24 Sep Decades after Aspen-bound plane crash, surviving brothers reckon with trauma in documentary ‘3 Days 2 Nights’
As boys, Mark and Andy Godfrey survived a horrific 1974 plane crash that killed their parents, brother and sister on their way to an Aspen ski vacation. The pair stayed alive in the wreckage for three days on a snow-covered mountainside outside of Glenwood Springs before an unlikely rescue. In the decades that followed, they rarely discussed the tragedy.
But in a startlingly intimate new documentary, the brothers confront their trauma and tell their stories in the hopes of inspiring others.
“Maybe by me opening up, I can help some other people who have faced despair,” Mark says in the film.
Titled “3 Days 2 Nights,” the documentary will screen Wednesday at Aspen Filmfest.
This is a story of survival and perseverance, but it’s not really about those unthinkable three days and two nights the boys survived in the wilderness among the dead. Instead, it’s an intensely personal portrait of Mark and Andy Godfrey as they attempt to heal the emotional wounds and mend their relationship 40 years later. The film is still in the editing process. Director John Breen is bringing an early cut of this remarkable work to the Godfreys’ hometown audience.
Flying for the first time on a small private plane, the family crashed on Williams Peak in Garfield County on the way to Aspen from Houston. Just 8 and 11 at the time, Andy and Mark subsisted on peanuts, chips and liquor from the cabin. Pinned by mangled plane seats, Mark lost his legs.
The film conjures the terror of the crash with Andy recounting his memory of it, interspersed with recordings of the pilot’s conversation with air-traffic controllers before impact.
“I distinctly remember looking out the left-side plane window and seeing the trees get very close and Mom saying, ‘We’re going to crash,’ and I remember hitting the snow, remember sliding on the snow, and then blacking out,” Andy recalls.
Before she died, his mother told Andy to stay close to the plane, conserve food and take care of Mark.
Four decades later, Mark is haunted by nightmares of the crash.
“I wake up, I hear my heart thumping and tell myself, ‘OK, it’s just a bad dream,'” he says as the film opens. “I wake up everyday and it’s still the same thing. The bad dream never went away.”
They were saved, it turns out, by a 9-year-old boy skiing at Sunlight who saw the plane go down across the valley. The boy was obsessed with planes and aviation, so nobody believed his story initially and his father did not alert authorities for two days. In “3 Days 2 Nights” the Godfreys find that boy, Danny Schaefer, and thank him in person for saving them.
The film also follows the Godfreys as they recount their rescue with the helicopter pilot who found them and follows as they return to the crash site on its 39th anniversary and find wreckage still strewn about the woods.
After a long recovery at Aspen Valley Hospital — where their visitors included John Denver — the boys stayed in Aspen. Their aunt and uncle, Marianne and Johnny Schuhmacher, raised them and their sister, Paula, who was a baby at the time of the crash and had stayed behind with family in Houston. After leaving for college and to start a career, Andy resettled here with his wife and children in 1998.
The catalyst for making “3 Days 2 Nights” was a revelatory story that Andy wrote for the Aspen Times Weekly in 2012, reckoning for the first time publicly with the crash and detailing the aftermath. The story drew an outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike.
“I really just wrote it for myself and I didn’t have any idea it would affect people the way it did,” Andy says in the film.
The magazine story also pushed Mark to start talking. Though he had rarely discussed the crash — even with Andy and his wife and children — Mark had been meticulously and privately compiling research about it for years.
When their lifelong friend Breen suggested making a documentary with his brother-in-law — the well-established cinematographer Jojo Pennebaker — the Godfreys consented.
Breen has known the Godfrey brothers for nearly 50 years. He grew up with them in Houston, was close with the family before the crash, visited Mark and Andy in the hospital and has remained close with them.
They started with a trial shoot in 2013, spending a weekend in Aspen discussing the crash with cameras rolling to see how it felt. The process quickly opened a dam of pent-up emotions.
“It’s like a volcano that keeps building up,” Mark says early in the film. “It wants to come out.”
It was soon evident that this wasn’t going to be a movie about a dramatic plane crash survival. It would instead be a story of brotherly love, reconciliation and recovery.
“I thought maybe this was going to be more of a historical film about what happened,” Breen said in a recent phone interview. “For Mark, I think it goes beyond the film. He’s had a personal transformation just going through the process of making it. It was something to watch him confront these things in his life that have been too painful for him to confront in the past.”
The film brings the Godfreys’ idyllic pre-crash life to the screen through evocative clips from Super 8 home movies that show a Kennedy-esque family of hardy, happy kids sailing and skiing with their picture-perfect parents (their father was nicknamed “the Greek god” for his charm and looks).
While Andy lost toes to the elements in the aftermath of the crash, he recovered physically and went on to become a college lacrosse star and hockey player. Mark, permanently disabled in a wheelchair, lost his identity as a football-playing Texas kid along with losing his parents and siblings.
Mark acutely felt the loss of that past life. In one heartbreaking scene, he returns to the tennis court at Aspen Meadows to conjure memories of his post-crash Aspen years and breaks down while recounting his childhood shame and frustration.
“I just have to sit here like an idiot in the chair and watch the world go by,” he says through tears. “I think to myself, over and over again, ‘What the hell happened? Why did this happen? I’m a crippled 12-year-old kid in a wheelchair.'”
Leaving Aspen for prep school, Mark did go on to find himself, to become a prize-winning competitive skier and later to build a life with a family in Houston. But talking on camera provides a breakthrough decades in the making.
Though Breen knew the Godfreys well, the director said he was surprised by how raw and unresolved their emotions about the crash still were.
“Mark had a very difficult time, when we first started, even getting through a couple sentences without becoming very emotional,” Breen said. “It made me so aware that this is a person who had barely spoken about this and is opening himself up and becoming very vulnerable.”
Breen said he expects to spend about another month in post-production edits after the Aspen Filmfest screening. He then plans to start submitting it to more festivals and hopes to find a distributor who can bring the film to a wide audience.
Breen, who spent his professional career investing in restaurants and food businesses, is a first-time filmmaker. But there are no freshman jitters in this assured piece of documentary filmmaking. His long and close relationship with the Godfreys surely enabled them to open up in ways they couldn’t have with any other filmmaker, while Pennebaker’s cinema verite shooting style accentuates the emotional immediacy of the film.
“It was definitely a labor of love — probably more labor than I expected,” Breen said, with a laugh, of the five-year-long filmmaking process. “When I got into it I wanted to try my best to have the audience know these guys and their story the way that I do, to have people walk out of the film and say, ‘These guys inspired me.'”