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Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #7: Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari Went Intimate and Ambiguous for ‘T-Rex’

Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #7: Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari Went Intimate and Ambiguous for 'T-Rex'

As they describe themselves, Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari are “documentary storytellers.” For years, the filmmaking team has been exploring real-life stories, taking inspiration from classic documentaries such as “Baraka” and exploring a range of hard-hitting subjects. On the surface, their latest collaboration, “T-Rex,” is a mere coming-of-age story. But in documentary form, as we watch aspiring Olympic boxer Claressa Shields grow from a young girl to a young woman in real-time, the intimacy and specificity evoked is quietly extraordinary and especially distinct. And in centering a film on a subject such as Claressa — about whom, as the co-directors say, “no one is going to leave the film without having strong feelings” — the film also attains a surprising level of subjectivity. 

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“T-Rex” is the story of 17-year old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields from Flint, Michigan, who dreams of being the first woman in history to win the gold medal in Olympic boxing. To succeed she will need to stand her ground both inside and outside the ring.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

It’s an intimate coming-of-age story. It’s a documentary trope but it’s true. The film follows Claressa from young girl to young woman. We were there for her 17th birthday. We were there for her prom. Her biggest moments at a teenage girl in Flint, Michigan. The only difference is that she did this while competing on the biggest stage for the biggest prize. A lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a teenager from Flint. And with everything that happens, her resilience is something special.

Tell us briefly about yourselves.

In a nutshell, we are documentary storytellers. In 2009, we partnered and created California is place, a short doc series about The Golden State. It helped pave the way for our commercial work and eventually opened the doors for us to make “T-Rex.” And before we even worked together, we were documentary storytellers. Drea with film. Zack with photography. Currently, we are both based in the Bay Area.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

Ha! Too many to list. But taking 400 hours of material and shaping it into a film wasn’t easy. Licensing Olympic Material from the IOC wasn’t easy. Finding money to make the film wasn’t easy. Challenges is the name of the game. Just about the only thing that was easy was Claressa.

What do you want the SXSW audience to take away from your film?

I sort of don’t want to answer that. We want the film to speak for us. If we tell the audience what we want them to feel, it means we’re not doing our jobs right. We think two things about the film are very clear. First, it’s an intimate film. It feels very present. And second, no one is going to leave the film without having strong feelings about Claressa. She is unique.

Any films inspire you?

Too many to name. But we’ve always been attracted to documentary films that sort of push the boundaries of documentary. “Vernon, Florida.” “Bombay Beach.” “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.” And we’d be lying if we don’t at least mention how much “Baraka” influenced us.

What’s next?

Small projects and big projects. We love the way that documentary film distribution is involving. It means shorts and episodic have so much more value and that’s really something we’ve been intrigued by. We come from a short documentary series background (California is a place) and that’s still a space we want to explore and experiment in.

What cameras did you shoot on?

5Ds. C300s. A phantom at one point…

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

Yes. We raised over 50K through Kickstarter which helped us get through production.

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

Zack did not. Drea has his masters in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State.

Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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