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Q&A with “Unbreakable” director JB Benna

December 15, 2011

I was so captivated by JB Benna’s new film “Unbreakable” that I decided to interview Benna via email if possible. He kindly agreed, and the interview is below.

Poster for WS100 film

GJC: You had originally hoped to make a Western States film by racing and filming the entire course in 2009. Why didn’t that work out, and how did your movie evolve into the story of four top contenders at the 2010 race?

JBB: In 2009, after filming at Western States on other film crews in 2006 and 2007, I decided the week prior to the race that I was going to try to make a film. I figured that I had been lucky enough to get in on the lottery and did not know when I was going to have another chance to film the remote areas of the course that no one ever sees. So I hired three other cinematographers and we decided, as in previous Western States films, to try to cover a cross section of the race from front runners, to mid pack, to the back of the pack and I would carry a camera and document my day in a first person perspective. Aside from the fact that this greatly affected my own performance, the footage from the small camera was shaky and not very usable. To compound this, after I watched all of the hours and hours of footage, I realized that I only had 2-3 shots of any given person, one at the start, one in the middle and one at the finish. You simply cannot tell a compelling story of a large group of people with only a few shots of each of them. Furthermore, my crew was so burned out after filming for 48 hours without sleep that I had to literally beg them to come back in 2010 and promise we would be done by midnight. So when the field came together a few weeks before the 2010 race, I immediately knew that in order to tell a story about what it is like to run Western States in a way it had never been seen, we would need to double our cameras and narrow our focus to a small group of runners with similar paces, so that we could get enough shots to tell a story. Furthermore, someone was going to have to run long sections of the trail to capture the action outside of the aid stations. Lucky for me I was literally in the best shape of my life, and had just come off my first ultra win at Angel Island 50k and was ramping up for what would be a 9-hour PR at the Burning River 100 miler. So ultimately I ended up running 34 miles that day with a 10-pound professional camera and mounted shotgun microphone. Some of the shots from 2009 did make it into the film, so it was not a total failure.

GJC: “Unbreakable” is a heroic effort in that you captured a lot of mid-race on-the-trail footage. As you know, the Western States Board of Directors takes their stewardship of the race very seriously! Was it difficult to obtain their permission to film the race in this way? Likewise, did the runners themselves require any persuasion to give you such extensive access to their lives? Geoff Roes looked to me as though he was trying to be helpful but not entirely comfortable with the spotlight.

JBB: The Western States Board does take the stewardship of the race very seriously and it took me years of filming at the race to earn their trust and respect. The first few years that I filmed there we were told that we could not go more than a few hundred yards out of the aid station to film, which is limiting, but understandable. You see, Western States gets a lot of media coverage from outside sources that do not understand the sport, nor respect the environment; for them it is all about getting the shot. In fact in 2009, one of my camera guys caught on film one such outside film crew interfering in the race. It was at No Hands Bridge at the 2009 race as Hal Koerner was just miles away from winning his second title. The camera guy yells at Hal and says “Hey stop right there so we can get this shot.” Hal, looking out of it and stunned, actually stops. The camera guy then asks him to back up and run toward them again. Hal accommodated them and still won the race, but I was flabbergasted and stunned at the film crew’s audacity. I have always made it a point, as a participant in the sport of ultrarunning, to approach every film from a very humble, low-key, and non-intrusive way. I don’t use steady cams, or dollies, or cranes. It’s just me with a camera running or spending time with these guys — no more, no less.

The runners were also very accommodating. I was already really good friends with Hal and had talked to him about wanting to do something on him, so when this opportunity came up he was very helpful. I knew Tony through Hal and some time we spent together at some post race dinners, so he was also very easy to work with. Geoff, I knew a little less, but had made a YouTube video about him and Uli Steidl battling at the 2009 North Face Endurance Challenge 50. So we had talked a bit after he saw this. The first time we met in person was when I did the interview at his campsite, so you can tell he is a little more uncomfortable during that initial interview. However, after the epic race, and seeing me out there, and asking for feedback, and confiding in me throughout the day, we hit it off right away. Geoff was a lot more comfortable and open when I visited him in Alaska a few months later. Geoff and Corlé were so kind and accommodating they made me meals and let me sleep on the floor of their little studio-sized house; they are great. Kilian I did not know at all, but again there was some kind of bond that happened out there that day, when they would see me even more often then their crews and I was out there again this year filming Kilian in his 2011 win, we connected even more and he is a great guy.

