law enforcement and funding. What has the response been to the film since you first shared it two months ago at Sundance? It takes on new relevance outside the world of the film, through whatever you or I or any disabled viewer might bring to it (our own personal battles with the healthcare system being one).
LeBrecht: The struggle for disabled people to live independently is still really tough, and indeed attacks on the funding of in-home help-and-support services continues. The state you live in could determine the support you receive, or whether you can live at home or in a nursing facility. It’s important to remember that the frontline warriors of the Affordable Care Act were people from the disabled community that were doing lie-ins in front of the United States Capitol to really draw attention to this. Our pre-existing conditions were under attack. When we eventually gained that self-protection, it was a huge moment of relief for myself and millions of other people. I’d finally be able to get health insurance that was relatively comprehensive. And to later have that attacked or be threatened with having that taken away, it’s like: “Do you not want me to live? What planet are you living on that allows you to think like that? Is there anything right about excluding people with pre-existing conditions from being able to access healthcare?” It’s still a big issue, unfortunately.
Filmmaker: How did Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company come aboard the project? What were those discussions like?
Newnham: We have this fabulous executive producer on the film, Howard Gertler, who worked on How to Survive a Plague and Shortbus and numerous other titles, and he felt that this story might be a really great fit for the company, as Higher Ground is primarily interested in lifting up stories that might otherwise struggle to get the kind of profile that they and Netflix offer. They’re also interested in the values of grassroots organizing, community building and the power of individuals who come together and create change. We were able to get an early clip reel (it’s probably the same reel we showed people at IFP Week) to Priya Swaminathan, who had been hired to run Higher Ground. She initially said, “Well, I’m not really looking at things right now,” but then watched the reel and called to say that she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She eventually flew up to meet with us and spend a bunch of time in the edit bay with us looking at footage. We generally talked about the shared vision we had to really shift perception and make change. She told us, “You have a culture-moving project,” which Jim wrote down and pinned on the wall of our edit room.
We were excited about the possibility of working with the Obamas and their platform and working with Priya and Tonia Davis, her partner at Higher Ground. At the end of our initial meeting, she called us back a few minutes later and said, “We really want to partner with you on this project, and the President and Mrs. Obama feel the same way.” They’re really roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-in-there-and-help-us-make-the-film kind of partners. The President and Mrs. Obama reviewed several cuts of the film and provided us with feedback. It’s been an extraordinary experience.
Filmmaker: With Crip Camp premiering on Netflix this week, I wanted to gauge your feelings about the film coming out at a time (during a global pandemic!) where streaming is currently the only option for moviegoers. You were going to have an extremely large audience for this film regardless, but now especially at a time where everyone has resorted to streaming. That’s our window to the outside world, for consuming films and music and breaking news right now, in our current modern crisis, if you will.
Newnham: Right before this all struck as hard as it has, as it was starting to brew, we had a week of screenings at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. That festival is really beautiful and they have these huge, gorgeous venues with up to 1,700 people filling the theaters. We were starting to get an inkling that week that the virus was going to hit hard in America. I remember sitting in the Missouri Theatre and listening to the audience respond to the film, their rise and fall with the humor and the laughter and tears that the film provokes. It was a beautiful community experience. There were a bunch of disability activists from the local community there, both on stage for our Q&A and in the audience to watch the film. It goes without saying that all of us who work in film are really attached to those in-person experiences.
Crip Camp is about the power of in-person experience, to create a community. But what we’ve seen from people in the disability community is that (especially in the last ten or 15 years) there’s also the power to create community online. That’s where much of the power for a story’s ability to shift perception and make change can thrive. People still need to be coming together.and fighting for justice, of course, but it can also happen in an online world. We’re grateful to have this film out in that world at a time where the world needs a story about the power of individuals who can make change through the power of community. People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to governmental decisions currently being made and they need to have visibility and a voice.