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"Pop Star" shows hard work behind the glamour

Film documents Weir's highs, lows and everything in between

Johnny Weir's professional ups-and-downs are documented in the new movie and television series.
Johnny Weir's professional ups-and-downs are documented in the new movie and television series. (Kathy Slack )

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(05/15/2009) - According to James Pellerito, one of the writer/directors of Pop Star on Ice, the film documenting several seasons in the life of Johnny Weir has a bit of everything, including a cooking segment.

"At Skate America [in Everett, Wash.] this past fall, we ran into Johnny's coach, Galina [Zmievskaya], early one morning as she was searching for a juicer," he said. "We found one and watched her prepare, by hand, fresh pomegranate juice. Then we followed her to Johnny's room and filmed her presenting it to him.

"I mean, you can't write this stuff."

Pop Star on Ice, which premieres at the Seattle International Film Festival on May 24th, is the creation of Pellerito and David Barba, two Manhattan-based filmmakers who spent years documenting Weir's highs and lows on the competitive figure skating circuit.

"Everyone keeps asking, 'When is this film going to be done? When is going to be out there?' Now, finally, we can say it's here," Barba laughed.

The movie covers Weir's rise to the junior world title in 2001 and three national titles in 2004-2006, through the season following his fifth-place finish at the 2006 Olympics.

"It's been a labor of love; we were editing and Sundance [the independent film institute] became involved and helped us to finish the film," Pellerito said.

Barba and Pellerito, who both hold M.F.A.'s in film from Columbia University, began tracking Weir in the fall of 2006, after filming much of the 2005/06 season for a previously planned project. They put that documentary aside when Weir sparked their interest during a speaking engagement in Chester County, where the skater's hometown of Coatesville is located.

"That was one of the first speeches he ever gave, and we kind of started getting to know each other," Barba explained. "We filmed him the entire day."

The filmmakers and their subject settled into a working relationship that respected the skater's boundaries while still delivering candid, dramatic content.

"We got to know his rhythm," Pellerito said. "One of the reasons our partnership with Johnny lasted is because we haven't worked like a typical reality show crew. Your typical reality show crew will film a car accident, if they can.

"If we knew we needed something important, we asked him. The reverse was, if Johnny had enough of filming for the day, we heard him. We found that common ground. If we hadn't, he could have gotten burned out [by the project] and we could have, too."

While Weir is well-known for his entertaining press conferences and occasional forays into the fashion world, the directors emphasize that Pop Star on Ice is first and foremost the story of a hard-working elite athlete.

"The most important thing in his life is that he is an athlete, a skater. Everything else takes a backseat," Pellerito said.

"One of the most productive things we've accomplished with this film is showing that to be a great figure skater takes a lot of hard work. The end result is you get on the ice and make it look easy, but there are years of work that go into every move you do out there."

"If it were easy, there would be no drama," Barba added. "We show the fight to land a triple Axel-triple toe combination properly. As Nina Petrenko, Viktor's wife [and one of Weir's choreographers] said, 'There are highs and lows.' I think people will find that fascinating; they can relate to the struggle."

Which leads one to ask, did Weir find having a two-man film crew shadowing him at competitions and the occasional practice intrusive?

"Everyone asks, 'Was this a distraction for Johnny?' and I think that's a fair question," Barba said. "It was a big concern in the beginning. We had a good relationship with Johnny's previous coach, Priscilla Hill, and she told us when [our presence] was no longer helpful. We continued that relationship with [Johnny's present coaches] Galina and Viktor [Petrenko].

"And Johnny certainly did not shy away from being himself with us, both on-camera and off-camera. He's always the same person."

Weir's 2007 move from longtime coach Hill in Delaware to Zmievskaya and Petrenko in Wayne, N.J., made things a bit easier for the duo. With less travel time they could better juggle the project with short-term assignments that paid the bills. But first, they had to pass muster with Zmievskaya, a hard-driving martinet of a coach who brooks little nonsense on or off the ice.

"We had known Viktor from the [Champions on Ice] tour, so we met with him and set our expectations," Barba said. "We spent time getting to know both Viktor and Galina. If we had just moved into Johnny's rink and they had seen us there every morning, it might have been trouble. But we were very respectful of Galina and her work.

"Another thing, Johnny is very close to his family. We had to take that into account. He has a very personal relationship with his family and we were not to invade their privacy."

Barba estimates they saw Weir every two or three weeks during the competitive season, including competitions.

"We tried to be there before and after every event, to show both the preparation and the aftermath," he said. "U.S. Figure Skating and the International Skating Union (ISU) have been really good to us. Obviously, it is a privilege to attend all of these events, and we do not abuse that privilege. I think [the organizations] understand having another venue support figure skating can only benefit the sport and potentially bring in a new audience."

In addition to the documentary, which premiers in New York next month, Pellerito and Barba are working on a documentary series to air on the Sundance cable channel next year.

"The movie takes Johnny through the world championships in 2008; the series picks up from there," Pellerito said. "The focus of the series is how Johnny deals with [his fifth-place finish] at U.S. nationals this year, not going to worlds, and the challenges he has trying to make the [2010] Olympic team again."

"The idea is for it to start [airing] in very early January," Barba added. "There will be eight episodes, seven [taking place] before the Olympics and the eighth after the Olympics. That final episode will be sort of a 'Where is Johnny now?' wrap-up."