Jennifer Smith, welcome to this VIP Interview! Thank you for speaking to us today.
Let’s dig right in? Finding My Edge ran for Best Sports Film, Best Documentary Short & Best Voice Over at Cannes World Film Festival. Congratulations on being nominated. One personal comment here; beyond “finding the edge of one’s capability,” we see it as an ode to self-actualization, achieved through coming out of one’s comfort zone.
Finding My Edge is also interesting as a story of embracing life’s finest challenge, i.e., motherhood, and maybe “failing better,” in the words of Samuel Beckett if we look at Sara’s decision to give up the race. Second-time lucky?
Thank you so much. You’ve captured exactly what we were trying to show. In our film, we see a physical journey. There’s an attempt at hiking 205 miles, completing 86 miles after training for one year. And there’s a failure to finish that race. In addition, there is a mental and even spiritual journey where the mind weighs in on what the body can do and what the body should do.
There is encouragement from friends and family, but in the end, Sara herself must evaluate her priorities and make decisions along the trail. There is the disappointment of not finishing what one has set their heart on doing. This is an “ego death,” a realization that maybe what mattered to Sara initially had shifted a great deal.
Sara Morris, the ultramarathoner in the film, tells me: “In the world of Ultrarunning, there is a common thread that there is no bad race and that you can learn from every DNF (Did Not Finish). Ultra is like life; you control what you can; problem solve what you can’t. There is always another start line. So even though I did not finish the race, I learned something about myself and how to try again sometime in the future.”
The name of Samuel Beckett may not seem to fit — unless, of course, you know the origin of the phrase “Fail better.” It appears five times in Beckett’s 1983 story “Worstward Ho,” the first of which goes like this: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.
Fail better.” I agree that the sentiment seems to resonate naturally with the mentality of ultrarunners, where the runner feels pain or fatigue and might fall prey to injury or other hardships in the race. Still, each failure may contain the seeds of future success.
This quote, which follows the one above, seems to describe what it’s like to compete in this kind of race:
“First, the body. No. First, the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. If you are sick of either, try the other. Sick of it back, sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better or worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.”
I think any ultra-trail runner would say those words resonate. So, yes, there was a challenge of facing life’s finest challenge, in the words of Samuel Beckett.
Your short bio says that “creative projects called.” How did you hear the calling, if we may ask? Do you agree with Fellini’s words: “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography”? If so, have you found your pearl?
Sure, yes. I agree with Fellini’s lovely words. All art, all stories come through a painter’s or an author’s or a director’s autobiography. Every creator has a unique voice for that reason.
I hope to find and polish many pearls. To me, each story is a pearl.
When everyone had to stay home during the pandemic, I was awakened by dreams of stories. Then I started to write them down. Then I began to see films in my head of the stories I wrote. Then I started writing screenplays. It was as though they had been percolating for my entire life, and they were determined to find their way into the world.
It was a very generative process.
This film came about because I had to temporarily abandon making my short narrative film, Soft Hands, after the Uvalde school shooting in Texas last year. I wanted to film in the high school in Hondo, Texas, a town just next to Uvalde, Texas. The Hondo school administrators were nervous about COVID and anyone going into their school because of the gun violence, which was understandable. I had to shift to another project.
So, I set on making this documentary, and my daughter Sara would be running her race at Lake Tahoe, California. Some of the creators I hired were people I had found for my narrative short film. Everything came together. I was fortunate that Sara came across naturally on film and was willing to team up with me. This project is very personal.
How do you go from the legal world to sports filmmaking?
I am a business lawyer and feel comfortable in the business world. I understood what Sara was trying to achieve in her race and thought we could do justice to her story. I believe more women would be in the film industry if they knew they didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and it is enough if they believe they can tell the story.
I’ve been an amateur film student for the past thirty years. I’ve always tried to understand how filmmakers put a story together, how they pace it, why they focus on specific elements, and how they evoke emotion. Our cinematographer, Ben Ferguson, had experience shooting documentaries and surfers in the ocean. Our composer, Tamara Miller, already had experience on broadcast TV. Our editor, Elad Adelman, located in Switzerland, made commercials for major auto manufacturers that told family stories. I scouted all our technical people based on what their work showed me they could do. Our still photographer, Sabrina Hammoudeh, is a brilliant nature and portrait photographer.
This is more of a question for Sara, your main protagonist. How do you move from running and hiking as a mum in a group like SLAM –“Sweat like a mother” – to “taking on” the Tahoe 200? That’s a mind-blowing challenge, isn’t it? And how do you get into “Ultra” (Ultra-marathon)-running?
Sara tells me: “Moving from a fitness group to running 5k and eventually Ultra distance races is actually not that unusual for someone like me. Members of that same group who have run a marathon or longer after motherhood and being a member are probably more than half the total over time.
The notion that being around people with big goals breeds big goals for everyone in the group holds true. My main reason for moving from marathon to ultramarathon was the culture around those events. Road runners always ask first about your pace or your time, while ultrarunners, especially trail runners, ask you about the route or the experience.
Time becomes irrelevant as long as you learn something. Even finishing the race isn’t a big deal; it’s all about putting yourself out there and trying. Deciding to try the Tahoe 200 was about wanting to have the experience and testing the physical limits.”
A word on your choice of quotes from “In a Dark Time” by Theodore Roethke and your score, i.e., “There’s Mama,” written and performed by Rylee Morris.
Sara and I chose the quotes from the Theodore Roethke poem together. I have asked Sara for years what drove her to run and train for such a challenging race? She has often said, “To ride the line of capability, to find my edge.” Then I remembered a poem I had studied in college more than 30 years ago. “You mean like this?” and she said, “Yes, that’s it!” So the poem was our north star throughout the production.
Rylee Morris, Sara’s daughter (my granddaughter), appears in the film and immensely supports Sara in the race. She wanted to participate and offered to write and perform her song. We love the result, which is the perfect film cap.
What is your take on extreme sports and the fact that it seems to appeal to an increasingly wider following. Sign of the times? Any other factors?
My personal take on extreme sports is that, as a society, we numb ourselves in so many ways because we are overstimulated. We try, and people who love extreme sports try to find a thrill they don’t have in their everyday lives. But there are also people like my daughter who run to know themselves better, to test their capabilities, and find out whatever they can. Sara ended up finding out how lucky she was to have the support of her friends and family and to listen to her body and what it told her was her limit. She ran and hiked the best race she could on that day. I love how the line from the poem puts it, “A fallen man, I walk out of my fear. Free, in the tearing wind.”
Can you tell us more about your next film Soft Hands, recently named a quarterfinalist in both the 2022 PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and the Vail Film Festival?
Sure, it’s the story of Doug, a 14-year-old boy who lost his mother to a drug overdose.
He goes to live with his estranged grandfather on his south Texas farm. Slowly they get to know each other and discover that lost family can also be found—and that Doug has a gift with animals. His grandfather says, “Don’t be afraid of animals; they’re just folks. They have feelings.” That project is in development; I hope to film it next year.
My vision of post-COVID cinema:
We live on our phones these days and have room for lots of creative content there.
Even so, I hope we always have the communal theatre experience.
I thank Karolina Bomba for promoting the work of independent filmmakers.
She is doing a service to society.
Writer, Filmmaker, Lawyer, USAF JAG (Ret'd)
Deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM. Federal Government Contracts Lawyer for 31 years. Dog breeder and show exhibitor of Golden Retrievers and English Cocker Spaniels.
Soft Hands (Short Narrative) Screenwriter
Finding My Edge (Short Documentary) Director/Producer
© ITV 2023 Isabelle Rouault-Röhlich