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AFF Interview: Co-Writer/Directors Annika Iltis & Timothy Kane of The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

For this AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Henry Kittredge, posed a series of questions to Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane, the co-writer/directors of the AFF 2014 Film The Barkley Marathons. Don’t miss the screening of The Barkley Marathons Thursday, October 30th at 4:00PM at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. Join AFF and Annika and Timothy for the screening!

Henry Kittredge | 10.24.2014

For this AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Henry Kittredge, posed a series of questions to Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane, the co-writer/directors of the AFF 2014 Film The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. Don’t miss the screening of The Barkley Marathons Thursday, October 30th at 4:00PM at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. Join AFF and Annika and Timothy for the screening!

Austin Film Festival: How did you first find out about The Barkley Marathons? Did you have a personal connection? Was it difficult to get Lazarus Lake and Raw Dog’s approval since it is so secret?

Annika and Timothy: We were just finishing work on Season 5 of Mad Men and happened to read the essay The Immortal Horizon, by Leslie Jamison, about The Barkley Marathons in The Believer magazine. It read like fiction; too difficult of a race, and characters too colorful to be real. We were surprised to learn that in 25 years, no one had made a documentary about it and immediately set out to get permission to begin the process. It took a bit of investigating to track down Laz and Raw Dog, and it was right on the edge of being too late if we hoped to film that year’s race. But we moved quickly and within a few weeks were in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness on a scouting trip, being led deeper into the forest and down the rabbit hole by none other than Lazarus Lake himself.

This is a cherished event that many hold dear and close to the vest. There was a little initial hesitation by some when we first came to the race, but after getting to know us and hearing what our goals were – showing the soul of Barkley while keeping its secrets intact  - there was acceptance. Getting to know so many fascinating individuals has been one of the biggest highlights of this process. Over the years Laz has had a few people say they were going to make a documentary, some have actually shot the race, but no one has followed through. That may be why we got permission, maybe he thought that we wouldn’t follow through. He was surprised when we actually showed up a month ahead of the race to meet and scout. From then it was a process of building trust with him and the runners.

AFF: What were your motives behind making a documentary about The Barkley?

A&T: After so many years of helping to bring other’s ideas to life, we were eager to rise to the challenge of creating a project that we were both very passionate about. We also wanted to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and The Barkley definitely pushed us – - creatively, physically, and geographically. When we started prepping in 2012, the goal wasn’t just to make a film, but to dive headfirst into this unknown (to us) world, and grow through that immersive experience.

AFF: What surprised you the most during filmmaking?

A&T: It shouldn’t have necessarily surprised us, since working in film for 15 years will definitely keep you on your toes, but Murphy’s Law came down hard on us while making this film – if something could go wrong, it did.  Thankfully we can laugh about it now. For example, we were very upfront with the small crew we hired as to what they were getting into, but even so, one camera operator showed up the first day, stuck around for about an hour, left to make a “phone call” and never returned. The crew that remained was spread out over many miles and several mountain ranges, and communication was difficult. Most mobile phone services don’t work in the park so we had ordered walkie-talkies, but the vendor shipped them without antennas. That was a telling moment when we opened the box; this was not going to be easy. It probably has to do with being at The Barkley. Nothing comes easy there, you have to earn it.

AFF: How did you film the runners during the ultramarathon? Did you have people follow the runners or camp out at specific locations?

A&T: Shooting the race was logistically difficult and we always kept the most important thing in mind: The Barkley is for the runners. They worked hard to get there, so it would be tragic for us to rob them of the full experience. One of the joys of The Barkley is having the opportunity to be completely and utterly LOST in the wilderness. Most of the race is off trail on an unmarked course and it would ruin the adventure to be alone and lost, then suddenly see a camera person waiting for you. So when we scouted with Laz a month ahead of time, he specifically showed us certain areas where we would be allowed to shoot without influencing anyone’s navigation. Since The Barkley is about one person facing the challenge, if a camera person is running alongside you, that is no longer the case, so we kept the chasing to a minimum. And to be quite honest, if we did have access to the full course, the camera people, with all the gear, would have to be better trained to run The Barkley than the runners. In other words, it would be impossible.

We did have one camera operator camp out at the top of Rat Jaw throughout the night to shoot runners stopping at one of only two water drops on the course. He had to evacuate the second day due to an impending storm. Since we were shooting around the clock, there wasn’t much time for sleep. The rest of the crew (7 of us) took turns napping in tents at the small campground where The Barkley’s loops begin and end, and where a lot of the action takes place.

