In January of 2009, about halfway through completing his two-year film project Transitions, a tragic accident left filmmaker Riley Poor paralyzed from the chest down. With passion, determination, and a little help from his friends, Riley overcame his physical setbacks to complete the film that he undertook two years before.
The Riley Poor Interview
ESPN: When and how did you and Simon decide that you
were going to make this movie together?
Riley Poor: We decided pretty early on. It probably would have been
one of our trips to Europe near the end of 2007.
talking on the long flight over and we decided that we
wanted to do something together. The idea started
as us wanting to make a series of kind of "mini-movies"
with a little bit of production value behind them to keep kids in the loop on what was going on
in Simon's life. Further into that conversation, I suggested the
idea of making a documentary about Simon's life. Simon
liked the idea, provided that it would be something
different from the average ski movie. And the ball just
started rolling from there.
What was it like working so closely with Simon
for such an extended period of time? Did things ever get
tense or frustrating?
I've been lucky enough to have Simon as a really close
friend for the last five or six years. And for me to
step into the role of traveling with him and working
closely with him on a day-to-day basis was actually
pretty natural for me. I've got a lot of respect for him,
and he's got a lot of respect for me, so things went
pretty easy usually.
In action sports cinematography, the guys with the
cameras are for the most part never looked at as an
outside camera crew. We're embedded in what we're doing.
And we're friends with the people that we're filming.
They trust us, and we trust them. When it came to
Simon and me, we had a relationship like that before we
ever started Transitions because we'd done some
work together in the past for Matchstick
When you're out filming action sports, for the most
part, your athlete is almost always in a dangerous
situation, and you often are as well. What we're doing
in that film shoot context is trying to elevate the
level of skiing. And through that, you sort of develop
this trust for each other, and respect for one another.
Since Simon and I had already developed that, working on
Transitions together was quite easy from the
In the middle of your two-year film
project Transitions, a spinal injury left you paralyzed from the chest down. What immediate effect did that have on
the project? Was there initially some doubt about
whether it would still be completed?
You know, right after my injury, I wasn't completely in
on that conversation among the sponsors of the movie. I do
feel like everybody involved gave me the benefit of the
doubt though that I was going to get through it.
Once I was out of sedation, I was the one who actually
approached it with Simon [Dumont] and Michael [Spencer].
I let those guys know that I was still going to put
everything I had into completing it.
That was something that I held onto immensely
throughout my rehabilitation: just knowing that I needed
to follow through on Transitions, and prove to
myself that I was still capable of what I'd set out to
do a couple years prior. The film was a passion project for me in that I've
always wanted to tell the story of a top athlete in
action sports. While traveling with
Simon, I saw a unique personality who was a perfect
vessel for what I had been cooking up in my mind. As
soon as I said that I was going to be capable
of making the film still, everybody got behind me.
How long was it between your injury and your
decision that you were still able to finish this movie?
And what did you go through, physically and emotionally,
to come to that affirmation?
The moment that stuck out to me as the first time I
realized I was going to be able to finish it was the
first time I used my computer. It was at the hospital,
about three months after the injury. I was sitting up in
the hospital bed and I had this computer sitting on my
lap. I still had zero motor function in my hands so I
was just trying to teach myself little things like how
to type, and how to use the track pad.
It was really challenging at first, because I had no
dexterity. But as I worked at it, I slowly started to
realize that this computer was something that was going
to be my link to keeping my career rolling. At that
point, I was convinced that I could make it happen. I
was also visited in the hospital by a quadriplegic
friend of mine who runs an RSN Network station in
Crested Butte, Colorado.
I remember watching him come back to work after his
injury, and figuring out how to run this television
station again. He was instrumental in giving me some
tips on different adaptable equipment I could use to
help in the editing process. I remember that first day,
telling myself, "you've got to follow through with the
post production of this movie. If you don't, you're
basically succumbing to the injury." And I would never
have felt right about that.
You followed through on the post production
of the movie. What had to happen to fill your absence on
Well, I handed my camera over to Jake Largess, the
Empire Team Manager. And he was the guy who was on
Simon's hip every day for the rest of the season. I had already
been teaching him to film a little bit before my injury,
and he ended up getting a lot of important footage for
the movie after that. Also, all of the Poor Boyz
Productions guys picked up a lot of the slack.
We had been planning a shoot for the end of the
season with Red Bull. It was supposed to be Tanner [a
knee injury in Steven's Pass, WA forced Tanner to
cancel] and Simon skiing halfpipe together in Mammoth,
outside of a contest atmosphere. Between Poor Boyz and
Red Bull and Michael Spencer, we got what we needed from
You referred earlier to adaptive equipment that
your friend from RSN showed you to help you get back in
the editor's chair after your injury. Can you give us
some examples of what that adaptive equipment
Oh none of it is very extraordinary. He just showed me
little things, like what type of track mouse I should
get to help me with frame-by-frame editing. He also
turned me on to a lot of useful things that are built in
to the laptop that I already had. Sticky keys, for
example. So instead of having to hold down several
buttons at the same time, I can hit "Control," for
instance, and have it stick on while I move my hand to
the next button.
Learning little things like that made my life a whole
lot easier, because I'm not really able to have two
hands on the workstation at all times. He also turned me
on to voice recognition software that allows me to
dictate things like emails to my computer instead of
having to go through the process of typing them. That's
a huge help because it's still difficult for me to keep
my arms up in front of me for long periods of time. It's
all just a lot of little things like that to make
everything a little easier. It's not like there's some
miracle tool that they made for quadriplegics to edit
videos with. That'd be nice though [laughs].
After all that has gone into it, and
after all that you've gone through to see it through,
how do you feel about the finished product?
I feel good about it. I think that we've gotten a lot of
positive reviews so far. We really tried to step outside
the box and make a movie that could be watched by people
aren't necessarily "core" participants and still give
them an appreciation for the sport and what guys like
Simon and Tanner are doing for it.
I wanted to show personalities within our sport and
show how those relate to the broader picture of action
sports as a whole. What we really have is a new breed of
action sports coming up. And these sports are being
elevated on a personal basis. And everybody's personal
reasons are different for taking their sports to the
levels that they are.
My biggest goal was to convey all that to a person who
might not necessarily ski. I think that it's been
received really well both in the industry and outside of
the industry. We plan on showing it at the X Dance Film
Festival later this winter, and try to open more eyes to
what's going on in a sport that has completely
reinvented itself over the last 10 or 15 years.
What's next for Riley Poor? Anything in the
works for another project like Transitions?
The reason I originally got into ski filmmaking,
it was largely because of Seth Morrison. He was a person
who really took me under his wing when I was 15 years
old, growing up in Crested Butte. He was always a very
unique person, and he was the one that inspired me to
tell stories like his, athletes who are on the forefront
of their sports. I wouldn't say that I have anything
specific in the works. But I still aspire to make more
films in the future about people like that.
Parting words? Thank yous?
I want to say a huge thank you to Simon for letting me
use him as a vessel for the story that we tell in
Transitions. Michael Spencer was instrumental
in helping me produce the film. Poor Boyz Productions.
Without those guys, we wouldn't have had the content we
needed to make the film. Johnny DeCesare opened up his
library of footage from 1997 to present and that was
crucial for us finishing the film. And Mike Douglas, for the role that he played in the film, and in the making of the film.
And I want to thank Katrina, my fiance, who helped me
keep my head up by reminding me daily that I was capable
of seeing this project through to the end.