In the documentary “The Crash Reel,” director Lucy Walker tells the emotional story of Kevin Pearce, a professional snowboarder who was in a terrible accident while training for the 2010 Winter Olympics. As a result of the crash, Kevin suffered a traumatic brain injury that completely changed his entire life. The film, which debuted at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, isn’t just about snowboarding. It’s about Pearce’s injury, recovery and his will to get back and do the things he loves. It’s also about his loving family and the pain they go through trying to keep Kevin safe. “The Crash Reel” debuts Monday, July 15 as part of HBO’s summer documentary series. During an interview with Kevin, I spoke to him about his injury, his family, and what makes this documentary such a unique experience.
Now that you’ve had a lot of success with the film on the festival circuit, how are you feeling about the huge HBO audience that is about to see the film?
Yeah man, I’m kinda getting nervous to be honest with you. I never realized how big of a deal this was going to be but people are saying it’s going to kind of blow up. It sounds like it with how well the film has been received and how a bunch of people like. There should be some pretty cool reactions we see. The coolest part is that it’s such a different film than a normal kind of movie people watch about people that have been affected by brain injuries or that are related to Down syndrome, or that just face challenges in their life. They really become affected by the film and they can relate to me. It feels like a lot of people in the world have had something tragic happen to them in their life. It seems like it could be pretty touching for a lot of people. I’m excited to see what happens.
In the film, there are a lot of scenes where you’re really looking back to snowboarding again and I was wondering, was ever any time during your recovery where you couldn’t watch snowboarding because you couldn’t be out there or was it always something you were really connected to?
It’s always been something that I’ve been super connected to. It’s something I’ve always been so driven to get back to doing. At the beginning I thought I was going to be out snowboarding in a couple of weeks, and then when I started to hear the time frame that kinda just really drove me and kind of got me to work my ass off to get back into shape and get my brain ready to get back on the board. So I feel that was a huge push for me. Something that really helped me work so hard and get so much better.
So you think your drive to get back on the snowboard actually helped your recovery a lot?
Yeah, 100 percent. Like when I heard what I needed to do in order to be in the right shape to get back on my board, I feel like that really pushed me to work my ass off to make sure that my body and my brain were in a condition where I would be able to shred and ride happily.
There’s a lot of really emotional scenes in this film, especially with your family members wearing their heart on your sleeves. Most of it focuses on your brother David (who has Down syndrome) who is kind of vulnerable and emotional in the film. How do you feel about having these private and intimate moments with your family on display?
You know, that’s pretty normal for us. I think that it’s going to be very impactful and very helpful for families. I feel like it doesn’t happen very often where people just throw these things out there and let the world watch it. I feel like our family is very comfortable and my parents are very confident in how they raised us and how we run our lives and how our family works. We all are very honest and very trustful. I feel like it’s a great thing to be able to show people that this is how a very successful family works.
When you watched the film or even the footage for the very first time, did you remember a lot of the conversations and the rehab that took place or was it all kind of new to you?
It’s a lot of back and forth. There’s some stuff I remember super clearly and there’s some stuff I have no memory of at all. It’s kinda like 50/50 where there’s a bunch of stuff where I totally can remember still like, “Wow, damn, yes, that was such a big moment for me.” Then there’s some stuff where it’s so important for me to see because it’s like, “Holy cow, I was there. I was in that kind of shape. I was that bad” and just having no memory of it. It’s so cool to see it on film and see where I was and what it’s taken to get back from that. It’s been really important for me to be able to see all that stuff – to see how far down I’ve fallen.
I don’t think it’s covered in the film, but did it impact your memory on things that happened before the accident?
There’s definitely some struggles. Luckily, nothing too big has come up where I’ve forgotten something I really needed or really given me a hard time. But there’s definitely things that come up with my friends or my family reminding me [of something]. I’ll be like, “No way, that didn’t happen. I never did that. No way. I never kissed that girl. I never did that.” [My friends will say],“Yeah man, you were makin’ out with her!” And I’m like, “No way!” So little events and stupid things like that come up but never anything I’ve been too surprised about. There’s definitely things I forget but it’s more my short term memory that’s been the most affected. Things happening in real time these days that give me the most trouble.
I think one of the most interesting scenes in the film is the big dinner table scene where you’re talking with your family about whether or not they want you to return to snowboarding. You described a very specific feeling about what snowboarding means to you and how you feel when you’re doing it and how nobody in your family can really relate. What have you been able to do since the accident to fill that void in your life?
