Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category


Your face or mine?

March 27, 2023

Thanks to some recent rom-com research by my wife’s friend Mandy, we now know who should portray me in a hypothetical big-budget movie.

I vaguely remember Ashton Kutcher as the hunky young actor who dated and married the much older Demi Moore back in the 2000s. These days, if the new movie Your Place or Mine is any indication, he’s a middle-aged guy who looks a lot like me, only with better hair and better clothes.


The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here:

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.


Marshall & Warren: cinematic science

January 13, 2017

Portrayals of science and scientists on television and in movies are often hilariously fanciful. In the generally wonderful BBC/PBS series “Sherlock,” for example, the title character sees the chemical structures of individual molecules through an ordinary light microscope. I guess peering into a ‘scope makes for more compelling and succinct visuals than, say, running samples through an HPLC and laboriously comparing them to standards. (“It’s UNCANNY, Watson! The retention time in THIS solvent is 9.72 minutes — HIGHLY suggestive of a halogen-substituted phenol!”)

Every so often, though, you come across a real-life science story that has an undeniably cinematic arc. Such is the tale of Australian physicians Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for discovering the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and showing that it causes most cases of gastritis and peptic ulcers.

As recounted by Marshall (2001), his work with Warren drew upon four previously disparate strands of biomedical ideas and evidence. These strands, as of the late 1970s, were as follows. (1) Spiral-shaped bacteria had occasionally been found in the stomachs of various mammals, including humans. But these bacteria were not widely suspected of causing any particular disease. (2) Gastritis –- inflammation of the stomach -– was a well-known problem generally attributed to stress, which supposedly induced secretion of excessive acid into the stomach. But some patients developed gastritis despite an impaired ability to secrete acid. (3) An enzyme called urease, which breaks urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia, had been found in the stomach; some evidence suggested that it had been produced by bacteria. But urease’s importance, if any, was unclear. (4) Formulations containing bismuth, a heavy metal, had been used to successfully treat nonspecific gastrointestinal problems. But the mechanism of action and the importance of the bismuth itself were not clear either.

In pivotal studies conducted mostly in the early 1980s, Marshall and Warren synthesized these four strands into a coherent theory, as follows. Gastritis was not caused by acid secretion problems per se but by the spiral bacterium, H. pylori, which burrows into the mucus lining the stomach and causes inflammation. While most bacteria cannot survive the low pH of the stomach, H. pylori produces and secretes urease, which helps it weather the acidic environment by producing ammonia, which serves as a buffer. Finally, bismuth can cure gastric problems by serving as an antibiotic, killing H. pylori and ending the corresponding inflammation.

This was an exciting story in and of itself, but there was more. Not only does H. pylori cause the acute condition of gastritis, it turns out to be the main culprit in the chronic conditions of stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Antibiotics were found to cure ulcers as well as gastritis (Marshall et al., 1988), and to drastically reduce the incidence of stomach cancer.

Marshall and Warren were initially ridiculed and dismissed. One can debate the extent to which this skepticism on the part of the scientific community was appropriate, because the preliminary evidence produced by Marshall and Warren was clear, but not overwhelming. A perfect example of this is the study in which Marshall et al. (1985) fulfilled Koch’s four postulates for identifying the causative agent of an infectious disease. Meeting the postulates is strong evidence that a disease’s cause has been found (Evans, 1976), so Marshall et al.’s (1985) study could be considered strong, yet — spoiler alert! — it was conducted on only one subject, Marshall himself, who gave himself gastritis by drinking a broth of H. pylori taken from another patient. Marshall believed this necessary because he had not been able to get H. pylori to cause disease in a healthy animal (Marshall & Adams, 2008), the usual way of fulfilling Koch’s third postulate. The study was not published in an elite journal but rather The Medical Journal of Australia, whose middling reputation may have also limited awareness and acceptance of the conclusions. Moreover, the idea that bacteria could cause disease in the stomach was considered implausible by many physicians, who assumed that the stomach’s high acidity kills essentially all microbes (Weintraub, 2010).

