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Meet the Filmmakers: Jon Dunham and Mark Jonathan Harris--'Spirit of the Marathon'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in 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 are Jon Dunham, director/producer, and Mark Jonathan Harris, executive producer, of Sprit of the Marathon.

Synopsis: From Jon Dunham and Academy Award winner Mark Jonathan Harris comes the first-ever nonfiction feature film to capture the drama and essence of the famed 26.2-mile running event. Filmed on four continents, Spirit of the Marathon brings together a diverse cast of amateur athletes and marathon luminaries. As six unique stories unfold, each runner prepares for and ultimately faces the challenge of the Chicago Marathon. More than a sports movie, Spirit of the Marathon is an inspirational journey of perseverance and personal triumph, a spectacle that will be embraced by runners and non-runners alike.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Jon Dunham: I grew up around photography. My father lived in the Yosemite Valley when Ansel Adams had a studio there, so as far back as I can remember there were these remarkable black and white landscapes of monuments like Half Dome, El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, all around the house. This created a lasting impression on me, and I love nature and photography to this day.

I began making films when I was 13 years old, using my family's Hi8 camcorder. Through video, I completely fell in love with motion pictures, and it wasn't long before I was "documenting" everything I could think of. I married the formal quality of the photographs I had known growing up with my growing interest in people and real life stories, and I found my way into the world of nonfiction film.

IDA: What inspired you to make Spirit of the Marathon?

JD: Spirit of the Marathon is a very personal film to me. I took an interest in running around the same time I began making videos, and I first ran the Los Angeles Marathon in 1993. That day changed my life. It was by far the most difficult thing I had ever experienced. I've run at a minimum one marathon a year since then and the energy, spectacle, diversity and camaraderie around the event continues to inspire me. I had to capture at least a small part of the significance of the marathon in my life.

Furthermore, I credit the marathon with instilling in me a sense of empowerment that has had a profound influence on the rest of my life, not the least of which being my decision to pursue a career in film. In this way, running my first marathon is very much related to the deep, inner resources that I've had to discover and utilize in my own filmmaking.

Mark Jonathan Harris: As a filmmaker who has been making documentaries for 40 years, and as a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC who has been teaching documentary filmmaking for 25 years, I am often approached by young filmmakers looking for advice or mentorship on their first independent project. Although I often give advice, I rarely get involved in the making of the film.

Spirit of the Marathon was an exception. I'm not a runner myself, but I was very drawn to the subject of individuals testing their mental, physical and emotional limits. Jon's vision of the film, and his desire to make the definitive film about the marathon, also posed an irresistible challenge as a filmmaker: How do you successfully combine the history of the marathon with personal stories of both amateur and professional runners?

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

JD: I said earlier that running the marathon was the most difficult thing I had ever done. That was until I decided to make the film on the marathon! The shear magnitude of the production completely consumed my life for five years. It has indeed been my longest and toughest marathon!

Specifically, the logistics of this production were quite complex. How do you follow multiple runners' storylines as they are simultaneously training thousands of miles apart? How do you find and manage to stay with individual runners in a literal sea of humanity? How do you continuously cover filming an event that spans 26.2 miles and encompasses the entire city of Chicago? It took a great deal of time and ingenuity to find solutions to all of these questions.

Finally, as probably every filmmaker can relate to, it was a tremendous financial challenge to bring Spirit of the Marathon to the big screen. It started with the purchase of a $5,000 HDV camera using my personal credit card. At one point during the production when we had absolutely no money to continue, my father granted me use of his American Express Miles, which he had been accumulating for decades, and this paid for the trip that I and Associate Producer Melissa Leggett took around the world to film with world-class Kenyan runner Daniel Njenga in Japan, Africa and Europe.

MJH: The initial obstacles were the usual ones for documentary filmmakers: access and money. Jon tried several marathons before Chicago finally gave him permission to film, and raising money, as always, is a problem. Jon scraped up enough to do most of the initial filming, and we then invested a lot of time and energy in crafting a stirring trailer. Gwendolyn Twist, our new producer, rented a theater to show the trailer to investors to prove that the film was, indeed, a theatrical experience. The showing was so successful that she was able to raise the necessary money to finish the film.

When we were finished, we took the film to several major distributors, all of whom turned us down. But we knew there was an audience for this film, if only we could get to them. Happily, Fathom, a division of National CineMedia, saw the potential of the film and decided to distribute it as one of their event films. The film was digitally distributed by satellite to 500 theaters in January, and played again in an encore presentation the following month, grossing over $1 million in those two showings. The film continues to have a theatrical life and move audiences of runners and non-runners alike.

The success of the film validates Jon's vision and perseverance and our belief that if you make a good film, you can ultimately find an audience that will appreciate it. Clearly, satellite distribution and Fathom's mode of distribution offers a promising alternative to the way documentaries have been traditionally distributed in theaters.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

JD: Spirit of the Marathon is actually very much the way I always envisioned it. That being said, there were numerous other stories and intricacies to the event that I had at one point intended to include in more detail. But who wants to watch a film about the marathon that is longer than it actually takes to complete the race itself? Perhaps one day I'll do a second film.

IDA: As you've screened Sprit of the Marathon--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

JD: We had the unique opportunity to work with National Cine Media's Fathom Events to exhibit Spirit of the Marathon in nearly 500 theaters across the United States as a one-night-only special event. Theaters sold out nationwide. To date, we have received tens of thousands of e-mails from people all over the world who have been inspired by the film. In fact, one running group in Maine ran over 120 miles in the snow to see it! Another group in Mississippi rented a bus and drove as a group to the closest theater two hours away in Memphis, Tennessee. I am honored that I was the right person at the right time with the right team of people that was able to make this happen.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

JD: I'm incredibly grateful to Mark Harris, who believed in me and Spirit of the Marathon from the very beginning. Mark generously gave so much of his time to this project, and it would not be the film that it is without his support and talent.

Also, at the risk of sounding sappy, every person that endeavors to make a film inspires me. Filmmaking is an epic challenge, and yet is such a significant form of communication in our lives. Filmmakers are courageous examples of the power of the human spirit.

Spirit of the Marathon will be screening at the IFC Center in New York and the Arclight Theater in Sherman Oaks, Calif..

To view the DocuWeek schedule in New York City, visit

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the IFC Center, visit

To view the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles, visit

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks, visit