Filmmaker with Santa Rosa ties directs ‘Climb,’ award-winning documentary about his near-death experience

Neil Myers’ documentary “Climb” won 26 awards, including seven for best feature documentary, and was recently picked up by Amazon Prime.|

How to watch

Film: “Climb”

Length: 52 minutes

Trailer: pdne.ws/42WWeea

Film available to rent on Amazon Prime Video at pdne.ws/3NEemoT.

Neil Myers didn’t know anybody in Santa Rosa in the summer of 1969. He was 12, and his family had just moved to the city from Los Angeles.

So he spent a lot of time at the movie theater a half mile from his new house near Howarth Park. That was the summer he sat through “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” a half dozen times, and decided he wanted to be a filmmaker.

Not long after, he bought a “very cool bike” — a sleek machine named for three-time Tour de France winner Louison Bobet — and rode it all over Sonoma County.

Those two passions, filmmaking and bike riding, yielded his award-winning documentary, “Climb,” which was released in 2021, and has been an official selection at 35 film festivals. It has won 26 awards at those gatherings, including seven for best feature documentary. “Climb” was recently picked up by Amazon Prime, and is now available for rent or purchase worldwide.

But there would be no documentary without the grim event that brought those passions together: the bloody and disturbing crash that nearly cost Myers his life.

A competitive triathlete, he was out for a training ride in August 2018, descending a remote peak in Santa Barbara County, when a pickup truck came around a blind curve, crossing into his lane.

Myers, then 61, broke more than a dozen bones in the ensuing collision, some in multiple places. He punctured a lung, suffered a hematoma on his brain and lost a gallon and a half of blood, some of it darkening the shattered windshield in which he left a cranium-shaped concavity.

Supremely unlucky to have been hit, he was fortunate in other ways. There was a fire station at the base of the climb. Paramedics arrived swiftly, and stabilized him. Soon after, a helicopter whisked him to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, which had a month earlier earned certification as a Level 1 Trauma Center, meaning, as Myers put it, they had to have extra staff and equipment to be ready “for any carnage that walks through the door.”

Not long after the wreck, Myers recalled, the hospital’s head of trauma told him, “Neil, you should’ve died, for sure.” As a trained athlete, he was told, his musculature had formed an “exoskeleton” that helped protect him.

The second the crash was over and he hadn’t died, the doctor said, “you weren’t going to, as long as we didn’t let you bleed out.

“And then you just had to heal.”

Optimistic bordering on delusional

The lion’s share of this briskly paced, 52-minute film is devoted to that healing journey. A week after the crash, to give himself a goal, Myers signed up for the Santa Barbara triathlon, which was still a year away. To see Myers’ bloodied, sutured face and body early in the doc — “He was very badly broken,” as his wife Leigh puts it — is to realize that decision fell somewhere between optimistic and delusional.

Myers was in the hospital for a month, then attacked his rehab and physical therapy. One hundred thirty-nine days after the wreck, he was back on his bike, back on Gibraltar Road, the daunting, Tour de France-level climb that he’s ascended over 100 times, and on which he nearly died.

He does make it to the starting line of the Santa Barbara race, as a member of a relay team. What follows is “suspense and climax worthy of the best fictional scripts,” according to judges at the Milano Gold Film Festival.

Riders suffering on the punishing gradients of Gibraltar are grateful to be distracted by jaw-dropping views of the ocean and surrounding coastal mountains. While they don’t show up in the credits, those dramatic vistas, captured by drones, co-star in the documentary along with Myers.

They also raise a question. How did a guy who has spent the last three decades running a high-tech marketing agency write, produce and direct such a good movie?

Honing his skills

Despite his admiration for George Roy Hill, director of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Myers did not become a filmmaker.

“Life gets in the way,” said Myers, who graduated from Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa, then studied engineering at UC Berkeley. In 1989 he started Connect Marketing — vowing, when he did so, to “do everything I could over the course of my career to learn how to be a filmmaker, so that when I’m retired I can finally do that.”

