- Nathan Meier
Filmmakers can find themselves on long journeys to finally make their first feature. For Nathan Meier, it turns out he only had to look down the street where he grew up.
The documentary Logan's Syndrome is Meier's profile of Logan Madsen, a local visual artist who lives with Miller syndrome, a congenital disorder that caused him to be born with malformed limbs and facial differences, in addition to autism. Logan and his older sister, Heather, are believed to be among fewer than 30 people in the world who are affected by Miller syndrome. The Madsens also grew up in Holladay, in the same neighborhood where Meier's family lived.
"I didn't become friends with him until high school," Meier says. "We were in art class together, but then I went to California [to attend California Institute for the Arts], and we lost touch for nine years."
That friendship was renewed in 2008, as Meier happened to be visiting Utah at a time when Madsen was having his first solo show at Art Access Gallery. "The paintings he showed were ... just pretty florals, not particularly challenging work," Meier says. "He told me that his next show would be paintings of himself and his physical deformities, really putting his body out there. When we were in high school, we never talked about his disabilities. It was kind of something he was in denial about, even though it was so obvious."
Meier and Madsen began discussing a filmmaking component to accompany that planned next exhibition, and they shot approximately four hours of initial footage of their conversations. As is the case for many documentaries, however, logistics and the need to raise money turned the project into a longer process. Meier didn't begin filming in earnest until 2011, and shooting and editing took nearly seven years before Logan's Syndrome premiered at the Carmel International Film Festival in October 2017.
Filming a documentary about a person's life can be intrusive and challenging, but Meier came at it from a perspective atypical for many documentary filmmakers: having been the subject of a documentary himself. In 2001, KUED Channel 7 aired Nathan's Story, which aired when Meier was 21 and chronicled his experience becoming a father at 19. "I was thinking a lot about that experience," Meier says, "having been the subject of a film that was intimate and involved friends and family. It caused problems for me with some of my personal relationships. It's a big responsibility when you decide to say you're attempting to capture somebody's life on film, capture someone's experiences."
Aware of those potential challenges, Meier entered into the process being clear with Madsen that he and his family would have final say in what material could and could not be included in the final product. "I felt that it had to serve Logan and his family, not serve me and my goals," Meier says. "Part of that is knowing when something is appropriate to be part of a film, and what things are off limits. I was sensitive to what this might do to them publicly, rather than, 'This is drama, this is good stuff,' and supersede their wishes."
Nevertheless, Logan's Syndrome provides an intimate portrait of Madsen's life with Miller syndrome, partly the result of footage Madsen shot himself with a GoPro camera. "He was really creative with the way he would film things," Meier says. "He would mount the camera to the ceiling, or to his wrist while he's painting, or in the shower. He wants you to understand, by watching, how he does things we do all the time, and how difficult these things are for him: 'See, this is what I go through.'"
While it might seem like a challenge for someone to make such an intimate documentary about a personal friend, Meier sees his relationship with Madsen as one that provided a unique and perhaps even necessary dimension to the project. "I had enough of a distance in the fact that I now live physically hundreds of miles away from Logan," Meier says. "I'm not always there, and we hadn't been around each other much in the years leading up to this. But I think even Logan has a way of stepping back and looking at his history and his physical self from an objective point of view. When you have this type of situation where you have two very rare human beings, they have spent their whole lives documented, studied, probed and prodded. And I think they've been able to emotionally disconnect from that level of scrutiny or exposure."
Meier also says that he found himself learning things that he never knew before, particularly about what it was like for Madsen's parents. "I didn't really know very much about his family history, so I was discovering all this as we went along," he says. "The 'a-ha' moment for me was when I interviewed his parents. They had these really intense interviews [which] shaped the film in a major way ... You often have friends where you don't really know their parents."
It was all part of an artist discovering that the most fascinating story might be just around the corner.