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Running the Sahara

CreativeCOW presents Running the Sahara -- Indie Film & Documentary Feature

Allentown Productions
Los Angeles California USA All rights reserved.

For a man who never set out to make documentaries, James Moll is awfully good at it. He won the 1998 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for "The Last Days," stories of five Hungarian Jews as they return with their families to their home towns, and the death camps they survived.

Virtually every story about James begins exactly there, and next goes exactly here: "I never considered myself a documentary film maker," he says. "When I was at film school, believe it or not, my focus was scripted comedy." It's too good a story not to tell, isn't it? A man sets out to make comedies, yet winds up winning a documentary Oscar for "The Last Days," two Emmys and a Peabody Award for "Survivors of the Holocaust," and establishing and operating the Shoah Foundation with Steven Spielberg, to record Holocaust survivors telling their own stories -- over 50,000 of them, from 57 countries.

Filming The Last Days

While his filmography is also diverse enough to include producing a recent episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" on New Kids on the Block (resulting from a friendship with Donnie Wahlberg), James's task is in some ways the same for every project: helping people tell their stories, then telling those stories to other people.

It all began while shooting yet another dry corporate video script, with yet another uptight CEO. "I remember saying, 'Just for kicks, why don't I throw you some questions, and let's just talk.' It went great, so I did that with all the people in that video. I ended up using just what that they said off the cuff. That started my interest in documentaries." As he told us later, "The truth is very interesting."

Not long ago, a friend of his (Tim Beggy of Road Rules fame) emailed James to tell him about three runners who thought it might be cool (so to speak) to become the first humans to run across the Sahara Desert -- yes, THAT Sahara Desert. They planned to run the equivalent of two marathons every day, for over three months, with no days off.

"I immediately emailed back: 'If they try to do this, I'll bring cameras,'" says James. "It was that fast." Since he was already working with Matt Damon's production company, LivePlanet, on another project, "Matt became involved as an Executive Producer. The company was able to raise the financing -- and then I found myself in the middle of absolutely nowhere," he laughs.

The three runners: Charlie Engle (USA), Kevin Lin (Taiwan) and Ray Zahab (Canada).
Charlie Engle (USA), Kevin Lin (Taiwan) and Ray Zahab (Canada). Photo by Don Holtz

Released on DVD and at iTunes in March 2009, "Running the Sahara" sets off from St. Louis, Senegal on Africa's west coast. Over the next 111 days, the runners pass through Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Libya before reaching Cairo, Egypt -- a trip of over 4300 miles (6920 kilometers), in temperatures from 140 degrees Fahrenheit to below freezing.

Even though James and the first unit weren't there the whole time -- two weeks at the beginning, three in the middle and two at the end-- there was always a second unit camera and sound man with the runners. In the end, they captured over 500 hours of footage. The challenge that James and his team then faced was seeing past the overwhelming details, to the actual story.
--Tim Wilson

Creative Cow: There's a spectrum from, "Let's just keep rolling and see what happens," to serious preparation, maybe even some degree of scripting. Where did you fall on that spectrum?

James Moll: There was no scripting on this one. We had a strict policy of keeping the film team separate from the expedition team. We slept in two separate camps, and the two groups were not allowed to speak with each other, except me and the producers occasionally. Any unnecessary interference from me or the crew would have been an unnecessary burden for the runners. These guys were trying to do something that nobody had ever done before. It was physically challenging, but also mentally challenging. I didn't want get in the way.

The ultimate goal was to be the fly on the wall, to view things as if we weren't there. Of course that's impossible to achieve fully, but that's what I strive for in all of my movies.

I made another film that premiered on PBS in December, called "Inheritance." It's about the daughter of a Nazi perpetrator who wanted to meet one of the women who was victimized by her father.

Helen Jonas, a Holocaust survivor, meets Monika Hertwig, the daughter of Amon Goeth at the Plaszow Concentration Camp memorial. (Don Holtz)
James Moll "Inheritance"

They met up at a concentration camp where this woman had been enslaved. I couldn't say to these women, "Hold on for a second, I just need to change tape." It was an emotional, intense and historic moment. None of it could be set-up, or staged in any way. If they stand in a bad place for lighting, we work around it.

You do lose some good stuff this way, but it's worth it for the rawness of what you do get.

CC: It's also true that even if you get it all, you wind up leaving some of your favorite stuff behind, because it doesn't fit the finished piece.

JM: As long as it has the integrity of what really happened overall. Objectivity is very important to me, but other than trying to stay out of the way, I don't consciously think about it while I'm filming -- but I'm very conscious of it in editing.

