HOT DOCS ’15: ‘Mad Men’ camera assistant changes directions with ‘Barkley Marathons’

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Barkley Marathons creator Lazarus Lake stands in front of participants

Mad Men. Enough Said. Fresh Off the Boat.

You might think of these films and TV shows as ones starring strong women. But they should be known for having strong women on other side of the camera as well. And these women include one-time camera assistant Annika Iltis.

Although not a household name yet, Iltis has really cut her teeth in the industry, working on projects such as the ones in mainly camera-related roles. She decided to change directions, so to speak, three years ago though, as she and fellow former Mad Men employee Timothy Kane made the choice to direct a film about the Barkley Marathons, a super secretive, super difficult “ultramarathon” held annually in Tennessee. She brought the completed film to Hot Docs this past week and she sat down with Cinefilles for a chat about her experience making the film and being a woman in a behind-the-scenes role.

Read our Q&A with Iltis below. And catch the final screening of The Barkley Marathons this Sunday at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.

What were the challenges coming into this film as a first-time director and producer?

Annika Iltis: There were a lot of different challenges for this film specifically.

My co-director and I found out about the race and jumped into making the film quite quickly.We did scout a month ahead of time with Lazarus Lake, who is the founder of the race, and we worked with him throughout the film to make sure everything we did was okay and in line with the race, making sure we were as invisible as possible. Making sure that we were getting what we could get, but without affecting it, that was most important to us.

But you only had a crew of seven, right?

AI: We hired seven people for the main race, plus Tim and myself. It was basically like six additional operators–camera operators–and then one person who was a production assistant as well. So, it was very small for what it ended up being. And then along the way, we had additional help with the music composition and motion graphics.

Overall, it was a very small crew, but that was intentional. We weren’t as prevalent there [that way]. You know, it wasn’t a big budget motion picture. It was a small picture we were doing, so in the end, it worked best that way.

Had you and Tim been thinking about doing a documentary together and then you stumbled upon this idea, or did you go, ‘This is a great idea. Let’s go with it’?

AI: We had just come off a television show that was a great show to work on, but you know we worked 70 hours a week and it was very time-consuming. You want to create things that allow you to use your creative brain, but you have so little time to do that. I think by the end of that job … we were both itching to do something and to sort of stretch ourselves and to use all of our experiences and all we’d learned in our regular jobs to make something of our own.

Tim actually found this article about the Barkley in The Believer magazine written by Leslie Jamison, who is an amazing writer. We read it and it was like stranger than fiction. It’s called “The Immortal Horizon” and that essay is also in her collection called The Empathy Exams. That article is really what inspired us to start the project.

Do you and Tim have plans to continue working together, or would you like to branch off on your own?

AI: We don’t have plans of making anything right now, either of us, because we’re still finishing this first project.

We both have ideas of what we want to do next, whether they’re together or not. But I definitely would like to make something else and I have ideas about what that might be. It was great to have a partner in the sense that when things got really difficult–and they did!–it was great to have just another person as a support system and a second brain to look at things.

Iltis and Lazarus Lake on set (Photo: 'The Barkley Marathons' Facebook page)

Iltis and Lazarus Lake on set (Photo: ‘The Barkley Marathons’ Facebook page)

Did you always want to make your way into documentary filmmaking? Because you worked on a lot of scripted material before this.

AI: I’ve mainly worked–actually exclusively–in narrative. I got into filmmaking more from just growing up watching films and being in photography. So, as a camera assistant, that’s been my job for many years. But I’m slowly working out of that and would like to continue to.

But documentaries, I’ve always loved [them]. Every time you see a documentary, you take something away and you’re able to relate it to you life. I think it makes people question themselves. You always learn something. I always learn something when I watch a documentary. That’s what I think has been the best part about this. Based on audience reaction here, people are really thinking about our film and walking away with something.

With the race being made up of such a small community that’s so secretive, do you worry, or were there concerns from people doing the marathon, that the film is going to shine too much light on the world?

AI: When we came into it,  it was a fascinating story because we didn’t know about it. That’s part of the appeal to this story. It’s unknown. You’re taking a peek into this world you would never get a chance to.

[Keeping things a secret] was definitely a concern from some of the runners and Laz. Once people knew what kind of film we were making, that we wanted to really explore the soul of Barkley and have people have that experience because most people will never run this race or have no interest in running it … once they knew that we were trying to capture what makes people want to do this, to push themselves … [they were okay with it]. Now that they’ve seen the film, they’re very happy with it.

We always say that most people, once they’ve seen the film, are not going to want to do the Barkley. And then the other thing we have going for it is it’s a secret how you apply, how you get into the race. So they always have that for keeping it small, keeping it precious, and keeping it what they want it to be.

We get requests pretty often about how to get into the race and that’s not in our interest. We were there to be inside and hopefully inspire other people to push themselves in a way in their own lives, not necessarily athletically or physically, but just pushing their own boundaries.

What did you learn, personally, from making this movie?

