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Thursday, June 23, 2011
A Q&A with filmmaker Hannah Storm

By Rachel Ullrich

Most ESPN viewers know Hannah Storm as an on-air personality for some of the biggest events in sports, from the NBA Finals to Wimbledon. But recently, Storm has taken on a new, behind-the-scenes role at the network: documentary filmmaker.

After producing the "30 for 30" special about Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert last year, Storm now has a second film credit to her name: director of a short documentary on British soccer star Kelly Smith, a film that's part of for ESPN's HERoics series. Storm and her production company, Brainstormin' Productions, are the lifesource behind "Moving the Goal," a seven-and-a-half-minute film about Smith's battle with alcoholism. Next month, Smith will captain England's team at the Women's World Cup, and Storm saw in Smith's story an opportunity to inspire other young women or athletes struggling with substance abuse.

As well as directing the Smith documentary, Storm helped produce the other five films that are part of the HERoics series, and will host the one-hour special that airs on June 24. espnW spoke with Storm about the HERoics project, and about the experience of telling Smith's story.

espnW: Why did you want to tell this story?

Hannah Storm: Well, I really wanted to tell the story because I think that the whole subject matter of women and substance abuse is undertold, particularly as it relates to the sports world. This isn't something that we hear about very often, and it's something that some women are embarrassed to talk about. In Kelly's case, she has never talked publicly about her battle with alcoholism, and so I was very honored that she chose to tell me her story and that we could put it in film. I wanted to make this public for a lot of other young girls out there that might feel as if they're the only ones that are having these kinds of struggles. I think it's really important to hear other women talk about how they struggled as well, and then, how they battled to overcome it, so I thought it was a really inspirational subject, and that's probably why I wanted to do it.

espnW: Why do you think substance abuse among female athletes goes underreported? There are new stories everyday about an MLB or NFL player getting a DUI or going to rehab.

HS: Well, I mean, I think you're talking about guys getting caught, with a DUI and stuff like that. And certainly, there have been a few isolated cases of women, as well. I think in general, it's sort of kept as a secret. Women are supposed to be the nurturers, they're supposed to be the strong ones, and they take care of everybody, but in essence, they're just as vulnerable as everyone else, if not more vulnerable, to the effects of alcohol.

But I think that because women are held up in a certain image of bucking up, being able to survive anything, I think that women are vulnerable is something that's just not recognized in general -- particularly in women athletes, who are fighting anyway for their place in the sports world, and they have so many obstacles that they have to overcome, that they're sort of held up as these super strong individuals, which they are, but they're human, as well. And they suffer the same kinds of setbacks as men do, and they have the same kind of struggles.

espnW: How was the conversation about alcoholism with Kelly?

HS: It was great. I mean, there was a little article, a little paragraph, that we had found in a British newspaper, and she had sort of mentioned it, years after the fact, that she became sober, and then I think she was really encouraged to not talk about it. Because I don't think that that's something that necessarily, from a PR standpoint, that they wanted to deal with upfront. And I know that there have been other requests and people trying to get her to talk about it, but I think that she did feel very safe in telling me her story. I think that she was happy with my approach. I found it interesting that she told her story to an American filmmaker.

I laid out what I thought about her in terms of being an inspirational force and in terms of what I knew and felt was important regarding young women, in particular, and alcohol abuse. ... And so many more women, even last year, died of substance abuse-related disorders. I wasn't coming at it from a sensationalist standpoint, like, "Ohh, Kelly Smith overcomes alcohol and goes on to play in the World Cup!" I came at it more as an educational-slash-inspirational standpoint, so I think she appreciated my approach, my sensibility.

We had talked on the phone, and we had talked to her parents. We went and looked at the whole picture. We talked to her coach, her parents, her teammates, her rehab center. So we really went at it with a lot of care and a very complete way of telling her story. And I also told her that there was not going to be any narration in the piece, and I've found that to be very effective when people are opening up to me. If I tell them that there's no narration, that it's really their voice in the piece, which is what I did with Martina [Navratilova] and Chris [Evert], then that's really attractive to people when they're telling their story -- that it's just them. I mean, obviously, it's a version of them, but it's just them. As a filmmaker, I found that people love the purity of that message and being able to really get exactly what they say across.

espnW: From covering the NBA Finals to traveling to London for Wimbledon, you're often caught up in the action, covering live sports. How is that different working on a project like this?

HS: Yeah, it's really different, and I think being behind the scenes and behind the camera is, to me, I love it just as much. Of course, I'll always be -- God-willing -- in front of the camera, but I think what's neat about doing films is that you choose the story, you tell the story the way you want it told, so there's so much that's in your power in terms of your vision, how you want to execute it. When you're at a big event, like the NBA Finals or Wimbledon, obviously, it's a collaborative event, with a lot of other people, and their visions, the way they want it to be told, what the show should look like.

When you're doing a film, it's all you. So it's really, really nice for me, having been in the business a long time, and I'm very opinionated about what I like and I don't like in terms of the way I want my films cut. And to have a really clear vision in that regard. And at the same time, I've loved [having] a team of people that you're collaborating with. I like being able to head up those operations and being the boss in terms of what my artistic sensibilities are, and making those come to life. You can really only do that if it's your project, so I love that.