The ultimate compliment that I got, from all three runners and the expedition team, and from the two women in "Inheritance" as well, was that they loved the movie. The runners said, "You captured the entire expedition in 90 minutes." It's condensed, but it's true. That's the ultimate compliment because the people in the film are the harshest critics. They were there. They know when it's real.


JM: I was thinking that one of the runners might get hurt, or one of them would drop out -- something would happen, because it was such an impossible feat. Halfway through the run, it was still going perfectly! I thought, okay, I don't have a film. I have something that'll be great to show on the Discovery Channel, about how to run a perfect ultra-marathon.

Halfway through the run across the Sahara, one of the guys did decide to quit. When the runners were having that conversation, we were not prepared with the cameras. Two of the runners were hidden near the tailgate of a truck, so we couldn't see their faces, and one of the guys was sitting on the ground. It was a scramble to try to get footage. Fortunately, we got just enough that we were able to cut the scene together. But I recall arguing with the sound mixer. I said, "The boom shadow's in the frame!" And he said "What are you shooting? The faces or the shadows?!"

In the heat of the moment, everyone was stressed, because we knew that it was a critical scene and we weren't ready for it, but we knew that we had to shoot it.

At the same time, I always try to challenge myself to do the best I possibly can, to pay attention to the frame, and stage line, and audio and overall quality. People look at the finished film with all of these carefully composed shots, and a clear story, and assume that at least part of it was staged. That we'd arrange a scene, wait for everything to come together, and then start shooting when everything was ready.

These guys weren't waiting for ANYTHING. They were there to run. I always knew that we would set up a beautiful shot, and that they would pass through the frame - and if we missed the shot, we drove ahead and set up again.

Setting up shot at pyrmaids. Photo by Geoffrey Clifford
Photo by Geoffrey Clifford

It always cracks me up on TV shows when they shoot an episode that's supposed to be shot documentary-style. They always shake the camera deliberately, and zoom in and out and constantly refocus. [Laughs] There's a perception that all documentary filmmaking has to be shot by people who don't know how to hold the camera still.

CC: That's another spectrum that things live on, the importance of the frame. I think of frames as being as important as sentences. They are like fundamental building blocks. That's another thing to me that's going out of style in documentaries. Maybe it's just reality TV...

JM: I think what you just said is hitting it on the head. It's going out of style in documentaries partly because of reality television.

Now, I love reality television. It's very entertaining, and I have no problem with it. But it has had an impact on what people expect from documentary filmmaking, and it has had an impact on what documentary filmmakers do. Of course, that's one of the jobs of the director, to work with the camera team, editors, composers, and everyone who's going to bring their creative vision. You have to welcome their creative contributions. But in feature documentaries, it's ultimately up to the director to make the decisions that distinguish a film from being like reality TV.

DP Harris Done (center) and director James Moll (right). (Geoffrey Clifford)
DP Harris Done (center) and director James Moll (right). (Geoffrey Clifford)

CC: So how many cameras do you roll at a time?

JM: I like to roll two cameras, because it helps in the editing room. With documentary, it's easier to use a single camera -- you've got audio rolling constantly, and you can usually edit the scene pretty well with just one camera. But my preference is to have two cameras.

Director James Moll interviews expedition doctor Jeff Peterson. (Geoffrey Clifford)
Director James Moll interviews expedition doctor Jeff Peterson. (Geoffrey Clifford)

And you need camera operators who are experienced working along with a second camera. I've usually got both cameras on the headset -- I can see what their shots are by their positions, and we communicate to maintain the eyelines, and match coverage, and line up shots on the fly as we go.

CC: I like the idea of you maintaining some quality control during the shoot, rather than "roll and roll, and we'll build it in post."

JM: It's very far from that. It's paying close attention to the story that's unfolding. All six characters [the runners and the expedition team] are mic'd, and I often wanted all six mics up in my ear at the same time. Even when I can't see everybody, I know what's going on.

CC: I can see that someone else might not want that much information, in real time. It's interesting that you did.

JM: Particularly at the end of the shoot, when there are a lot of story lines playing out all at once, and you don't necessarily know which one you're going to ultimately follow. I had a pretty good idea in my head, and I think the film in the end is the film that I was envisioning while we were shooting -- but it wasn't clear while we were shooting. I can't emphasize enough the role that my editor, Ricky Kreitman, played in the making of this movie.

That's why I personally don't take writer credit for any of my documentaries. A lot of documentary filmmakers do. I believe the Writers Guild encourages it. But it's a team effort. Harris Done, our Director of Photography, was also a huge part of the writing process, based on the split-second decisions he would make while shooting. The director has ultimate say, but to take sole credit would be to diminish the contributions of the editor and the DP.

