I’ll Push You: A Case Study in Storytelling

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Sometimes the most profound and powerful storytelling lessons come from real life. In the upcoming documentary, I’ll Push You, the story is built around two men trying to get from point A to point B — a classic story. Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray have been lifelong friends. They’ve always done everything together and been involved in each other’s journeys. But this story has a twist. Over the past 20 years, a progressive neuromuscular disease has slowly taken away Justin’s ability to use his arms and legs.

In the spring of 2012, Justin learned about the Camino de Santiago. Soon after, Justin asked his lifelong friend, Patrick, what he thought about tackling the ancient pilgrimage together. Patrick’s response was simple and direct. He said, “I’ll push you.”

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Justin, Patrick, and the filmmakers Terry Parish and Chris Karcher, to talk about the storytelling lessons they learned in crafting the film.

John Bucher: Tell us about how the film came to be.

Patrick Gray: It wasn’t on our radar at all. Justin and I were just going to do this journey, we hadn’t had any engagement with Chris and Terry on any front. What happened is, once Justin had the idea, I approached my boss to get the time off. I took him aside and I just asked him, “Hey Ed, can I get six weeks off next summer, because that’s how much time we’re thinking we’re going to need?” He wasn’t terribly thrilled about the idea at first, but once I explained to him what Justin’s idea was for the Camino and what we wanted to do together, he got really excited. He said, “I will do everything in my power to give you the six weeks off, as long as you guys do everything in your power to film it,” and when I asked him why he said, “Because if you don’t, you’re selfish and irresponsible. There’s too much hope not to share it.” So that was the starting point. Everything can go back to that moment.

Justin Skeesuck: Terry and I went to college together and we had been keeping tabs on one another via social media over all those years. I knew that Terry was in that [film] space and I had a couple people around me that I could have approached, but for some reason I just knew. So I called him and I said, “Hey, man. I haven’t talked to you in forever, but I have an idea for something. I want to come in and tell you about it.

Terry Parish: Yeah, we got approached to do a lot of things at that time. Families who were wanting to do reality shows about their traveling escapades… So, when this one came up it was, for me, deep and sort of visceral.

Chris Karcher: Early on we decided we wanted to craft a story, initially as a proof of concept, to say, “Does this really work? How is this going to happen?”

Terry Parish: Our initial grand idea for the film was a series of episodes released on YouTube.

John Bucher:  Our readers are writers, so they’re looking at how you approach storytelling. What do you do from a writing perspective or a storytelling perspective to start off on the right foot? What kinds of things are you looking for from the very beginning?

Terry Parish: It depends on which part of the process we’re looking at. I would say that, initially, Chris and I sat and talked about, “Okay, how do we think this is going to go down and what kind of logistics do we need to have covered?” We started with a grand plan, with enough people to cover all the aspects and the details of the story, but then when we started paring down and paring down, it became a series of choices, hard choices, as it always is with story.

Chris Karcher: We kept asking, “How do we incorporate more of a narrative approach to something that is really a documentary?” The layer on top of that is then this journey that’s linear from point A and then every little step in between, so how do we balance the narrative with having to move this through emotionally with beats, but also make it authentic to the real journey that happened? We talked about Robert McKee and we went through all of our outlines and we put things on the wall.

But for me, it came down simply to the idea of “What is a parable?” A parable is enough story that somebody can understand it and you can kind of project yourself onto it, but it’s not so defined that you can’t see a reflection of yourself in it. I think that was very intentional on our part.

Justin Skeesuck: I remember when you guys called us and you finally got to that point and you’re like, “Okay, we go it.” Basically, you found the heart. You found the heart of the story, and you had been searching for the heart for a long time. When you guys finally got there, that’s when the trajectory finally all aligned and you started pulling pieces in, at least that’s from my perspective.

Patrick Gray: To add to that, what’s interesting is that you guys landed exactly where we hoped you would. It’s what we knew to be there, but we didn’t have the footage, we just didn’t know. So to have it land there, and when we talk about the idea of parable, Chris, usually the parables that I’ve read have one specific take away that you put yourself into you.

Chris Karcher: One lesson.

John Bucher: I would love just to pick back up about finding the heart of the film and the fact that you guys mapped out the story but were looking for who’s the antagonist in the film. Can you just talk about that for a second? I think the best documentaries are these stories that very much organically unfold, but also, on the storytelling side it is a matter of making some choices and being deliberate about some things as well.

Chris Karcher: I think that’s the difficulty with documentaries, at least for me: you want to be authentic to what happened. You want to be true to the story, but you also want to provide a framework that people can follow. There was a real difficulty in that, we don’t want to be making things up. We want to be true, as much as we can — Verite — but at the same time we need to have enough that people can follow and experience emotions and beats and flow through a story.

Terry Parish: Right, and you know, in human life transformations are not one and dones. They’re evolutions that take time and there are nuances and colors of that. So I might know something about myself at a certain point, it doesn’t necessarily change my behavior. It might influence my behavior, but the internalization process is actually not what it is in a story where you can set it up, make the change or the switch. I think what we were holding is, how do we take a very internal process, make it real, and what are the elements working against Patrick? Are they internal? How are they manifested externally? How do they align with Justin’s story arch before the journey? How do we get those in alignment and at the same time how do we make it in a somewhat traditional story form so that people understand that transformation?

Chris Karcher: One of the things we discussed early on was the idea of protagonist and antagonist, and I think in a lot of films, particularly narrative films, and particularly in Western culture, we have this very defined idea of, “This is clearly the protagonist and this is clearly the antagonist.” I think people in reality are more complex than just, “Oh, I’m a protagonist in this situation.” We waiver between that and we go through life and we experience things. We may start as an antagonist, but we become a protagonist, back to Miyazaki who takes that approach. Sometimes you think there’s an antagonist, but really in the end they’re a protagonist. You realize that there’s a way of looking at it like in nature, to say that things are good and bad but in the end, it’s nature. It’s human nature.

Terry Parish: We’re both protagonists and antagonists, all of us.

I’ll Push You will screen at theaters nationwide through Fathom Events on Thursday, November 2nd, at 7:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to https://www.fathomevents.com/events/ill-push-you

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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