AFF: Have you stayed in touch with Lazarus Lake? Has he had a chance to see the final product?

A&T: Yes! We showed the film to Laz and he loved it! He is a truly fascinating individual and we jump at the chance to spend time with him whenever we can.  Sometimes all you need to put your day in perspective is to give Laz a call while he’s out walking his pitbull rescue, Big, who he brought back to health after finding him in the woods suffering from a gunshot wound. Besides being the Co-Founder of the hardest trail race in the world, Laz is also a dry stonemason, accountant, prolific writer, and a high school basketball coach.

The goal all along was to make a film that captured Barkley while maintaining its mystery, and it was really important to us that Laz approved of the final version before we did anything else.  Thankfully he did, and he especially liked how it builds on the fear that already exists for people who might think about attempting the race.  Of course, they still have to figure out how to get in first…

Don’t miss the Thursday October 30th screening of The Barkley Marathons, click here to add it to your sched!


AFF Interview: Filmmaker Christopher Thomas, Terrible Love

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Christopher Thomas, the filmmaker of the AFF 2013 Film Terrible Love! AFF is hosting a screening of Terrible Love Thursday, October 23 and Sunday, October 26 at the IMAX Theatre. Join AFF and filmmaker Christopher Thomas for the screening!

Dylan Levy | 10.20.2014

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Christopher Thomas, the filmmaker of the AFF 2014 Film Terrible Love! AFF is hosting a screening of Terrible Love Thursday, October 23 and Sunday, October 26 at the IMAX Theatre. Join AFF and filmmaker Christopher Thomas for the screening!

Dylan Levy: Dramatic films concerning post-traumatic stress disorder are certainly not new, but Terrible Love is strikingly different, significantly because all of the dialogue is improvised. Why did you choose to forego written dialogue, and how do you think that choice impacted the film?

Terrible Love filmmaker Christopher Thomas: Our overall goal for the production was authenticity, both in the cinematography and the performances.  I wanted the audience to understand that the scenarios in the film are not manufactured drama, but in fact everyday reality for thousands of veterans.

There is something unique about the energy of improvised dialog.  It’s messy. It’s erratic. You end up saying things you don’t understand. This is also true of life in general.  But the moment a section of speech is written down, even the most skilled actor tends to get into a rut of line-readings and preciousness towards the text.   The “You speak” then “I speak” sort of rhythm that a lot of films fall into – it doesn’t sound like real life; it sounds like a fanciful approximation.

Improvisation keeps everyone fresh and honest.  You never know what the other actors are going to throw at you. Your only choice is to commit yourself 100% to the authenticity of the moment. Improv is not a good fit for every project. But for any drama or character-centric piece, I find it very hard to replace the benefits of well-executed (and properly planned) improvisation. I think the choice to improvise impacted this film in exactly the way you have described: the film feels different. The film feels real.

DL: What kind of research did you and the actors do to prepare for the film?

CT: I was lucky to work with such dedicated talent. We weren’t playing games here. Rufus stayed with me for about a month before production, just to hammer out the nuances of the character. Rufus and Amy (the leads in the film) actually lived in the set house for the duration of the production. They decorated the space as if it was their own, and they spent 24/7 in the mindset and lifestyle of their characters. After a 15+ hour day of shooting and rehearsals, Rufus would have to chop wood to feed the woodstove which was the only source of heat in the house.

It was fascinating to watch Rufus and Amy morph not only mentally, but physically, into their characters. By the end of production, they had completely transformed as human beings. When you see them walking around AFF, I would be surprised if you even recognize them.   I really have  respect for that level of dedication to the craft- when you are so deeply immersed into a role that the physiological structure of your face changes.

But this prep work completely paid off on set. With such immersion in the roles, we had the assurance that whatever came out of the actor’s mouth would be authentic and true to character. It gave us the courage to show up to set each day and completely gamble with the entire project, knowing we wouldn’t have the schedule or budget to reshoot scenes. But I think our gamble paid off, as we got some dynamite breakthrough performances out of it.

On a practical level, Luke (our producer) and I spent about a year researching veteran affairs, talking with families in the area, and jotting down anecdotes. Everything that happens in the film is a true story based off of stories relayed to me by veteran families. We were in close contact with veteran counselors and healthcare providers to make sure that everything we were creating was true to life.