He spent the next three decades telling stories with video – “usually three- or four-minute stories, and usually about things that make nobody cry,” he said, with a half-smile.

All along, however, he was honing those filmmaking skills, “the cinematography, the audio, the lighting,” and made numerous contacts. Eric Colvin, a composer who’d worked with Myers numerous times, wrote the score for “Climb,” which won best original score at five different film festivals.

The crew migrated north to Sonoma County 10 months after Myers’ crash. Team Connect, comprised of Myers (bike) and his son Hugh (swim), along with superb runner Holly Hagerman, entered an event called Vineman-Monte Rio, as a kind of warmup for the Santa Barbara event.

The day before the Monte Rio race, the team attended the memorial of Santa Rosa public relations executive Jack Wolf, one of Myers’ oldest and closest friends. Drained emotionally following that ceremony, Myers found it difficult to find motivation to compete the next morning.

That race was “just off, from the very start,” he recalled. “And I think all of us kind of felt that.”

Scare in Monte Rio

Five or so miles into the bike leg, a rider crashed. The sounds of sirens audible to Myers and his teammates — and his wife back at the transition area — unnerved all of them.

Unbeknownst to the teammates waiting for Neil Myers back in Monte Rio, California Highway Patrol officers had delayed the cyclists, following that crash. When Myers was late getting back, the other team members feared the worst.

Despite all, the team won the relay division, but took little joy from it. Myers, wrestling with the question, “What are we doing this for?” told his son and Hagerman that the Santa Barbara triathlon would be his last.

As viewers will see, they made that final race count.

In addition to physical therapy and occupational therapy — “Imagine trying to put socks on with seven broken ribs, two broken wrists and a broken leg,” Myers says in the doc — he sought counseling for post-traumatic stress, even though he emerged from the crash with no recollection of the collision itself.

In a crash like his, Myers learned, the body stops “laying down memories” because it’s got more important work today: ensuring survival.

While normal memory centers of the brain have no recollection of the incident, “the amygdala does,” he said. “That’s kind of your lizard brain, it has no language, there’s no voice, but it speaks in emotions.”

One day at his orthopedic surgeon’s office months after the crash, Myers heard a helicopter and shed tears. “I just started crying,” he recalled.

“It’s funny, because, as I’m telling you this, it’s happening again.”

The psychotherapist he worked with helped Myers understand that many people who’d undergone similar experiences had those intense emotions “for five, six, seven years. Eventually, they’ll go away.”

In the meantime, the shrink told him, “embrace them, because they’re good for you.

“He actually told me to slow down, when it’s happening, and let myself fully feel it.”

Picked up by Amazon Prime

Myers still cries when he watches “Climb,” but not so much on account of his wreck.

Pushing his emotional buttons now, he said, are reminders of what an arduous process it was making and midwifing the film.

His primary aim, he said, was to tell a good story.

“It was hard. Harder than I ever thought it could be. But I feel I did that.”

His next goal was to get some critical acclaim, which would improve his chances of making more movies down the road. With help from a website called FilmFreeway, he got “Climb” entered in three dozen film festivals. It won 26 awards.

But the movie’s most important milestone to date came in May, when Amazon Prime picked it up in Germany. Within a week it had been picked up by Amazon Prime in every country in Europe, said Myers, “and the next week it was up in the U.S.

“I have no idea how it happened. But it’s made all the difference in the world.”

Those awards, and the distribution provided by Amazon Prime, should help open doors the next time he decides to make a film. And there will be a next time.

Making a documentary is “incredibly time-consuming and difficult and takes every ounce of what you’re doing,” he said.

Then, in the next breath:

“I love it and I want to do it again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

How to watch

Film: “Climb”

Length: 52 minutes

Trailer: pdne.ws/42WWeea

Film available to rent on Amazon Prime Video at pdne.ws/3NEemoT.

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