The Making of Netflix's Crip Camp

An exclusive interview with the filmmakers behind the Sundance documentary

Published on in Equipment / Tech Reviews

Crip Camp, the documentary, which debuted at Sundance, was executive produced by the Obamas just launched on Netflix. Crip Camp follows Camp Jened, a unique summer camp for teens with disabilities that would become the launching pad of the disability-rights movement and shape accessibility legislation for decades to come. 

The film was directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht (a former Camp Jened resident himself), and edited by Eileen Meyer and Andrew Gersh on Adobe Premiere Pro. They discuss the making of this film and how they shaped it to be accessible to all audiences.

PH: What inspired Crip Camp?

Jim LeBrecht: The story of Camp Jened and the exodus of people from New York to Berkeley in the mid 1970s was, to me, a story that I didn’t want lost to time. I had a sense that Jened was a unique place and that telling this story could change the perception of what having a disability truly means. So many narratives surrounding people with disabilities were limited and often negative. My desire as someone working in documentary film was to see if this story would break negative stereotypes and have a positive effect on the world. 

Nicole Newnham: For me I was also inspired by Jim’s story of Camp Jened as a site of liberation that changed the trajectory - not only of Jim and the other campers and counselors (disabled and non disabled) lives, but of the entire world. We often don’t look at the importance of freedom, creativity, community and joy in social change-- and here was a way that the audience could live that experience through film. 

PH: What did the pre-production process look like? 

Nicole Newnham: We wrote a treatment fairly early on that is shockingly similar to the way the final film structure worked - but at that point, we thought we were going to have to film the camp sections in recreations, and that we’d have a lot more current day scenes. But knowing that Jim remembered that a radical video coalition had visited the camp and handed him a camera, I spent a lot of time doggedly tracking that down - and when we found that magical 5.5 hours of early video footage of Jim and his friends becoming themselves, that changed everything.

Jim LeBrecht: The Camp Jened alumni, which included campers, counselors and staff, has stayed in contact over the years. When we started to reach out to those folks, we found that that there was an email list of over 50 people. When we reached out to those people, the response was wonderful. We connected with people that had photos and 8mm footage that became an essential part of the material we used to compliment the video footage.

PH: How long did it take to edit the footage together? 

Nicole Newnham: We edited for about 1.5 years! We were finding tiny fragments of archival footage to tell the movement part of the story throughout that process -working with an amazing team of archivists / researches including Jen Petrucelli and Rachel Antell of Sub Basement Archival, and each discovery shifted things a bit. We took a very verité approach to editing the archival - really watching it and understanding how it might dictate the edit or story structure, and that took a long time.

Jim LeBrecht: One of the reasons that we needed so much time was that even though we found a lot of footage (or citations for it) obtaining the masters took a lot of time. Some of the footage we wanted to see hadn’t been digitized. Or some of the copywrite holders were simply not responding in a timely manner.

PH: What was the most challenging part of this project? 

Nicole Newnham: I think getting the balance of Jim’s narrative voice right was particularly challenging - it was a personal film but also a collective film; a personal history but also a movement history. So establishing Jim as a crucial and foundational guide and way in, but also making it clear he was giving us a way in to the story of his group of friends was a tricky balance to strike.

Jim LeBrecht: As a first time director, understanding the nuts and bolts of the entire process of making our film was new to me. Despite my years as a sound mixer and sound designer for documentaries, I felt a bit insecure going into this. To be honest, I feel like I grew up a lot over the 5 years that went into making Crip Camp. And that’s a ridiculous thing to say knowing that I am turning 64 years old. But what made it work was Nicole’s decades long experience as a filmmaker and her deftness at leading the process.

PH: What was the editor/director collaboration like? 

Nicole Newnham: We were lucky to be working with some of the best editors in documentary: Eileen Meyer, Andrew Gersh, Mary Lampson. We had a very open and extremely collaborative process that respected each editor’s workflow and contribution. We workshopped together a lot, talked together a lot, and also supported the editors to go off and discover/ create on their own. We all recognized the powerful and profound value of the footage and the story, and the rarity of the joy-filled, trusting working relationship we shared. A film like this doesn’t come along all that often and we loved working on it together. 