It’s been difficult. I’ve definitely gone through my challenges and my tough times. I’m really starting to find this one thing I love most and I find I can do best. That is riding powder. Just being up there in the mountains and out there in the back country, away from the parks and the people. Up there on my own just riding in the back country. It’s the coolest feeling being in deep, deep powder and just cruising and not worrying about hitting big jumps or doing double corks in the halfpipe. Just enjoying floating on the snow. It’s this special feeling that you get. Have you ever ridden powder? Do you snowboard?
No. I’ve never done it before. I’ve never really even seen snow before. I live in Texas.
It’s this special feeling. It’s like floating. It’s like walking on a cloud, if you could imagine what that feels like. That feeling is where I’ve found my way to replace what I can’t do anymore. I’m totally happy with that and I love it so much. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed being able to do. I was lucky enough that I got a bunch of really good powder days this year. I got to go up to Canada and it was one of the best trips I’ve taken in my life. Then I went to Vale and got some powder there. Then I was over in France at the X-Games. It snowed a bunch in Vermont and I rode there. So all winter I’ve been cruising around. I was so lucky I got to ride so much.
What did you do to replace the competitive side of snowboarding?
I haven’t found that one yet. That was something that I was obviously pretty damn good at and it really drove me. I love that competitiveness. I love pressure and I love it when I’m in those situations. I’m at the top of the halfpipe at the X-Games and it’s like, “Alright, you’ve gotta land this run. If you don’t land this, you’re done. If you land it, you win $20,000.” That pressure is what I’m all about and I feel like that in those moments I would just dig it. That’s something I’m trying to find again and how I can get that feeling in a safe, smart way. I’m still looking for it, to be honest with you.
What was the exact moment when you accepted the idea that you would not be able to compete professionally anymore?
I think a big one was up in Mt. Baker, which is in the film. When I went down that course, which is just a little run where you go through some gates. It was there I realized how much I was struggling with snowboarding and how hard it really was for me and how far I had fallen. It was there that I was like, “Alright, this is a turning point for me. This is reality. You’re not as good as you were and you need to change up and switch the things you’re doing now.”
With action sports it seems like there’s new levels of creativity and pushing those levels of danger. The trends are going big, faster and higher. Do you feel that anything needs to be done to protect these athletes or is it just the risk you take being an action-sports athlete?
I feel 100 percent like this is what these guys want to be doing and this is how they want to do it. There’s nothing forcing these kids to wake up every day and to do these things. These kids you’re seeing that are doing it are the best in the world. They’re very calculated and smart about how they are doing their tricks. It’s not like they’re up there being reckless and stupid about it. They’re training their asses off, getting in the right shape and then going up and trying these tricks because that’s what they want to do. I’d wake up every morning and I’d get to go up there and it was the most fun thing for me ever, getting to try these new crazy tricks. That’s who we are and how we are and I don’t feel like it would be one bit fair to tell these kids that they can’t do that. As long as they feel comfortable pushing it, and they’re having fun, I think they should 100 percent be allowed to do what they want.
The film ends with an update on you in November 2012. Since filming ended, what does your life look like now? Have there been any significant differences or improvements?
From what I can remember, my life is a lot the same. It’s really good and it’s really positive. I’m super happy right now. I’m so thankful my life is still so good after going through something so traumatic and so severe. I can still be so happy and live such a successful life. Obviously it’s way different, but I’ve found ways to fill that void of not having the competitive snowboarding. Whether it’s the public speaking or announcing the X-Games, I’ve been able to find ways to stay busy and continue to live a really cool, cool, successful life.
I think part of what makes this “The Crash Reel” such an interesting and compelling film is that you have so many different themes and storylines. It starts out with this rivalry between you and Shaun White. Then it gets into the accident and your recovery and then it goes into the family struggles. Do you think the number of themes that reoccur throughout the film make it such a unique and interesting experience?
I think there’s a couple things that make this film so unique and interesting. One is that it’s not a snowboard film. I hope we can share that with the world so people aren’t like, “Oh, I don’t want to watch another snowboard movie. I don’t like snowboarding” because it’s really not a snowboard movie. First and foremost it’s [about] family, I think. Hopefully, most people can relate to what it’s like to have a family. I think it’s a great opportunity to see what a very successful, good-working family looks like. Along with that, you see what it’s like to have a family who has struggles. Obviously, David – how amazing he is with his Down syndrome – and me with my brain injury and my dyslexia. There are so many different stories in one with this film and I think they’re all linked together really well. You can see a family that feels the struggles, but finds a way to push through and live a pretty extraordinary life.
“The Crash Reel” screened as a part of SXSW 2013.