Four runners. Four stories. One Greek drama.
Interview with Producer/Co-director Barney Spender
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Efharisto poli. It is a genuine honour to be selected to screen in Melbourne. This is such a good festival and one of the few cities in the world which is able to combine a love of culture with a love of sport. We have the added bonus of the big Greek community in Melbourne. Perhaps sport, culture and 'Greek-ness' are all related; after all, they used to have drama competitions alongside the athletics at the Ancient Games in Olympia.
Why did we make the film? Because it had to be made. I had covered the Spartathlon several times as a journalist during the five years I lived in Athens and I was fascinated by it. The notion of people running 246 kilometres in one go was just astonishing. And then there was the history element of it as well, the fact that these athletes were replicating a run made by Pheidippides back in two and a half thousand years ago. The response to my coverage, though, would always be disbelief. It got to the point where I thought “the only way I can convince anyone about this is to make a film”.
Never having made a film before though, I needed a bit of help. And it came from many directions, notably my co-director Roddy Gibson. We were at university together and acted together on stage, built sets, chased girls and drank too much Guinness. But we hadn’t worked together since 1987. As Roddy is a top cameraman, I hunted and harried him to come on board. Eventually he cracked and once he saw the race and met the athletes, there was no stopping him.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Because it is pretty darn good. It has a strong narrative with four main characters who lend themselves well to the drama. Remember: no one is guaranteed to finish this race, so there is an element of jeopardy. We also have the story of Pheidippides and the Battle of Marathon which we have woven in the film, using six specially-written sonnets by the American poet AE Stallings. And behind all of that we have the most stunning score that you will hear at MDFF. It is by a band called Old House Playground who I got to know during my time in Athens. I played them the Ry Cooder soundtrack of Paris, Texas and said “I want a Greek version of that”.
Tryfon and Andreas came on the shoot and composed a part of the music in the back of the van while we were filming the race. After that, they delivered a stunning score which was produced and mixed by another old friend from Athens, a guy called Clive Martin. Clive’s last film work won David Byrne an Oscar for The Last Emperor so we were in good hands. I certainly got my Paris, Texas although it is more like Athens, Sparta.
I think the best thing is the number of people who have said: “I am not really into sports films but I loved The Road to Sparta.” We have had pensioners and we have had under 10s; there is something about the journey that the runners take which grips them.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Gosh, this is a question from my university days. The personal and the universal invariably overlap, which is why we have the stories of the Everyman. In our case we have four runners taking on a titanic struggle. They have all taken different routes to get to the start line and they all have their different reasons for wanting to take on the challenge. Those differences come together on the start line; they are united by a desire to reach the statue of Leonidas in Sparta. Their stories, though, are reflective of the struggles taken on by the Greeks over the centuries as they battle to ward off a menacing enemy.
In the case of Pheidippides, whose run is reflected closely by the American ultra-runner Dean Karnazes, the Persians were at the gates, his family and the whole future of Athens in grave danger. Since then the Greeks have had the Romans, the Ottomans, the Nazis and now Austerity which we use as a metaphor for the threat to Athens. It is all about struggle which some might say reflects the human condition.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
When I first collared Roddy, I said: “Look, the worst thing that can happen is that we go to Greece for week, have a few beers and come back with a 10-minute short.” I never really meant that but I had to rope Roddy in somehow! But I was thinking in terms of a 30-minute film. When we started the edit process we realised the richness of what we had. We also realised the gaps in the narrative if we were to make the film that we wanted. So, Roddy and I went back to Greece the following summer (2015) to shoot pick-ups along the route.
We also needed to find a way of telling the story of Pheidippides that wouldn’t take us too far away from the principal narrative. And inspiration came in the shape of AE Stallings who I had known during my Athens years. She is a poet and a classicist and had written some translations of Herodotus. She liked the idea and agreed to write a series of sonnets which are a mix of Pheidippides, the Oracle and Pan. So it evolved a lot during the course of the edit process.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Apart from the awards? Everyone who has seen the film, especially those who watched it in a cinema, have been very kind and very encouraging. But maybe they were just being nice! The runners have been very positive. They say we have captured the essence of the race, which is great. One moment I won’t forget was at the screening in Dublin last year. It was on October 28th, which is known as Oxi Day to the Greeks, a hugely important holiday for them. We had a group of Greeks in the audience and they were in tears at the end, thanking us for showing the real face of Greece. That meant a lot.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
No. It is just very humbling when you immerse yourself in a project for some years and then find people like it. Perhaps there will be criticism ahead but that is normal. I am a journalist and have certainly criticised other people’s work in the past so I fully expect it.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
It is great that we are making our Australasian premiere in Melbourne and we really want it to sell out, especially as proceeds from the screening will be going to the McGrath Foundation. Beyond that, we want to drum up more of a buzz so that when the film is released online and on dvd it will make us a million and get us short-listed for the Oscars!
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
The business of selling films is just that: a business. Contacts and networks are built up over decades. I don’t have those connections which makes it hard to sell the film to traditional broadcasters. That is not really worth worrying about; if something comes along it is a bonus. The most important thing, as it has been from day one, is the public. This film was largely financed through crowd-funding and it is that buzz where people get behind an idea and run with us. That is what we now need from our audiences, and from the press. If you like the film please tell people. We would love other festivals to take note and invite us but in the meantime we will get on with the areas that we can control.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
In terms of Melbourne, we want a full house, not just for our benefit but to help the McGrath Foundation. And we want them all to laugh at the jokes and cheer at the end (they have to stay for the end credits!) But underlying that, you have to remember that Melbourne is a competition. I come from a sporting background so I like to compete and, preferably, to win. In more universal terms, I cannot really comment. We made the best film we possibly could; other people will judge its merits and its impact.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Is this really a sports movie?
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Roddy and I are working on several projects to be shot and developed over the next couple of years. Can’t say more than that I am afraid.
AE Stallings has just published a new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days.
Tryfon Lazos (of Old House Playground) is just completing his first solo album as a side-project from OHP
Interview: June 2018
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series, music video, women's films, LGBTQIA+, POC, First Nations, scifi, supernatural, horror, world cinema. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
The Road to Sparta
Four runners. Four stories. One Greek drama.
Length: 60 minutes
Director: Barney Spender & Roddy Gibson
Producer: Barney Spender
About the writer, director and producer
BARNEY SPENDER is a respected sports journalist who has lived and worked in South Africa, Greece, France and the UK. The Road to Sparta is his first film.
RODDY GIBSON has worked in film for 30 years as producer, director, cameraman, sound engineer and editor. He now lectures in Film and Television Production at the London College of Communications.
Key cast: Dean Karnazes, Rob Pinnington, Angela Terzi and Mark Woolley
Funders: Tom Hiotis, James Phillipson and crowd-funding
Sponsorship from: Aegean Airlines
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month?
The film will be released on DVD and online later this year. The music from the film will also be released digitally and on CD.