Jim LeBrecht: I have to underline one point that Nicole makes. TRUST was the essential ingredient here. I as a subject and director needed to have a personal connection with our editors to be able to what amounted to baring my soul numerous times. I had a pact with everyone that if I revealed something personal and had regrets later on, that I had a final say about whether it would wind up in the final cut. It never came to that – not even close.

PH: What was the most rewarding part of the project? 

Nicole Newnham: Jim and I joked that Crip Camp, the project, was like an ice-breaker moving slowly through the ocean, even while the film was being made. Through this never-before-seen footage, through rarely-heard-from perspectives, through this shockingly-unknown and revolutionary story from American history, and because the film was co-directed by a person with a disability who lived it, our project was literally widening doors, building ramps, and shifting perspectives at each step of the process. That was so rewarding, as was feeling it all come together on opening night of Sundance when our “cast” received a thunderous, well-deserved and long overdue standing ovation. 

Jim LeBrecht: Now that the film has been available via Netflix for over a month, we’ve been hearing from people all over the world. We read messages and emails that tell us what we’ve created has made some people with disabilities feel like THEIR story is finally being heard. Not that they sat in for 26 days in a federal office, but that their pride, their reality as someone living with a disability or chronic illness can be seen by others. One person wrote us to say that they now feel “knowable”. That was so moving to read. And for me, as someone with a lifelong disability, I feel happy that more people will finally understand that living with a disability is joyous, that we can thrive not only despite or situation, but because of it. That having a disability is a natural part of life and can be a positive. Wild idea, huh? So was occupying a federal office in 1977 to take on the federal government. 

Eileen Meyer is a film editor and producer based in Los Angeles, CA. She's produced and edited numerous award-winning shorts, features, and tv series, including The Devil Next Door (Netflix 2019) and Crip Camp (Sundance 2020).

PH: What inspired Crip Camp?

Editor Eileen: The story of Crip Camp was inspired by the co-director, Jim LeBrecht’s experience at a progressive, hippy summer camp for people with disabilities in the early 70s, and the incredible contribution those folks and others made to the beginning of the civil rights movement for disability rights.    

PH: What did the pre-production process look like? 

Editor Eileen: I can’t speak to this because I came on for the last six months of the editing process, but I know there was a ton of research and investigative work that went into finding the amazing archival footage in the film.  

PH: How long did it take to edit the footage together?  

Editor Eileen: Altogether, about a year and a half.  The first editor, Andrew Gersh, worked on the film for about one year and then me and Mary Lampson (our co-editor) came on the finish the film for the last six months.   

PH: What was the most challenging part of this project? 

Editor Eileen: For me, the biggest challenge was getting the second half of the film to feel cohesive with the first half.  We had many test screenings with small audiences during the editing process, and some people thought it felt like two different films.  Since we didn’t have the immersive archive for the second half that we had for the first half, we had to calibrate both to create a fluid style and tone that would carry us through to the end of the film.  

PH: What was the editor/director collaboration like? 

Editor Eileen: Our process was very collaborative.  We had an editorial team working sometimes in three different cities, but we were always sending scenes and ideas back and forth to discuss, using Premiere Pro.  Then, we would gather together in Berkeley with the directors about once or twice a month.  During this time, there was often more discussion than actual editing, but that allowed us to deeply understand and workshop the film in a way that is rare these days with such tight schedules.    

PH: What was the most rewarding part of the project? 

Editor Eileen: The most rewarding part of the project was my collaboration with both of the directors, Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, as well as our co-editor Mary Lampson.  It was just such an incredible group of people, and there was always an atmosphere of respect, trust, vulnerability, honesty and creative experimentation that made the editing process a truly life-changing experience.  

PH: What's a takeaway that you can share with readers? 

Editor Eileen: Crip Camp has such a unique power and perspective because the story is being told by the people that the film is about, and it only solidifies the idea that having more diverse voices in filmmaking is so important. 

As a person who does not identify with having a disability myself, going into this project I had very little experience with people with disabilities or knowledge of this civil rights movement.  However, my experience of working on the film and learning about this history has completely changed my perspective and view of everything.  I think that will be true for many people who see the film as well.  I am so thankful to have been a part of this team and to be able to help share this very important history with the world.  

Check out the full trailer: 

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