SXSW ’22: “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down” team on documentary as love story

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down comes from Time Studios and CNN Films, and tells the story of former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a ...
March 17, 2022

Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down comes from Time Studios and CNN Films, and tells the story of former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head by a gunman at a 2011 political event. The attack left six people dead, including a nine-year-old girl, and Giffords was partially paralyzed and left with the language impairment known as aphasia.

The documentary, which just premiered at SXSW, follows Giffords through her recovery and into her new role as an advocate for gun control in the U.S. It also focuses on her relationship with her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who ended up following in Giffords’ footsteps by pursuing a political career after her shooting.

While Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down engages directly with the issue of gun violence, it’s just as much a love story, detailing the relationship between Giffords and Kelly as the couple rebuilds their lives together in the wake of her trauma. Much of this side of the tale is told through personal videos made by Kelly documenting his Giffords’ recovery, which included learning how to speak again.

The film is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who previously collaborated on the 2018 CNN Films documentary RBG, about the life and career of the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Since we made RBG a few years ago, we really sensed a strong hunger from audiences, both female and male, to hear amazing stories of phenomenal women whose stories have traditionally either been trivialized, not told really fully enough, told in a secondary way, or in some cases ignored completely,” Cohen told Realscreen during SXSW. “So although we didn’t really set out to make a series of films about women, we’re thrilled to do it.”

Realscreen spoke with Cohen (pictured center, with Giffords left) and West (pictured right) about their film shortly after its SXSW premiere.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The shooting was a major news story that many of us remember, but the film goes much deeper into Giffords’ story and detailing her long road to recovery, including a lot of personal footage of her and her family. What was the process like working with Gabby and her family to put that together? 

Betsy West: We also knew about Gabby’s story in a pretty superficial way: we remembered the shooting, but we just had absolutely no idea about what Gabby went through to recover her mobility, to recover speech, and also how she has evolved into one of the most effective advocates for gun safety in America. So the whole process was really revelatory for us and pretty wonderful. As you see in the film, Gabby’s husband, now-Senator Mark Kelly, videotaped her recovery in the hospital, which is pretty extraordinary. Not only that, but they allowed us to really witness what it takes to come back from an injury like this. It’s amazing, and a real insight into how the brain works and how the brain recovers.

We’ve told love stories before, but this is the first time that we’ve been able to really document an extraordinary love story where obviously they face the worst in “for better or worse” and then have come out on the other side. Their relationship is just so much fun to be a part of, they really enjoy each other. Mark is, let’s say, a supportive husband. And now Gabby has become a supportive wife in working with him as he’s gone into politics, and they just have a lot of fun together. We just laughed so much in the course of spending time with them and learning about them. So it was a real joy.

The scene where she’s coaching him on giving his first speech was incredible to watch.

Julie Cohen: One of the things we love about this story is that in some ways, Gabby and Mark’s love story is so specific and unique. And in other ways, it’s quite universal, and I think Betsy and I, as wives, really related to that scene: I mean, he’s starting to practice his speech and like a half-sentence in she’s like, “calm down.” And I really saw myself in that moment, looking at your husband and trying to get him to do something in a different way. That’s what a wife in a collaborative relationship often does. So the combination of the uniqueness of their relationship and their challenges, and the universality of love and marriage, the ups and downs, really resonated with us.

What was it about Gabby’s story that felt like now was a good time to revisit it, a decade after the shooting?

BW: Gabby and Mark were ready to tell the story now. It has been a decade, and Gabby’s made tremendous progress, both personally and also professionally, in working on the issues of gun safety and aphasia, the condition that affects several million Americans. And she’s been willing to put herself out there as an example [of] the consequence of what happens with gun violence, and how you can overcome it. And so they felt, I think, it was time. They had met our producer Lisa Erspamer, who actually we didn’t know at the time [and] has become our producer. Lisa had kept in touch with them, and she’s the one who connected us two years ago, just at the beginning of the pandemic, to say that they wanted to talk to us about the possibility of doing a documentary. And after talking to Mark for a little while on a Zoom call, we just leapt at the chance.

The issue of gun violence is pretty prevalent in the film. How did you navigate that, given what a hot-button political issue that can be in America, without it overwhelming Gabby’s story or making the film overtly political?

JC: Obviously, gun violence is part of Gabby’s story. It is a defining factor that has influenced her life, both in the horrible way of having been the victim of a terrifying instance of a mass shooting, but also in terms of being a spur to this major activism that she’s done. I think the way we thought of it for the film is that ultimately, in our mind, we were not making an issue film. Certainly we don’t talk comprehensively about every aspect of the gun issue in America, which is so big and so complex. We sort of wanted to delve into the story as it intersected with Gabby’s life.

Ultimately, this is a film about Gabby, and we included gun violence in terms of what she had to contend with personally, what she fights for politically, and then as the backdrop. Throughout the time that Gabby was recovering and then became an activist, again and again there’s been these very high-profile shootings. As President Obama said in the interview with him for the film, Tucson was the first mass shooting of his presidency, and then it just kept happening, over and over and over. And of course, Gabby’s having to witness that is part of what made her an activist, and it’s part of the frustration of those who are trying to fight to end gun violence.

Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Variety

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.