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Gritty, Not Glossy

March 7, 2021

Melanie Dahling

Katie Burrell on new film Coach

In the fight for female representation, filmmakers like Katie Burrell, Colleen Gentemann, and their female-forward team are essential. With Coach, their latest film project, they follow 2017’s Freeride World Champion skier Lorraine Huber as she coaches Hedvig Wessel, Olympian and World Cup mogul skier. When it comes to female-led films, the mission statement of Coach feels daring: To represent women as their authentic & imperfect selves.

Lorraine Huber (left) and Hedvig Wessel (right) in  Coach .
Lorraine Huber (left) and Hedvig Wessel (right) in Coach.

Burrell met Wessel during the 2019 Shades of Winter Film Festival and felt a kinship immediately. When Gentemann and Huber got in the mix, the bond grew stronger.

“There was this moment where Colleen, Hedvig, Lorraine, and I were trapped in the backseat of a cab, the 4 of us, and we just got talking,” Burrell says.

“There were parallels between Lorraine and Colleen’s story and parallels between Hedvig’s and my story and how we relate to the world, and these kind of neat synergies that we were seeing between the 4 of us.”

After returning home to Vancouver BC, Burrell received a pitch deck from Huber and Wessel. It was for a film called World Champ and would follow Huber as she coached Wessel to follow in her athletic footsteps.

“I looked at it, and I thought ‘this is just so incredibly glossy and perfect, and requires Hedvig winning to make the story work,’” Burrell says.

To Burrell, there was so much the duo hadn’t accounted for. What if they didn’t get along? In a high stakes endeavour, she reasoned that there had to be room for unpleasantries. What if there were feelings of jealousy, arguments, or even temper tantrums?

Production still from  Coach .
Production still from Coach.

“This story is just too contrived and too perfect to be realistic,” she says. “I think that those kinds of stories also sort of regress the stance I try to take with these kinds of pieces.”

Women walk a precarious line in today’s media, across all genres and mediums. To steer away from the 2 dimensional “nagging wife vs party girl” binary of female representation, writers and directors have often offered up the “strong woman.”

The strong woman stands triumphantly in male-dominated spaces as a perfect beacon for her sisters. While it’s a step in a positive direction, it doesn’t leave room for a flawed protagonist which, in authentic storytelling, is not only necessary but unavoidable.

After returning home to Vancouver BC, Burrell received a pitch deck from Huber and Wessel. It was for a film called World Champ and would follow Huber as she coached Wessel to follow in her athletic footsteps.

“I looked at it, and I thought ‘this is just so incredibly glossy and perfect, and requires Hedvig winning to make the story work,’” Burrell says.

To Burrell, there was so much the duo hadn’t accounted for. What if they didn’t get along? In a high stakes endeavour, she reasoned that there had to be room for unpleasantries. What if there were feelings of jealousy, arguments, or even temper tantrums?

“This story is just too contrived and too perfect to be realistic,” she says. “I think that those kinds of stories also sort of regress the stance I try to take with these kinds of pieces.”

Women walk a precarious line in today’s media, across all genres and mediums. To steer away from the 2 dimensional “nagging wife vs party girl” binary of female representation, writers and directors have often offered up the “strong woman.”

The strong woman stands triumphantly in male-dominated spaces as a perfect beacon for her sisters. While it’s a step in a positive direction, it doesn’t leave room for a flawed protagonist which, in authentic storytelling, is not only necessary but unavoidable.

Production still from  Coach .
Production still from Coach.

Burrell offered up her reservations to the duo, who said they’d be shocked if they had any trouble working together. Almost immediately, however, the glossy girl-power vision of World Champ became even more difficult than anyone had expected.

After arriving in Japan to film, the team began to wonder if Huber and Wessel were a match. They got along as friends, but coaching was an entirely new dynamic.

To portray two women not working well together is a challenging thing. Because female behaviour is still under the microscope in so many ways.

“Guys are allowed to fight because they’re guaranteed a seat at the table. Women haven’t been guaranteed a seat at the table until the last 10 years. Even 10 years ago it was like there was 1 seat [and] everyone had to fight for that one seat, so women were inherently jealous and competitive with each other,” Burrell says.

Though women have more opportunities than ever before, Burrell says that the legacy of competitiveness between women is hard to shake.

Along with personality clashes between Huber and Wessel, the film explores the issue of niceness. Or lack thereof.

“Women still haven’t gotten to a place where they can be bitchy and that be fine. Or they can be intense and that not be called bitchy for a better way to put it,” Burrell says.

“Hedvig feels terrified about this film coming out because her full personality isn't totally represented. We focused on showing how determined, focused, and self-absorbed she has to be to perform at the level she does. But, it's like, what's wrong with that?”

Production still from  Coach .
Production still from Coach.

She references The Last Dance, where Michael Jordan’s more challenging traits are his greatest assets. Could she do the same for her female leads, and would people get it? With the footage that they had, Burrell and Gentemann sat down to strategize a new vision.

“We spent literally a month in June being like... ‘We can’t tell the story we set out to make,’” Burrell says. “We have to tell what it wasn’t.”

The months that followed were difficult, to say the least. After wringing themselves dry, going into debt, and putting strains on their personal relationships, the team had a first cut. A cut that, for every reason it was compelling to Burrell and Gentemann, was a tough watch for Huber and Wessel.

Huber felt vulnerable having a perceived failure on display. Wessel confided in the team, saying she didn’t want anyone to see the film the way it was. Ever.

“Because of her fear of exactly what we’re trying to communicate in the movie,” Burrell says. “The fear that women have to be nice all the time to be accepted, even in a competitive setting. That’s a bullshit standard.”

Burrel (left) and Gentemann (right.)
Burrel (left) and Gentemann (right.)

With projected release dates looming, the group took some time to cool down before having a long talk. “I said to Hedvig: carrying the torch sucks, it’s fuckin’ heavy and it’s hot, but someone has to carry it into the new space so everyone can see,” Burrell says. She put her foot down, refusing to make a fluff piece.

Eventually, they came to a finished product they could agree on. A piece that you’ll be able to watch on November 21st as part of Ottawa Adventure Film Festival’s Mayfair Program A. Tickets here.

The behind the scenes story of Coach has all the elements Burrell is fighting to see in film: An ambitious project and the grit required to see it through. A filmmaker assuring her subjects that they are allowed to come as they are, to show up as their less-than-glossy selves. And a creative team that, despite the obstacles, stuck together and produced a final result they feel proud of.

“This is incredibly hard, this isn’t that glamorous. I used to have a 9-5. It was way easier. But if you wanna tell these stories, you just have to fucking do it,” Burrell says.

“Having watched Colleen (DP/Editor) level-up, watching myself level up, watching our team around us level up, it’s inspiring to be around. It’s like ‘well you’re not gonna quit so I can’t quit, and I’m not gonna quit so you can’t quit.’ It’s like a microcosmic version of the feminist evolution and the women’s evolution of a whole.”


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