DL: How much did you improvise in the filmmaking process? Did you ever feel that you were letting goof the content and imparting it to the actors?

CT: If you think about it, every film is improvised. Someone has to do the work of extracting random ideas from the nebulous ether.  Traditionally this falls on the shoulders of the screenwriter.  Even when J.J. Abrams sits down to write the new Star Wars, that first draft is going to be essentially improv.  Just making it up as you go along, with or without the safety net of an outline.

And different filmmakers have played around with how far to extend this improvisation process into production. Mike Leigh improvises in rehearsals, before setting a final shooting script in stone. On the other end of the spectrum, Harmony Korine has admitted to sometimes showing up to set without knowing what (or who) he is shooting; leave it to the Editor to find the story.

On Terrible Love we really tried to find a balance. It is my professional goal to marry the unwavering focus of a scripted piece with the authenticity (and fireworks) of improvisation.

We didn’t improvise the plot.  The whole piece was pretty heavily outlined, so the actors would go into each scene with a rough roadmap.  So it didn’t really feel like I was “letting go” of the story; it was all enormously collaborative.  I would simply lay out a juicy circumstance that we could all hook into, and the actors would do the work of shading that circumstance in with different colors.

However, there was a lot of trust going on. Our lead actors have a daughter in the film. During pre-production, we wanted to keep the daughter separate from Rufus.  We wanted their relationship to be a little tepid, a little awkward, in order to reflect that in the film, Rufus has been deployed overseas for a year.  But on the first day we were shooting those two together, our risk nearly backfired. The young actress playing Rufus’s daughter was so terrified of him that she was just crying and crying and telling everyone that she didn’t want to be in the movie anymore.  That was the moment I looked to Luke (our producer) and thought “We’re doomed.”   After about an hour of rewrites and tremendous feats of kindergarten diplomacy- we were able to get the two on screen together.  We were actually able to capture them opening up to each other for the first time on camera.  So in that sense we did have the experience of  “letting go” and allowing the project to tug us in the direction it wanted to go.

DL: How has making this film impacted you, personally and professionally as a filmmaker?

CT: On the most basic level, when I started this film I was 21. I am now 24.  In the same time period that it has taken me to complete a single project, I have had friends give birth to infants who I can now carry conversations with.

Personally, I have gained new insight into the struggles of returning vets. That insight fundamentally transformed me. It has definitely deepened my compassion for families wrestling with mental illness.  There is also another military doc playing at AFF: That Which I Love Destroys Me. I have hope that the exposure of these films can bring tangible relief, and legislation, for veterans and their families.

Professionally,  this was my first feature film project.  It has been magnificent to now find myself surrounded by a company of the most delightful and competent professionals, and I look forward to connecting with even more souls who might resonate with Terrible Love.

Want to add Terrible Love to your schedule? Click here to add it to your sched!


AFF Interview: Writer/Director Justin Paul Miller, The Sound and The Shadow

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Justin Paul Miller, the writer and director of the AFF 2013 Film The Sound and The Shadow! AFF is hosting a screening of The Sound and The Shadow Friday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 29 at the IMAX Theatre. Join AFF and The Sound and The Shadow Writer/Director Justin Paul Miller and other cast and crew for the screening!

Dylan Levy | 10.20.2014

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Justin Paul Miller, the writer and director of the AFF 2014 Film The Sound and The Shadow! AFF is hosting a screening of The Sound and The Shadow Friday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 29 at the IMAX Theatre. Join AFF and The Sound and The Shadow Writer/Director Justin Paul Miller and other cast and crew for the screening!


Dylan Levy: The film’s tone is very diverse, ranging from light and quirky to thrilling and even terrifying.  How was the process in finding the right tone for this film?  Did it differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

The Sound and The Shadow Writer/Director Justin Paul Miller: In writing the film, we really tried to take an active approach to  tone. Our characters are very quirky to begin with. But the contrast of using a somewhat lighter tone with a heavy subject matter is more meant to reflect Ally and Harold’s notion of their world rather than just highlight their comedic qualities. They are naïve in their approach to solving the missing girl case. And as they tumble into this adventure we use that shift in tone and genre to mirror the excitement and danger of being amateur gumshoes. In these roles they give themselves, there is a deterioration of innocence that the tone is trying to convey. So we aimed to have the tone evolve with them through the story. Sometimes that evolution was sudden. And we did want certain moments to feel like a punch in the gut from what the audience might feel the “rules” of the world were. But these moments still needed to be digestible. Music also plays a big role in our tone circus. (More on that later)

DL: Given the subject matter and plot, it’s difficult not to think of such other iconic “domestic spy” films such as Rear Window, The Conversation, and Blow-Up.  What films, books, or other creative works were particularly influential in the making of this film? 