Another major, slightly comical step forward came during Marshall and Warren’s first big clinical study, in which they checked 100 gastritis patients for the possible presence of H. pylori in their stomachs (Marshall & Warren, 1984). They had no luck with the first 34 patients, but — spoiler alert! — sample #35 came back positive after incubating over a long holiday weekend, which gave the slow-growing H. pylori extra time to reveal itself. (It was actually during Easter. How perfect is that? On the third day, the bacteria appeared again. They were alive after all! Alive, I say!) After this, all samples were incubated for four days rather than two, and most were found to contain H. pylori.

It really is a great story. Why hasn’t it been turned into a movie?


Evans, A. S. (1976). Causation and disease: the Henle-Koch postulates revisited. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 49(2), 175-195.

Marshall, B. J. (2001). One hundred years of discovery and rediscovery of Helicobacter pylori and its association with peptic ulcer disease. In H. L. T. Mobley, G. L. Mendz, & S. L. Hazell (Eds.), Helicobacter pylori: Physiology and Genetics. Washington (DC): ASM Press.

Marshall, B., & Adams, P. C. (2008). Helicobacter pylori: A Nobel pursuit? Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, 22(11), 895.

Marshall, B. J., Armstrong, J. A., McGechie, D. B., & Glancy, R. J. (1985). Attempt to fulfil Koch’s postulates for pyloric Campylobacter. The Medical Journal of Australia, 142(8), 436-439.

Marshall, B. J., & Warren, J. R. (1984). Unidentified curved bacilli in the stomach of patients with gastritis and peptic ulceration. The Lancet, 323(8390), 1311-1315.

Marshall, B., Warren, J. R., Blincow, E., Phillips, M., Goodwin, C. S., Murray, R., … & Sanderson, C. (1988). Prospective double-blind trial of duodenal ulcer relapse after eradication of Campylobacter pylori. The Lancet, 332(8626), 1437-1442.

Weintraub, P. (2010). The Dr. who drank infectious broth, gave himself an ulcer, and solved a medical mystery. Discover Magazine, March 2010.


Roger Ebert and the art of grading

January 30, 2014

I didn’t know Roger Ebert, but I miss him.

From about 2003 until his death last April, I faithfully read his reviews of every movie I saw, plus many more.

Why was I so interested in Roger’s opinions? He was smart and funny, but there was more to it than that.

Last month I belatedly recognized another aspect of Roger’s appeal while reading The Elements of Teaching Writing by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj of Cornell University.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj advise against grading students’ essays right away. Instead, they counsel, “First sit back and read through each paper receptively, letting it communicate whatever it is trying to say.”

This is how Roger treated movies: as works to be experienced first and critiqued second. In his memoir, Life Itself, he says that he learned this from Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”

To be this open-minded is admirable. To stay this open-minded after having literally viewed thousands of films would be almost miraculous.

Roger became the Chicago Sun-Times film critic in 1967. Here he is in 2007, reviewing Alvin and the Chipmunks:

The most astonishing sight in “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is not three singing chipmunks. No, it’s a surprise saved for the closing titles, where we see the covers of all the Alvin & company albums and CDs. I lost track after 10. It is inconceivable to me that anyone would want to listen to one whole album of those squeaky little voices, let alone 10.

Sure, the chipmunks are an easy target. But my point is that Roger stayed through the closing credits, still curious about what might come next and still capable of being surprised.

His review continues:

…Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, who accidentally brings them home in a basket of muffins, discovers they can talk and is soon shouting “Alvin!” at the top of his lungs, as Chipmunk lore requires that he must.

David Cross plays Ian, the hustling tour promoter who signs them up and takes them on the road, where they burn out and he suggests they start syncing with dubbed voices. Now we’re getting into Alice in Wonderland territory, because of course they are dubbed voices in the first place. Indeed the metaphysics of dubbing dubbed chipmunks who exist in the real world as animated representations of real chipmunks is … how did this sentence begin?

