Harder to film 'Marathon' than run one

Docu grossed $1M in two night run

"Marathon" movie: As difficult as it is to run a marathon, it's even harder to make a movie about marathon running.

At least that's been Jon Dunham's experience in bringing the documentary "Spirit of the Marathon" to the screen. "Marathon" won the audience award at the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival and was named best picture at the 2007 Mammoth Film Festival. It's playing through Aug. 14 during Docuweek in New York and from Aug. 22-28 as part of Docuweek in L.A., showings that will qualify it for well-deserved Academy consideration.

Directed by Dunham, "Marathon" was produced by Dunham and Gwendolen Twist and photographed by Dunham and Sarah Levy. It was executive produced by Mark Jonathan Harris, an Oscar winner for producing (with Trevor Greenwood) the 1967 documentary short "The Redwoods." Dunham previously directed, co-shot and edited the 2002 documentary short "No Distance Too Far" about the 600 mile California AIDS ride by 3,000 cyclists in June '01, which screened on television and at film festivals worldwide.

In "Marathon" Dunham focuses on the lives and journeys of six marathon runners from around the world as they face the challenges of participating in the 26.2 mile Chicago Marathon. There also are interviews with a number of prominent runners, including Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first women's Olympic Marathon Champion, and Bill Rodgers, a four-time Boston and New York City Marathon champion).

After enjoying an early look at "Marathon" I was happy to be able to ask Dunham about the challenges he faced getting it made. "It was incredibly difficult," he explained. "Running a marathon race -- with no disrespect intended towards endurance athletes -- pales in comparison to getting a movie made. I've often said it was 'my hardest marathon.'"

Dunham's no stranger to long runs, by the way, having completed 24 marathons, including four in Chicago. "I ran my first marathon -- the Los Angeles Marathon -- in 1993," he said. "That was a life changing experience for me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I didn't train for it at all. It was just something I had seen on television a couple of times and was intrigued by it, thinking I was in good shape and could go out there and tackle that. So I did it kind of on a whim and learned my lesson. I discovered inner strength I didn't know I had. I made it to the finish line and was just euphoric. I've run at least one marathon every year since then."

At some point along the way, he added, "It occurred to me that this would be something really interesting to make a film about. Certainly the spectacle of the event -- there are literally tens of thousands of people filling up the streets of a major city like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago -- is really a sight to behold and really something to be a part of. At the time, I was studying film at USC and was interested in making a documentary and just started on that path."

Dunham spent about two years developing and researching "Marathon," he told me, "meeting all kinds of people, trying to find the financing for it and at the end of (that time) I had a lot of wonderful relationships with people in the running world, but no money whatsoever. That was the end of 2004 or early 2005. There came a point where I just could see that this movie wasn't going to move forward unless I really did something about it. This was when the first HD (video) cameras were starting to come onto the scene. I purchased one of those -- a Sony V1 -- right when it came out and I started shooting with the U.S. Olympian featured in the film, Deena Kastor.

"From there things really accelerated. I started getting really compelling footage with her and turning that into sample pieces and starting to put this together. It was entirely self-financed for the majority of the production up until the marathon, itself. Finally the Chicago Marathon gave me a little bit of money to film the marathon and that got us through that phase of it. And then we started post-production and I teamed up with another producer, Gwendolen Twist, who became the co-producer of the film. She's a marathon runner, as well. We got together a group of investors at a theater down in Newport Beach and showed them a trailer that we had cut together and based on that raised the rest of the money to complete the film."

After shooting the Chicago Marathon, Dunham recalled, "I was again at a point where I had no money whatsoever and still had a lot of filming to do. I had planned a trip around the world to film with the Kenyan man, Daniel Njenga (a 29 year old World Class Marathoner), who's featured in the film. We ended up doing that (because) my father has had an American Express card for decades that he was accumulating (airline) miles with. I asked him if we could use his miles. We paid for this entire trip with American Express miles. We filmed with Daniel in Japan and then at home in Africa and did some filming in Europe before coming back to the States."

Clearly, his passion for the project got him through some really tough times: "There was never really a point where I said, 'Okay, that's it. I'm throwing in the towel.' I always said, just like (with) my first marathon, 'I am going to get through this thing. I am going to make this film come hell or high water and that's it.' And, you know, by the grace of God, that is what happened."

Filming runners, he noted, posed some unique challenges in terms of "how you do that as a one-man crew following multiple runners simultaneously during the marathon, itself, where you've got in the case of Chicago literally 40,000 people that are there, also. There were some creative solutions that I had to come up with. The filming on the Chicago lakefront was all done on a path where you couldn't get a vehicle. So I ended up working with a local guy who owned a pedicab business there. He and I would go out pretty much every Saturday and Sunday whenever these runners were doing their longest training runs. He would cycle and I'd ride in the back with the camera tracking alongside these people along the Lake Michigan path.

"We ultimately used that same model in filming the marathon, itself. We were allowed to have those pedicab cycles. We had four of them with our amateur runners that literally tracked them pretty much through the entire race. They were not allowed to start with them because it's so packed there at the starting line. We negotiated with the Chicago Marathon to have these pedicabs start three miles into the race so somehow we had to figure out a way to have the pedicab cycles and the camera crews spot those runners at that three mile mark."

It may sound simple to do, but it's not, he emphasized: "When you say, 'Okay, look for somebody with a blue shirt' and you've got 40,000 people running by it just doesn't work. We rehearsed it. We got everybody together -- all the pedicab guys, the camera guys, the runners themselves -- and we walked them through the entire procedure (telling them), 'This is where the cameras are going to be. Make sure you're on this side of the road at this point in the race.' We had signs along the course cueing the runners to get over to the side where the cameras were going to be. And then each of the amateur runners had another runner pacing them through the entire race."

For the first three miles of the race, he pointed out, "that other runner that was with them was holding up a large yellow sign that had that runner's name on it. The cameras saw these signs coming down the road in this sea of humanity and they'd come out and start to merge into the flow and meet up that way. There was a lot of planning around it and some luck, as well. Had we not caught them there that would have been it. We probably wouldn't have seen them for the rest of the race."

"Marathon" was completed early in the fall of 2007 and had its world premiere that October at the Chicago International Film Festival. Since then, it's had a very limited but highly successful theatrical release. "We began working with a company called National CineMedia that does alternative programming for large theater chains and helps them fill up auditoriums at slower times," Dunham explained. "They came upon our movie via a sales agent that we started working with, Wasserman Media Group, and decided they wanted to give this a go with the built-in audience of runners.

"On Jan. 24 they put this movie in close to 500 theaters across the country as a one-night only screening event that was sent to theaters via satellite. That greatly reduced the cost of distribution (by eliminating the need to make prints). It sold out everywhere and did extremely well. As a result, they did an encore (showing) Feb. 21 in about half as many theaters and, again, did extremely well. Between those two nights the film grossed a million dollars. Based on these two evenings alone it is the fourth highest grossing documentary this year! And this is a movie that started literally with the purchase of a $5,000 digital camera and made it all the way to the big screen and made a lot of money, particularly where a documentary is concerned."

Looking ahead, he added, a DVD release is being planned that he expects to do very well considering how popular marathon running is. "There are approximately 400,000 marathon finishes in the United States annually," he said. "We sold basically 100,000 tickets on these two nights when the film was in theaters. So we only got a quarter of the people that are actually running marathons. We did a one-night release across Canada, as well. But other than that it hasn't screened anywhere else. So there are a lot of international releases we hope to do."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com
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