Theo Fleury is best known for his long-lasting professional hockey career, not only winning a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames, but also representing his country twice at the Olympics. However, Fleury’s off-ice story is perhaps more harrowing and inspiring than any on-ice accolades.
Fleury is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Having left home at an early age to pursue his hockey career, Fleury got caught up with coach Graham James who would repeatedly rape him over a two year period. Holding this information secret for decades led Fleury down a dark path of addiction and self-destructive behaviour. Fleury has since turned his life around, going public with his story in his 2009 book “Playing With Fire”, which includes his experiences with Graham James.
Since his autobiography, Fleury has released a second book, become a motivational speaker and proud activist, and founded the Victor Walk. The annual walk functions as a means to raise awareness about childhood sexual abuse, and to help transform those who were victimized into what he calls “victors”. In sharing his story of abuse, Fleury has become a beacon of hope for those burdened by their past traumas.
Filmmaker Michael David Lynch saw Fleury’s impact on those who have experienced childhood trauma. Lynch decided to pick up his camera and film a documentary about Fleury’s journey to raise awareness, and to showcase his ability to change the lives of survivors for the better. The documentary, aptly titled “Victor Walk”, will be screened in accompaniment with this year’s walk, which runs from July 18 - 22 across Saskatchewan. CBC will also broadcast the full Victor Walk Documentary starting this August. Keep an eye out for dates.
Outspeak recently sat down with Lynch to discuss the documentary, the process of shooting, and Fleury’s dream to create more “victors”.
Outspeak: Tell us a bit about Victor Walk and how you got involved in the project?
Michael David Lynch: Victor Walk is about turning Victims of child sexual abuse into Victors, because surviving is too difficult. The first Victor Walk was 400K in 10 days from Toronto to Ottawa, and we follow NHL Legend, Olympic Gold Medalist Theo Fleury on this walk while he raises awareness for the topic of child sexual abuse.
I had hit a low point in my career, I realized I had moved away from my home town of Ann Arbor Michigan, to Chicago for film school (at Columbia College Chicago) and moved to LA to direct movies and I wasn’t doing that. I was getting hired to create budgets and oversee other people’s movies. When I’m working with great filmmakers it’s a blast, but as we all know there are toxic people out there. As artists we want our art to reflect our truth. While I was frustrated, a friend I went to film school with told me “Mike, the only reason you haven’t directed a feature yet, is because you just need something to believe in. Once you find something to believe in you can’t be stopped. That’s the Mike I knew in college.” After he said that I started writing a couple of script ideas. One was going to be a hockey film. Since I wanted to be inspired, I started watching Theo Fleury hockey highlight videos online. I soon discovered that Theo had written a book “Playing with Fire”, and had just released it two months before. I quickly made a phone call to his manager about the book rights and life rights. Long story short I wrote a feature length screenplay about Theo’s life after getting to meet him in person and spend 7 days hanging out and getting to know each other. I even got to play hockey with Theo on New Year’s Eve. But in March of 2012 G. James only got 2 years, Theo went back into therapy and didn’t want me to make the Hollywood version of his life just yet. We put the script on the back burner. I went back to working on other movies, even wrote the script to Dependent’s Day my first narrative feature film. But before I finished the script to Dependent’s Day, I got a call from Theo’s manager telling me about the change in direction for their company and that they are doing the first Victor Walk this year. That’s when I pitched the idea, maybe I should shoot a documentary about the walk, maybe this was the way we should collaborate, maybe this walk is the most important thing in Theo’s life that he is doing right now. Thirty minutes after I pitched that idea to Theo’s manager I got a call from Theo. Theo and I spoke on the phone trying to plan out how to do this documentary the proper way.
Your first feature was a narrative and you’ve worked on some pretty big Hollywood sets as well, what made you want to make the jump to documentary for this specific project?
Funny enough Victor Walk and Dependent’s Day were made simultaneously, DD was shot in April, and the first VW was in May. Both started editing in July. DD just finished post production first and world premiered in March 2016, VW we kept shooting and included the 2nd VW in 2015 and then world premiered June 2016 where it won best documentary at Dances with Films in Hollywood. Similar how Theo enjoys making his music now to both tell his story but also entertain. Dependent’s Day still has lots of great messages in it, but it’s still a comedy at it’s core. Victor Walk allowed me to really focus on helping people heal who have been abused, and making others aware who haven’t been. That’s what we can control, then we hope that laws continue to change because people have become more aware. When it comes to activism, how can we participate. Making a documentary was my way to contribute, that tells a story about a guy, Theo Fleury a “man’s man” that is able to share his story of child sex abuse, you see why so many others feel like they can share theirs and not lose their identity in the process, that’s the courage that Theo gives so many people and you see it in the movie. Countless others coming up to Theo and sharing everyday, everywhere.
