What initially began as a small personal project to geek out over new camera tech quickly blossomed into Leeper – an inspirational doc short from Brooklyn based Director Lorenzo de Guia which marries the motivational words of legendary NFL linebacker Ray Lewis with a profile of Blake Leeper, a man who despite being born with without legs is a two-time world record holder and ranked as the 8th fastest man in the world. DN asked Lorenzo to explain how Leeper’s infectious positivity, drive and outlook inspired this stirring depiction of an individual whose self-determination has pushed him to the strive for the pinnacle of his sport.
DP Reuben Steinberg and I work together often. He is one of my longtime collaborators and we are always geeking out over tech and how it can better tell the stories we want to tell. Sometime last year he had just ordered the Orion lenses and wanted to test them out in some sort of fashion. Not long after that, he starting talking to me about the Rialto tether system that was going to be coming out for his Sony Venice.
I started writing and working out ideas of what we could shoot but nothing was sticking. All of it felt flat. Then two things happened. I came across a speech Ray Lewis gave to a group of college basketball students before a big game. Honestly, that shit was so fire. It’s the type of speech that makes you want to wake up every morning and crash through brick walls. I was inspired but now the problem was finding something to pair with this insanely inspiring speech. Then a friend of mine mentioned this young, double amputee who had given a talk at a work event she attended. The moment I started to learn about Blake Leeper and his history and his goals and where he wants to be – that was it.
I’m a big believer that the only way you get better as an artist and storyteller is to find those stories that hook deep into you. The ones that get under your skin and keep you up at night are the ones worth doing and his story so perfectly fit the emotion of the speech that the moment I married the two ideas in my mind, I knew they were perfect. I reached out to Blake via Instagram and I pitched to him and his manager/trainer what I wanted to do. I told them, “I’m not selling anything, I have no agenda. Fuck all that. I WANT TO TELL YOUR STORY.” They were all in.
I’m a big believer that the only way you get better as an artist and storyteller is to find those stories that hook deep into you.
About a month later, I flew out to LA between jobs and spent 3 days with Blake and his manager/trainer, Johann. We talked about his struggles, his triumphs, his push for the 2020 Olympics and the pushback he is getting. But the guy is a beast in every way. He is a force. And on top of all that, he is incredibly generous, kind, and positive. One thing I asked him, that stuck with me was, “If you had the choice, would you have chosen to have been born with your legs?” Without hesitation he said, “No”. He fully embraces the reality of his life and the challenges he faces. It is what defines him and he wants it no other way.
As I mentioned above we shot on the Sony Venice using the Rialto tether system and the Atlas Orion Anamorphic glass. What’s really great about this setup is that you can put the camera body in a backpack and the extension allows the sensor and lens to be much more portable – almost like shooting with a DSLR but with the quality of a full frame 6k sensor. With this setup it allowed lots of our handheld to feel reactive and in the moment with Blake – we didn’t have the weight of an entire cinema camera bogging us down. If Blake ran, we had the ability to (somewhat) keep up.
I actually started my career as an editor cutting trailers for movies and video games in LA. It was during those early days in LA that I learned the importance of editing and particularly sound and music to augment a story. Every time I talk to a new filmmaker I tell them the best thing you can do to help yourself is to learn how to edit. It has helped me tremendously.
In terms of the Ray Lewis speech – I mean the guy is a beast and his words resonate so hard because he has been there as an athlete. When I heard that speech I was floored. But I knew once I got Blake as a subject, I needed to further augment to bring all the stories together. This was one of the few times where I built the audio bed first before we shot a single frame of anything.
Every time I talk to a new filmmaker I tell them the best thing you can do to help yourself is to learn how to edit. It has helped me tremendously.
So much of it changed once we filmed of course, but certain elements like the ticking clock, the idea of the ocean up top, and the climax at the end were there from the beginning. Each one of those elements were driving forces from Blake’s journey tied to Ray’s speech. The idea of tomorrow never coming went perfectly with the contemplative jog at the beach and the concept of time running out. But just as Ray’s speech ends with a look into the future, so does Blake’s run. And man, when you see that guy run… it’s a beautiful thing. It’s exciting and raw and feels like a glimpse into the future.
A final point I would love to add is that I COULD NOT have done this without the help and collaboration of all those involved. We had no money, and everyone who helped out are industry vets who recognized the value of the project and were willing to give their time. Much appreciation to all of them.
In terms of the future for me? The commercial work is always on the horizon but the big piece for me has been this feature that my writing partner, Greg Cabrera and I have been developing for over two years. I can’t say much now other than it’s a New York based story based on real events. More to come soon for sure.
Leeper is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.