Tom Moore is a highly respected Broadway director whose portfolio includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Night Mother starring Kathy Bates, and the original production of Grease, for which he received a Tony nomination and which launched the careers of John Travolta, Richard Gere, Patrick Swayze and many more… Tom has directed Sissy Spacek, Anne Bancroft, Drew Carey, John Lithgow, Helen Hunt, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas – to name a few. The Flight Fantastic is his first documentary, and, as he tells Kristie Hedley, it’s about a subject that’s close to his heart – the flying trapeze and the superstar Gaona family, masters of the air.
I believe this film had its genesis in you becoming a flyer yourself. It’s a fairly unusual hobby. How did that come about?
It had always been a childhood fantasy [to trapeze]. Of all places I came across it in Club Med. If you knew me, you’d say the last place you’d find me was a Club Med. But there I was in Mexico and one of the activities available was trapeze. And it was fantastic. So then I went back to the US and found a school in San Francisco and eventually Ritchie Gaona in L.A. Some people go and try it and they’re done, but I was hooked.
So what then brought about the desire to make a documentary about trapeze artists, given your background as a director of fiction?
I started hearing about the Gaona family and other flyers, and realised that in their time they were rock stars. I mean, front page of the New York Times is a big deal. And you know, everyone kept asking me why, and they’re still doing that to some extent now. My answer is, it just had to be done.
And you know, we’ve been working on this website recently and someone asked, ‘so what’s the budget?’ [laughs] There’s never been a budget. It just gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, but that’s just the way it is.
In the film people talk about what it feels like to fly and describe it as spiritual feeling; a sense of being truly alive. How do you feel when you fly?
Well that’s not really how I feel, but I kept trying to get an answer from somebody and he kept saying ‘You’re clearly not getting what you want here’ [laughs]. But, it’s not that it’s so spiritual to me, it’s a freedom and a sense of soaring. And there was one guy who also said, and I thought it was very accurate and what I felt when I fly, is you feel like a rock star. You feel magnificently free. You feel incredibly athletic, strong, like you can do anything.
It’s not about daredevil. People say, ‘well you probably like doing things like jumping out of planes’ and I say ‘no’. I’m not interested in getting an adrenalin rush from danger, I just like learning a skill and creating something that you think is exciting and beautiful.
The film centres on the extended Gaona family, who are all larger than life. What were they like to work with, versus professional actors?
They don’t need directing, their egos are so in check and they’re really quite savvy. Most of the time we worked with one camera, and Ritchie’s a photographer, so if I needed to take another shot which meant them repeating a trick or something, he just got it, so that was great.
It seems there was and still is, a large focus on Tito. Did you ever feel or see any resentment from the other family members towards Tito?
You know I thought the same thing. And certainly in my years in this industry I’ve seen resentment. And you know the family just truly accepted that Tito was the star and just got on with it.
You’ve said you collected hours and hours of interview footage of people who worked with the Gaona family for the film, but your editor has done an amazing job of giving the audience a great insight into the Gaonas without losing any momentum or entertainment value.
That’s great to hear. I’m going to contact the editor as soon as I can because you know they go so unappreciated most of the time. You know they’re [the interview subjects] not actors, so it’s not always the most coherent, so they tend to be pieced together. And we didn’t want to use that thing in documentaries where they freeze or you do a slam cut to get somewhere, so it took enormous artistry on his part to segue all that.
You’ve had a successful career in fictional film, stage and television. How was this experience different from those previous experiences?
The biggest change was going from having a crew of say 100 people, to just three, or two, or just sometimes me. The great thing about that was if I wanted to do something I just did it. I didn’t have to wait for the lighting or for lines to be run, and so on. What I really missed though was the people. It was lonely. I mean I had a PD for half of the film, but I really missed having people to bounce ideas off.
So did self-doubt creep in?
No, not really. My way of dealing with self doubt is to just keep going. Sometimes you’ll think, this isn’t working, but then when you play it back later you realise it wasn’t ‘not working’ as bad as you thought.
Given you are a flyer, did you make a sneaky appearance in the film?
No I didn’t. And you know, I’m not without ego, so it was tempting. At one point we had this prologue about the conception of the film with archival footage and a picture of me fading in and out and it was a great piece of film, but it just wasn’t right and felt too much like an ego trip [laughs]. And you know, once it’s there you’re stuck with it.
Has the film been seen elsewhere?
It’s only been seen as a preview in the US. It says in the submission that the film was finished in 2014, but really it wasn’t finished until the very beginning of 2015.
So you’re coming to Byron Bay for the screening. You’ve been before, right?
I have. I love Byron. I just love Byron Bay. I’m crazy about Australia, I mean I really am. Most Americans are, actually. Oftentimes when people ask, ‘Who do you most want to run into when you travel?’, Australians are always at the top of the list.
Our audience will love to hear that.
Well you’re just fun. I have a theory about Australians, because this is my third trip. The reason you all are so much fun and so cool and can accept so many things is because, unlike us, you did not come up through that puritan religious thing.
Ah yes, quite the opposite.
Yeah, and that’s why there’s such freedom. But I love Byron Bay. It’s so different from the rest of the Gold Coast. It’s just such an extraordinary place and of course the surfing capital of the world. So I just thought this is wonderful [to be selected for BBFF], and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to say about the film that we’re having a premiere in Australia, and it gives me a great excuse to come back [laughs].
I understand you have some reservations about our wildlife?
The Great Barrier Reef is incredibly beautiful but I’m terrified of your jellyfish. The first time I went there and saw those fences around the beaches, I thought, ‘well who’s gunna take a chance?’ [laughing] And I mean, you hear they can kill you in minutes.
There’s a book there by Bill Bryson, which I found so funny. Basically the whole premise is ‘Australia holds the most lethal organisms on the Earth’. I loved it.
The Flight Fantastic screens on Thursday, March 12 at 7:30pm at the Byron Community Centre. Tickets can be bought at the venue or at bbff.com.au