I see myself as a filmmaker first. As a filmmaker it’s my responsibility to tell the best stories and to me it doesn’t matter if it’s a narrative or documentary. I love working in both worlds, you learn different skills and life experiences. What I love about documentary filmmaking, is hunting for the truth, the answers, learning about human behavior, and digging deep to create something that can help educate, empower and inspire others. Growing up as a kid of course I was inspired by narrative films, and I’ll always make those films too. I would also like to keep making documentaries, as a director it’s important to have a strong connection to whatever film/story you are telling. I’m the kind of filmmaker that has to fully believe in what I’m creating.
How does this story specifically relate to me? After reading Theo’s book and learning about his sexual abuse it was a shock to me. I had no idea he had been abused. I loved Theo and being a kid from Michigan I enjoyed the way he played hockey, he could skate, score, hit, fight, he could do it all. That was the kind of hockey player I wanted to be. When I first met with Theo I even joked with him about how I would trade him to the Red Wings in the video games. But jokes aside, when I read his book, I didn’t realize how much we had in common. I myself was abused at a day care from the ages 2-4. When I was 17 I finally came out to my friends and family. When I met my wife at age 20, I told her after one month of dating. By telling my friends and family helped me remove my shame and work though the issues I had from that abuse. That was one huge thing that clicked with me, wow it wasn’t just Theo’s hockey playing I related to it was also his abuse. When I was writing the screenplay I would think about how I felt. When we were editing the documentary I would think about how would I feel, since I’m also a Victor. That was a big reason why I did the full 400K walk. Most of it I did backwards filming Theo walking forwards. There would be times where Becky would yell at me from the pace car after I finished an on the fly interview with a doc subject to jump in her car, but I’d tell her no, and run up to catch up with Theo and Z. That was something else that Theo and I noticed while on the walk, when Theo was talking to people and once he told them that I too was a Victor they immediately lifted up their head and felt so much more confident about sharing their story and realizing they weren’t alone.
Did you find it difficult to transition into this type of filmmaking?
I have been working in both fields of documentaries and narratives since the late 90’s, from short films, to live sporting events and concerts. I have always had a strong love of both. Both types of filmmaking give you great tools as a director. I hope to continue to direct both for the rest of my career. If anything I think it was my editor Paul Gordon of Victor Walk that would ask me almost everyday “Are we done yet? Do you think we are getting close?” I would tell him once it feels like a movie to me, and once it feels like there is nothing else to say, once I feel we have honored all those victims out there that we want to help turn into Victors. Both of us felt how important it was to tell a story like Victor Walk, and the care that needed to go into it, so we could educate as many people as possible and hopefully help heal those that were abused.
It seems like you had quite a small crew on the project, yourself serving as producer, director, and cinematographer. How was that to manage? Did it allow you to get closer to Theo and the other subjects?
While shooting the Victor Walk, I was the only one from LA that flew into Canada to shoot the movie. I wore a backpack which had all the supplies that I needed to keep shooting and recording audio. I choose to hand hold the Canon 7D, I didn’t want a hand held rig that would look too big and might scare people away from telling their story. I do own a Red camera, but didn’t think it was the right tool for this film, considering how much I was going to shoot and batteries. I also used a GoPro3 on a selfie stick (although back then they weren’t called that yet lol), to get a 2nd camera angle that you see in the movie. Especially for scenes with lots of people coming to see Theo I would be shooting with both camera’s at once. I had a Zoom Recorder in my camera pouch, and I would Lav up Theo every morning. At night when we were done shooting I would charge batteries and dump all the footage from the cards onto the hard drives. I didn’t get much sleep. On set I was a crew of one person. Luckily for me, in Post I had my producing partner Paul Gordon, who also edited the movie, and amazing composers Ramin, Nick and Chris, post sound was done by Anarchy Post and color correction by my old film school teacher Bob Sliga. While I was in Canada shooting this documentary by myself chasing the story down, it was great to know back in LA I had a great post team waiting to help me tackle this project. We did have our of our graphics package including our main title done by two of my Columbia College Chicago alumni Ryan Urban and Brad Stark who are still living in Chicago as of today.
I do believe having a small camera and not having a giant crew did help us get closer to the subjects, they would come and walk a couple of miles with us telling their story. After they got too far from their car where they parked, Becky who drove our pace car would drop them back at their car.
