Despite The Loss
Originally Published in 2020
First-time filmmaker Jason Schneider confronts the stigma of disability while coming to terms with his own limb difference in this documentary film.
Hi Jason thank you for talking to The New Current, how are you holding up during the lockdown?
Thanks so much for speaking with me today. I'm doing ok. As an editor by trade, I'm used to spending months at a time locked away in my edit suite. So in that regard not a whole lot has changed (laughs). But it's been stressful for sure, especially given the impact COVID-19 has had on the film industry. My family and friends are all healthy though, and that's all I can really ask for given the circumstances.
Is this time offering you creative inspiration?
It is actually. My mind is always going creatively. I'm constantly dreaming up new ideas for projects, but rarely get enough time to explore them due to work commitments. I've been using the downtime to focus on a few of those ideas, and it's been great.
Congratulations on your debut film Despite the Loss, what has it meant to you to share this documentary film with audiences around the world?
It's been surreal. Despite The Loss was a true labor of love and almost 8 years of my life, so to finally have it out in the world means everything to me. The journey to get here wasn't always easy, so I feel a real sense of accomplishment making it this far. Especially since it's my directorial debut and the first film I ever produced. The project taught me so much about the art of filmmaking and I'm truly humbled by the experience.
The reaction to Despite the Loss has already been amazing, did you imagine you would get this type of response to your film?
I certainly hoped so, but I was also kind of terrified. Being limb different myself, I felt this huge responsibility to represent the community accurately, and I didn't want to let them down. I was also really nervous about how the able-bodied community would react to the film, since it challenged a lot of the ways audiences were used to seeing disability on screen. Thankfully the film's been embraced by both camps, and I'm grateful for the impact it's having.
Did you have any apprehensions about making such a personal film?
Absolutely. It's crazy to think about now, but I hadn't even planned on appearing in Despite The Loss originally. So when the film took this really personal turn, I just couldn't handle it. The thought of baring my soul on camera and talking about these deeply personal issues filled me with so much anxiety, I actually stepped away from the project for almost a year. I joke around now and say that I spent most of my life trying not to be known as “the guy with one hand,” but ended up making a film where I'll forever be defined by it. And I'm finally ok with that.
"That sort of opened up pandoras box and brought a lot of the deeper questions I explore about limb difference and disability in the film to light."
Can you tell me a little bit about how Despite the Loss came about?
Sure. I've been building and racing cars for a long time. My dad was a mechanic so it was something I grew up around and had a lot of passion for. I never really thought about the fact that I was building and racing cars without a hand, because I never wanted to be considered different back then. But my friends in the film industry would always say, “That would make a great documentary!” So that's how the idea for the project came about.
As I mentioned earlier, I had no desire to be on camera originally, so I thought it might be interesting to find some other amputees that were pushing the limits of their disability instead. I never liked the way disability was portrayed in cinema, so I set out to tell their stories as authentically as possible without turning them into “inspiration porn.”
We started filming with a double amputee named Jerod, and I was immediately taken aback by how much we had in common - our thought process, the way we looked at the world, our attitudes towards disability - I realized that the more interesting story was in examining the common threads we shared as amputees, and that's when I turned the camera on myself. That sort of opened up pandoras box and brought a lot of the deeper questions I explore about limb difference and disability in the film to light.
Despite the Loss is truly a unique film did you have any issues or worries about asking people to take part in the film?
Not really. I had a feeling that most people in the community were tired of the way our stories were being told by mainstream media, and pitched Despite The Loss as a film that allowed amputees the space to define our identities on our own terms. Everyone I approached signed on to the project almost immediately. I think it obviously helped that I was also limb different, as there was a level of trust there because I could relate to what they were going through and had their best interests at heart.
What was the biggest challenges you faced bringing Despite the Loss to life?
Probably the biggest challenge, like most documentaries, was weaving so many different elements into one cohesive storyline. Because production took place over a period of 6 or 7 years, I had a mountain of footage, I think around 150 hours or so. I did really thorough interviews with everyone in the film because the story was constantly evolving, and I wanted to make sure I had coverage on a wide range of topics depending on which way the film went in the edit. But there ended up being so much great content that it made it really difficult to make choices. I honestly think I could edit a second feature length doc from the raw footage and not have to repeat a single line of dialogue or theme!
What complicated things further was the fact that I was shooting and editing at the same time. Working this way is a bit of a blessing and a curse. On one hand it's a great way to see what's working and what isn't way earlier in the filmmaking process. On the other hand, or should I say arm (laughs), you never really know where a new interview will take you. It's like dropping a bomb on your existing timeline every time you shoot. A great example of this was when I interviewed my ex Abby for the film.
Her interview happened way late in the process, and I basically had a full working rough cut at the time. I knew the film was a little too much in my own head narratively speaking, and really wanted an outside perspective on what I was going through mentally. I went into her interview with a few specific sound bites in mind to pepper into my existing cut, but ended up doing a deep dive into almost every aspect of our relationship. Her interview was a true revelation that brought a whole new light to the film. I was literally just a few months away from the Sundance deadline completely ripping apart and restructuring my entire cut around her interview.
Looking back is there anything you would do differently on this film?
Everything (laughs). In hindsight, I was so excited to get started that I hit the ground running without much of a game plan. In a way it was a blessing because it allowed the project to evolve over time, which gave me a much better film in the end, but the 8 year timetable and assault on my finances pushed me to the breaking point. If I could do it over again I'd absolutely court outside funding for the project first, and not shoot a single frame of footage till I had a solid plan in place. I'd also try and build a team around me early on. I did almost everything on this film by necessity, and while satisfying on a personal level, doing so doubled or even tripped my timeline, especially in post.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I've had an interest in filmmaking for as long as I can remember. I'm going to date myself here, but my parents had a VHS camcorder growing up, and I begged them for my very own PXL-2000 around 8 or 9 years old. It was this funky Fisher-Price camcorder for kids that shot video using audio cassettes. I used to make movies with my friends in the neighbourhood, and just fell in love with storytelling. But it wasn't until college when I realized that documentary filmmaking was my real passion.
As you continue you filmmaking journey will you continue to focus on documentary?
I think so. Real life is just infinitely more interesting to me. Also, the true nature of doc work happens in the edit, and I'll always be an editor at heart. I like the challenge of bringing a story to life from a mountain of raw footage. It's also where the director editor relationship is most collaborative. That being said, I'd love to try my hand directing, or even editing, narrative work if the opportunity ever presents itself.
What has been the most important lesson you have leaned from making Despite the Loss?
That self acceptance is so important. Making Despite The Loss helped me confront the fact that I had a pretty toxic relationship with my own body, and gave me a platform to work through a lot of the issues stemming from the loss of my hand that I never properly dealt with. The journey transformed the way I look at myself and the world, and I'm a much better person for it.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?
That it's important to embrace your differences, find your tribe, and know that you're not alone in the world, even though it can feel that way at times. Whether you're able-bodied or limb different, we all have the right to live our lives free of societal judgment and stigma. I hope the film provides some comfort and guidance for those that may still be struggling on their own path to self acceptance.