JPM: Yes. Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film.  It really is THE domestic spy film. Hitchcock is genius in his ability to create suspense in the very technique and parameters of how the story is told. But Rear Window is also about the relationship of it’s characters (Stewart and Kelly) and the sacrifices they make for each other. For me, that is really where it differs from The Conversation and Blow-Up in the genre (though they are all great movies). So I see us following, attempting to at least, more in Hitchcock’s footsteps in that we are using one story to help tell another.

Also, I think Haruki Murakami’s work was influential. Some years back, Sam, the co-writer and producer, turned me on to him. We were both reading his books while writing the film and I think that some of his writing did leave a stamp on the film because we were constantly talking about how Murakami tells his stories. His mysteries unfold in these often fantastical and surrealistic ways. In his work, there is a sense of the world morphing and conspiring against the main characters that underline themes of alienation and invasion. The push and pull of those two thematic forces was really what we were getting at while writing the script for The Sound and the Shadow, so perhaps we have Haruki to thank for some inspiration.

DL: Given that sound recording itself is a central plot element, how did you approach the film’s score and overall sound design?  What did you want the soundtrack to contribute to the film? 

JPM: In Rear Window (segue!!), I love how James Stewart’s camera is not only a big narrative and plot device but also informs his character by letting us look through his lens so to speak. That is something we strived to do with Harold. The way he treats his microphones and sound recordings is almost motherly. And sound is his main tool of perception. In limiting Harold to make his judgments almost entirely through sound an inherent suspense is built. So the sound design itself is subjective – the sound design picks out specific sounds that he is picking out by highlighting them in the mix. We really aim to tell the story through his ears.

Also, the relationship of off-screen sound to space is integral in defining and understanding the neighborhood that the film takes place in. Eighty percent of the movie is told in Harold’s house. In the film we are constantly using sound to define relation to the surrounding neighbors and allude to clues of the characters’ whereabouts. Even in heavy dialogue scenes, the background sound design is meant to highlight a specific aspect of the neighborhood. Our sound designer, Kevin Rosen-Quan did some awesome work in creating a true sound map of the film’s setting.

Which brings us to the music! It was a wonder to watch Layla Minoui-Hall develop the score. While developing our themes and instrumentations, Layla and I studied the score that Nino Rota did for Fellini’s Casanova – another film with quite a wild tone ride. (Listen to that Nino Rota score, its great stuff) We wanted to be able to take a musical theme from whimsical to haunting over the course of the film – reflecting tone. So Layla experimented with altering instrumentations, reversing and inverting melodies, changing time and key signatures. So the score itself undergoes a transformation with the story and interacts with sound design to voice the world that is surrounding and conspiring with our characters.

Layla, Sam, myself, and other cast and crew will all be in attendance at the Friday 24th 9:30p Bullock IMAX screening and would love to talk to you. So come see (and hear) the film!

Want to add The Sound and The Shadow to your schedule? Click here to add it to your sched!


AFF Interview: Writer/Director Ricky Kennedy, The History of Time Travel

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Ricky Kennedy, the writer and director of the AFF 2014 Film The History of Time Travel! AFF is hosting a screening of The History of Time Travel Saturday, October 25 and Wednesday, October 29 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. Join AFF and The History of Time Travel writer/director Ricky Kennedy for the screening!

Dylan Levy | 10.20.2014

For this week’s AFF Interview, our Film Department Apprentice, Dylan Levy, posed a series of questions to Ricky Kennedy, the writer and director of the AFF 2014 Film The History of Time Travel! AFF is hosting a screening of The History of Time Travel Saturday, October 25 and Wednesday, October 29 at the Alamo Drafthouse Village. Join AFF and The History of Time Travel writer/director Ricky Kennedy for the screening!

Dylan Levy: What was the writing and planning process like for this film? How did you approach such a tricky concept as time travel, specifically in the context of a fictional documentary?

