There’s something about The Barkley Marathons. No one is quite sure what it is but there is definitely something. In their first ever documentary, Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane set out to discover what exactly is about the Barkleys that makes them so fascinating.

The race that this year, for the first time since 2007, saw absolutely no finishers is as mysterious as it is grueling. It involves running five loops of an unmarked course in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park but, really, no one knows much more than that. Even the entry process is a big mystery. Over 1000 people have attempted to run it since its inception but almost no one has finished it. Even those who do finish admit to the brutality of the race. The documentary gives viewers an insight into why the Barkley Marathons are considered the toughest trail race in the world.

Reel Wild interviewed Annika and Tim, ahead of the premiere of their documentary in Auckland next month:

What made you decide to film a documentary about the Barkley Marathons?

A&T: We were just finishing 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 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 The Barkley’s inimitable Co-Founder, Lazarus Lake. The Barkley took us far out of our comfort zone (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.

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Can you talk us through the process? How long did filming take? What about post-production?

A&T: This was an ambitious project for us to take on as first-time filmmakers, with separate full-time jobs, and we had no idea how large it would actually become.  We officially began in February of 2012 and shot a few interviews with runners prior to the race.  From the beginning, we worked directly with the race director, Lazarus Lake.  It was important to him that we get what we need without jeopardizing the runners’ 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.  We hired 6 locals to help us shoot the 2012 race weekend.

The two of us kept shooting on our drive back to LA with stops outside Nashville and Albuquerque.  Soon after, we drove to Northern California and Utah for some post-race follow-ups.  We continued shooting that summer with another road trip to Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Georgia.  We watched and logged every single piece of footage along the way which took most of the summer.  Though we had been working our regular jobs intermittently since starting the film, in the fall we had to go back full-time.  Those “regular” jobs consist of 60-70 hour weeks so we would work on the film on weekends but progress definitely slowed during that time.  So in the spring of 2013 we decided to bring on an Assistant Editor, and then by summer we brought on an Editor to help us get to a solid rough cut.  We would meet weekly or biweekly until we had a solid rough cut in December of 2013.

The winter of 2014 had us refining the rough cut and we went back to Barkley in the spring to shoot some b-roll that we knew we needed.  At that point we still had a fairly long film so one day we just took a hatchet to it and cut every piece that we didn’t think moved the story forward, was repeating something, or wasn’t 100% needed.  That was a really tough time but we knew we wanted the film pacing to mirror the tension that builds during the race, and this was the only way to achieve that.  We wanted to make the best film we could and so we had to kill some favorite pieces, but once they were gone we didn’t miss them and the film’s story tightened up.  During this time we brought on our Composer, Motion Graphics artist, Graphic Designer, and dealt with music licensing, fair use footage, and too much more to mention.  Then we found out that we had been accepted to the Austin Film Festival in October so we were under the gun to finish in time.  Luckily everything came together and we held our World Premiere (and won the Audience Award for Documentary!)

Did you find that the film took a different direction to your initial plan?

A&T: Yes and No.  We always kept in mind that we wanted to make a film about the Barkley as a whole, but how we would tell that story unfolded in a surprising direction once we had shot all of the footage in 2012.  We weren’t making a “news report” on the Barkley, we were trying to go deeper into what the Barkley is, why people do it, and give the audience an immersive experience.  One of the fascinating things about making a documentary is that you never know what you’re going to get or where the story is going to go, and we ended up being at the Barkley in an incredible year with an unbelievable story that can never be repeated.

What other films influence your style or inspire you?

Tim: I can’t say that we went into this with any style in mind.  Our blueprint was to emulate that original sense of awe from when we read Leslie Jamison’s article.  Style came about more in the editing phase.  We did our best to employ a narrative film structure.

With all due respect to other films, our main goal was to not make a “running film.”  That guided a lot of our choices.  We didn’t want viewers to just be waiting for the end to see who “wins” because most of the time at Barkley no one does.  So it wasn’t about finishing or not finishing, but about everyone’s own version of success, and you see that in the film.  Quirky character-driven documentaries like Brother’s Keeper or Grey Gardens were inspirational.

Annika:  I love getting film recommendations so I’ll throw out a few.  I love to feel immersed in a different environment (The Last Emperor), life (Babette’s Feast), or story (The Lives of Others) that I wouldn’t have the chance to experience otherwise, watch beautiful cinematography (Days of Heaven), or see anything with an unexpected twist (The Ghost Writer).  In terms of documentaries, delving into someone’s lifelong passion is always fascinating to me (Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Gleaners and I, Alone in the Wilderness).  I love recommending this double feature to people right now: watch Sneakers first, then Citizenfour.

Do you run? What is your favourite running memory?

Tim: I am not a runner or an athlete by any sound definition.  Our day jobs can be very physical but not in a disciplined, trained way.  I have had moments, inspired by this Barkley experience, in which I tell myself that I would like to give it a try.

Annika: I played several sports growing up but never enjoyed running.  I would try it every now and then but would always push myself too hard and wind up out of breath and wondering what I was doing wrong.  Cut to: post-Barkley.  After I witnessed what these runners do, it was impossible for me to have excuses anymore.  It really motivated me to read a bit more about form and breathing and now I run around the Silver Lake Reservoir a few times a week.  It’s not much, but it’s something.

Why do you think people are so fascinated by the Barkley Marathons?

A&T: Perhaps people are fascinated because it’s so hard to fathom doing something so mentally and physically exhausting – how could anyone do that? – and then you bring in the dark humor, the prison escape, and Laz; it’s a very unique story and peeling away the layers cultivates the obsession.

What can people expect from your film?

A&T: If you already know a lot about the Barkley, the film allows you to experience a taste of what it’s like to be there, and uncovers a few things you may not know, to feed your obsession.  If you know nothing about the Barkley, the film offers up a quirky and inspiring story that applies to everyone, even those less sports-minded.  The race unfolds before your eyes and the tension, excitement, and disappointment is palpable.  For some people to be truly challenged they need to run The Barkley, for others it’s something less extreme. We hope the audience leaves inspired to push themselves a little harder or try something different; we learn so much about ourselves from those experiences.

Are you coming to visit us in New Zealand anytime soon?

A&T: We would love nothing more than to come to New Zealand!

A: In 2004, I was supposed to spend 6 months working on a film in New Zealand and it fell apart just a few weeks before my departure.  The work visa is forever glued in my passport taunting me.

T: Although we won’t be able to attend Reel Wild, one of the Barkley runners from the film will be there and always gets the biggest laugh of the movie.  He’s an inspiring human being and is a more-than-worthy replacement for us.

“The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats its Young” will have its Southern Hemisphere premiere at the Reel Wild film festival next month in Auckland.