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The Pursuit of Excellence—and the Story—With Olympics Documentarian Bud Greenspan

By David Heuring

Bud Greenspan in the Cappy Production vault.

Bud Greenspan understands the ideas of honor and glory and their manifestations on the field of sports competition. He has been called the world's foremost writer/producer/director of sports films, and the sobriquet fits.

Greenspan's series of Olympic documentaries, now numbered at seven, chronicle the Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta Summer Games, and the Calgary, Lillehammer and Nagano Winter Games. Greenspan' company, Cappy Productions, has produced dozens of other sports documentaries, including The Spirit of the Olympics, which is on permanent display on 36 television screens at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. He has dozens of honors and awards to his credit, including the Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award, and the George Foster Peabody Award for his lifetime body of work. This summer, Showtime will premiere Greenspan's latest film: Bud Greenspan's Stories of Olympic Glory, a powerful look back at some of the stories of previous Olympians.

Greenspan says his role combines the qualities of teacher, cheerleader and philosopher. The cheerleader part of his personality comes to the forefront every day when he reviews dailies and encourages his camera crews. The teacher role emerges when he points out changes and improvements in the way they shoot the events. The philosopher surfaces when he instructs his camera crews to capture not the winners, but those whose stories would elucidate the Olympic spirit of competition.

"I'm more interested in the humanistic aspect of sports," says Greenspan. "One of our stories in the Nagano film is about Kirstin Halum and her mother Dianne Halum, who was the first speed skating champion in the United States. She coached her daughter, and they knew that the Nagano games would be her first and last Olympics. The daughter finishes sixth, with her mother shouting encouragement from off the ice. We had a wireless microphone on the mother. The kid starts to cry when she realizes she came in sixth, but the mother puts her arm around her and says, 'Darling just remember, you're the sixth best of 12 billion people in the world,' and she stopped crying.

"That's the kind of story we look for, because people can relate those feelings to their own everyday lives," he says. "I may feel tired today, but I take inspiration from knowing that when the sprinter Michael Johnson is tired, he still goes out and trains hard."

Greenspan's filmmaking career began when he accidentally discovered the inspirational story of an athlete and decided that people should know it. As a spear-carrier in an opera production in 1952, he became friends with opera singer John Davis. On a visit to Davis' home. Greenspan inquired about a gold medal on display. Davis answered that he had won the medal in weightlifting during the 1948 Games in London.

"I found this fascinating," says Greenspan. "Why had I never heard of this man before? I think it was because he was a black man, and this was pre-Civil Rights, in a sport that very few people cared about in the States."

Greenspan wrote the story for Reader's Digest. He then followed Davis to Helsinki for the '52 Summer Garners, where Davis won again. The resulting 15-minute film was eventually bought by the State Department, which was trying to counteract Soviet propaganda about the oppression of blacks in America.

It took Greenspan 12 years to make his second film, a documentary about Jesse Owens returning to Berlin. But by now he was hooked.

Greenspan still uses the lessons he learned on that first film. "We start out with a good story, and then we come up with the footage," he says. "It's basically working backwards. I write it as if it were a radio script, and then we fill in the pictures. Sometimes we use stills. Basically I'm a writer that turned filmmaker, so all our stories are all have beginnings, middles and ends.

"I want things to occur when people see my films." he continues. "I want people to say 'Gee. I didn't know that.' and 'Where were the networks in this story?"'

Greenspan holds seminars for his camerapeople prior to any film, teaching them to be story-focused which is some times counter-intuitive for experienced sports shooters. "You can tell them, but when they see it, they really get it," he says. "The finish of a race is fine, but what happens afterwards is even finer. Keep the camera going until you lose sight of the guy or gal. That is our story. Some of our best things happen when the race or bout was long over."

He reminds that camerapeople are far from being simply recorders of the scene. They need to understand story as well. "Sometime the best cameramen we have are feature film people, as opposed to sports people," says Greenspan. "The sports people are trained to stop the camera when the race is over. The feature film people, I ask, 'Do you write'? Do you like to read? Do you like opera'?' I equate all classicism in film to classicism in all the arts. All our music, for example, is classical or semi-classical."

Greenspan has made his films in a variety of formats, including 35mm at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 and 16mm in Calgary and Atlanta. For example, his crew captured the Centennial Games in Atlanta on Kodak Vision 500T and Kodak Vision 320T color negative 16mm film as well as Eastman EXR 7248 film.

"I can trust film. it never fails because it presents a true depiction of what we've seen in person." Greenspan says. He appreciates the improvements in filmmaking technology like sharper images, more accurate color, better lenses and smoother slow motion. But he emphasizes that the technology is subservient to the story.

"To me the technological improvements are marvelous and I understand their impact," he says. "But these stories could also be told with the equipment of 30 and 40 years ago. I'm not knocking new technology, but Leni Riefenstahl in 1936 had none of this stuff and she still made a classic film. So I'm not denigrating the advances, but I think sometimes they invent things and people use them only because they have been invented. You can have the greatest visuals in the world, but if the story is terrible, it's a terrible film."

Greenspan's crews often have as many as six or eight cameras on one event, and the result is a shooting ratio that ranges up to ten-to-one. That creates a lot of options in the editing room. "The basic problem we have in editing is which shot of the eight to use," he says. "Maybe some guy likes to get exotic, and he sees something blurry and then it comes into focus. I like that too, sometimes, but if you do it two or three times in the picture, it loses impact.

"Of course it's a very subjective situation. Eight different directors will tell the same story eight different ways, and it's that simple. We have a very democratic process in my company. Everybody suggests and then I decide," he says with a laugh.

Greenspan cites as a typical story the tale of Dave Moorcroft, an English 5.000-meter world record holder who developed a pelvic disorder that gave him excruciating pain. In Los Angeles in 1984, Greenspan asked Moorcroft why he was continuing to compete. He said, "Look, maybe it will change. You die before you pull out of the Olympics."

'After the first lap, he's last and obviously in terrible, excruciating pain," says Greenspan. "So I call on the intercom two of my isolated cameras and I say. 'Stay on that guy.' They said. 'He's last.' I said. 'l know he's last.'We go back and forth and meanwhile he's about to be lapped. Then the winner is finished and he still has a lap to go. 'Stay on him; keep shooting.' Eighty thousand people are screaming and he's trudging around the track all by himself. I had to convince the camera people to capture this. "I called him up later, in London, and I told him I wanted to do a story on him. He said, 'I want to forget Los Angeles. That was the worst day of my life.' I told him, 'Here's my concept. You had your one shot at the Olympics. You thought you might make it. You did not want to be lapped so you kept on trudging along because a world champion doesn't want to be lapped. If this is true, you did more for the young people in the world by losing and coming in last than you would have had you won the race.'

"He was crying, but he finally agreed to do it. And it came out to be the best story in the show. These are the things that storytellers see."

Greenspan's secret is that he sees sports as a pursuit-of-excellence metaphor transposable to the real world. "These athletes work seven days a week, for six hours a day," says Greenspan. "I once asked Jesse Owens what it was like to be the star of the 100 meters of Berlin in '36. I asked what was it like when the Germans started cheering and the gun went off. He said 'It was a lifetime of training for just ten seconds.'

I thought about that. My God, six, ten years of training for ten seconds, or two minutes, or whatever time the event takes. Then if they lose just the tiniest fraction of a second, people don't even know their name! I have found that offensive, that we are in a world where we only recognize the three that stand on the victory podium. I say when you lose by a thousandth of an inch, or a hundredth of a second, you're not bad.".


David Heuring is a writer at Creative Communications Services. He is the former editor of American Cinematographer Magazine.