Brad Barber and Professor Thomas Lefler, Theatre and Media Arts
In making this documentary film, my original intent was to document Travis Eberhard’s personality, humor, and goals as a recently BYU-graduated film student. Specifically, I wanted to achieve this by not asking him any questions about what it was like to live with a wheelchair. This was not to be what I consider “a typical film” highlighting how Travis overcomes the obstacles life has dealt him, or how he deals with being treated differently. However, I believe the project was unique in that I still wanted to achieve some of the same goals such a film might seek after. By not addressing the subject of Travis’ wheelchair or physical condition in any of the interviews I hoped to draw more attention to Travis’ true personality and perhaps lend him the same presence and expectations that people tend to give anyone.
I have known Travis for two years. I have worked on film shoots with him, taken classes with him, and I have worked the same job with him. Before shooting the film, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what Travis was like. He is prone to silliness, extreme friendliness, and classic rock. As a film student he showed interest in animation, (claymation, specifically) and directing. He did character design for two student claymation films, composed a short animated film, directed a 16 mm narrative film, and was a sound mixer for a few others. Though his personality resonates with virtually everyone he meets, and each ride across campus is met with dozens of “Hey Travis”’s, Travis is not immune from a slightly more sinister nature. His best friend is Sammie Markham, a known troublemaker in the film program, and someone who, to the untrained eye, could be considered Travis’ opposite. However, upon meeting, the two quickly became friends, and I have observed that sometimes Travis seems to act the most like himself when Sammie is nearby. It is for this reason that I considered filming some observational footage of Travis and Sammie hanging out together. However, when Sammie moved to Virginia, I realized that this would be impossible.
I mention this situation to point out the greatest challenge I faced when making this film: capturing Travis’ true personality on camera. Like most people, Travis was a bit camera shy, and when the camera started rolling, or even in the pre-interviews I conducted with him on audio tape, it seemed difficult for him to act himself. Film (especially documentary film) is extremely expensive, at least for a film student, even with a budget of $1000. So I considered this challenge very carefully and took measures to try to make Travis feel more at home in front of the camera. For instance, I made sure that those on my crew were people he knew from the film program. I would also talk to him about the idea of not displaying his “wheelchairness” but rather his personal goals and aspirations as a filmmaker and person, before, during, and after the shoot..
We shot on two separate days. The first was at Travis’ apartment in Salt Lake City, doing mostly observational footage of him riding his chair along the street, recharging his chair, and going in and out of his apartment. The second day we shot the interviews in the parking lot of LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. I rode with the camera in the back of my friend’s Ford Explorer with the back open, and Kathryn Young next to me recording sound. I wanted to shoot this way so as to capture what it feels like in Travis’ world—a point of view which sees constant, smooth motion, not bouncy and jerky like most people who walk would see.
I believe some of the best things that came out of this film were things that I thought of once we were actually shooting on location. This reminded me of the immutable truth that filmmaking will virtually always require an element of improvisation. It is difficult to foresee every obstacle which may present itself, and ignorant to not work with unplanned ideas. One example is the last shot of the film where Travis is staring at the camera, and suddenly stops his chair; the car keeps moving however, which makes Travis appear to slowly fade in to part of a vast backdrop (the parking lot), symbolizing his life full of opportunity and directions. I noticed this happening when we’d finish a regular shot and Travis would stop his chair while we kept going. Another example is the opening shot of the film where Travis tells his joke, an idea which came about because we were at the end of a roll and I had run out of questions. Hoping that the idea would spark Travis’ natural sense of humor, I asked him if he would tell us a joke. This turned out to be one of the more genuine moments of the film, and what I chose to use as the opening shot of the film.
Travis’ “Weaselman Theory” actually comes from a Film Theory and Criticism class we took together at BYU. One of the assignments was to present an original theory to the class. When he couldn’t think of anything for several hours, Travis toyed with the idea of presenting his Weaselman theory, but in the end decided not to. I thought it better not to explain that Travis didn’t really believe that Al Gore was overseeing a secret government plan to create a breed of half man half weasel, and allow the viewer to discover his humor on their own.
I have shown various versions of this film to small test screening sessions with other film students who know Travis. Though I worked as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of the film, I received helpful feedback and criticism from these groups as well as my faculty mentor, Thomas Lefler, and would not have been able to make the film without their help and that of others.