Jennifer Steinman's amazing documentary, 'Desert Runners' reveals just how intense and demanding the 4Deserts challenge is, so it was only natural that I sat down with her to discuss how she went about doing it and just how tough the challenge was as filmmakers.
Just watching the film is quite an exhausting experience. How was it emotionally and physically on you as a filmmaker?
That's a big question! We went on the same ride they did. The living conditions were the same, up at dawn, working all hours of the night, and it was just myself and a cameraman. It was a gruelling experience! We were living in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, sleeping on the ground and not showering for seven days.
We all became bonded as a group. There are about 140 competitors in each race, but only 13 who were doing all four deserts, and we were the only film crew covering all four, so the 15 of us really became like a family out there.
So was it an enjoyable experience shooting the film?
Put it this way, I loved it and it was the adventure of a lifetime, but at the same time when I arrived home from Antarctica I got back to New York about midnight and just crawled into my bed and started to sob and was thinking, 'it's over, and I don't have to go to another desert and I don't have to sleep on the ground anymore!' It was awesome but it was very tough.
What made you decide to follow desert racers in the first place?
Firstly, I'd never heard of anything like this, so was really interested in the type of people that want to do it. Also, if I'm being honest, I really wanted to visit Chile and the Atacama Desert! It seemed a cool thing to learn about too.
After the first desert we didn't know we were going to be making a feature film and certainly didn't think we were going to visit all four deserts, and what I expected to find there was a bunch of elite athletes with chiselled bodies and superhuman specimens, but instead we found a group of real people, which instantly hooked me. I began thinking what makes these everyday people, who weren't professional athletes, want to do this?
In terms of filming, were logistics a big issue when you were out there?
You name it we did it! We had 4-wheel drive vehicles but a lot of the time these couldn't get to the race course, so we did a lot of hiking in and climbing. We had to walk up sand dunes to get to the top to see down for shots; it was pretty crazy. We also went back to capture things further back in the races, but in some places, like the Sahara, we couldn't do that: once your vehicle went down a dune there was no way of getting back up! We were driven by local drivers who sometimes didn't speak any English. Sometimes they said they knew where they were going but didn't, so we got lost a lot of times!
One time we were sharing a vehicle with another film crew and they were shooting the person in first place, and obviously we weren't, so there were some battles around that! It was interesting, but all part of the adventure.
How did you select the specific competitors to focus on for the documentary?
At this point in my career I've finally learnt how to spot a character and it's hard because you meet people you really like as a person, but in your filmmaker brain you can't see this person translating well on-screen. There were plenty we liked as people and became friends with, but takes a certain kind of person to make a good character. A great character has to be really open and willing to talk about themselves and be the type to forget the camera is even there and have that trust in you.
The four we follow end up embodying what we wanted: they all had amazing stories, but beyond that they were really willing to share them, which is exactly what you're looking for as a filmmaker when interviewing people.
You cover the 2010 races and are coming out with the finished article now in 2013. What was the process after you'd returned from the deserts?
To be honest, a lot of the issues after was fundraising. I'd initially raised enough for the shoot, but when I got back to the States the following year it was a case of raising money for the post-production. In October 2011 we did our Kickstarter campaign and used the first chunk of money to begin editing. 2012 saw us do most of the cutting and was a case of raising money then cutting part of the film, raising some more and cutting another bit, and so on.
Some of the things that happen during the races are quite dangerous and harrowing, yet obviously makes a great film; was that a bittersweet pill to swallow as a filmmaker?
I'm not going to pick a subject unless it's something I really want to do. I wanted to have the experience of it all myself and as a filmmaker, but I certainly didn't anticipate some of the things that happened out there. At the back of my mind I was thinking how could something not happen? It was an intense thing to do that had never been done before as only one person on Earth, who is a pro athlete, has done this so therefore something was bound to happen!
On one hand when something bad happens you acknowledge it's good content for your film, but in the same breath you're concerned because these people are your friends.
Is there anything else in the pipeline once the promo for 'Desert Runners' is complete?
Yeah, there are a couple of ideas brewing, so we just need to figure out which one to move forward with. Hopefully as the promo for this comes to an end we can pick up something else and get that started. So if you have any good ideas then send them my way!
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