Interview: Directors Barney Spender and Roddy Gibson on the Making of ‘The Road to Sparta’

If someone were to ask you to run 246 kilometres in 36 hours you might think they were off their rocker, let alone struggle to believe such a thing were even possible. Yet, when perseverance meets heart “impossible” is but a glint of dirt on the heel of a worn out shoe. Especially if that shoe is worn in Greece.

In “The Road to Sparta” directed by Barney Spender and Roddy Gibson, endurance in all its forms is put to the test as four runners, including famed ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, take on the most grueling footrace in the world—Spartathlon.

Enlivening and deeply touching, “The Road to Sparta” transports viewers into the midst of the Greek ultramarathon and the passionate will of four runners whose personal stories and stamina will inspire you and leave your legs feeling a little more like jelly than usual.

Combining Greek history, music, and poetry the film extends beyond pure athleticism to culminate in a viewing experience that is both immersive and highly gratifying.  

Spender, a veteran sports journalist, and Gibson, a veteran filmmaker, have been friends for decades. “The Road to Sparta” is their first feature documentary together. Just as the film is one of passion so too was the work behind it.

Documentary Drive had the privilege of doing a Q&A recently with the pair ahead of the sold-out Australian premiere of “The Road to Sparta” July 10th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Barney Spender (left) and Roddy Gibson (right) shooting “The Road to Sparta”

Documentary Drive: When did you know you wanted to make “The Road to Sparta”? Is there a particular moment that stands out to you?

Barney: Ha! Yes. My wife is to blame for this. The germination process began in 2005 when I first became aware of the Spartathlon. I was bowled over by the race, not just because of the distance – 246 kilometres – but also because of the history. I had run the Athens Marathon a few years earlier thinking that I had followed in the footsteps of Pheidippides. But as I learnt about Spartathlon I realised that the story about Pheidippides running to Athens after the Battle of Marathon and announcing the victory before keeling over dead were an Ancient Greek piss–take of Herodotus’ Histories.

It was then romanticised in the 19th century by Robert Browning and the Baron de Coubertin and used to market the first modern Olympics in 1896. The real story, as told by Herodotus, sees Pheidippides making this incredible run from Athens to Sparta.

I covered it as a journalist while I lived in Athens but no one took the story seriously; they said it was ridiculous for humans to run that far. It became apparent that the only way I could do justice to the story was to make a film.

It only took wing though in 2014 when my wife got sick of me sitting on the balcony with a beer in hand, explaining to her for the nine thousandth time about this great movie I could make. Her exact words were: “If it is so good then either make the film or shut the fuck up!”

I chose the first option but that involved getting Roddy on board.

Roddy: God you were a pain in the arse.

Barney: As ever.

Roddy: Wouldn’t leave me alone.

Barney: Well you were the man Rod. You knew which end of the camera to hold for a start. I am just a journalist with a story to tell. Besides I wanted to drink beer with my old mucker.

Roddy: I wasn’t convinced at first but you got me in the end.

Barney: Yes, at the Green Man Festival in Wales you finally caved in and agreed to team up. That was about 40 days before the shoot which allowed me just enough time to get a trailer out and raise some cash.

Documentary Drive: Crowd-funding can be a hit or miss for many filmmakers. What was your experience like?

Barney: Very good, probably because, although I had hopes, I had no expectations. I cobbled together a trailer with my brother Henry and put as much info into the Indigogo page as possible and put it out there. The response was immediate and very warming.

It is an incredible feeling when people take a leap of faith in you. It is great to see the numbers going up and it also focuses the mind a bit. The project stops being just a dream and becomes a reality. That brings responsibility. In a good way.

I was lucky that Jimmy Phillipson, who I knew, and Tom Hiotis, who I didn’t, liked the project well enough to step up and become executive producers. Their help meant that although I didn’t hit the crowd-funding target, we had enough in the kitty to get a crew out to Greece and shoot the footage. After that we rather made it up as we went along.

Documentary Drive: Can you tell me a bit about how your collaborating experience as co-directors went? What did a typical day of filming look like?

