A new feature length doco on NAZ Elite
You might not know the names Ryan Sterner and Stephen Kersh - but then again, you actually might. Regular TEMPO readers would have seen a heap of their work on our site - they’ve covered runners in LA, Shelby Houlihan, the Chicago Marathon, and more for us over the years.
Ryan and Stephen produce a lot of work in the US under their ‘Rabbitwolf’ production company - various films centered around ultra running and marathons. You might have seen this one on Jim Walmsley, or this one on our TEMPO team for The Speed Project .
They’ve just dropped their latest film, which is also their longest and ‘biggest’ feature, ‘A Time And A Place’, documenting Northern Arizona Elite and their build up and race day at the 2020 USA Olympic Marathon Trials (we’ve got details at the end of this article on how you can watch this new film).
Knowing the guys well, and bumping into them at races (including in Atlanta at the Trials) I knew this film would be something special, and now that I’ve seen it had to share it. But before you watch it (which you should), I wanted to have a quick chat with the guys and bring you some additional context around the film.
Q: Fellas, talk me through how this one came about. Was it Ben (Rosario - coach of NAZ Elite) wanting to do it or did you pitch it to the team?
Stephen Kersh: This feels like ages ago at this point, so my memory is a bit fuzzy but I’m almost certain it was Ben who planted the idea of a more feature-length documentary on the team and the road to the Trials. It was definitely something Ryan and I were keen on but also super nervous about the prospect of pulling something like this off. Despite the general inexperience with true filmmaking, we jumped at the opportunity to follow this group around for the foreseeable future.
Ryan Sterner: Yeah, Ben really was in our corner from the beginning. NAZ was in a unique position with five athletes ranked in the top-10 in the US for the marathon the previous season, so we knew the story was there. We had done a lot of work with NAZ previously, so it took very little convincing for us to say "yes" and begin having the conversations we needed to have to get everything off the ground.
Q: You went everywhere with those guys. After Atlanta when the dust settled, how much footage was there to go through?
RS: It was a lot. I don't have the exact numbers in terms of hours/days of footage, but all told we had close to 100 what we called "shooting days," where we were with the team in some capacity. It came out to roughly 8 terabytes of footage.
SK: This has less to do with footage and more to do with going everywhere with those guys, but I did beat them all in a game of mini golf in Orlando before the Trials. Ben is still fuming.
Q: Ben and Aliphine were both very confident of her chances at the Trials. Being so close to the team, did you feel that confidence going into Atlanta? Were you expecting it to unfold the way it did?
RS: It was hard not to get caught up in everything we were seeing. Every single one of them had multiple phenomenal workouts and we got to watch all of these sessions build on each other over the 16-weeks we spent with them. So yeah, at a certain point Stephen and I both were completely sold on the idea that NAZ was going to put six athletes on the Olympic Team.
In terms of the actual race, the women's race played out more or less like I expected--it really could have been Aliphine, Steph, or Kellyn on the podium and I would not have been surprised.
The men's race, and you can watch this unfold in the movie, was just so shocking in terms of what it took to make the team. Having been on the course and knowing the conditions, we all thought that if you ran 2:12 you'd probably make the team. To have 30 guys in the mix to run 2:10 through a good portion of the race was not something we had considered in the slightest.
Q: I thought you guys were really clever with the way you showed the actual race. Talk me through that idea of using stills the way you did - it looks great.
RS: Before we even turned on the camera for the first time, we knew that race day footage was going to be an issue. NBC technically owns any bit of footage shot on the course. If you use it, even in a documentary setting, you're violating their copyright. Early on we had a very intimidating conversation with the USOC about what we might be able to use and it became clear we'd have to find a work around. We had a few ideas floating around: hiring an animator, doing some sort of stop motion, doing GFX of a map of Atlanta with little bobbing heads moving around the course.
Ultimately, those were either going to be too expensive or just not get the point across at all. NAZ had hired a photographer (Paul Ward) for the race who very graciously gave us access to his entire library from the weekend. Once we got our hands on that, Ken Burns-ing it through the race section became the only way forward.
Q: What’s next for you guys after this one?
SK: In the near future, we are still pretty busy with our bread-and-butter short-form pieces of content. We’ve been lucky enough to foster a great working relationship with a few brands that keep us going year round.
I know I speak for both of us when I say we want to do more long-form storytelling. Seeing a project like this through, from start to finish, was insanely rewarding. There were moments that were pretty shitty and felt like this thing would never get done how we wanted, but then those feelings are masked by the reward of seeing the finished product. Which we absolutely love.
So for us, it’ll be about kicking around ideas and stories until something strikes us enough to cold call everyone we know and beg for some cash.
RS: It'll be hard to replicate the feeling of this one, though. Both in subject matter and just pure creative freedom. This project was eye-opening for us because it was the first time there wasn't a client who had any input in the process, direction, storylines, etc. It was just me and Steve and our hair-brained ideas for how to get it done. And that was a very cool thing to experience.
But we're constantly adding to our list of Big Ideas. Like Stephen said, we both have the hunger to take on a huge project again and get in completely over our heads, it'll just be about finding the right opportunity.
If you want to watch the film (you absolutely do, it’s sick - the best road running documentary I can remember seeing), you have a couple options, but the screening I'm vibing is being hosted by Tracklandia's Jeff Merrill.
After the screening, there will also be a QandA hosted by Jeff, and featuring Scott Fauble, and Steph & Scott Smith.
Click here for full screening details. I'd love to see athletics fans support this - not only is it a fantastic film, but hopefully the success of this project will see more of these types of works commissioned in future.