DP Harris Done (Don Holtz)
DP Harris Done with the Sony F900R (Geoffery Clifford)

CC: Why did you use the Sony F900R?

JM: Because I love it. I know that everyone's talking about the Red now, but I love the ease of use of the F900R. I love the look, the quality of the image. I've been using it since we filmed, "Price for Peace," in 2000, and I love seeing the results on the big screen. Of course, almost anything you shoot in the Sahara Desert is going to be stunning anyway. We thought that dirt and dust would be a big issue, but everyone was very careful about cleaning and maintaining the equipment. It turned out that the F900R was a workhorse.

Audio was a challenge. We knew that we wouldn't be able to be next to the runners at all times, or able to pick up their audio on our radio mics, so there was an audio vehicle that stayed closer to the runners than the rest of us. Sometimes we were shooting long lenses, very far away from the runners, and we were constantly radioing the audio vehicle to get out of the shot. [Laughs]

We also used a Russian Arm. It's like a jib arm that mounts to the roof of an SUV. We shipped that thing from Burbank to Agadez, smack in the center of Niger. We used it all the way through the Tenere Desert, which is just miles and miles of enormous sand dunes. That was sort of a risky decision that paid off. We weren't able to fly a helicopter out there -- they would have had to do fuel drops because it was such a remote area -- but the Russian arm was able to get up high enough that it looked like we had helicopter shots in the desert.

Russian Arm (Geoffrey Clifford)
Russian Arm (Geoffrey Clifford)


We weren't focused on awards, or the idea of an Oscar nomination. We were in Berlin [exhibiting "The Last Days" at the Berlin Film Festival] when we heard about it. I thought to myself, there's absolutely no way this film has a shot. I was very pleasantly surprised, shocked, when we were called.

I remember walking up to the stage, and looking down at the stairs very deliberately, so I wouldn't trip. [Laughs] Thinking, "Please don't let me be on the outtake reel, please don't let me be on the outtake reel!" I just want to get on the stage, I just want to say something and not sound like a fool.

I remember looking over the audience and drawing a complete blank, which seemed to go on forever. Of course you watch it back, it was maybe a second or two. But time just stood still for that moment. The really good moment was walking off the stage. Then it's a relief. "Okay, I didn't do anything that will be on the blooper reel." [Laughs]

It just felt really good.

James Moll accepts the Academy Award for "The Last Days"

There was a real sense that the stakes were getting higher as the movie continued. I think that's one reason why some conversations about logistics got a little personal -- because of the intensity of the trust that was required to pull off the expedition at all.

Not many roads through the Sahara
It turns out that there aren't any roads that go all the way across the Sahara.

JM: And the lack of ability to truly plan in detail. The schedule was definitely an issue. Some of the support team had only a certain amount of time to work on the expedition. For one of their key members, that time ran out, and it became a source of conflict for the group.

As a filmmaker, the schedule became a nightmare. There's a finite budget, and it became clear that we couldn't know exactly how many days of filming there would be. Most people would also think that you go into an expedition like this and you know every road you're going to take, every turn, and you know pretty much every obstacle you're going to come across...

CC: ...or that you would have been able to get permission to enter every country that you had planned to enter.

JM: Right, because even when you do have permission, you don't have permission. You see that early in the film, at the first border crossing, from Senegal into Mauritania. We had everything in order, but they wouldn't let us through. We sat there all day. They finally let us through late that night.

[Ed: Christmas dinner was tense as the team looked at the road ahead. The border between Niger and Libya was officially closed, and while they had never said "no," Libya had not yet granted the team permission to enter. The trip might be over as soon as they reached the border.
Even if new visas and insurance could be secured for an alternate route, it would have to be through Chad and the Sudan, where landmines dotted a route that led to Sudan's troubled Darfur region.
Spirits sagged: first one runner, then another, considered leaving the expedition over the next days. But as the new year began, they came to an oasis in Fachi, where it seemed as if the entire village emerged to run alongside them.]

Running with the villagers of Fachi (Don Holtz)
Running with the villagers of Fachi. (Don Holtz)

CC: I assume that this was a first unit shot?

JM: Right, that was the first unit. We used the Russian Arm in that scene. On this particular day, we were in the right place, at the right time, to capture it the way it is in the film. It's a beautiful moment, a very inspirational moment.

Iit really did lift the spirits of Ray, one of the runners who, at that point was thinking, 'I'm not going to be able to continue this expedition.' He still talks about that.

CC: I can imagine that. There were places in the movie where you'd see a few kids running alongside them, but this felt like the whole city was running with them.

