Updated: January 21, 2010, 12:56 PM ET

The Riley Poor Interview

Symms By John Symms

In January of 2009, about halfway through completing his two-year film project Transitions, a tragic accident left filmmaker Riley Poor paralyzed from the chest down. With passion, determination, and a little help from his friends, Riley overcame his physical setbacks to complete the film that he undertook two years before.

The Riley Poor Interview

ESPN: When and how did you and Simon decide that you were going to make this movie together?
Riley Poor: We decided pretty early on. It probably would have been one of our trips to Europe near the end of 2007.

Riley Poor and Simon Dumont
Rally4Riley.comRiley Poor and Simon Dumont

We were talking on the long flight over and we decided that we wanted to do something together. The idea started as us wanting to make a series of kind of "mini-movies" with a little bit of production value behind them to keep kids in the loop on what was going on in Simon's life. Further into that conversation, I suggested the idea of making a documentary about Simon's life. Simon liked the idea, provided that it would be something different from the average ski movie. And the ball just started rolling from there.

What was it like working so closely with Simon for such an extended period of time? Did things ever get tense or frustrating?
I've been lucky enough to have Simon as a really close friend for the last five or six years. And for me to step into the role of traveling with him and working closely with him on a day-to-day basis was actually pretty natural for me. I've got a lot of respect for him, and he's got a lot of respect for me, so things went pretty easy usually.

In action sports cinematography, the guys with the cameras are for the most part never looked at as an outside camera crew. We're embedded in what we're doing. And we're friends with the people that we're filming. They trust us, and we trust them. When it came to Simon and me, we had a relationship like that before we ever started Transitions because we'd done some work together in the past for Matchstick Productions.

When you're out filming action sports, for the most part, your athlete is almost always in a dangerous situation, and you often are as well. What we're doing in that film shoot context is trying to elevate the level of skiing. And through that, you sort of develop this trust for each other, and respect for one another. Since Simon and I had already developed that, working on Transitions together was quite easy from the very beginning.

Riley Poor Introduces TransitionsPhoto: Jeremy Swanson/AspenSnowmass.comSeated between Simon Dumont and Johnny DeCesare, Riley Poor introduces Transitions to viewers at The Meeting in Aspen, Colorado.
In the middle of your two-year film project Transitions, a spinal injury left you paralyzed from the chest down. What immediate effect did that have on the project? Was there initially some doubt about whether it would still be completed?
You know, right after my injury, I wasn't completely in on that conversation among the sponsors of the movie. I do feel like everybody involved gave me the benefit of the doubt though — that I was going to get through it. Once I was out of sedation, I was the one who actually approached it with Simon [Dumont] and Michael [Spencer]. I let those guys know that I was still going to put everything I had into completing it.

That was something that I held onto immensely throughout my rehabilitation: just knowing that I needed to follow through on Transitions, and prove to myself that I was still capable of what I'd set out to do a couple years prior. The film was a passion project for me in that I've always wanted to tell the story of a top athlete in action sports. While traveling with Simon, I saw a unique personality who was a perfect vessel for what I had been cooking up in my mind. As soon as I said that I was going to be capable of making the film still, everybody got behind me.

How long was it between your injury and your decision that you were still able to finish this movie? And what did you go through, physically and emotionally, to come to that affirmation?
The moment that stuck out to me as the first time I realized I was going to be able to finish it was the first time I used my computer. It was at the hospital, about three months after the injury. I was sitting up in the hospital bed and I had this computer sitting on my lap. I still had zero motor function in my hands so I was just trying to teach myself little things like how to type, and how to use the track pad.

It was really challenging at first, because I had no dexterity. But as I worked at it, I slowly started to realize that this computer was something that was going to be my link to keeping my career rolling. At that point, I was convinced that I could make it happen. I was also visited in the hospital by a quadriplegic friend of mine who runs an RSN Network station in Crested Butte, Colorado.