GJC: What do you think are the biggest differences between “Unbreakable” and your previous ultrarunning films (on David Horton running the Pacific Crest Trail and Dean Karnazes running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days)? Did those projects teach you any particular lessons that you applied to “Unbreakable”?

JBB: I have learned so much from my previous projects. As Kilian says in the final scene of “Unbreakable,” “When you win it’s not positive because it’s just perfect, but when you lose you learn a lot.” This could not be more true for the experience I have gained in the making of “The Runner” and “UtraMarathon Man.” “The Runner” was a very simple organic project that took shape after I had already finished filming it. With that project, I mostly just gained the confidence that I could mange such a massive undertaking successfully. I also learned all the necessary steps that were required to produce, filming, writing, sound, original music, music licensing, editing, color correction, design, DVD creation, replication, sales, distribution, marketing, festivals, etc, etc, etc…. The biggest thing I learned with “UltraMarathon Man” was humility and simplicity. I got wrapped up into this project with three days until it kicked off, without knowing Dean or The North Face folks I would be working with. I feel like I did a really good job on the film under the circumstances, but it was a fight from start to finish. Mostly I learned that I spent way too much money and I learned that you have to know when to say enough is enough. So when I started working on “Unbreakable,” my wife Jennifer and I agreed that I would do as much of the work on it that I could by myself and that we would keep the budget as low as possible, we would try to keep it simple and organic and focused on the core of our sport and what we love. The bottom line was that we decided to make the film that we wanted to see.

GJC: Devoted ultrarunners will adore “Unbreakable,” but I have no idea whether the general public will ever hear of it, much less watch it. What kind of market penetration is necessary for you to break even? Do you need to sell 10,000 DVDs?

JBB: Breaking even has always been a relative term for me as these are primarily passion projects. If the definition of breaking even is covering the actual cash that we spent on the film, then these projects break even when we sell about 5000 copies. However, if you look at the amount of time that I personally spend on these projects with no pay, then none of our projects has ever broken even as this would probably be in the 15,000-20,000 unit range. With only four or five thousand ultrarunners, it is a tough market without PBS grants or ABC commercial revenue (makers of the two previous high-quality Western States films). So that being said, until our sport grows, there probably will not be too many high-quality feature-length projects. But I knew that when I started and that is why I wanted to make this film for all of us who love this sport. This is without a doubt my last UltraRunning film that I produce in this self-funded, all-in manner, but I feel like this film will resonate with people even years from now and that is satisfying.

GJC: You’ve spent a lot of time around elite ultramarathoners. Aside from their relatively limited ability to profit financially from their talent, do they as a group seem different from most other elite athletes? If so, how?

JBB: I love ultramarathons because of their friendly competitive nature and I think that “Unbreakable” showcases this as each guy chats before the race and congratulates each other after the race. The sport is so small, most of the competitors know each other and even if they don’t they respect each other. This is evident in that Geoff, Anton, and Kilian had never met before the race and now they all get together socially and train together as the opportunities present themselves.

GJC: Your film covers the 2010 race in remarkable depth. If you had to distill the race down to a single thought or paragraph, what would it be?

JBB: It was an epic showcase of the finest running I have ever seen. The day was a perfect storm, the sport’s four best athletes all competing against each other for the first time, at ultrarunning’s most important event. We could not have known the last-minute drama that would unfold, nor how monumental a day it would be for the sport. Despite this, it was in filming and spending time with each of the athletes in their hometowns that I was truly inspired by their passion, grace, and humility.

2 comments

  1. Wow Greg, thanks for this! Very cool.


    • Great interview, Greg. Thanks for sharing it. Now maybe we should ask JB about a Titus van Rijn documentary?!



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