The History of Time Travel Writer/Director Ricky Kennedy: The writing process for The History of Time Travel took place over several phases from August 2010 to May of 2013. Before I even came up with a storyline I first developed the concept of a time travel documentary. I had wanted to do a high concept film, specifically in the science fiction genre, but couldn’t think of a way to do so economically.

After weeks of thinking about various ideas and concepts the thought occurred to me that doing a time travel movie in a documentary style could be a way to tell an interesting story.

I wouldn’t have to worry about elaborate sets or special effects because the bulk of principal photography could be devoted to interviews which we could film quickly and efficiently. The rest of the film could be photographs we stage and stock footage and photos from the public domain.

I quickly realized that if there was a documentary about time travelers they would inevitably change history at some point. However how would the people being interviewed know this? They wouldn’t. For everyone but the time travelers the changes would go completely unnoticed. Suddenly my film had hook. A documentary about time travel where the facts keep changing because of time travel.

Within a few minutes I had the title, the tagline “Would We Even Notice?, poster design, and film outline sketched out on a piece of notebook paper.

Now that I had a concept I needed to develop a story to fit within that concept. That took about four months, from August to December of 2010. I would write ideas and outlines and pitch them to Daniel and Dudley May (both would work on the film as an actor and as assistant director). Just working on the mechanics of how time travel would function and what the rules would be took months and months to figure out.

The first draft was about twenty four pages and consisted of wall to wall dialog without any cutaways, reenactments, or photographs mentioned. It was just the story as told by the interviewer characters. The first draft would later been adapted as a five minute proof of concept video I filmed as my first graduate film at Stephen F. Austin State University.

I put the script on the back burner for about a years and a half while I made two other short films. When it came time to make my thesis I pulled the script back out and started expanding it to feature length. For the most part the storyline did not change drastically it was just a matter of expanding and fleshing out the characters and events of the story.

DL: Because of the tricky and often paradoxical notion of time travel, many time-travel narratives simply accept the logical fallacies in favor of dramatic effect. Were there any paradoxes you tried to overcome? Were there any you accepted for the purpose of a more compelling narrative?

RK: During the development process I worked very hard to try and avoid paradoxes and plot holes but after you’ve twisted your brain for months and months you just have to stop and ask yourself “Is the story working?”

I read in an interview or article, I believe it was Rian Johnson discussing his film Looper, that time travel is messy and that no matter how hard you try there are going to be plot holes, loose threads or paradoxes.

Time travel by it’s very nature is not logical, it’s impossible to make something illogical into something logical. So the idea with a time travel story is to make is seem like its logical, at least for the duration of the film’s running time. If I’ve done my job well you will suspend disbelief and just accept the story.

However one of the great things about time travel movies is the pleasure I get in taking them apart and trying to make sense of their rules. I love Back to the Future but there’s a plot hole in the trilogy you can fly a delorean through. I won’t mention what it is but it doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.

I’m looking forward to seeing my film get picked apart and analyzed by the sci-fi fans out there. If they enjoy the film I hope they’ll forgive me for the errors and mistakes I’m sure I’ve overlooked.

DL: It’s immediate to the audience that the film is fictional, even playfully exaggerated. Were you ever concerned that the “tongue-in-cheek” nature of the film would overshadow the film’s dramatic merits or would make it difficult for audiences to emotionally invest in the film?

RK: I always try to make a movie I would want to see and hope other people like it as well but I honestly had know idea how an audience was going to react to the film. I wasn’t sure if they would understand it or just be confused.

With The History of Time Travel I had a very complex story told in an unusually way but I still needed it to be accessible to audiences. Humor was one way to do that. Within the first two minutes I have the character of General Sanborn call time travel a bunch of bull. It get’s a big laugh with every audience I’ve seen it with and let’s them know immediately that this is going to be fun. I think an element of humor helps balance some of the darker aspects of the film because there are some very serious moments in the film.

With The History of Time Travel I had something I thought people might enjoy but depending on the crowd they could enjoy it for different aspects. Some might enjoy the sci-fi elements more, or find the alternate histories interesting, or appreciate the humor and the absurdity of the whole thing, but in the end I hoped everyone would enjoy the film as a whole and find it entertaining and engaging.

Want to add The History of Time Travel to your schedule? Click here to add it to your sched!