Filmmaker Marina Zenovich on making ‘Lance,’ filming Armstrong in Aspen
What: ‘Lance,’ presented by Aspen Film
When: Friday, Dec. 18 through Sunday, Dec. 20
How much: Free, $10 suggested donation
More info: The stream will include a new Q&A with Lance Armstrong, ‘Lance’ director Marina Zenovich and Aspen Film executive and artistic director Susan Wrubel.
One of the entertainment high points of the COVID-19 stay-at-home period is receiving a special encore courtesy of Aspen Film this weekend.
The two-part ESPN Films documentary “Lance,” chronicling the dramatic rise and fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong, will stream through Aspen Film this weekend in a virtual event that includes a Q&A with Armstrong and director Marina Zenovich.
The film was enshrined in pop culture history in May, when ESPN aired it during the national COVID-19 lockdown, the strange period without sports broadcasts and with a captive national audience at home and hungry for communal experience. The network had planned a fall release, but moved up “Lance” to satiate sports fans immediately after the phenomenon of the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance.”
Much of “Lance“ was filmed in Aspen, where Armstrong has lived full-time since 2018 and where the controversial athlete has found sanctuary and community over his tumultuous past decade.
Among locals, it became something of a quarantine parlor game to pinpoint some of the exact locations in “Lance,” like identifying where his snowy run is in the West End and the bike ride up Snowmass Creek Road through Old Snowmass to the Krabloonik sled dog kennels.
“He was a much better interview after he’d exercise,” Zenovich explained in a phone interview from Los Angeles.
So she built bike rides and runs into the interview schedule.
Zenovich and her crew did three shoots in Aspen in 2018 and 2019. They followed Armstrong recording his “The Forward” podcast, followed him to a fundraiser for Sheriff Joe DiSalvo’s 2018 reelection, and interviewed him and fiancé Anna Hansen in his West End home on several occasions, including the memorable scene where Armstrong slices open his finger on a cheese grater.
Tellingly, while the still-proud Armstrong made any topic fair game in interviews and opened up his private life, the novice downhiller would not allow Zenovich to film him skiing.
For Zenovich, “Lance” follows incisive documentaries about comedians Robin Williams and Richard Pryor and filmmaker Roman Polanski — troubled men, all of them, not unlike Armstrong.
“I’m just interested in complicated people,” Zenovich said of her subjects. “I’m trying to understand why they end up where they end up.”
There was no shortage of Lance Armstrong content when Zenovich took on this project, of course. He’d done his blockbuster 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey admitting to his years of doping and cheating. He’d been subject of another acclaimed documentarian, Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie.” But what this project offered, Zonovich said, was a subject in Armstrong who was settled down, the storm passed, looking back after all had been revealed, after settling his historic $100 million lawsuit with the U.S. Postal Service, after landing in Aspen.
“He was in a very different place and he was willing to open up,” Zenovich said.
Her 18-month shoot coincided with the period that Armstrong transitioned to living here full-time, when it became common to spot Armstrong on local trails, in Aspen area races, on the golf course with DiSalvo (whose interview was cut from the film), at Aspen Art Museum openings, or stepping on-stage to sing at Belly Up, which has become a ritual of Lyle Lovett’s regular concerts here.
The town’s long tradition of hands-off and protective treatment of celebrities, and perhaps its historic embrace of outlaws, has given Armstrong a sanctuary in his post-scandal life. Zenovich witnessed that as she filmed.
“I got the sense that he loves that place, he loves the people and he felt he could be himself there,” Zenovich said. “He could ride his bike, his kids could ride bikes. … I think it is a safe haven for him and it holds a special place in his heart.”
The movie premiered to positive notices at the Sundance Film Festival in January and had been slated for a fall broadcast on ESPN.
“We were coming off of this Sundance high and trying to figure out what other festivals we were going to play at,” Zenovich recalled. “And then corona hit.”
Instead of hitting festivals and doing a limited theatrical run, ESPN sent it to right to broadcast in May to capitalize on the captive audience and make up for the lack of live sports. Watching it was a communal experience on social media, where the debate over Armstrong’s seven Tour de France titles reignited and where memes emerged of his teammate-turned-rival Floyd Landis (whose Floyd’s of Leadville marijuana shop gets some product placement in the film).
Following the nation’s reactions on Twitter was a novel, if less than ideal, experience according to Zenovich: “People who don’t like him experienced it differently than people who do like him.”
“Lance” is an unsparing and mostly unsympathetic portrait, but it also is a full one that captures Armstrong’s athletic feats and his transformative effect on the lives of cancer survivors. It begins with a vivid portrait of Armstrong’s hardscrabble childhood in Texas, his emergence as a triathlon phenom and — with insight from coaches and rivals — his lifelong and ruthless drive to win at all costs.
As 2020 nears an end, Zenovich is juggling ongoing film projects while working at home in Los Angeles through the ongoing California stay-at-home period.
“I’ve never been busier,” Zenovich said. “I count myself really lucky.”
Revisiting “Lance” for the Aspen Film event, she admitted, has made her long for her pre-pandemic days traveling to Europe to interview cyclists and her extended trips to Aspen filming Armstrong.
“It’s romanticized in my head,” she said. “Because we had such freedom and got to spend a lot of time in Aspen, which we all loved.”
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