By Tisha Robinson-Daly
In July 2014, I was grieving the loss of my father, who died unexpectedly in September of 2011. Nearly three years later I was still meandering though life aimlessly, missing my Dad and being really, really angry that he was taken away from me.
I was a new mom, my daughter only 10 months old when my father had his fatal heart attack. She would not remember the great man he was. He would never see her grow into the amazing person she is. These sad realities played in my mind on repeat, which made writing, creating and dreaming far-fetched concepts I just couldn’t wrap my head around.
But on July 7, 2014 that changed.
On that day, my friend who works in the telecom industry, called to tell me about an accident that happened in Harrison County Kentucky, involving a 28 year old man named Joel Metz. Joel, a telecommunications tower climber, which is someone who climbs cell towers to build, inspect, maintain and repair the structures and equipment for cellphone service, posted a picture on Facebook of his breathtaking view atop a 240 ft. telecommunications tower. A cable supporting the 1,800 pound antenna snapped, severing Joel’s arm and decapitating him. Joel’s headless body hung in its harness for close to five hours before rescue was able to get it down.
I can still remember the visceral reaction I had. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident, Joel’s family, his four sons and how something so heinous happened to someone just doing their job. His sons still needed him much like I still needed my father yet both were gone. Joel’s funeral was held on July 10th, my birthday. I felt this strong connection to a man I had never met and something inside needed to make sure his death wasn’t in vain.
Days turned into weeks that turned into months and I found myself searching out any information I could find about this pack of traveling gypsies. It baffled me that in this technological era, where cell phones are practically glued to every humans hand, most people do not know or care about the men and women who make using them possible.
The sad reality became transparent…in the race to advance technology, and build bigger and better networks, men and women who climb, are paying with their lives.
I took to Facebook, naturally, on a mission to find tower climbers to talk to. My hope was to find a handful of individuals who would allow me to pick their brains, hear about their experiences, their fears, family life and job satisfaction. Quickly, I was hooked and knew I had to make a film about these men and women and their world up high.
HIGH, a narrative feature, is an adrenaline filled tale about human rights and the price we pay to win them. Scaling insanely high telecommunication towers, on cigarettes and little sleep, is how Butch Robbins makes his living. Never knowing if he will make it down alive is the risk he takes every day. When his rescue efforts to save fellow climber and best friend Jake fail, Butch rides a downward spiral of regret and anger. HIGH is a gritty and intense portrait of today's Blue Collar America, where the sacrifices one makes to live, are sometimes life itself.
The underlying theme of HIGH is the razors edge between the cost of living and a man’s life. With that foundation, I explore the difficult question of American technological advancement and what is being sacrificed to obtain it. Year after year, the number of tower climber deaths increase, for us to have the ability to swipe right and Instagram our lunch choices to the masses.
It is estimated that by 2020 there will be well over 1 million cell sites in the US. There are approximately 17,000 tower climbers in the United States, which means climbers spend an extensive amount of time on the road away from home, working excessive hours in difficult environments, getting very little sleep and constantly being demanded to meet unrealistic and unsafe deadlines.
I believe we live in a moral universe, so my hope is that HIGH will start conversations about this dangerous world, and will be a catalyst to better safety regulations and working conditions for tower climbers. Making a great film with the side benefit that the men and women building and maintaining these spires will make it home to their families.
Getting my first feature film made is no easy feat. I am very grateful for all the support I have received and continue to receive,. It all makes getting HIGH to the big screen an obtainable goal.
In June of 2017, I was named one of the Top 30 Finalists for the Iconic Character Fellowship with Roadmap Writers. In August of 2017, I was given an honorable mention in the SAGIndie Fellowship competition and invited to attend the Stowe Story Lab, which I attended in September 2017. At Stowe, we worked diligently to get at the heart of our stories and through that work perfect our pitches. It was very encouraging to be in a room of peers and see the true interest and intrigue on their faces, when I spoke about HIGH.
Stowe Story Lab not only provided me with the first real opportunity to pitch my script, but it has provided me a community of fellow filmmakers who are encouraging, inspiring and supportive, till this day.
In October 2017, Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, invited me to speak to students of Visual Thinking about HIGH and my advocacy work for tower climbers.
Prior to going to Stowe, I had applied for a seat at the Philadelphia Sundance Screenwriters Intensive. I was thrilled to find out in October I was invited. I attended the intensive in November 2017, which was facilitated by Katherine Dieckmann, a Screenwriting professor at Columbia University and award-winning filmmaker.
Katherine was truthful and direct, yet encouraging and gracious, which is a delicate balancing act. She has continued to be a sounding board, mentor, friend and supporter of me and my work. This summer when I was struggling to juggle being a present mom and also a filmmaker, it was Katherine who reminded me that there is a time for everything and I will never regret the time I spend with my daughter; she couldn’t have been more right!
After the Screenwriters intensive, I was contacted by Shira Rockowitz, Associate Director of the Feature Film program at Sundance, and asked to write a blog about my experience. This opportunity, allowed me to profile HIGH and talk about how the screenwriters intensive helped me to flush out my main character. I was then nominated and selected to become a Sundance Institute and Knight Foundation fellow.
Sundance flew me to the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. There I was invited to numerous industry functions, where I was given the opportunity to pitch HIGH.
In April 2018, I was selected by Sundance to attend a Producers Intensive in Detroit, Michigan, and this year I have been awarded two grants from The Sundance Institute and Knight Foundation to help advance HIGH.
Currently, I am working on a rewrite, which my Sundance mentors are waiting to receive. To have an organization like Sundance not only provide me with so many opportunities, but continue to provide me mentorship and support, means so much to me and this project.
I have also met some amazingly talented artists who have become lifelong friends through Sundance, The Knight Foundation and Stowe Story Labs, and for that I am most grateful!
They say it takes a village to raise a child. I say that it also takes one to make a film. I’m grateful and thankful that my village is filled with individuals who believe in me and my vision for HIGH.
HIGH started as a film concept and has grown into so much more. I began this project as a writer and a filmmaker, but now, I’m a tower climber advocate too. Climbers and their families thank me all the time for all that I do for them, not realizing all they have done for me. At a time in my life when I had lost my voice and will to create, tower climbers and a tragic tale inspired me to find both.
HIGH is my tribute to all the fallen climbers, their families and for all the climbers today, who put their lives on the line every time they get up and go to work. I hope that after seeing my film, some of the grumbles of frustration over temporary smartphone outages will be tempered with empathy and compassion for what it takes to maintain these modern day conveniences.
Tisha Robinson-Daly is a writer and director from Maryland, who lives in a cozy, old house, filled with books, in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. She has written, directed and produced five short films that have made their rounds through the festival circuit. She is a Sundance Institute and Knight Foundation Fellow and a Stowe Story Labs Alum. She is the recipient of 2018 and 2019 Sundance/ Knight Foundation Production grant for her first narrative feature, HIGH, which provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of telecommunications tower climbers. She is also the writer, director and producer of the new episodic series, HIGH Climber Stories, a twelve episode series that premieres monthly on Vimeo, Facebook and IGTV.