'Circus' creates high-wire drama
Beverly Hills, Calif. • Filmmakers Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre spent several months on the U.S.S. Nimitz during a deployment in the Persian Gulf, producing the much-praised documentary series "Carrier."
Then they wondered what to do next. So they ran away and joined the circus.
"Circus" is a six-hour documentary series that follows the lives of the cast and crew of the Big Apple Circus, a one-ring, European-style troupe.
"We knew our story was not about the making of a show. It is about life behind the scenes," Dupre said. "It is a character-driven series about a group of people coming together in this amazing high-stakes and exciting environment of the circus."
And there are some obvious differences from "Carrier." "It was 150 people as opposed to the 5,500 people aboard the carrier, so there was a huge operational world that was quite different," Chermayeff said.
But the two "are actually quite similar," he said, in that both involve a group of dedicated people working toward a common goal.
Oddly enough, filming a circus troupe proved to be the bigger challenge. "Oh, it's so much easier on a carrier," Chermayeff said.
"The clown was saying, 'Get out of the trailer! I have nothing to say to you!' " Dupre said.
"Circus performers are tougher than pilots," Chermayeff added. "I never thought that was possible. I thought the 'Top Gun' mentality was as hard as it would get. Two weeks into shooting, Jeff and I were like, 'That war in Iraq was easy compared to the circus.' "
"Circus" is, not surprisingly, filled with colorful characters. From performers who trace their big-top roots back seven generations to novices who are running away from something. From stars to those doing the grunt work. From kids to senior citizens. It's 150 people who embark on a 350-performance tour.
There are last-minute changes to the act; a bomb threat; a cancer diagnosis; and the sudden death of one of the animal performers. The people fight and argue one minute, offer loving support the next.
"If you run away and join the circus, you're looking for something," Chermayeff said. "And if you find it at the circus if it's a match you really are finding a family."
"Circus" takes you "right smack in the middle of the ring," Dupre said. "Our high-definition cameras reveal the circus like you've never seen it before. Not only will you see the show from the perspective of the audience, you'll also see it from the point of view of the performers themselves."
He continued: "We mounted lipstick cameras on the flying trapeze artists. While it may seem that they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, our cameras tell a different story."
But "Circus" isn't really about the performances.
"It's really about people's lives," Chermayeff said. "You're learning an enormous amount about the circus. But you're seeing people's personal challenges that would happen anywhere. They happen to be in this tent in this ring with these people."
"Circus" on PBS
The six-hour documentary series airs Wednesdays from 8-10 p.m. on Nov. 3, 10 and 17 on KUED-Ch. 7.