Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Jeff Zimbalist, the Filmmaker Behind “Skywalkers: A Love Story”

By Bailey Pennick

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2024 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our ongoing series: Give Me the Backstory!

Jeff Zimbalist — the artist behind the 2024 U.S. Documentary Competition film Skywalkers: A Love Story — is no stranger to the Sundance Film Festival, but, to him, this year feels special. “I’ve screened my films during the Festival and produced films that have been official selections,” he explains. “But getting a film I directed into competition is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.” 

While this just might seem like a figure of speech, the multiple award-winning documentarian isn’t exaggerating. He’s actually been a part of the Sundance Festival community for nearly a quarter of a century. “I volunteered during the Festival in 2000 and made it a life goal to get accepted as a director one year… This Festival is where my favorite works were born and launched, where so much of my inspiration came from as a young filmmaker, and, of course, the internationally renowned stamp of excellence and ingenuity. [I’m] so honored.” 

This goal-setting, all-in energy is something that Zimbalist has brought to all of his projects and is definitely present within Skywalkers — a feature that follows a Russian couple who perform death-defying acrobatics on the tops of some of the tallest buildings in the world. It’s a harrowing watch for anyone afraid of heights, but, more importantly to Zimbalist, it’s a rooftoppers love story. When asked who he wants to see this film, he simply says, “Anyone drawn to or afraid of love.”

Below, hear Zimbalist explain the biggest challenges of shooting Skywalkers: A Love Story, what inspired his film, and what he would be doing if he weren’t a filmmaker.

What was the biggest inspiration behind Skywalkers: A Love Story?

I was a passionate rooftopper in my youth before the activity had a name. When I realized others were doing similar creative trespassing missions around the world, I dove deep and tracked the growth of the activity for almost two decades looking for a personal story in that world worthy of a feature-length documentary. 

When I found Angela and Ivan, I knew this was it, a love story using rooftopping as a metaphor for romantic trust, right in a time when I was also prioritizing a romantic relationship with parallel themes in my own life. Whenever the theme of a film aligns with a thematic question I’m grappling with personally, it’s a sign the time is right, so I took the leap of faith.

Why does this story need to be told now?

In a time full of fear of abandonment, of deceit, of betrayal, it feels like the riskiest move ever to trust others. The more narratives we hear reinforcing this caution, the less we give over to others, open up to others, [and] fully entrust our lives to others, but these are exactly what’s needed for us to unite across differences, to come together with our cultural and class counterparts. Now more than ever, we need narratives that encourage us to make that leap of faith, even when the consequences are more dire than ever.

Your favorite part of making the film?

Of course I loved the pangs of adrenaline peaking a building or escaping, but the most rewarding were the creative sessions with the two lead subjects and my producing partner Maria, processing the roller-coaster ride that is love, figuring out the psychology behind their choices, them helping me understand fear and trust, and us helping them. 

What was a big challenge you faced while making Skywalkers?

Vertigo. These roofs are really high and really scary and I’m getting old! Seriously, safety was our number one concern, and we’re relieved to have finished without anyone getting injured (well, severely at least) or arrested (well, the crew at least). 

How do you want people to feel after they see your film?

For those in love, to reignite their appreciation of each other. For those looking for love, to be willing to break through the barriers and invite the world in. And for those avoidant of love, to be inspired to be compassionate toward others, to trust others, to take a chance on others and let them take a chance on you. 

Tell us why and how you got into filmmaking.

It perfectly mixed my deepest passions: immersion in worlds most different from my own, all the art forms swirled into one, and a mass-scale tool to move society in a better direction.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

Musician or entrepreneur, or musical entrepreneur, or entrepreneurial musician. Or a novelist.

What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to become better cinematic storytellers?

Your crew and your subjects are your family, treat ’em that way. It’s basic morality, and the space will creatively thrive.

Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?

Our full potential in life and in romance is on the other side of our greatest fear.

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