‘Being Evel’ ready to soar during the Sundance Film Festival
January 23, 2015
Documentary filmmaker Daniel Junge, known for social-issue works such as "They Killed Sister Dorothy," "Iron Ladies of Liberia" and the Academy Award-winning "Saving Face," grew up watching daredevil Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel on TV and in the movies.
"Evel Knievel was a childhood hero of mine, as he was for a lot of my generation," Junge told The Park Record during a telephone interview from his hometown of Denver, Colorado. "I also had a certain amount of ambivalence towards him as well. As I grew up, I realized what a complicated person he was and that there were some dark chapters in his life as well."
So, Junge decided it was time to make his film, "Being Evel," that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 25.
"This film reconciles my childhood hero with the reality of the man behind the mask," Junge explained.
Making a film about a pop-culture icon is different than taking on social issues surrounding the death of a nun who campaigned to save the rain forest or acid attacks on women in Pakistan.
But the public’s fascination with pop culture is, in itself, a social issue, and focusing on an enigma such as Evel Knievel was even more challenging than Junge’s other films.
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"I’m still interested in making those kinds of films, but I wanted to challenge myself to make some more-populous fare," he said. "This is more of a mainstream, theatrical type film, but hopefully it’s still a serious film and we’re looking critically at this man, his time and what his legacy should be.
"Certainly, there are a lot of films that make Knievel a hero, and ours does, too, but we wanted to look at his role in society and what he meant to us and what he means today in retrospect," Junge said. "In some ways, the Oscars enabled me to tackle things I wanted to do and Evel is certainly one of those."
The film was produced in part by Johnny Knoxville, which on the surface, may appear to some as a goofy choice. But Junge disagreed.
"Johnny is a die-hard Evel Knievel fan and he is also a surprisingly serious guy," Junge said. "He had the same serious intentions as I did of making this film."
Other producers include Jeff Tremaine, Brendan Kiernan, Justin Moore-Lewy and X-Games alum Matt Hoffman.
Executive producers are Molly Thompson, Susan Werbe, Dirk Hoogstra, Robert Lewis and George Hamilton, who portrayed Knievel in Marvin J. Chomsky’s 1971 biopic, "Evel Knievel."
"Speaking of X-Games and extreme athletes, Matt and [award-winning skateboarder] Tony Hawk also appear in the film," Junge said. "There is a host of people from my generation and younger who have now taken on the mantle of extreme sports, and these incredible X-Game athletes and extraordinary individuals talk about how Evel influenced what they do."
Since Knievel died in 2007, Junge reached out to the Knievel’s sons, Kelly and Robbie.
"They also provided us with a lot of the archival materials for the film," Junge said. "We were happy to have their participation and agreement with us."
In addition, Junge and his crew embarked on setting up interview with friends, managers and event promoters.
"We actually talked with three times as many people as I did with any of my other films," Junge said. "This film is a composite of Evel from the aspects of many different people."
Most everyone, including Shelly Saltman, Knievel’s onetime promoter, gave candid interviews, according to Junge.
"It was Saltman whom Evel beat up with a baseball bat, an incident that precipitated the end of Evel’s career," he said. "This was the first time Saltman has agreed to appear on film and he also provided us with audio tapes he recorded of Evel while on tour."
The biggest challenge for Junge was squeezing Knievel’s life into a 100-minute film.
"The man lived a bigger-than-life life from his childhood until his death and if you wrote out his life as a nonfiction book, no one would believe it," Junge said. "The man led an incredible life, even down to him getting his first behind-the-desk job."
After his daredevil days ended, Knievel took a job as an insurance salesman and became the best salesman in the company, the filmmaker said.
"He broke all the sales records and that led him to ask the company’s president to make him vice president," Junge said. "This was only months after he took the job. He was a natural-born salesman and natural-born perfectionist and had to do things better than anyone else."
Another challenge was finding the right tone for the film.
"It was difficult because all of us have such a reverence towards this man, but at the same time, know about some of those very dark chapters in his life," Junge said. "We had to decide how dark the film could get and still celebrate what he has done for our culture."
Junge is looking forward to showing all these sides of the stuntman to Sundance Film Festival audiences.
"Even those who think they know Knievel’s life will come in and the film will, hopefully, keep them on their toes," Junge said. "We want them to be happily surprised."
Ironically, "Being Evel" is Junge’s first film accepted by the film festival.
"One of the big reasons I became a filimmaker was because of Sundance," he said. "I came to my first festival in 1992. Then I became a volunteer after that and it has always loomed large for me and I’ve had a goal to have a film screened there.
"I’ve won a lot of filmmaking accolades and have been to most of the great festivals around the world, and this is my first Sundance film," Junge said. "The fact that it’s such a personal film, makes it that much more special."
The Sundance Film Festival will premiere "Being Evel" at the MARC Theatre, 1200 Little Kate Rd., on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 5:30 p.m. Additional screenings will be at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre on Monday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, 2175 Sidewinder Dr. in Park City, on Wednesday, Jan. 28, at 11:30 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 31, at 11:30 a.m., and the Redstone Cinema 2, 6030 Market St. in Park City, on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.