AI: I’ve probably learned more in the past three years than I had in the last fifteen. Mainly because, you know, we jumped into this.

Sure, we have this technical background and we knew a lot going into it, so we weren’t going in blind. We know production. We know how to shoot something. But we went into it with the attitude that we didn’t know a lot about making an entire film. So the amount of stuff I’ve learned is immeasurable.

Do you think that having challenges– like not having a huge budget and a huge crew–is important for people who are first-time filmmakers?

AI: The first few things I worked on were pretty low budget. I was an intern at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab a long time ago and that was something where you helped with everything. So I had that background, but then for so many years [after that], it was like you do this one thing and you don’t pick up an apple box cause that’s someone else’s job.

I think having production background is really important because you know that things are going to wrong and being able to deal with all these things that are going to go wrong without completely freaking out is really important. But also, what’s important is knowing how to respect the crew that you’re working with. The crew that worked with us that weekend, they camped out with us, so we fed them and we made sure they were okay.

Also important is being 100 per cent honest with the subjects. With everything we were doing, we were a 100 per cent honest about what we were making and I think that’s so important because I think sometimes that’s not the case and it’s detriment to both the film and the subject matter. It’s about mutual respect for everyone.

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Iltis, second from the left, and Timothy Kane, far back, on the set of ‘Mad Men’ (Photo: International Cinematographers Guild)

Speaking of equality, have you had an specific challenges being a woman behind the scenes on productions?

AI: [Pauses] Yes. [Laughs]

Over the last 15 years that I’ve worked in the industry, it’s definitely changed and you do see more women working on crews. But I have experienced probably what most women experience working that business. It runs the gamut.

I think it’s great that it’s become more of a discussion that diversity is important and how few cinematographers are women, and how few directors [are as well]. I mean, it’s so awesome that so many female directors are at Hot Docs this year. That says a lot about documentary filmmaking and the importance women find in making films that mean something to people. But in big Hollywood feature film, there are so few female directors. And I’ve worked with some amazing ones, who have really inspired me in what I’ve done, like Lynn Shelton and Nicole Holofcener. Working with women who are really great at what they do and, like we talked about, respect crews and who are great people and really smart and make great films, I’ve learned a lot.

It’s hard. People don’t automatically give you that respect that a male automatically gets when he walks on set. And it’s not necessarily a conscious thing that people do, but it’s definitely an undercurrent.

Is there anyone, other than the women you mentioned, who you think is really doing something special within the industry?

AI: Oh my gosh. There are a lot of examples.

I just saw a film the other night called Frame by Frame, which was directed by two women living in Afghanistan. I thought that film was really brave of them to do because they were … two women living in Afghanistan! Part of the subject matter deals with a female photographer in Afghanistan who is trying to focus on women’s issues there. And that’s brave in itself, but to have film made about her was really inspiring to me. That’s a great example of stretching yourself and really going outside your boundaries.

Do you think there’s a sense of support in terms of the community of female filmmakers? Do you feel that everybody wants to help each other out? 

AI: It’s hard for me to speak as a filmmaker because I’m still at an early stage. But I think it’s an interesting topic.

I think, above and beyond, women need to be supportive of women and men making things. Just in general. That’s not always the case and it sort of just feeds on the stereotypes that people like to play up that because it’s women doing something, there’s going to be some sort of competition, or all those terms people like to use. I think it’s important for women to remember that we’re all trying to do something and we all are struggling with the same issues and challenges. I think people forget that sometimes.

I’ve had very mixed experiences with that. For the most part, I’ve had some really great experiences with the women I’ve worked with. And then, some not so great ones. But that also comes from, you know, their background and what they’ve been through and issues that they’ve dealt with in their lives. But I think, overall, it’s so important to be supportive of your fellow maker of anything.

I think it’s great it’s becoming part of the discussion and we have things like the Bechedel Test and that people are having a conversation about that. And festivals like Hot Docs are highlighting the fact that 40 some films are directed by women. Like, yes, let’s talk about that. That’s the way we move forward.

It’s also important to say that there are women telling women’s stories, but also lots of women telling stories about men as well. They’re doing a bit of everything.

AI: I think unintentionally more than half the films I’ve seen here have been directed by women. They’re just great films. Whether they are about a man or woman doesn’t matter.

Any films other than Frame by Frame that stood out to you at Hot Docs?

AI: I mean, everything I’ve seen has been interesting.

We saw the Nina Simone documentary last night and it was beautiful. The access of footage they had of her was amazing. I thought the insight, and interviews, they had was great.

And I saw The Amina Profile. That was really interesting. Interesting story made in an interesting way.

What’s next for you? More festivals?

AI: This has sort of been our culmination festival. We premiered the film in October at the Austin Film Festival and won the Audience Award. We’ve won a couple of other awards–we just found out we won a Jury Award at another film festival this week.

We’ve had the film going for three years now and I think we’re really itching to get it out. So that’s what we’re working on right now. I think, festival-wise, I’m not sure [what’s next]. We’re mainly working on how to get it out there.

Emily is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.

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