Roddy: Barney and I go back a long way and I guess we know each other pretty well. There wasn’t much time for collaboration on the shoot during the race. There were huge time pressures with a dynamic story twisting and turning hour-by-hour.

Roddy Gibson (Photo: Barney Spender)

The trick was being responsive and fast on our feet so Barney took the lead as both Producer and Director before and during the shoot and I was busy operating camera and coordinating the 2nd unit.

The real creative collaboration took place in the cutting room, shaping the story, making it relevant, testing ideas, arguing points, finding the film we both wanted to make.

Barney: I loved the collaboration. We had done a lot of theatre together at university in Dublin back in the 1980s and that understanding was vital. Not just in the creative sense but also in the team-building sense.

I was very conscious of the need to try and keep everyone up. That is difficult at the best of times but when you start filming at 6.30am on Friday morning and don’t stop until 6.30 on Saturday night it is even more difficult. There was no down time. Roddy didn’t sleep at all. People get tired and they can get scratchy. The fact that Roddy and I were on the same page and smiled and laughed and made stupid jokes about each other. 

Roddy: Like your driving skills. . .

Barney: There was nothing wrong with my driving. If I had gone faster over those potholes you would have gone flying out of the door.

Roddy: And you snore.

Barney: Sheesh. I can’t believe you brought up the snoring. . .

Roddy: I have the recording.

Barney: Really? Maybe we can add it as a dvd extra. . . No but the fact we could break and laugh created a happy atmosphere. You mention the day structure and that is very hard to quantify. We were following a 36-hour race and we did exactly that. We followed it for 36 hours. As we had 4 runners to follow there was a lot of liaison with their support crews to find out how they were doing and where they were. So there was a fair bit of back and forth up and down the road.

Roddy: It was pretty surreal at times with the Hairies in the back of the van

Barney: He means the musicians. Tryfon and Andreas, two Greek boys living in Manchester.

Roddy: Old House Playground. . .

Barney: That’s right. Great blokes, great musicians and OHP are a great band. And, as Rod says, very hairy. From the moment I conceived the film I could hear their music on the soundtrack. They were excited to be a part of it, especially when I told them I wanted them to come out for the shoot, to see the route and meet the runners. They brought a guitar and djembe with them and started composing in the van and on the side of the road.

Roddy: That was a first for me. I have been making documentaries for about 30 years. No one EVER takes the musicians on the shoot.

Barney: It worked though didn’t it. The boys knew exactly what we were after when we needed music for a particular moment and we got a great soundtrack out of it.

Roddy: Of course we had to go back for pick-ups didn’t we.

Barney: That was another fun week on the road to Sparta, three dawns, all day shoots –

Roddy: Tear gas. . .

Barney: Hey, welcome to Greece.

The crew at Sparta (left to right: Marius Ulevicius, Roddy Gibson, Andreas Venetantes, Tryfon Lazos, Vassilios Alexandrou, Barney Spender (Photo: Marius Ulevicius)

Documentary Drive: Were there any production challenges you had to overcome while making the film?

Roddy: It would have been nice to have had another couple of cameras!

But saying that, because we had limited resources, we made a conscious decision to get as close to the runners as possible and as a result I think we captured a truth about the intensity and pain that all Spartathlon runners recognize in the film and that audiences respond to.

Barney: Work with what you have got, that was the mantra. You can waste too much time wishing for things you haven’t got.

Roddy: We were also resolved that “The Road to Sparta” would be a film that would have depth and a broader appeal – we didn’t want to make an ‘adventure’ film or a ‘runner’ film replete with Go Pros and Drone shots. Staying true to that vision was very challenging throughout post production. It’s not a film that fits into a particular genre easily, which makes it more interesting but also has other implications.

Barney: There were a couple of navigational issues when we couldn’t follow the runners along a trail and had to work out where to catch them. But I remember the one big concern we had during the shoot were your camera batteries. We had nowhere to recharge en route so I ended up leaving you guys at a checkpoint and driving miles to pick up some fresh batteries. I was terrified that some key drama would happen down the road from you and I wouldn’t be able to ferry you there. Fortunately it worked out fine.