I remember watching him come back to work after his injury, and figuring out how to run this television station again. He was instrumental in giving me some tips on different adaptable equipment I could use to help in the editing process. I remember that first day, telling myself, "you've got to follow through with the post production of this movie. If you don't, you're basically succumbing to the injury." And I would never have felt right about that.

You followed through on the post production of the movie. What had to happen to fill your absence on the hill?
Well, I handed my camera over to Jake Largess, the Empire Team Manager. And he was the guy who was on Simon's hip every day for the rest of the season. I had already been teaching him to film a little bit before my injury, and he ended up getting a lot of important footage for the movie after that. Also, all of the Poor Boyz Productions guys picked up a lot of the slack.

Riley Poor and Simon Dumont
Nate AbbottSimon Dumont boosts a Mammoth 900 at a Transitions film shoot last spring.

We had been planning a shoot for the end of the season with Red Bull. It was supposed to be Tanner [a knee injury in Steven's Pass, WA forced Tanner to cancel] and Simon skiing halfpipe together in Mammoth, outside of a contest atmosphere. Between Poor Boyz and Red Bull and Michael Spencer, we got what we needed from that.

You referred earlier to adaptive equipment that your friend from RSN showed you to help you get back in the editor's chair after your injury. Can you give us some examples of what that adaptive equipment is?
Oh none of it is very extraordinary. He just showed me little things, like what type of track mouse I should get to help me with frame-by-frame editing. He also turned me on to a lot of useful things that are built in to the laptop that I already had. Sticky keys, for example. So instead of having to hold down several buttons at the same time, I can hit "Control," for instance, and have it stick on while I move my hand to the next button.

Learning little things like that made my life a whole lot easier, because I'm not really able to have two hands on the workstation at all times. He also turned me on to voice recognition software that allows me to dictate things like emails to my computer instead of having to go through the process of typing them. That's a huge help because it's still difficult for me to keep my arms up in front of me for long periods of time. It's all just a lot of little things like that to make everything a little easier. It's not like there's some miracle tool that they made for quadriplegics to edit videos with. That'd be nice though [laughs].

After all that has gone into it, and after all that you've gone through to see it through, how do you feel about the finished product?
I feel good about it. I think that we've gotten a lot of positive reviews so far. We really tried to step outside the box and make a movie that could be watched by people aren't necessarily "core" participants and still give them an appreciation for the sport and what guys like Simon and Tanner are doing for it.

Riley Poor
Rally4Riley.comShaka, brah. Riley Poor

I wanted to show personalities within our sport and show how those relate to the broader picture of action sports as a whole. What we really have is a new breed of action sports coming up. And these sports are being elevated on a personal basis. And everybody's personal reasons are different for taking their sports to the levels that they are.

My biggest goal was to convey all that to a person who might not necessarily ski. I think that it's been received really well both in the industry and outside of the industry. We plan on showing it at the X Dance Film Festival later this winter, and try to open more eyes to what's going on in a sport that has completely reinvented itself over the last 10 or 15 years.

What's next for Riley Poor? Anything in the works for another project like Transitions?
The reason I originally got into ski filmmaking, it was largely because of Seth Morrison. He was a person who really took me under his wing when I was 15 years old, growing up in Crested Butte. He was always a very unique person, and he was the one that inspired me to tell stories like his, athletes who are on the forefront of their sports. I wouldn't say that I have anything specific in the works. But I still aspire to make more films in the future about people like that.

Parting words? Thank yous?
I want to say a huge thank you to Simon for letting me use him as a vessel for the story that we tell in Transitions. Michael Spencer was instrumental in helping me produce the film. Poor Boyz Productions. Without those guys, we wouldn't have had the content we needed to make the film. Johnny DeCesare opened up his library of footage from 1997 to present and that was crucial for us finishing the film. And Mike Douglas, for the role that he played in the film, and in the making of the film.

And I want to thank Katrina, my fiance, who helped me keep my head up by reminding me daily that I was capable of seeing this project through to the end.