Imagine if between “Natural Born Killers” and “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino had decided to something dark for The Cartoon Network. Or Woody Allen had followed “Annie Hall” with a couple of Scooby Doo episodes.
That’s a bit like how “Into the Ditch” fits into Rush Sturges’s filmography. Sturges, who started kayaking before he could walk and was a successful filmmaker before he could vote, has been at the forefront of an emerging genre of adventure filmmaking that adds a compelling story to the sphincter-tightening footage. His “Frontier,” for instance, part of the 2012 Radical Reels Tour, explored the motivation of some of the world’s top whitewater paddlers to try increasingly challenging water.

Into The Ditch – Clip from Banff Mountain Film Festival on Vimeo.

For this year’s Radical Reels Tour, which visits Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre on Sept. 10 and the HanesBrand Theatre in Winston-Salem on Sept. 12, Sturges and his River Roots production company offers something a little more CatDoggy.
“That was part of this Out to Lunch series we shot last summer,” Sturges says from his home and studio in Forks of Salmon, Washington. “We did it in one afternoon, it took me about a day to edit. And it went viral. It was the most viewed thing we’ve done,” he adds with a laugh.
“Into the Ditch” features Sturges and buddy and fellow pro kayaker Ben Marr launching into a concrete drainage ditch that runs through a dense forest, quickly dropping 500 vertical feet before spitting them off a drop into the Pacific Ocean.

Rush Sturges
Rush Sturges

“This is sketchy,” Marr notes before they push off.
The series of Out to Lunch shorts was welcome comic relief for Sturges, who was in the midst of  a four-year project that appeared doomed.
Among other things, Sturges is known for his prowess hucking big waterfalls. (In 2007 he broke his back after a bad landing at the 80-foot Bonito Falls in Argentina.)
So it wasn’t surprising that in 2009 he found himself checking out Niagara Falls. “Up to that point, I didn’t think it was runnable,” Sturges recalls. But the more he looked at it … .
“It’s not as high as some that have been run,” says Sturges of the 188-foot Niagara. “I thought, maybe it’s a possibility.” He mentioned it to some kayaking friends, one of whom, Rafa Ortiz, “got very excited. He said he wanted to do it. It was pretty bold.”
Sturges began pitching the idea to Red Bull Media House and his other sponsors. The plan was to build up to Niagara by training on some of the world’s other formidable falls. The sponsors bit, and Sturges and Co. spent the next three years globetrotting and shooting more than 500 hours of footage.
The training was fraught with near misses. The most harrowing came when Spanish paddler Gerd Serrasolses went over a 60-foot falls in Agua Azul in the Mexican state of Chiapas, flipped, surfaced, then disappeared. For more than three minutes Sturges and and another kayaker who had successfully run the falls moments before, searched frantically for Serrasolses. Finally, his body popped up downstream. They worked frantically to resuscitate him, and it wasn’t until he was being airlifted to a local hospital that he returned to consciousness.
Then came the big moment at Niagara. A few crazy souls have made if over in barrels, but no one had survived in a boat. The stunt would be illegal; Ortiz, a river guide in Canada, stood a good chance of losing his livelihood.
Ortiz took a last look at the mass of water — 80,000 cubic feet per second plunging into a rocky landing below. I don’t feel it, he told Sturges.
“The decision was not an easy one,” says Sturges. “For me as a filmmaker, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some level of frustration with it. To me, there was a more appropriate time to decide.”
“We’d built the whole movie around this moment,” says Sturges.
For a year, Sturges put the project aside. Without the Niagara moneyshot, he didn’t think he had a movie.
“I was hungover from the project.”
Slowly, though, another story emerged.
“It’s important for people to know that there’s a lot of thought and planning that goes into these crazy things we do,” says Sturges. The resulting film, he says, shows that “sometimes you just have to say enough is enough.
“It was a harder story to tell,” he says. “In the end, it’s still a hero movie — but it’s not, too.”
Sturges finished production on the movie this week. Now, it’s in the hands of Red Bull Media House for distribution.
How does he feel about the resulting work?
“You know,” he says, “I’ve seen it so many times, I don’t know.”
But he does have high expectations.
“I hope it gets as many views as ‘Into the Ditch.’”

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Check out Radical Reels 2015

Chapel Hill
Varsity Theater
Thursday, Sept. 10, 7 p.m.
Ticket info here.

HanesBrands Theatre
Saturday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m.
Ticket info here.