Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Brian McGinn, director of The Record Breaker.
Synopsis: Ashrita Furman holds the official record for the most Guinness World Records by one individual, including marks for "Largest Hula Hoop," "Most Apples Sliced in Mid-Air with a Samurai Sword", and "Longest Distance Bicycling Underwater." A health food store owner and devotee of meditation, Furman travels the world creating new categories for record achievement. We meet Furman, a singularly driven character, and his merry band of compatriots (including Champ the dog) as he's about to attempt to climb Machu Picchu on stilts.
IDA: How did you meet Ashrita Furman? What inspired you to tell his story?
Brian McGinn: I'd been searching for a great documentary subject for a while. A few of my favorite films are Amelie, Local Hero, Man on Wire, Wes Anderson's stuff and all the Errol Morris films (especially Fast, Cheap and Out of Control). The radio show This American Life is another huge influence, and I wanted to find a story that could be told with their mix of the intimate and universal. My roommate sent me to Ashrita’s website a few years ago. A couple weeks later, I read an article in The New York Times that had a photo of Ashrita slicing an apple with a samurai sword. He was working really hard, laser-focused on slicing the apple and I thought, "I should make a movie about that guy." It turned out Ashrita’s story wasn’t only about becoming a Guinness World Record breaker, but also about chasing happiness. From there, I got really lucky, found an amazing producer (the ridiculously awesome Mette Heide) and off we went!
IDA: You spent quite a bit of Ashrita’s training hours with him while making this film. Did you ever try to execute some of the feats he was attempting?
BM: I’ve attempted a number of the events for which Ashrita holds Guinness World Records, even practiced a few new records he’s made up for the book. I think a lot of people jump to conclusions when they hear about some of the sillier categories. They think that because he holds records for eating Jello blindfolded and snapping bananas in half, he isn’t a real athlete—that what he does is easy. I like to tell people about a record Ashrita holds for walking while carrying a brick in one hand. He carried that brick in his right hand — never putting it down — for a little over 85 miles. No one can ever believe that. Ashrita may not be Usain Bolt, but his concentration and fitness is impressive. I held a brick that same size in my hand and I wanted to put it down after 10 seconds!
To get in the spirit of what Ashrita does, I thought the crew should set world records while we shot. I spent a lot of time researching some of the "low entry point" records. In the end, none of us actually set anything. But for a while I practiced sorting M&Ms by color. I distinctly remember being disappointed after I learned that the mark for "Most Snails on Face" had increased dramatically since the publication of the previous year’s Guinness book. I thought I had a really good chance at that one.
IDA: How did your vision of the film change over the course of production? Did you have a short-form documentary in mind the whole time?
BM: Since I was both directing and editing, it was lucky that I worked with people that gave me great advice. Mette’s a genius at helping to pare down a story and Jean Tsien, a brilliant editor and generous spirit, helped immensely with things coming together. Over time, it became clear that 25 minutes was enough time to tell Ashrita’s story, give you a look at the unique life he lives, as well as introduce the audience to how those around him have been affected by Ashrita’s life choices—how his family has reacted and come to understand what he does, how his relationships have evolved over time—without wearing out our welcome. Hopefully audiences will think that we’ve succeeded in making a compelling and entertaining film that leaves you wanting more!
IDA: What were some of the challenges you encountered when making this film? What were some of the things you did to overcome those challenges?
IDA: Well, first off, Ashrita never slows down or stops, so working the way that I like to shoot documentary—with high-end (read: heavy) equipment and a distinct style—it was a challenge to keep up with him. Steve Milligan, my longtime collaborator and a very talented DP, is remarkably adept at taking a RED camera with a giant Angenieux zoom lens and operating it himself. We got good at moving VERY fast and covering scenes in a hurry—unlike more traditional, long-form documentary shooting, we couldn’t pick up inserts to work into the film during later shoots. It was either 'get it now or never.' That was probably the hardest part of production and the most gratifying—there’s no conventional wisdom for how to shoot a man slicing apples in mid-air with a samurai sword.
IDA: As you’ve screened The Record Breaker, how have audiences reacted to this film?
BM: We’ve been really lucky that audiences have responded to the film. One of the nice things about Ashrita’s story is that while it’s certainly odd, it’s also universal—we all choose how to live our lives and what path we’ll follow. How to be happy is a one of the big questions we all want to answer. Of course, not everyone’s path to happiness involves setting over 400 Guinness World Records. That’s not for everyone.
IDA: So now that this film is done and you’ve entered it into DocuWeeks, have you had achance to look beyond that at what’s next? Do you want to continue making films?
BM: I’m working on a new documentary right now about smooth jazz legend Kenny G. I like to call it the Kenny G documentary you wouldn’t expect. I can’t wait for people to see it. And then I’m reading a bunch of fiction scripts, as well as making my way through a substantial backlog of magazine and newspaper articles in search of another film!
The Record Breaker will be screening August 17 through 23 at IFC Center in New York