You must have heard some pretty harrowing stories from victors over the course of your shoot. Can you tell us about one that sticks out in your mind, and what it was like to capture these moments on camera?
Two stories stick out in my head, that’s Becky and Ron’s stories. Becky was on the walk with us, she was part of the group that started with Theo in Toronto and went all the way to Ottawa with us. Becky and her husband Bill also helped sponsor the first walk, this was before the BFF was around. When Becky told me her story on camera for the first time, she hadn’t told Bill or Theo yet. No one knew she had been abused, or the details of how horrific it was. As seen in the movie, when Becky starts to cry and is done telling her story, I forgot to turn the camera off and all you can hear is me hugging her and you see the camera pointed up to the sky with bugs flying around. I knew the minute I was shooting Becky’s story that it was going to be in the film. She spoke from such a truthful place with such emotion and passion. There’s another great moment with Becky where she throws her arms in the air and thanks Theo for the courage he’s given her. As a director that was a moment I knew was going to make the cut, and it did. Ron’s story is right after Becky’s. It was very important to get another man besides Theo to tell their story. It can be very hard for men to come forward and tell others they were abused, the way society has painted the male ego, doesn’t leave room for vulnerability. Ron’s story was another one, that I knew immediately was going to make the cut. Ron spoke with such conviction and passion, you felt every word he had to share. In a way Becky and Ron both represent what the Victor Walk is all about, sharing our story, and breaking free like a butterfly.
You’re currently in your festival run. What has the response been like so far?
People have been moved at every screening. Mostly people come up to Theo and I and thank us for what we have done and created. We usually get a bunch of folks that will walk up to Theo or myself and they come out and tell us their story, just like you see in the movie on the walk. At one screening a son (17 years old) told his mother for the first time he was abused by their babysitter. His mother never knew, but now after seeing Victor Walk together allowed them to feel comfortable to talk, and not feel alone and they started the conversation. They embraced each other and started to talk about it. Helping is healing which is our motto. Sometimes the people that share with us, tell us stories about their brother, sister, wife, husband, dad, mother, niece, nephew and so forth. After people watch the film, they understand that they are in a safe space where they can share their story with us and we will believe them, and be there to support them, and help remove the shame they have been feeling the best we can through conversation. The 2nd most common thing we hear, is that people feel like they were on the walk with us when watching the documentary, which was my intent. I purposely stayed away from sit down talking head interviews. I wanted all the interviews to happen on the walk, while walking. I didn’t think stage interviews would work well for our story.
Do you think the doc is helping to augment Theo’s vision of raising awareness surrounding sexual abuse?
I believe this documentary is really helping Theo with his vision and raising awareness. That’s a big reason why the movie will now be shown on every Victor Walk moving forward. At the Whistler Film Festival I met with Theo and the Breaking Free Foundation team, they are really excited to share this healing film with as many people as we can. This movie does a great job taking all of Theo’s talking points, plus other great talking points about the subject of child sexual abuse into one concise story that is relatable to everyone. That was the big task with a film that has a subject as taboo as child sexual abuse. People don’t want to talk about it, when you bring it up, they tend to look away or break eye contact. This film has the challenge of getting people to not only talk about it, but think about what they can do, or they might think about how they are raising their kids differently after watching the film. We see a lot of parents getting their eyes open to this epidemic.
Where can people watch the doc?
This years Victor Walk in July we are screening Victor Walk in 5 different cities on each day of the walk, where all proceeds go to the Breaking Free Foundation. Very soon Victor Walk will be on TV in Canada, can’t say too much right now about that, but this fall keep your eyes peeled. If the people reading this live in Russia, Europe or South America and they have the channel Russia Today, or RT there is a 53 minute version of the film that’s currently playing on that TV network. The full 90 minute version of the film will be available this fall as I stated before. Our distributor Indiecan is also working with many communities to host community screenings of the documentary. If people want to host a screening in their community, they need to email firstname.lastname@example.org he can help walk them through the process. It’s a great way to watch the movie with your community and create a good conversation. This is a film people like to talk about afterwards, and share their stories, or share how much they didn’t realize this was happening. Having these community screenings help create these safe environments for these conversations.
Any upcoming projects in the works?
I’m attached to a couple of scripts and still writing a couple of scripts as well. Hoping to get something off the ground soon. Once we get funding in place for one of them, I’ll be excited to share more. My next film on the docket is a narrative. Still looking out for another documentary to dig into. Since these films take years of your life, you have to make sure the idea you take on, has a person significance to you, that it is really important to you and your life.