If you have not had chance to see Desert Runners this year then it is a film that you really need to check out as it is one of the best documentaries of 2013.
We caught up with director Jennifer Steinman to chat about the film, where the project started for her and what lies ahead.
- Desert Runners is one of the best documentaries of the year and is heading to DVD. For anyone who hasn't seen the film yet can you tell me a little bit about it?
Thank you so much for your kind words! Desert Runners is the story of a group of people-- ordinary people, NOT professional runners-- who attempt to complete the world's most difficult desert ultramarathon series in one calendar year.
The series consists of four gruelling 250km races through the most inhospitable deserts on the planet: The Atacama in Chile, The Gobi in China, The Sahara in Egypt, and finally in Antarctica. The film intimately charts the journey of four runners in particular, all who have very different and compelling reasons for taking on this tremendous challenge.
- You are in the director's chair for the film so where did this project start for you? What sparked your interest in this gruelling event and the people who take part in it?
In October of 2009, I went to a conference on health & nutrition where one of the guest speakers was a funny, wacky Irish guy named Dave O’Brien. At this conference, Dave announced to the audience that at the age of 56 he had decided that he was going to attempt to run the four Deserts Ultramarathon Series—one of the most difficult endurance challenges in the world.
Just one week earlier, I had been at the hospital with my mother, who had been very ill for several months. Dave was not much younger than my mother, and yet my mom didn’t think she could even walk around the block.
I thought to my self "What makes this guy think he can run 1000km through the desert?" I became immediately interested in this huge difference in perceived limitations that human beings seem to have— how can one person think something is totally possible, when most others would perceive it as “impossible?”
And are our perceived limitations actually real, or just something that we arbitrarily decide for ourselves? I was really drawn to finding out the answers to these questions, and I think that was my initial draw to the story. I wanted to understand the mindset of some one who would decide to take on a challenge like this.
- While we see a whole host of people putting their bodies to the test in this film, you do focus on the stories of Samantha, Ricky, Tremaine and Dave. So how early in the production process did you decide you were going to follow these particular individuals?
I was drawn to Dave immediately because he is an irresistible personality. The first time I met him, I immediately thought, “Now this guy is a character!” And this is actually a somewhat funny story... Originally, I thought I was just going to make a film about Dave.
However, when we arrived in Atacama Desert, on the first day Dave says to me "I'm a little worried because I didn't really train that much." He walked away and I turned to my cameraman and said, "Oh my god, he's not going to make it!
We flew all the way to Chile to make a movie about this guy, and he's going to be out on the first day and we will have nothing to film!" I had to quickly come up with a plan B-- so we decided to start shooting and talking to as many people as possible-- we needed to find some interesting new characters, quickly! We talked to anyone and everyone we met, and our other three characters soon made themselves apparent.
In general, when casting I am always looking for people who have an interesting life situation and/or story, but who are also going to be comfortable and authentic in front of the camera. They need to be honest, relatable, and most importantly willing to be vulnerable and share themselves openly with us.
Our runners were all willing to let others witness their lives at the most raw and intimate moments, and they were able to live it all and talk articulately about it at the same time. As a filmmaker, those are your dream characters.
- And how keen were they for you to follow them during this journey?
Looking back, I think all of them were exceptionally keen for us to follow them on their journey. When you are attempting to complete such a tremendous personal goal, I think there must be something nice about knowing it is being documented along the way and that it will live on in a film.
As the journey unfolded over the course of the year, we all bonded and became really close, and then I think we as filmmakers became even more integrated into their experience.
When people ask them now, they have all said that having us there made their journey even more memorable, which is a huge complement to me as a filmmaker.
- Can you tell us a bit about the filmmaking practicalities of shooting long distance running - I imagine it was just as big a challenge for you as it was for them?
People are always asking me “did you have a helicopter? What kind of dolly did you use?” And I have to laugh! It was just me and my cameraman, and we spent a lot of time hiking up sand dunes and hanging out of car windows (him, not me!) to get the shots we needed.