That said, whatever it was, “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is about as good as a movie with these characters can probably be, and I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this movie. I am even sure some readers will throw it up to me like I liked the “Garfield” movie better. Yes, but Garfield didn’t sing, and he was dubbed by Bill Murray. My duty as a reporter is to inform you that the chipmunks are sorta cute, that Jason Lee and David Cross manfully play roles that require them, as actors, to relate with empty space that would later be filled with CGI, and that at some level, the movie may even be doing something satirical about rock stars and the hype machine.

Does he sound annoyed that he had to sit through this two-star kids’ flick? Not really. He came, he saw, and he noticed some things that amused him and some things that he could grudgingly admire. It’s a privilege to get paid to watch and judge movies, good and bad, and Roger enjoyed it until the very end.

Getting paid to read and evaluate student writing is also a privilege of sorts. If decades pass and I become an old man and I’m still doing it, I hope to be doing it with the patience and good humor of Roger Ebert.


The Unknown Citizen

November 10, 2013

On Thursday I attended a film of Alan Bennett’s play-within-a-play The Habit of Art as performed by the National Theatre. It centers on poet W.H. Auden, whom I know mostly as the author of “Funeral Blues” (featured in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral) and “The Unknown Citizen” (featured in my 10th grade English class).

Perhaps the latter poem was on my mind the next morning when I noticed this rain-soaked cardboard sign. Whoever had used it was gone.

unknown citizen


Interview with ultrarunner Charlie Engle

June 26, 2013

This spring I finally got around to watching the movie Running the Sahara, which has been out since 2007.

Having been exposed to many extreme ultrarunning challenges, I wasn’t as riveted as some people by the trans-Sahara quest per se. However, I was captivated by the on-screen charisma, eloquence, and humor of expedition ringleader Charlie Engle. He seemed like a complex guy who would be really interesting to go for a (non-trans-desert) run with.

Since that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, I did the next best thing: I asked him for an interview.

Charlie Engle, running in confinement.

GC: Hi Charlie! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. It will be interesting for me, though I’m not sure what (if anything) you’ll get out of it. I guess that’s my first question: given that you’re a busy guy, why agree to this? I’m just a guy with a blog who watched “Running the Sahara” and wanted to delve into a few things more deeply.

CE: Greg, in all my years, I’ve never turned anyone down who asked to speak with me. I don’t pretend to know where this path will lead. I just go with the flow.

GC: Fair enough! OK, next question… The movie “Running the Sahara” devotes a lot of attention to the medical and political logistics of covering the entire Sahara desert, but not much is said about the sponsorship side of things. Can you tell us more about how you raised the money for such an unusual undertaking, and how long that took?

CE: I take your question as a great compliment. I was adamant that this documentary not turn into an ad for sponsors. If a product couldn’t be represented organically, then it didn’t belong. That’s why the crew is driving Toyotas but we are not wearing Toyota logos. The same is true for Magellan GPS and Gatorade and Champion and Mission Skincare and Nike and others. Magellan GPS was the first to sign on. That was through a direct contact of mine. Then when LivePlanet, Matt Damon’s production company, signed on, they took over the sponsor acquisitions. LivePlanet also brought in investors to cover the bulk of the cost. It took about 9 months to put the financing together if i remember right. This was an expensive project but every single dollar came through investors and sponsors. In the end it was a very successful project. “Running the Sahara” is selling better than ever today.

GC: Many viewers of “Running the Sahara” see it mostly as a film about the immense physical and psychological challenge of running across the desert. Personally, I know lots of ultramarathoners, thru-hikers, and assorted other endurance-oriented oddballs, so I assumed all along that a traverse was physically possible, and that the logistical challenges (financial and diplomatic) would be even more formidable than the obvious physical ones. To what extent do you agree with that assessment?

CE: The logistical challenges involved in “Running the Sahara” were overwhelming. The entire project was on life support more than few times during the year leading up to the expedition. Raising money, finding sponsors, arranging support in Africa and managing the politics of the expedition itself were all far more difficult than actually running. The best times are the ones that involve physical suffering. That’s the part that makes all the stress worthwhile. Running is true escape. All the other stuff is just necessary noise.

