The filmography of director Floyd Russ has made its mark on varied fronts, most recently at last month’s Sundance Film Festival where his documentary short ZION debuted. Russ introduced audiences to Zion Clark, a young wrestler who was born without legs. Growing up in foster care, Clark struggled with fitting in his whole life—until he finds the sport of wrestling, a passion which he pursues, pushing himself to great lengths.
The inspirational, emotionally stirring story—produced by NYC-based The Bindery—is akin to much of Russ’ other work. The director has a penchant for striking a responsive chord through showing our shared humanity, and in the process has earned accolades. His “Love Cam” PSA for The Ad Council out of R/GA, produced by his spotmaking/branded content roost Tool of North America, last year earned a primetime commercial Emmy Award nomination. Russ also directed international skincare company SK-II’s “Marriage Market Takeover” which won a Gold Glass Lion and an Entertainment Bronze Lion at the 2016 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
To put a spotlight on Chinese women being labeled as “Sheng Nu”—translated to “leftover women” used to stigmatize unmarried women over 25—SK-II commissioned the Marriage Market Takeover film, produced by Tool and conceived by a creative team at agency Forsman & Bodenfors, Stockholm. The campaign aims to emphasize that everyone should have the freedom to marry for love and not because of undue pressure from family and society. In the film, women who feel alienated and ostracized—often by their own parents—because they “dare” to live independently, to wait for true love or simply choose to live alone, decide to declare their independence at the marriage market in Shanghai’s People’s Park. The marriage market is designed for women to find men whose “qualifications” are listed for matrimony. For some, it’s as if parents are selling their daughters who seek out the most desirable men—desirable in terms of job, income, property and other materialistic standards. The group of women in this short film instead turn that market on its ear, using it as a place to articulate their right to choose the lives they want to lead.
Meanwhile “Love Cam” puts a twist on the traditional sports stadium jumbotron “kiss cam” by replacing it with an unbiased camera depicting positive expressions of love, unity, diversity and acceptance across race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability and age. The filming of the Ad Council piece took place at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., not long after the June 2016 terrorist attack/hate crime in Orlando, in which Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people, wounding 58 others. Among those appearing in “Love Cam” was a lesbian couple who is seen kissing—they were survivors of the onslaught at Pulse.
Russ’ filmmaking talent first came to SHOOT’s attention in 2016 when he was selected for our New Directors Showcase on the strength of Scott McFarnon’s “Crazy Heart” music video.
Russ made his first ad industry mark on the agency side of the business, serving as a producer at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, then Johannes Leonardo, followed by freelancing and then a tenure at Grey New York. It was at the latter shop that Russ got to hone his directorial skills, helming select projects. He then decided to focus on his directing career, joining Tool which continues to be his home for commercials and branded content.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory on ZION. What led you to the story of Zion Clark?
Russ: About a year and a half to two years ago, I saw an ESPN article about Zion, along with five still photos of him. He was born with no lower body, a rare disability called caudal regression syndrome. He grew up in foster care and dealt with a lot, including prosthetics that hurt him as a child. When I found out about him, I was immediately drawn to his story, his hard work to become something, to pursue his passion for wrestling. I talked to him, his coach, his foster family. It’s a story that just had to be told.
At first, we approached brands to support the making of a film and tie into this story but we weren’t able to make enough progress on that front. I just decided to go for it, to make this as a short documentary. We assembled a small crew but had access to great resources thanks to the generosity of so many who believed in this story. Panavision gave us equipment at a huge discount. Method and Cut+Run were among the many who contributed.
SHOOT: Reflect a bit on what it meant to have ZION debut on opening night of Sundance. Plus it’s now on the festival circuit, next scheduled for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this month in Missoula, Montana.
Russ: It’s been 10 years since I graduated from film school. Getting into Sundance has always been a goal. I never even attended Sundance until now. And to have this short screened on opening night was a thrill. To have this documentary selected from so many submissions is a great honor [which included being nominated for Sundance’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize]. But ultimately it’s about Zion Clark. It’s his story, his determination, which made this all possible.
SHOOT: You turned to several of your commercialmaking/branded content colleagues for ZION, including DP Gregory Wilson and editor Robert Ryang. Give us a handle on their contributions.
Russ: Gregory Wilson has shot a couple of music videos as well as several commercials for me. We have a good working relationship and rhythm.
I’ve worked with Robert Ryang a lot [including on “Kiss Cam” and “Marriage Market Takeover”]. We’ve developed a creative shorthand of sorts. Very briefly, years ago, I was his assistant editor for a couple of months. He’s a close friend of mine and a busy commercial editor who devoted a lot of his time to ZION, with additional editing by Adam Bazadona. [Both Ryang and Bazadona are with Cut+Run]. Method also turned out an animation sequence which added a different perspective to the story.
SHOOT: Ryang said that you two spent months “playing with all the possible structures to develop a piece that unfolds more abstractly than traditional narrative.” How much time did you devote to postproduction on ZION?
Russ: We shot ZION at the beginning of 2017, and wound up editing it over a six-month period. Though it’s only a 10-minute film, the effort we put into editing over an extended period made all the difference with the elements properly flowing together to tell Zion’s story. We didn’t finish postproduction until around Christmas time.
SHOOT: You have an affinity for telling emotionally moving stories as reflected in ZION as well as many of your commercials and branded content endeavors. Is this the kind of work you seek out?
Russ: I tend to get emotionally moving spots that have some kind of social influence or important messaging, showcasing or helping to encourage empowerment for those who’ve been struggling. It’s gratifying work. I look for the narrative art in their situations whether it’s a 10-minute piece, a :30, :60 or :90.