Photo by Jeff Peterson
Photo by Jeff Peterson

JM: I didn't use a lot of these kinds of scenes in the film, but it was very common for the runners to go into small villages, and for both children and adults to come out of the woodwork and run with them.

Running the Sahara

We had similar experiences as the film crew. We would break for lunch, and spread some mats on the floor, on the sand, wherever we were, and kids would just come and sit with us. They couldn't speak with us, but they would give a big smile, and sit with us on the mat. People coming to these remote areas was a rare thing for them, and they were always so curious. We would share some water and food, but it was always a very powerful experience for us.

Camel train, Niger. (Jeff Peterson)
Camel train, Niger. (Jeff Peterson)

CC: A powerful experience for me as a viewer: the runners come across a seven year old in the desert, alone at night. He was waiting for his parents to return from a two-day trip to find water. I thought that that sequence was really amazing. How did that unfold for you as filmmaker?

JM: We never left the runners without a camera and a sound man, and this was from one of those times. The first unit and I weren't there, so I had never seen the footage until we were in the editing room. The camera man, Mark Kneyse, didn't cover it very extensively, because it wasn't uncommon to come across nomadic people, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Also the sun was going down. It was getting too dark to shoot. That's why the scene is so grainy, and there isn't much coverage. I think we used every shot we had. In the end, I like the grainy look and raw feel of this scene.

CC: It was so clearly not planned, and it added a very specific human dimension to the broad political question about water. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it really did seem to me to be a turning point for them, in their feelings about the water.

JM: I don't think you're reading too much into it at all. It was definitely a turning point for the runners in their feelings about water. The search for water becomes very human, and you relate to it on a very personal level.

There were discussions in advance of the expedition about the water crisis in Africa. Matt Damon and the whole production team, the runners included, set up a non-profit, H2O Africa, to help raise awareness about the water crisis in Africa, and to raise money to do something about it.

A well near Timbuktu, Mali
A well near Timbuktu, Mali

Once the expedition began, for the runners, it was all about the goal. Yet when they came across a little boy in the desert, alone because his parents had to go get water, then it starts to really hit them directly. It was definitely important to me in the editing not to make this film about promoting a non-profit, or about the water crisis. I didn't want it to come across as preachy. But because it happened organically within the runners' story, I was able to integrate it as part of the story.

Some people asked, "How could you leave that kid there?" - but that's a question from the perspective of someone living in this country. Certainly if you came across a little boy alone in the street, you wouldn't leave him there.

CC: But in this case, both the parents and the child knew exactly what to expect. It's not like you could leave a note, telling them where their kid had gone. The runners had a long talk about it, but I think that their response was ultimately the only right one.

One of the things they gave him as they left was a little flashlight. The natural light was gone, and pretty much the only way you could see him was when he turned the light on his face. It was a striking shot, but also as a narrative moment, it really raised all of these questions. What can you do for a boy like this? The answer is, you do what you can.

JM: Thats exactly what happened. The team left him with food and water -- and to wait for his parents, as he had on their other trips to look for water. It wasn't up to us to impose our cultural responses on them.

A well in the Sahara (Don Holtz)

CC: Another scene that really struck me: there were many places that they are on a road. It wasn't paved, but it was a road. There's a place in the movie where a huge sandstorm blows in, and it's a sudden reminder that they're not only not on a road -- they're really, truly in the middle of nowhere

JM: For a substantial part of the run, they were in the middle of nowhere.

People have said to me, well, it's clear that those guys weren't in peril, they weren't really lost, because there was a camera crew there. I laugh, because we were lost, too! We were in a vehicle, they were running, but we were in middle of a sandstorm. Our satellite phones weren't working. It was stressful for all of us -- and it went on for hours and hours.

JM: I never considered myself a documentary filmmaker. I suppose I do now. [Laughs] At least the world does. But when I was at film school, believe it or not, I was known as a comedy guy. My first job was working for Francis Veber ("La Cage Aux Folles"), the French director who was a comedy genius. Here I am now, on a different path.

I think that "Running the Sahara" is an accomplishment, and now I really want to challenge myself again.

My next project is a scripted drama about the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, a very significant point in Civil Rights history.

The Murder of Emmett Till

I was shocked that no one had ever made it into a film before -- but I was able to move on to this scripted project because of my documentaries. I met with Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, before she passed away. She was really moved by my film "The Last Days," so she gave me the rights to her life story, and I developed the film with her.

Mamie Till-Mobley

It has been in development a long time, a difficult story to get off the ground. It's a passion, though, and it's one of those projects that, when it's said and done, I think I can be proud of it.

