Clayton Vila films skier’s dramatic comeback

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 9:30am
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The story of X Games freeskier champion Torin Yater-Wallace was so compelling that fellow skier and Block Island native Clayton Vila couldn’t help but turn that story into a documentary-style film that will air this weekend on ABC.

The film is called “Back to Life” and tells the story of how Yater-Wallace not only grew up in a household without a father (who went to jail), but who also, after becoming the youngest gold medal-winner at the X Games, contracted a rare bacterial infection that almost killed him and derailed his life and career.

Now, at the age of 22, Yater-Wallace is headed to the Olympics after his dramatic comeback during X Games Oslo in 2016. He’s on the qualifying circuit for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will begin on Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, South Korea. Vila is celebrating that story in “Back to Life.”

The Block Island Times talked with Vila, who has turned his talents from skiing to full-time filmmaking, about the impetus behind “Back to Life.”

“He’s had several comebacks, that’s sort of the gist of the story,” said Vila of Yater-Wallace. “When he was seven or eight, his dad went to prison for allegedly running a Ponzi scheme with his wine company and that threw his family into a serious financial situation. They were living on the outskirts of Aspen, where the X Games are held. That’s where he grew up. When his dad went to jail, they stuck it out. He was such an amazing skier, and when he was 15 he became the youngest X Game gold medal winner ever. He brought in a ton of money and really pulled his family out of a terrible financial situation.” Yater-Wallace has also won silver and bronze medals at the X Games.

Vila said that because both he and Yater-Wallace participated in the same competitive sport, he was aware of Yater-Wallace, but the two didn’t really know each other. Vila was aware of his talent and his challenges. 

Yater-Wallace contracted a rare form of strep that attacked his liver and gall bladder and he “went into a coma in 2015. It’s an extremely rare disease, there’s like five cases a year, and it took over and nearly killed him.” After his hospital stay, Yater-Wallace “went back out there three weeks later to the X Games and won. He’s amazing.”

Vila said the story has “many themes, but it’s mostly about control. He’s seen a lot of bad luck, but he takes advantage of what he can control, and that’s skiing.”

“My filmmaking background came from making surf movies with Wil Gasner, Tim Buol, and Alex Hart. We used to run around filming each other,” he said. When Vila himself started to gain attention for his achievements in sports, he found he became more interested in controlling his own image when he appeared in a video.

“When I turned into a pro skier, I found I wanted to control the way I was portrayed and maybe that was the spark,” he said. “I mean, I grew up on Block Island. I’m not destined to be a professional skier. Maybe I became a skier to make movies. That’s my true passion.”

He said he wanted to tell Yater-Wallace’s “story in a cinematic way. I tried to make a film that felt more like a narrative. When you hear this story, it falls right into place like a narrative script, with the dad going away and his deciding to become a pro skier. That’s how a narrative story might be written.”

He said “‘Back to Life’ blurs the lines” between a fictional narrative film and a documentary. “We have some (scene) reconstructions. Our goal with this film was to make the viewer unsure of what’s fake and what’s real, to make it seem like we were there when we weren’t.” Those moments that were reconstructed are blended with archival footage of Yater-Wallace’s accomplishments on the slopes.

Vila and his director of photography had a short film entered into this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival that, along with this project, whetted his appetite for more narrative, fictional film work.

“I have an interest in moving in that direction,” said Vila. “’Back to Life’ opened up the concept to me that narrative and non-fiction are not two separate doors.”

But the first order of business is watching Torin Yater-Wallace compete in the qualifying circuit for the Olympics. The next X Games starts on Jan. 25 at Buttermilk. “Watch for him there,” Vila said “He’s an amazing person and an amazing skier.”

“Back to Life,” narrated by the actor Tony Goldwyn (a Block Island homeowner), will air the following times on ABC during the “World of X” series on Saturday, Jan. 13, and then will air on Red Bull TV:

2:30 p.m. EST; 1:30 p.m. CST; 12:30 p.m. MST; 1:30 p.m. PST