GC: That certainly makes sense to me. Have your post-Sahara adventures reflected conscious choices to simplify the logistics? For example, I believe you subsequently tried to run across the United States in record time. That obviously requires significant planning, but it must be much more straightforward than arranging safe passage through six African countries.

CE: You give me too much credit for being conscious. Running America was inherently easier to plan for the obvious reasons of language and logistics. The AT [Appalachian Trail] and PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] are tough physically but one can be home safe in bed within a day if things go wrong. The same was true for “Running America.” The hardest part was planning the budget and making the film. The physical suffering was to be expected, there was no stopping that. And actually, the physical suffering was part of the goal, trying to scrape away the crap of daily existence and replace it with something better….hopefully.

GC: You’re saying that the physical suffering is not a simply a necessary hardship on the way to your goals; it is a goal in and of itself. That must seem perverse to some people. How does that work for you? Is there a spiritual dimension to this?

CE: I do genuinely believe that many of life’s most useful lessons come through hardship, usually situations that we don’t choose. Years ago, I decided to actively seek hardship with the hope of achieving the same life altering results that often come with surviving unexpected challenges. So I view my adventures as voluntary suffering that will lead to a greater understanding of what drives me. The trick I haven’t mastered is finding balance. I am trying to learn how to pursue and appreciate happiness as much as I crave the need to suffer. For me there is a great spiritual aspect to what I do. I am not a believer in any traditional religion but I do feel a strong attraction to certain people and to powerful places so this confirms for me that there is most definitely a power greater than myself. My personal suffering brings me closer in line with my higher power and that is important to me. In every long run, I want to push myself to that point where all seems hopeless because that is the exact place where I get to discover new things about myself.

GC: In many parts of “Running the Sahara,” you come across as humble, kind, and generous; in other parts, less so. Extreme suffering will cause almost anyone to say and do selfish things. Do you view your behaviors in your darkest moments as aberrations brought on by the circumstances, OR as a genuine part of you (even if they’re not the prettiest part)? I’m thinking about the possible parallels with drunkenness. Intoxication could be said to cause someone to abandon his/her true self; alternatively, it could be said to reveal a side that is normally hidden but has been there all along.

CE: It’s interesting that you characterize some of the things I appear to have done in “Running the Sahara” as selfish. I have learned the obvious lesson that everyone who watches the film brings their own life experiences to the mix. Some see me as a pushy jerk while many others see me as driven and passionate. I think that says as much about the viewers’ background as it does about me. I think the movie portrays me as 80% decent guy and 20% asshole. Much of what was in the film is not in context (500 hours of footage boiled down to a 100 minute film by a creative editor) but the fact is that in real life that ratio is probably accurate. I can say one thing for certain. The likelihood of three runners making it all the way across the Sahara is really small. My teammates have told me directly that without the urgency I put forth every single day, we would not have been successful. I can live with that.

The scene near the end of the film is the most perplexing to me. It makes it look like I might try to finish without my teammates. I have always found that fascinating. First, it begs the question; why would I do that? What would be gained? Had I actually finished before them, I would have looked like the biggest jerk ever. I may be a hardass sometimes but I’m not stupid. We started as a team and I always wanted us to finish as a team. Ray [Zahab] and Kevin [Lin] became scared that I would somehow finish before them and this made for great film drama. I had no idea what was happening behind me. I couldn’t have possibly run any slower. I was doing 15 minute miles. A pack of turtles could have caught me.

All that is to say that running reveals true character, amplifies all that I am, good and bad. Drugs simply acted as a mask for any feelings, a false and deceptive coping mechanism that only makes any situation worse. Running (adventure in general) is cleansing and enlightening. Drugs are debilitating, soul crushing substances. Drugs only destroy and never give back. Running makes everything clear, softens all the hard edges.