I'm not saying I'll never do another documentary. But right, now the focus is features. And I'd love dream to bring the key people from my documentary team to work on features with me.

CC: That makes sense. Their experience as documentarians can make them effective working on a narrative film that's also based on historical facts.

JM: No. It's that they're cheaper. [Laughs]

CC: There you go! [Laughs]

JM: Seriously, I never thought to analyze why I want work with them on features. I think it comes back to the word "shorthand."

Someone could make the argument that it would work better to have someone bring in fresh ideas, but there's something to be said for, when the budget and schedule becomes an issue, you're working with someone like-minded. Having worked with Harris since film school, we have developed our creative sensibilities together. And Ricky has extraordinary talent. It's a gift, really. He makes decisions and pulls things off that I think wouldn't work. He surprises me - as does Harris. They're not afraid to tell me, "No THIS is how it should be," and we go with what works best. As I think about it, they DO challenge me with fresh ideas. It's that our shorthand gets us to satisfying conclusions more quickly.

Harris Done, strapped to the hood of a car in Senegal
Harris Done, strapped to the hood of a car in Senegal

[Pause] When I think about narrative features...just the idea that I can roll the camera, and things are going to happen in the frame exactly the way that I want [laughs] is a dream!

CC: [Laughs]. You're right! There are always moving targets on a movie. But with scripted features, there are fewer moving targets.

JM: That's a great way to say it. But of course I haven't done it yet. [Laughs.] Lets talk again after this film is done.

CC: A last question about "Running the Sahara." At the movie's website, you've got a button for people to buy the DVD, or download the movie from iTunes. Is there a theatrical release planned?

JM: Not in the traditional sense of a theatrical release. The distributor is planning to have screening events around the country, where one or all of the runners will be present. It's an interesting opportunity for people to interact with the runners one on one. It makes sense for this movie.

And hey, for any documentary, a theatrical release is a challenge. Documentaries are still not seen as the most theatrically viable art form. Obviously that's changing in recent years, but it's still tough. It takes a huge initial investment.

CC: What you're talking about is very different than the traditional vision of, okay, we're going to make a movie, and we're going to shop it all these film festivals, and we're going to get a distribution deal for big money. It's more complicated than that now.

JM: In this case, I wasn't directly involved with any of the negotiations, or the ultimate decisions on how to distribute the film. When it comes to deciding whether or not to do a theatrical release, sure, as a film maker, it becomes a bit of an ego thing. You want to see your movie on the big screen - especially this one. Parts of it are stunning to look at it.

Click image for largerRunning the Sahara - the Tenere Desert

But if it's not practical and if it doesn't happen for whatever reason, I just want people to see it. Certainly Apple iTunes offers that, and direct DVD sales, and then the event screenings around the country. "Running the Sahara" has also already been airing on Showtime. These are all great things for documentaries. I'm not thinking, oh what a tragedy if someone doesn't see this on the big screen. I'm thrilled that people are finding more ways to watch it. I love the direction that this is all going.

James Moll

Emmy® and Oscar winning filmmaker James Moll established Allentown Productions to develop and produce theatrical and television films. He is a member of the DGA, the Television Academy, the Motion Picture Academy, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Documentary Branch of the Motion Picture Academy.

Moll received an Academy Award® in 1999 for directing and editing The Last Days, a 90-minute feature documentary, filmed in five countries, chronicling the lives of five Hungarian Holocaust survivors.

For NBC, Moll directed and produced the primetime feature-length documentary Price for Peace, hosted by Tom Brokaw. The late author Stephen Ambrose served as executive producer with Spielberg. The film focuses on America's involvement in the Pacific during WWII, and was released on DVD by DreamWorks as part of the "Saving Private Ryan" box set, "The World War II Collection."

Survivors of the Holocaust, a two-hour documentary produced by Moll for TBS and CNN International, was nominated for three Primetime Emmy® Awards in 1997 (winning two of them), and also received the Peabody Award. Moll received the Edward R. Murrow Award for producing The Lost Children of Berlin for A&E For VH1's Fan Club series, Moll made a film about obsessive fans of singer Ricky Martin. Other television credits include directing two of the John Wells-produced One-Minute Movies about robots, as well as directing/producing various film packages for the Primetime Emmy Awards, and The World Stunt Awards, among others. In 2001, Moll served as an editor and supervising producer on The Unfinished Journey, directed by Spielberg as a millennium special for the White House New Year's telecast.

For more information, visit Allentown Productions.

Title photo by Geoffrey Clifford. Oscar® and Academy Award® are registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

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