Cheryl Furjanic is an award-winning filmmaker whose films have screened at 100+ festivals worldwide and on television. Her first feature documentary, Sync or Swim (2008), received numerous awards, including a Billie Award for Journalism from the Women’s Sports Foundation. She has done freelance writing and consulting for NBC Universal and other media companies in NYC. She consults regularly for filmmakers and independent artists on crowdfunding and social-media campaigns. Cheryl holds a BFA in Film & Television production from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her masters degree, from NYU/Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), focused on audience-building for fiction television. This is her fifteenth year teaching documentary production at New York University. She has yet to attempt diving or synchronized swimming. (Press materials)
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
CF: Back on Board: Greg Louganis is an intimate portrait of the public triumphs and private struggles of trailblazing, openly gay athlete Greg Louganis. It’s a candid documentary about this four-time Olympic champion, following Greg Louganis over three years as he struggles with financial security and reunites with the sport he once dominated but never really felt welcome in. The threat of losing his house during the recent financial crisis forces Louganis to re-evaluate the choices, relationships, and missed opportunities of his career.
Our film chronicles Louganis’ rise from a difficult upbringing to nearly universal acclaim as the greatest diver ever. Back on Board is the engrossing story of an American legend — a pioneering, openly gay athlete with HIV and an overlooked sports icon — as he reemerges on the world stage to combat prejudice, promote tolerance, and return to the diving world after a long period of absence to act as a mentor to the next generation.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
CF: My producer Will Sweeney and I were classmates at NYU film school many years ago. He had heard about Greg Louganis’ return to the sport of diving as a coach and mentor. He knew immediately that it would make a great documentary, and he reached out to me. My last feature documentary, Sync or Swim, was about the US synchronized swimming team’s journey to the Olympics. Because of that film, Will thought I would be the ideal director for a documentary about Louganis.
I’ve always loved the Olympics and I was shocked that a recent film about Louganis didn’t exist. To be able to tell Greg’s inspiring story — especially for younger audiences who don’t know it — was really important to me. Also, growing up there were so few depictions of LGBT people in media — and even fewer positive ones. I was starved for images of people “like me” in movies or on TV. To have the opportunity to tell Greg’s story was an honor. In many ways, this is the kind of film that I wish had been available to me when I was young.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
CF: Our biggest challenge was (and still is) funding. In order to tell Greg’s incredible story, we needed to show that he was the greatest diver of all time. To do this, we had to use a lot of archival material from his diving career. Unfortunately sports footage — Olympic footage, specifically — is very expensive to license.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
CF: I hope audiences are as inspired as we are by Greg’s story. There is a focus and determination and, above all, resilience that Greg possesses that I think is really incredible to behold. In watching our film, I do hope that people can take some of that spirit from Greg’s story and think about it in reference to their own lives and struggles. Also, I want the film to cement Greg’s legacy in history — sports history, gay history, and the history of AIDS/HIV activism and survival.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
CF: My advice to all directors is: If you want make a film, do it! Don’t let anything stand in your way. Borrow some equipment (or grab your iPhone), gather up some friends, and begin! Tell the story you want to tell! Start today!
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
CF: We finished our film in the spring and we’ve been screening it at film festivals since the summer. It has already won awards, phenomenal audience reactions, and critical praise. But I think the biggest misconception about the film right now is that it’s ready to be released to the world. We still have a great deal of money to raise so that we can afford to license the archival footage for distribution beyond film festivals. It’s been hard for our enthusiastic, prospective audiences — who are really eager to see the film — to understand that we still have a few hurdles to jump before we can get the film out to audiences beyond film festivals.
W&H: How did you get your film funded?
CF: Our film was made completely independently, and we funded it in a variety of clever ways. This story took longer to tell than we thought it would and developed in ways we hadn’t expected. As a result of our schedule — and our need to use archival footage — the film cost more than we anticipated. We raised the bulk of our funds through tax-deductible donations to our fiscal sponsor, the Center for Independent Documentary. We also ran a really successful Kickstarter campaign about a year into production. We had people throw us fundraising parties. We got a few grants from foundations and non-profits along the way. And, like many independent filmmakers, we used credit cards to pay for some of the film as well.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
CF: I am a huge fan of all films by Heddy Honigmann. I love the way her relationship with the folks in her films can be felt on screen. And The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda is one of my favorites. There are parts of that film that move me so much I want to weep with delight.