GC: You’ve written a lot about running in prison on your blog, Running in Place. In short, you were able to keep running, but without a lot of the amenities and variety that most of us take for granted. Did prison change your relationship with running?

CE: Prison changed my relationship with running in several ways. The most apparent change to me is that I learned to appreciate the purity of running again….or maybe for the first time. When I was young, I ran for pure joy, just to go play with friends. It always seemed so easy, I never got tired. Or at least that’s how I remember it. But my time in prison was just the opposite. Every step seemed burdened somehow, weighed down by stress. That’s how it started anyway. But I quickly realized all I needed to do was to find the joy again and that could only come from letting running do what it does best; cleansing the negativity and opening up the possibilities that are always there when I run.

GC: Finally, I’m wondering about the extent to which you’ve experienced a stigma attached to your conviction for mortgage fraud. On the one hand, you’re an engaging speaker who can win audiences over when you have a chance to tell your story. I imagine that serving your sentence has even made you more fascinating and more marketable in some ways. (“Charlie Engle: He survived Badwater, the Sahara, AND a Federal penitentiary!”) On the other hand, the phrase “mortgage fraud” will always sound terrible to many ears. Until I read the March 25, 2011 New York Times column by Joe Nocera, I had assumed that you had done something that was unequivocally reprehensible.

CE: Certainly my arrest and incarceration didn’t help my short term speaking career…..or much of anything else. But ironically I have gotten so much support that I have way more opportunities now than I did before this mess started. Speaking, writing and planning new adventures are all things I worried I might never do again. But just the opposite is true. I’m sure there will always be a stigma of sorts. I probably won’t be asked to help anyone fill out their mortgage application. (I didn’t fill out the ones I was accused of signing either.) I know I didn’t do anything wrong and that’s mostly enough for me. I have pretty thick skin. For a runner.

GC: Indeed — all that running through the desert must have created some impressive calluses! Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts so freely, and good luck with your next adventures!

[Related: Utrarunner Podcast interviews Charlie Engle]


A fake mini-review of “In Search of Santa”

April 14, 2013

In Search of Santa (2004) appears to be a movie for young children. It’s a G-rated cartoon lasting 75 minutes and featuring an abundance of cuddly penguin characters like the protagonists — twin sister princesses voiced by Hilary and Haylie Duff. Yet beneath the crude CGI animation, cliched moral lessons, and preposterous plot twists is a seething, searing indictment of the academic world and its self-important, soulless inhabitants.

The movie’s villains are Agonysla, Derridommis, and Mortmottimes, a trio of royal advisers collectively known as the Terribly Deep Thinkers. As they explain in their theme song, “We’re the Terribly Deep Thinkers/We’re walking almanacs/Our bones are old and brittle/But our minds are sharp as tacks. We’re overeducated/We’re snooty brainiacs/ We possess an excess/Of many useless facts.”

Early in the film the triumverate puts Princess Crystal on trial for the crime of believing in Santa Claus. Later they trap her and her sister, Princess Lucinda, in the Cave of Profundity while publicly declaring the sisters “lost at sea,” thus clearing their own path to the throne in the event of the king and queen’s demise. “You just use big words to hide small thoughts,” Crystal admonishes the trio, yet she and Lucinda appear doomed until — spoiler alert — a precocious baby leopard seal leads the other penguins to the imprisoned sisters, exposing the Terribly Deep Thinkers’ avarice and egotism.

So masterful is director William R. Kowalchuk’s disguise of his anti-intellectualist parable as kiddie entertainment that reviewers have called it “a cheap Saturday morning cartoon slapped together to cash in on the Hilary Duff wave” and “forgettable fare that may only satisfy the youngest and most undiscerning viewers.” Such opinions aside, the sisters’ improbable triumph over the Terribly Deep Thinkers is not simply an instance of Duff-mania gone awry, but rather a wit-seeking missile strike against ivory towers everywhere.


Thinking scientifically

November 28, 2012

My son, who is 6, loves dog movies — especially one called The Retrievers. It’s a pretty unremarkable made-for-TV production, but I do like one scene in which the Lowry family wonders whether its recent canine acquisition, which it calls Pilot, is the “Holly” from a lost-dog poster.

