Director Erin Lee Carr Talks HBO Gymnastics Scandal Doc: It's a Story of Redemption
The filmmaker talks to survivors and Larry Nassar trial judge for 'At the Heart of Gold,' premiering May 3 on HBO.
Much of Erin Lee Carr’s documentary work has focused on true crime, including Mommy Dead and Dearest and I Love You, Now Die, about a Massachusetts woman convicted of manslaughter for sending a series of text messages encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself.
Her newest film, At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal — which bows May 3 on HBO — is a different kind of true-crime documentary. It may often be referred to as a scandal, but the courts will soon decide if the complicity on the part of officials at the USA Gymnastics, the governing body of the sport, and Michigan State University, where Larry Nassar was employed for decades, is criminal.
But a case that rocked the world of elite gymnastics remains a searing and infuriating example of the culture of silence that allowed a predator to abuse girls and women for decades. His victims number in the hundreds, and in January 2018, 154 of them gave impact statements during the sentencing portion of his trial in Lansing, Michigan, where he was convicted of molesting seven young girls under the guise of treating them. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced him to 40-175 years in prison; Nassar’s lawyers, one of whom Carr, 31, interviews in her film, are appealing that ruling. A Michigan appeals court upheld a previous 40-year sentence. But it was Judge Aquilina’s trial that provided a searing visual record of the appalling scope of Nassar's crimes. And those statements form the spine of Carr’s documentary.
“The gymnastics scandal has been deeply reported by incredible journalists,” said Carr. “But there is a different physical and emotional effect to watching that courtroom [footage] like you can do in a film. What I find so empowering is you can see these women stand up and confront their abuser.”
When she began to work on the film, she was met with a lot of unreturned phone calls. But a meeting with Mick Grewal, a Michigan attorney representing several of Nassar’s victims, was helpful in facilitating participation from his clients. Grewal also is interviewed in the film; he’s among the lawyers representing Nassar’s victims in a $500 million settlement with MSU. Judge Aquilina also is interviewed in the film. But Carr did not manage to get an interview with Bela and Marta Karolyi, the star gymnastic trainers on whose Texas ranch Nassar abused many of his victims.
This is a topic that has been covered extensively in the media for years now. What hurdles did you encounter in putting this documentary together?
Generally I was met with not-returned phone calls. I don't have a reputable news organization behind me. I made films for HBO and that's a big name in and of itself. But I think that people weren't sure. Is the documentary going to be educational? Is it going to be advocacy? Is it going to be exploitative? When my executive producer Sarah Gibson met attorney Mick Grewal, he connected us to some of the survivors for off-the-record pre-tapes. So we began this process of really carefully reaching out to people. And I would start phone calls, which I think was really important and I hadn't done this previously, with, “You get to answer any questions you want and you don't have to talk about what you don't want to talk about. I want you to feel that this is a comfortable space.” I also checked in with mental health workers to ask about re-triggering trauma and was I doing something unethical? So there were a lot of sleepless nights about how to do this right and about how to make a film that's explosive and investigative but not exploitative, which is a very hard line to walk.
What about the Karolyis? They didn't sit for an interview with you. Did you try to get them? They did an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie and I don't think they came off too well.
Oh it was a horrifying interview. They're at the ranch where sex abuse took place and, no disrespect to Savannah Guthrie, I'm a fan of her work, but I mean how are you going to walk around this ranch like it's Disneyland? I think it's really important to let people speak on the record. But to me, it felt like very blanket denial. I did reach out to their attorney. But I think there's tremendous pressure in moments like this due to legal action. So I understand their trepidation. But they were the guardians and caretakers of these young girls and women, and it was up to them to stand up and say what happened.
We've learned a lot about the culture of gymnastics and this practice of psychologically breaking down the athletes, which you get into in your film. Do you think this in part enabled the scope of the abuse?
What is troubling to me is that gymnastics is not the only sport that's like this. As young kids we're taught about discipline and listening to your coaches, respecting what they have to say. In competitive environments like gymnastics, like ice skating, like tae kwon do, there's an inability to communicate about the things that aren't going right. Each time I sat with someone I tried to put myself in the mind of an 11-year-old saying, 'Someone is touching me inappropriately.' We as a culture don't have a good way to talk about these things.
I followed this story closely, but still found your documentary wrenching to watch. Did you find it difficult personally to do some of these interviews or look at this material repeatedly in the edit room?
I feel like this film is an important part of the story. What I find so empowering is you can see these women stand up and confront their abuser. And it's helped me get through making this film; that these women are taking back their agency in a way that is revolutionary. So when you ask me if it's hard for conduct these interviews, yes. But you know who it was harder for? The survivors.
Did your film change dramatically or significantly from what you had in your head at the start?
I really think the end of the film is an accountability section. You go through each person and each organization that let every single one of these people down and show them for who they are. And I think that is an important part of the story. This film kept shifting and at times it was a lot longer and it was like, this can't be long. This is a really painful place for people to be in so how do we tell this story in a complete way without damaging the psyche of the audience? Also we want to render how beautiful gymnastics is and this is not accusing the sport of being bad, it's accusing the bad actors of being bad.
I think that had a much deeper impact because you realize the complicity …
That doesn't mean it's not hard to watch. This is a painful process so it's like, can you spend 90 minutes inside these young women's brains and [hear] their journey? I think, ultimately, it's incredibly redemptive. And that we can get there and we can protect our kids and we can be a voice for change. I don't want people to get scared off by the subject matter. Ultimately it's not you listening to Larry Nassar, it's listening to women.
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Mick Grewal.