We travelled in 4-wheel drive vehicles that were driven by locals in each country, so sometimes they spoke English and knew where they were going… but usually that was not the case. And the race course often was not accessible by vehicle, so we were out on foot a lot-- hiking, running, climbing.
We also lived in the same conditions as the runners; sleeping on the desert floor at night, not showering for 7 days at a time, eating freeze-dried meals. It was rough and rugged, to say the least.
I think from a technical perspective, the best thing we did was travel light and with minimal equipment. We shot on camera that used SD cards so that we could bring all the cards we needed and didn’t need computers or hard drives to download in the field.
We rarely used a tripod, and just brought a really small one to do the timelapse shots. The dirt and sand situation was pretty intense, and I felt bad for the other camera guys who were struggling to keep their gear and laptops safe, so minimal (and not irreplaceable) was definitely the way to go.
- What was the original plan/intentions for the film? How did that change as filming got underway - did you end up going in a different direction?
Originally, I only had enough funding to go to the Atacama Desert and I really had no idea what these races were all about, so it was just an “exploratory shoot,” to see what was going on out there and to follow Dave on his crazy adventure.
Plus, I had always wanted to go to Chile. I think I thought we would just go, shoot a bunch of pretty footage, and maybe post it on YouTube or something when we got home, and that would be it.
Then when we got to the desert and started meeting more people, we started to see the diversity of people who were there. There was so much richness in all of the people’s stories and all of the different reasons people had for choosing to do these races. I think that was the first moment I realized it could have feature film potential.
I think I also expected to get to the desert and to see only elite athletes – people with thin, chiselled physiques and competitive, cutthroat attitudes. Instead what we found were “everyday” people – people like us that we could relate to, with day jobs and mortgage payments.
People of all shapes and sizes and levels of fitness, and they all wanted to support and help each other, the spirit of camaraderie was deeply touching. I was really drawn in by this authenticity, and I think that’s the thread I tried to follow in making the film. From there we just went where the story called us to go.
- Can you talk a bit about the editing process and how difficult it was sifting through all of that footage to make the story?
We ended up filming a lot of really amazing, interesting people out there and it was actually pretty painful having to narrow it down to just 4 characters, I loved everyone and had a hard time letting go.
It was also difficult trying to figure out how to make each desert varied enough to keep it interesting, and to keep the story moving forward.
After all, you can only see feet running through sand so many times before you get bored of it. I tired to focus mostly on the emotional journeys of the people and let the physical journey serve as the backdrop-- and with such stunning scenery; I think it worked best that way.
- You spent a lot of time with the 'Desert Runners' what was it like witnessing their endurance first hand?
I feel like in many ways we all lived the experience together. Granted, I had fewer blisters... but we all suffered the highs and lows together, and it certainly was a feat of endurance for all of us. Theirs was 1000km through the desert; mine was 3.5 years in getting a film finished!
- How have you been finding the response to the film? The movie has been plying at a string of different film festivals including Edinburgh, Vancouver and Hamptons, who how have you found your festival experience?
The response to the film both at festivals and around the world has been truly thrilling.
As a filmmaker, you can only hope that the audiences find your subjects as compelling and inspiring as you do, and it has been a joy to share the film with such enthusiastic and complimentary audiences.
- Desert Runners is only the second time for you in the director's chair, so what were you able to take from Motherland that you were able to use while making this latest film?
I learned so many things when I made Motherland-- both from to the creative practices of selecting characters, interviewing techniques, etc, to the business perspective of how to produce and market a film.
I think I learn and grow more as an artist from each film and one of the things I love so much about filmmaking is that it's a constant learning experience, and one where you can only learn through the process of doing the work.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I have a couple of projects in development - a biography, a dance project and a social issue film. I love to think about a few things simultaneously but then love to immerse myself entirely in one story.
Desert Runners plays in the ‘Best of Fests’ at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) this week and is eligible for the Audience Award