Warning: This interview contains discussions of mental health that may be triggering, including mentions of suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health, you can find resources here: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help.
Last week, Brett Rapkin joined us to discuss his film, The Weight of Gold. Narrated by Michael Phelps, the documentary explores the mental health issues that high-level athletes face. The Coronado Island Film Festival hosts a screening of the film on Sunday, May 15, followed by a Q&A with the director. For more information, visit https://coronadofilmfest.com/special-events/.
KSDT Radio: I’d like to give you the space to just tell us a little bit about the film; if someone’s going into it completely blind, what would you like them to know?
Brett Rapkin: Sure, yeah. With this particular project, I was introduced to the captain of the Olympic bobsled team, Steven Holcomb; we had a mutual eye doctor here in Los Angeles. I did an interview with Steven about his life, and he had overcome a suicide attempt and gone on to win a gold medal a few years later and was getting ready for the 2018 Olympics. So I was really just planning on making a short documentary for social media, and did a 3 hour interview with Steven when he came to Los Angeles. Sadly, 12 days after filming with him—we also had gone to dinner—he passed away from an overdose of alcohol and pills. And the project kind of died along with him at that point, until I read an article about post-Olympic depression and started to learn what a common issue mental health was with Olympians as it is for so many of us. That, I guess, brought the film back to life, and we ended up partnering with Michael Phelps and his team and recruiting a lot of other star athletes like Shaun White, and Lolo Jones, and Sasha Cohen, and Apolo Ohno, and making the film. We made it independently, and then HBO licensed it for 10 years. So I went to New York to make some final changes to it at HBO, but about a week later, COVID hit, and so I went back home and ended up finishing the film remotely with my editor, my composer—they were all in New York, and did everything over Zoom. Then, fortunately, HBO still put the film out in July 2020, even though the Olympics were postponed until the following summer. It’s been a crazy ride—I mean, even that following summer when the Olympics did happen, of course, you know, Simone Biles didn’t compete in a lot of her events because of mental health, and Michael Phelps happened to be in Tokyo doing some work for NBC, so it got a whole other wave of discussion, publicity, and we’re really grateful that it’s opened up a lot of discussion and continues to.
KSDT: You mentioned you worked with a lot of very accomplished athletes, including Michael Phelps, who narrated it; how did you manage to bring all that together? Were there a lot of challenges with that?
BR: You know, I think with these athletes—I mean especially the ones who are super super successful—you’re not going to be able to compete with the money they’re making from a sponsor, from their NBA team, so fortunately the kind of work we do appeals to their heart. So, it’s really just being resourceful, reaching out to their representatives—now, we have existing relationships with pretty much all the sports agencies, just because we’ve been doing this for so long—and then hopefully making it a compelling opportunity and not asking for too much of their time.
KSDT: Is there anything you learned from working with all these athletes that you didn’t realize coming into the project or you didn’t expect?
BR: I mean the interviews, you know, I really give the athletes a lot of credit for being vulnerable; it’s not easy for any of us. And as you see in the film—Sasha Cohen I think talks about it best—vulnerability is something that’s almost drilled out of them in order to be these robots who can compete and win at the Olympic level. But I give the athletes a lot of credit, I mean, I learned things throughout the process, including the first time when I- we interviewed Michael Phelps twice—once in Chicago and once in Arizona—and in the first interview he was honest; he didn’t feel like the resources that were being provided by the Olympic Committee were sufficient, and he certainly wasn’t the only one that felt that way. So, you know, that took the film in another whole direction of looking at that, and that’s just the thing, I mean with interviewing, just having an idea of where you want it to go but then listening and asking followup questions and really letting the subject open up.
KSDT: Obviously this film is very impactful for athletes, and I really hope that student athletes here at UCSD can get a chance to see it, but what do you hope that more general audiences are taking from this?
BR: We hope that- and we’re doing more projects now with more athletes, Demar Derozan from the Bulls and a couple other big stars and more to come. We hold these athletes on such a pedestal because they are, I think, the most culturally relevant people in today’s society; it’s not necessarily politicians or even musicians or actors, it’s these athletes who are the rock stars of our time. When we realize that they’re as vulnerable as we are to issues including mental health, I think it normalizes it for the rest of us to take care of our own mental health, whatever that means, ranging from just simple things like having a healthy diet that supports your brain, to exercise, to if you’re dealing with more serious issues like suicidal ideation or self-harm, getting professional help.
KSDT: You’ve done a lot of documentary work in your career, and you’ve also done some fiction work as well, so did you ever have any thoughts of telling a similar story through a fictional lens, or has it always just been that documentary is really the way to go?
BR: That’s a great question. I have several scripts that have been optioned and are being developed that hopefully get produced at some point, but right now I’m really loving focusing on the documentary space. With a scripted film, you have to create a reality, but with documentary the reality already exists, so you don’t have to think about, “Oh, what shirt would Michael Phelps be wearing by an actor playing Michael Phelps.” It’s already real, and so I love that part of it. They’re also much easier to put together, you know; you need a much smaller crew, and they’re just more efficient. I am thinking about writing a book, however, about the story of how The Weight of Gold came to be, but also some stories from the last 20 years of traveling the world, from Cuba to the European Alps with athletes and having a lot of fun along the way.
