For a town with the circus heritage of Sarasota, there is incredible interest in the documentary The Show Must Go On, so much that the film will be screened at the Sarasota Opera House. The film is a dramatic documentary about the Sarasota-based Flying Wallendas. Locals likely know of the family, which for generations has impressed with high-wire feats. The film chronicles the history, back to the days of the legendary Karl Wallenda, and also follows the group through training, including the introduction on non-Wallenda Trevor McNabb into the act, and during a national tour. We spoke to director Paula Froehle in advance of the documentary’s world premiere and she spoke of her own incredible journey with the circus legends.
How did you first meet the Flying Wallendas?
I met Tino and Alex when i was casting for a short film that I was shooting in 2004. It was a short narrative that was an adaptiaion of a short story of a boy who lives on a tightrope. It was a magical realist piece. Originally when I was casting, I thought I would do a green-screen. I would use an actor and fake the high-wire stuff. But a friend of friend was a stunt person here in chicacgo and she knew Tino, so she said what about actually using a tightrope walker. I asked who she had in mind and she said one of the Flying Wallendas. I thought, “Sure, I’m going to get the Flying Wallendas.” But the next thing I know, the phone rings and it’s Tino Wallenda. His response was “What do you need me to do and where do you need me to be.” Literally from the moment we met, I was struck by the generosity of spirit. As I got to know the family, and saw the tightness of the family unit, just the genuineness of who they are, I felt compelled to do more. It was an epiphany. I had only made narrative films at that point, but I just thought I need to follow them and find out more about this family, not just because what they do is artful and skillful, but for me, more importantly, there is a bond that exists between them. Does that come out from the fact they literally really on each other for their lives when they perform? that security is, frankly, so unusual to find that in any family unit. To have it in a circus family really flies in the face of that stereotype. When I was a kid, you heard about people who ran away with the circus. That wasn’t who I met at all. I met incredibly generous, wonderful people who took me in as another family member.
How was the filming process?
I saw hundreds of circuses over the last seven years, and really, the film grew up alongside the friendship that developed. The first half of the film is about the family behind the scenes. But the second half is a spring tour with the seven-person pyramid with Trevor McNabb, and that happened in spring of 2010. I went from seeing the circus maybe every two months to literally going to every location they performed in. The danger of what they do become very real in that tour. It was absolutely a piece that I needed to follow in detail, but also, I had genuine concern for their safety.
How does knowing the Wallendas so well affect how you watch the act? Is it easier or harder to watch?
It’s worse, because it moves from just being astounded at the act and performance to literally fearing for their safety. Every time I’ve shot them, every single time, I have to look through a tiny monitor on my camera or I can’t watch at all. Some of that is in the film. Often, they were miced. It’s uneven more unnerving when you hear them performing. It never gotten easier to do that. You hear when Tino gets nervous.
One time in the film, Tino’s daughter talks about she doesn’t get anxious until her father gets nervous. How often does Tino get nervous?
To be honest, up until the Spring Tour, I never saw him get nervous. When i first met Tino, he came to rig up some wire. Of course, I said we would need space for a net. Then he said there was no net. I looked and said “What happens when you fall?” He looked and confidently and calmly said “We don’t train to fall. As soon as you train to fall, that’s where you are headed.” So it wasn’t until the Spring Tour when Trevor’s stage fright created an instability in the pyramid that I ever saw Tino get nervous. He is obviously an excellent performer who also performed since he was six, so he is really good at hiding it. But I think the audience will see when it is projected on the big screen, in one performance, his arms are shaking as he gets across wire. That, to me, is the tipoff. That’s the only time when he ever gets nervous. He really is the anchor of the family, and of the team. I think Alita means it when she says “You’re fine when you know the anchor is fine, but when the anchor gets nervous, you start to have a family get nervous.”
Alex Wallenda at one point says anyone could do this if they practiced enough, and that having six generations of circus blood didn’t help. With Trevor’s stage fright issues, does that prove Alex is wrong?
I think thats alex’s humility talking. Given that they are performers and what they do is such a spectacle, the lack of personal ego is really astounding to me. I do think that a person can be trained, and trevor was certainly trained, but I also do think, and part of why Trevor’s piece is so interesting, he stands in for anyone in the audience who wonders what it would be like if you had that opportunity, and then you see what happens when it starts going in the wrong direction. I think that a person can be trained to a certain point, but there are certain skills that go beyond training.
The Show Must Go On will screen on April 20.