Dropping the saber for the silver screen: Director discusses his Oscar-shortlisted documentary

Lacking all the footage they needed, co-directors Clement and Fan relied on animation to illustrate Keeth’s emotional state as he competed for an Olympic medal. (Courtesy of Luther Clement)

By Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

Luther Clement, a fine graduate of Northwestern University and a U.S. fencing champion, still looks like an elite athlete, though he stopped competing eight years ago and became a director. At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Clement, 34, premiered “Stay Close,” which he co-directed with Shuhan Fan, about 2008 Olympic silver medalist Keeth Smart, the first U.S. saber fencer to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Since then, the 19-minute documentary has played in over 15 film festivals, won a jury award at DOC NYC, an annual documentary festival, and got shortlisted for the Oscars.

How would you describe “Stay Close?”

My goal is always to evoke strong human emotions. So, “Stay Close” tells a story of loss, but it’s not a sad story. We wanted the audience to watch it and see their relationship with their parents. Or see their relationship with their children. There are these subtle things that are subtext that I feel like adds layers of meaning to it like race, the sport he plays, the fact that his mother was an immigrant and that his father is a descendant of the slave trade. But really, they’re just a solid, stable, loving family and as a result, their children are solid, stable, loving parents.

“Stay Close” relies heavily on archival material and home videos. That’s pretty unconventional. How did that happen? 

During the process of imagining how we wanted the story to look, we learned that Keeth had a box of home videos, mostly made by his dad. It was a big box. One of those boxes was about three or four feet tall. It took me a month to watch through it all. I was spending about eight hours a day watching the tapes. Once I watched some, I knew that I wanted to base the skeleton of the visuals on them. They were too great not to use.

Clement is working on two new projects, a feature documentary and a scripted film, with his co-director Shuhan Fan. (Emine Yücel/MEDILL)

 How would you define your relationship with Keeth Smart?

He is the OG [Original Gangster]. Not in the sense of gangster. More like one of the OG’s in your church. Wherever your community is, there’re always people in that community who are the people that you look up to and think, “OK, they do things right.” You just observe their sense of being and learn from them. That’s who Keeth is to me.

So, how did he become the OG?

After I graduated high school, I moved to New York and become Keeth’s training partner. At that time, I was traveling with the U.S. national team and training with him to try to qualify for the Olympics, and I learned so much from just being around him. He always structured his life and training in the most efficient way. It was this incredible work-life balance, where he would be completely present in practice and focused on training. And when he left, he would be completely focused on life. To this day, I try to live my life like that.

How do you think your career as an elite athlete affects your career as a filmmaker?

Being extremely competitive, which comes from my athlete background, is the fire that drives me to do things. But it can also be really destructive professionally — especially, coming from an individual sport where teamwork isn’t built into your day to day. So, for me, it’s staying aware and engaged to avoid being antagonistic. But at the same time, there’s that fire that puts me in the mode of competitiveness and success.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

A friend of mine in college was following his roommate around with a camera. And he had all these recordings of him that his roommate’s record label wanted to use to promote his debut album. He asked me if I could do the editing. That was my first experience with filmmaking, and I knew right away I wanted to keep doing it. I was just so hungry to learn more. Now, I look back at that video and I’m like, “OMG, I did a terrible job at this.” [laughs]

Who was the roommate?

[Grammy-winner rapper] J. Cole.

Fencing is a relatively unknown sport that people often underestimate in terms of difficulty. Did you feel any pressure to legitimize it in your documentary?

Yes. I wanted to show footage that shows how dynamic and athletic fencing is. I also know how amazing and athletic Keeth’s fencing style is. As I was cutting together and editing the fencing sequence of him, I really wanted to showcase how high level this sport is.

Were you expecting to be shortlisted for an Oscar?

God, no. We had no money. And no one knew who we were. We’re very thankful to everyone who has helped us run an Oscars campaign and supported us in any way to make this possible. It has definitely allowed us to be seen by a lot of accomplished people in the industry that might not have been aware of us otherwise.

How much did all of this cost?

In 2016, we won the Tribeca Film Institute ESPN Short Documentary grant. We got $18,000. That’s basically the money we used to make “Stay Close.” Once we were acquired for distribution by The New York Times and PBS, they were the ones promoting us. That was our main promotion outlet for the Oscars campaign.

What has been most memorable so far besides being shortlisted?

At the Sundance premiere, Keeth and his family were seeing the final version for the first time. I’m sitting there next to Keeth, his wife [Shyra] and their children. Shyra reached over to Taylor, their daughter, and said, “These are your grandparents.” Taylor had never met them. At that moment, I really felt like “Stay Close” did something of value. Since then, Keeth has talked to me so many times about how rewarding this journey has been for him.

What have you learned from “Stay Close?”

As I become more of an intentional filmmaker, I have to allow myself to be intuitive because that’s how I work. I usually don’t know why I’m doing something but it’ll just feel right. Then over time, there’ll be a moment where I just go, “Oh wait, this is why I did it!” And then it’s clear.

Clement films with local actors, who portrayed Keeth Smart and his sister, Erinn, in “Stay Close.” (Courtesy of Luther Clement)

You were an assistant coach for Northwestern’s varsity fencing team as you were working on “Stay Close.” Did staying involved with fencing affect your process as a filmmaker?

It constantly made me think about whether I was doing something predictable and whether it would make people think, “Oh, you couldn’t make a film about something other than fencing?” I was doubting what I was doing. It was trusting that intuition I mentioned that made me get over it. At a certain point, I said, “No, I feel very strongly about this, and that can’t be because I’m a fencing nerd.”

What’s next? Any new big projects?

I’m working on a feature documentary that is about a Latin American couple, who are classical music composers, and their polyamory. Another big project is this [fictional] film about fencers. And I can tell you it’s going to make fencing look as dope as I know it to be.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Photo at top: Lacking all the footage they needed, co-directors Clement and Fan relied on animation to illustrate Keeth’s emotional state as he competed for an Olympic medal. (Courtesy of Luther Clement)