KSDT: This, as you mentioned, came out in the summer of 2020, so right during the pandemic. I know you talked about this a little bit, but the introduction of the film touches on the pandemic, but it was mostly filmed before that was really a big issue. Were there any bigger parts of the process that were really affected by the pandemic, or did it cause you to re-evaluate anything that had been said in the film or re-edit it?
BR: Yeah, really that opening part—I mean, once the pandemic hit and we realized—you know, nobody could have imagined that the Olympics would be postponed for the first time in history. It’s amazing after the long process of making a film, and then finding the right home for it, you know, that was certainly not something we expected. And there was some conversation about whether it should still come out with the Olympics not happening that summer of 2020. What I did, I remember, I rewrote Michael’s voiceover that opens the film, and I performed it for HBO on the phone, and fortunately they went with it. It would have been really tough to have to wait another year to get it out, so yeah, I think we incorporated the pandemic aspect in a really effective way while still having it be an evergreen story.
KSDT: You talked a little bit about this as well, but since the film was released there have been some examples of athletes taking better steps to safeguard their mental health, like Naomi Osaka, you mentioned Simone Biles, but there’s also been some very sad stories still, even really recently, about athletes struggling with mental health and in some cases losing that battle, so i’m curious: how do you feel like the landscape has changed? Do you feel like there’s been progress made or do you feel like there’s still a lot that needs to change?
BR: I think there has been progress, but there’s still a tremendous amount of need for both reducing the stigma—which is what we’re really focused on continuing to do with our work—but also just resources. There’s far too many people who don’t have access, for whatever reason, whether it’s financial or geographic, to a quality therapist, and going to therapy can be uncomfortable, so how do we remove the barriers? Telehealth seems to be part of the solution, whether it’s Talkspace or Koa or any of these telehealth therapy apps, but the other issue is price. I hope that insurance starts to cover therapy for every American for free; that would be huge. Look, there’s still going to be people who lose the battle with mental health, but let’s give them a fighting chance by giving them free quality therapy and then see where we are. That’s what I’d like to see happen.
KSDT: How do you think we can better support athletes, especially young athletes? Do you think there has to be a big systematic change, even when kids are really young?
BR: I think all these organizations have to install great resources. That was what was so surprising and disappointing and scary about the U.S. Olympic Committee, was that, you know, here’s Team U.S.A., the best in the world, well-funded, and here you have these athletes who feel so strongly that the resources at that time weren’t better. And they have improved, and it’s a work in progress. The Rochelle Foundation, who we work with as well, have made a significant gift, and I know we’re rallying more support for that particular institution, but every organization, whether it’s the NCAA or the team, they need to take responsibility. And then also hopefully parents become more comfortable talking about this issue with their kids, and I think and I hope that one thing the film has done is just opened up that conversation of giving families a tool to talk about this issue.
KSDT: Do you think it’s a specifically American issue, or do you think this is really a widespread issue across the world as well?
BR: It’s definitely a global issue, but I think it tends to be worse here. My personal theory is, again, the insurance thing. The cost of therapy in a lot of countries, I believe it’s subsidized and covered. And then I think we also live in this culture that is- it can be pretty tough. It can be pretty cold and lonely and kind of feel like a zero-sum game a lot of times for a lot of people, winner-take-all, and if you lose your job you lose your insurance, and you can lose your house, and it’s scary. And then of course COVID, which obviously isn’t just an American issue, it was a global issue, but that really took away a lot of our sense of community and routine for the last couple years in the way that I think it’s going to take a long time for us to all know how that has affected us and to some degree is still affecting us.
BR: We never got the happy part of COVID, because we went into this Ukrainian war story immediately on the heels of COVID getting better, and so we never got the story beat of- that it was in a better place, just skipped right to the next tragedy.
KSDT: Yeah it’s been tragedy after tragedy, most definitely. So, I know your production company, Podium Pictures, is really focused on telling stories like these and raising awareness about mental health and advocating for athletes. How are you going to continue that in the future, and what inspired you in the first place to start a production company based on this?
BR: It just seemed like there was a need, the need to differentiate. Coming from a family where hopefully being a good citizen and making the world a little better is a value that I grew up with, I always tried to infuse that into my work. Whether it was for the NFL network, creating a series where celebrities and NFL stars went to a Hurricane for Humanity site, or different things like that, to be able to focus on this feels like a calling. We also created a non-profit entity called the Podium Society—and people if they’re interested can learn about both Podium Pictures and the Podium Society at podiumpictures.com—but the Podium Society helps us raise money from philanthropists so that we can do these kinds of projects and not have to convince an ESPN that they should be doing it and paying for it. And then we can put them on whatever platform makes the most sense, whether it’s YouTube or what have you and not have it be behind a paywall.