HBO doc 'At the Heart of Gold' highlights survivors' perspectives

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman speaks at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar. Raisman's testimony is featured in HBO's "At the Heart of Gold." Brendan McDermid/Reuters/Newscom

Film director Erin Lee Carr was working on a project about gymnastics coaches and abuse when the news about Larry Nassar broke. Like so many, she was disturbed by the allegations against the former national team and Michigan State doctor and changed the focus to telling the stories of Nassar survivors and their quest for justice and systematic change.

The 31-year-old auteur, who is perhaps best known for her 2017 documentary, "Mommy Dead and Dearest," about Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the murder of her mother, headed to Michigan where she interviewed as many people who would talk to her as possible. Ultimately she spoke to 12 survivors and countless other former gymnasts, coaches, parents, journalists and advocates.

The result? An emotional documentary called "At the Heart of Gold," premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, and making its broadcast debut on HBO on May 3 at 8 p.m. ET.

We caught up with Carr earlier this week to talk about the film, the process of making it and what she hopes comes from its release.

espnW: What inspired you to make this documentary?

Carr: I was looking at predatory relationships between coaches and gymnasts with my executive producer, Sarah Gibson, and we were teamed up with people who were former [United States Olympic Committee] members who knew the culture inside [elite] gymnastics. When we heard about the Larry Nassar [case] in 2017, we were like, "Oh, yeah, there's something else that terribly went awry here."

espnW: What did you think you could bring to the telling of this story?

Carr: On a foundational level, I think that reading about these women and their experiences is incredibly powerful, but watching them and looking at their body language brings it to a whole new level of experience. I think when you see Chelsea Zerfas, who is one of the young women in our film, and she's shaking, and she's so nervous, and she thinks that she wants to confront her abuser and she wants to be like her sister survivors. I can't look at that footage or that of Kyle Stephens or Trinea [Gonczar] without having an incredible emotional reaction to it. I wanted to make a film that was honoring the strength of that moment but also documenting in real time the enablers that allowed this abuse to flourish for as long as it did.

espnW: The doc explores the complexities and layers of enablers, at an individual and systemic level in the film. Why was that an important component to feature?

Carr: It's kind of like -- follow the money, follow the crime, follow the perpetrator. I never wanted to give the film over to Larry Nassar. I think that would be a mistake, but I do want to talk about the institutions that failed these women, and I think that documentary is the perfect place to do that. You can investigate and show archival documents and bring the audience along, and point out these institutional failures. And I think that's what we set out to do and I think it's what we accomplished.

espnW: Unfortunately, there are so many survivors, how did you decide who to speak to and who to feature?

Carr: We talked to everybody that would talk to us. We reached out to many, many people and our film specifically [focused] on the women that lived in Michigan who knew Larry Nassar and his family. I think that there has been a lot of reporting about this case and the incredible gymnasts that are Olympians, but we wanted to figure out what is it like to be in Michigan, to have gone to his family's house, to know him. I think that no abuse is ever OK, but I wanted to think about the psychological ramifications, what it looked like for this predator to groom someone. We had to be sensitive and careful and think about ways to get people to open up to us and never feel exploited.

It's a film, and I'm certainly not going to call it "entertainment," because it's not, but it is different than writing about it for the New York Times or ESPN, because that's very clear and specific. What I do is different -- I add music to it, we edit it. I worked with an incredible editor, Cindy Lee. I thought it was really important to work with a female editor and somebody as smart as she is. There are many trap doors when you are working with a material like this, the stakes are high and you can't f--- up.

espnW: Is there a specific survivor or story that stands out most to you?

Carr: That's like asking me to pick a [favorite] child. But they all taught me so many things. Honesty, every time I sat with a survivor I felt, in a small way, changed. The details of the crime were often incredibly similar. He had a very set grooming pattern and a set abuse pattern, but the results and how the women coped with it were always different. There's something called "post-traumatic growth," instead of [post-traumatic stress disorder] and it means they grew from a terrible experience. I was so emboldened and encouraged by seeing women go about their lives and [live out] their goals and their dreams.

espnW: You had a predominately female crew, was that intentional?

Carr: I think that when you're talking about abuse and what happened to you, you want to look up and feel safe in the room. I'm not making the impression that men are unsafe. I surround myself with really gentle and smart men, but I wanted it to feel like a space where we could talk about these things and not feel embarrassed. That said, there were a number of men involved in this project, but I think that I need to challenge myself and continue to [bring in more] women because [film production] is a place where men dominate, and I can help change that dynamic.

espnW: What stood out to you most about this army of survivors as a collective force?

Carr: What happened to them changed the trajectory of their lives. Each one of these women will change their societies and their communities in a real way. The survivors have told me that people are always reaching out to them. If there is less silence in the world about this, I think abuse will happen less frequently. I think it will create a ripple effect, each person creating it and then it sort of multiplying into the tens and hundreds of thousands. There's just no accounting for how much change they create in the world.

espnW: What do you hope comes from the documentary?

Carr: Marci Hamilton, who is an advocate [and the CEO and academic director] for CHILD USA, [an interdisciplinary think tank to prevent child abuse and neglect] -- she pointed out to me during our interview for this film that institutions like to protect themselves and are often in positions to protect themselves and govern and police themselves. MSU and USA Gymnastics can hire independent investigative councils before they go to the authorities because they have the money to do so and interests to protect. But children need adults to speak up and act on their behalf. I don't think we're going to solve childhood sexual abuse, but we can move in the direction of really creating a safer place.

espnW: You end the film by asking several people if they would let their daughter participate in gymnastics, so, I have to ask, after working on this film, would you?

Carr: I do not have children, yet. But I think I would [let them participate in gymnastics]. I think that sports are incredibly important for discipline and empowerment, but I would be watching everything. I love the sport, and I would want to let him or her explore what they want to do. But there would be some careful watching of what's going on.