Documentary Drive: Do you have a favourite memory from your time working on the project?

Barney: It is going to sound a bit luvvy but I have genuinely loved every minute of it. To have an idea and see it come to fruition is just incredible. I have edited magazines and written books but nothing compares to this.

Roddy: It has been a pretty extraordinary journey for all of us.

Barney: For all of us, that’s right. And I think that is what is so great about the experience. This film has been built on collaboration and faith. I had an idea and others have joined the gang and given blind.

The musicians produced an amazing soundtrack, we roped in Clive Martin to produce the music and he has done it purely because he gets the vision. Alicia Stallings is one of the world’s leading poets and yet when I went and explained what we were doing and how we could use a little help, she leapt at the chance, giving us six new sonnets. Many others have chipped in along the way, no one has asked for anything. They have all wanted to give.

Dean Karnazes weaving through the traffic (Photo: Magda Gouma)

Roddy: Don’t forget the runners.

Barney: Absolutely. Without them we wouldn’t have had a film.

Roddy: We were lucky to land the characters we did.

The two Brits, Rob(Pinnington) and Mark (Woolley), complement the other two really well. I think the audience really falls for Angie (Terzi), who is a Greek, and of course Dean Karnazes is a film in himself.

Barney: They were all great. Very giving. We didn’t know any of them before the shoot but friendships were forged. We are all regularly in touch now.

Roddy: I am going to put my hand up for a special moment.

Barney: That’s unusual for you. Normally you just barge straight in there. . .

Roddy: Ah get off with you. It is not my favourite moment necessarily but a special moment. When we put on a screening in Dublin last year it was on October 28 which is a big day in Greek history. We had a lot of runners and friends in the audience but there were a number of Greeks there that we didn’t know. During the Q&A afterwards, one of them broke down in tears and thanked us for showing Greece as it really is. They then invited us to their celebrations the following day. That meant a lot. That suggested that we had got something right.

Roddy Gibson (Photo: Barney Spender)

Barney: That was pretty special. On a personal note Rod, I would also say that one of my favourite aspects has been working with you again after all these years. Not just on the shoots but also in the edit room. Neither of us could have made this film alone; we used our different strengths to bring it to reality. And when we weren’t working we got a chance to take the dog for a walk, drink beer, watch rugby and laugh a lot.

Roddy: Stop getting sentimental. Sheesh. All the Greeks would say “Barney is so emotional. He is like a Greek!”

Barney: Oh you cold-sporroned Celt.

Documentary Drive: What to you makes a great documentary?

Roddy: That’s a big question. . . Barney?

Barney: Hmmn. Well I suppose they are the same elements as make up any great film. First of all, you need a strong story with plenty of drama and interesting characters. And then you need to be able to tell that story in a way that first captures and then keeps the audience.

You also want it to look as good as you possibly can, which is why I wanted a proper cinematographer like Roddy rather than just go off with my phone and pretend to be a cameraman, and sound as good as possible.

Attention to detail and ruthless scrutiny of what you are putting up on screen and why always pay dividends.

Documentary Drive: And lastly, what feeling or message do you hope “The Road to Sparta” leaves with audiences?

Roddy: More things are possible than you could ever have imagined. If you have the will, you can smash through boundaries of possibility that are set for us.

Barney: I am not sure about messages because I think everyone will get something different out of it. As Rod says though, it is a film that pokes its finger in the eye of the impossible. And that is always pretty inspiring.

Barney and Roddy enjoying a well-earned glass of Mythos (Photo: Barney Spender)

Roddy: Oh no, he is getting emotional again.

Barney: I think I might need a beer to rediscover my equilibrium.

Roddy: Your round?

Barney: You’re not so slim yourself. . .

“The Road to Sparta” screens to a sold-out audience July 10th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. For more information on the film and news of future screenings, visit: roadtosparta.wordpress.com and follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.

Posted by Documentary Drive

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