Tom (the dad): “Holly. Come here — come on, Holly.” [The dog comes.]

Widdy (the son, 11 years old): “We tried that. It worked.”

Liz (the daughter, about 16): “Come here, Holly. [The dog comes.] Pilot, please don’t come when I call you that!”

Tom: “Well, it looks like it’s her….”

Widdy: “Cleo! Come here, Cleo! [The dog comes.] She’s just friendly. She’ll answer to anything!”

Way to insist on a proper control, Widdy!


Movie review: “Losing Control”

April 25, 2012

Losing Control, a new romantic comedy from writer/director Valerie Weiss, is about a talented, driven Ph.D. student striving for clarity in the lab, where her preliminary success has not proven replicable, and in her personal life, where she declines a marriage proposal from her long-term boyfriend in favor of an experiment to determine whether he is indeed “the one.”

For me, a satisfying aspect of seeing this movie was that it cleared up several confusing aspects of the trailer. Why does Samantha (Sam) get submerged in that giant vessel? What’s the naked guy doing in her lab? How does SHE wind up naked in her lab? Why is she whispering to the cab driver? What does the dude in the white tank top yell at her? (“Get out, you station-checking freak!”)

Alas, I had hopes beyond seeing these questions answered. Above all, I was hoping for a protagonist who is really smart (and, since this is a romantic comedy, likable and funny). But we know that Sam is brilliant mostly because we are told that she made superconducting candy as a kid, she’s a grad student at Harvard, etc. etc. Few of her lines really convey the sense of a gifted analytical mind at work, as with, say, Ellie Arroway in Contact or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. When her adviser absurdly instructs her to scale up her production of a protein that has failed to yield the desired results for the past four years, she complies unquestioningly. While there are significant power issues in a male adviser/female advisee relationship, especially when the adviser is a jerk, shouldn’t someone of Sam’s tenacity and brainpower have made a counterargument against this ludicrous plan? In portraying Sam’s clever escape from a mental hospital, silly pseudoscience is substituted for genuine ingenuity. And when she asks to sit in the rear of a plane because passengers there are more likely to survive a crash, she comes across as more neurotic than smart.

More generally, the film seems uncertain of Sam’s personality. An A.V. Club review says that it “portrays her half the time as a scatterbrained ditz who falls into a vat of her own chemicals while trying to answer her cell phone, and the other half as an OCD-inflicted Asperger’s sufferer who insists on applying logistical reason [sic] to everything.” I don’t quite agree, but there is a consistency problem.

Some of the other characters seem like one-note caricatures. Sam’s mom is superstitious and meddlesome; her labmates are a bumbling coward and a Chinese guy who doesn’t speak recognizable English; and various date options are easily described in two words or less (exhibitionist artist, polyamorous guy, rude yuppie, etc.). Slightly more interesting is Sam’s vain best friend Leslie, who resembles Shannon Rutherford from Lost (as played by Maggie Grace) in both appearance and personality. The most believable character is Sam’s boyfriend Ben, an East Asian Studies scholar who at times appears to grasp the nature of science as well as Sam. It is he who is given the line paraphrasing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as it applies to their relationship: “the act of measuring something [e.g., the trueness of love] changes it.”

The question of the extent to which logical reasoning and empirical research can or should be applied to romance is a fascinating one, and I wish the movie had explored it in greater depth, rather than veering off into a slapstick subplot of international espionage. The film was written and rewritten over several years, and I can’t help but wonder how faithful the final product was to the original idea. Still, if you want to see a movie that looks like it was shot in a real laboratory and includes a bunch of science- and academia-specific inside jokes, you may enjoy “Losing Control,” as I did in spite of myself. Weiss herself earned a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, and this is evident in nicely rendered details such as the lax observance of food-in-the-lab rules and the semi-bribing of thesis committee members with food. I just wish these details added up to more than a knowing chuckle here and there.


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.