In Movies & TV

Will Lautzenheiser's amazing story will be told tonight at the Milwaukee Film Festival with "Stumped," the opening night selection.

Director Robin Berghaus brings inspirational "Stumped" to the MFF big screen

It's the kind of story that even the writers of "Grey's Anatomy" or "House" couldn't have concocted: A young man, new in town and on the verge of living out his dreams of teaching film for a profession, comes into the hospital with a supposed pulled muscle that ends up requiring his arms and legs all amputated.

But that tragic twist of fate was only the first act of Will Lautzenheiser's stranger-than-fiction story, a journey into stand-up comedy, experimental surgery and, by the end, inspiration. And all the while, director Robin Berghaus was there with her camera, documenting his struggle and triumphs, the jokes alongside the life-and-death decisions.

Now, the avid film lover's story will take to the big screen itself with Berghaus' documentary "Stumped," her first feature-length film as well as the opening night selection for the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, showing Thursday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre – complete with Berghaus, her film's undefeatable star and more in attendance.

Before her project, a movie five years in the making, kicks off the film festival with a flurry of emotions, we spoke with Berghaus about finding Will's story, the struggles of making a doc and her first experience at the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival.

OnMilwaukee: Where did you first hear of this incredible story?

Robin Berghaus: I was working for Boston University. I was a video producer, so I was shooting, editing, directing and writing shorts for BU – anything that had some sort of tie to the Boston University community. We were creating content for the news website and for the alumni magazine. And a faculty member contacted me and told me what had happened to Will and was hoping that a news story could be created for the BU community, so that people at the university would know what happened to Will. So it started as a news story while I was working there – and then it evolved organically.

At the end of 2012, I was getting ready to move to Austin, Texas. My husband and I left Boston, and I reached out to Will because we collaborated on this news piece, and I really enjoyed worked with him. He had a really positive outlook and such a hard worker, and I thought that this story had the potential to reach a really wide audience, not just the BU community, and it could be a really beautiful story. And at that time, it evolved into a short documentary about his first year and his first comedy show.

That did well on festival circuit – it won a bunch of awards – but in 2014, right around the time we were screening the short documentary, was when Will had his arm transplants. Before that, we showed the short to the hospital and they loved it and gave me full access to continue it as a feature.

So things started to align. I initially didn't set out to make a feature documentary. It wasn't until he was approved for the arm transplants where I felt like, "Wow, this is going to be really fascinating, and there's a lot of potential here for a feature." But also, I really got to know his partner Angel and his family, and I loved them and I loved how everyone was working together. It was a really beautiful story, so when they said that they would participate, I thought all these elements are starting to converge and there was a lot of potential for a feature. So I went ahead with a feature!

So you got into his story fairly early on.

Yeah, when I met Will, it was six months after his amputation. He had moved out to Montana, and two days into his new job, he went to the hospital for pain, and that's when it all kind of spiraled down. He ended up getting transferred from Montana to Salt Lake City to be in a burn unit, and after his amputations, he was there for six months before he was healthy enough and strong enough to return to Boston.

And Boston is where his partner Angel still lived and his family was there. So he came back to be with his community, to have a support network. And that was around the time when I was informed about what happened and that he was coming back. So I met him pretty early after his amputations, and when he was going through physical therapy, he was still pretty weak.

How was he in those early days of filming? Was he receptive?

He was always open to it. In the beginning, he was very tired and haggard; he was really needing to heal physically, and he seemed very tired having gone through this great trauma. But he always wanted to communicate his story. I think he felt like it would bring people together – and would help him feel not so alone, for people to know what had happened to him. And he's a filmmaker, so he sees the value in communicating life and what had happened to him and that people could learn from it. So from day one on the news story, he wanted to participate in it.

That makes sense too with the part of his story about becoming a stand-up comic.

He always had a dark sense of humor, even before all of this happened to him. He's just smart and has a great sense of humor. But I think he realized during this process that he really wanted to survive, that he really values life, and I think that, in order for him to have a better quality of life, he used humor to bring people together, to break the ice, to break down barriers and to help facilitate communication about the issues.

I noticed early on that he was cracking jokes when he was still really sick and making people laugh and putting people at ease – because I know the first time I met him, I was thinking, "What do I say to someone who's just lost their arms and legs?" I was feeling a little bit nervous, but immediately he put people at ease with his sense of humor. He's just really smart and a great person.

What was it like making the leap from short docs to feature-length documentaries – besides the obvious longer run time?

With the shorts that I was creating for clients, they usually have a two-week turnaround time – so that had its own challenges. With a documentary, it's like a marathon. It requires a lot of stamina, a lot of patience. This film itself is just four years because of the nature of the story and chronicling all of the events, then post-production took about a year. And so that just takes a lot of patience and a lot of stamina.

There's a lot of learning involved throughout that process about a lot of different things that I had never experienced – like with distribution and with legal issues – so it was certainly a learning experience for me.

But also with these long-term projects where real life is unfolding, you have to be flexible and you have to be willing to be open-minded about where your story takes you. Things might change over time, and to tell a truthful story, you have to go with that. So that's the main challenge.

And also logistically, I live in Texas and the story was in Boston, so trying to schedule and anticipate important moments and build a crew out there and get as much film as I could on each trip just to minimize costs, there was a lot to consider. And this film, I couldn't take a break from it. I knew that he was going to be approved for arm transplants, and we had no idea when that surgery was going to happen.

There were a lot of things we had to plan, and we had to get a lot filmed before his surgery because after his surgery, we couldn't go back to film. (laughs) So there was a lot of planning and a lot of rushed filming that had to be done. That's the thing about receiving an organ transplant or a face or arm transplant. If somebody sadly passes away, you can't schedule or plan something like that.

Yeah, there's always that tension of having to plan things out and almost see the future, but at the same time totally adjust to what's happening in front of you.

One thing that made this a little bit easier in terms of its structure is that I always envisioned that it would be structured around his physical and emotional transformation, so there was a built-in arc that I could rely on and I knew would help shape the story. That was pretty easy in terms of structuring the film. But you just don't know how people's lives are going to change.

Another thing was that it was possible that we would be waiting for years if a donor never came up, if there was never a match. The story wouldn't have happened, and that would've been really sad for Will, just to be waiting for years for that.

This isn't the first go-around in Milwaukee for "Stumped," as that first short film story was also a part of the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. What was your first experience like at this event?

I just had a positive experience interacting with the audience members, the filmmakers and the staff. People kept me laughing. Everyone's down to earth, and people just wanted to have fun and talk about movies.

I think Milwaukee does a great job with its educational outreach. They invite the film teams to visit schools. They have community sponsors. It's the kind of film festival both for the filmmakers, to give them a positive experience – there are panels where they can mingle and get to know one another – but also by bringing in community sponsors and catering to the locals. It's an event for Milwaukee; it just feels like it has something for everyone.

But I just love the staff. All the team members were so funny and so nice to me. That's something that I treasure.

"Stumped" will premiere tonight at the Milwaukee Film Festival at 7:30 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre. The documentary will show a second time on Saturday, Sept. 30, at 4:30 p.m. at the Downer Theater. For information on tickets, visit Milwaukee Film's website.

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