photos by Brian Vernor
This week we take a moment to catch up with our friend Brian Vernor. To say that we have been all over the place with Brian is a bit of an understatement - mainly because we are about to be all over the place with him. He has been spotted shooting muddy cyclocross photos on the sunny shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts, written and shot about riding specially built bicycles on broken down railroads. He has been to Patagonia with a mountain bike team (that was Brian right?) and shot his fair share of traditional catalogs for companies like Blackburn, Giant and Easton. That is just a statement about some of the work that he has done, besides that he's a fantastically strong rider, lover of knobby tire exploits and (and this is the key) always up for a bit of an adventure.
However, one of his most recent projects - the just released online - Finding Strong - was a bit of a departure from what we have come to know as the Cyclist Brian Vernor. We will wait while you watch the film, but this one centers around the sport of running. A sport that we hold near and dear to our hearts. So, we figured that would be a great time to catch up with Mr. Vernor and give him the Weekly What's Up? treatment.
Ed. Note: Seriously, watch the film, this interview will make that much more sense.
JD: Let’s just start out by saying that this film is a little bit of a departure from what we are used to with you. Sure, all the common themes are still there, but this is running where we are used to cycling films with you. Can you give a little background on how this all came about?
BV: You sort of pointed to the root of this in your question—the themes. I’ve always been inspired by cycling but I'm looking outside of it, too. The themes I find in cycling are certainly in running; community, sacrifice, transformation, and though cycling is a lot more dynamic visually I think running is very beautiful. I spent a long time thinking about how to show that beauty in running.
On the action side of cycling I’d almost just say it has to do with lean. In running there is no lean, well not unless something is going wrong, or it’s a very unique circumstance. In both pursuits I’m really into showing it as an experience, from the perspective of doing, and even with each community I want to be involved. So both are really a popular thing to me, not a rarefied elite thing.
Right now both cycling and running have a strange-to-me obsession with the untouchable, elite world. I guess I come from a surf and skate town, Santa Cruz, CA, and I’ve always been surrounded by these things that aren’t really sports, but more like happenings, communities, expressions of life, or a lifestyle for lack of better words. I’ve always looked at cycling that way. Me and my friends riding are as important as any professional scene. I applied that thinking to running and thought I’d want to make some films about non-famous people running for the joy of it, the need for it, and as expression of their lives.
I guess I’d been thinking about running for a little while when I had the chance to tell some people at Runner’s World Magazine, the producer’s of Finding Strong, that I saw something running needed. It was just good timing because they were talking to Saucony the next week and the idea of a film came out of it. I had actually aimed for just short videos to start with but Saucony believed the idea was more of a longer format film project—and I was really into that.
There are a few story lines that are apparent in your film. How did you go about finding all these different running stories in such far-reaching places?
Although I didn’t want the runners to be too rarefied, elite level athletes, I think showing our passions in landscapes outside of our normal space is really powerful. Everyone involved in the film wanted the theme of the film to be universal, and so it made sense to tell people’s stories who lived very different lives than our own but who had a connection through running.
At first I wrote down ideas that weren’t based on any real people. I would just dream up stories and then spend hours online searching for any news stories which showed elements of those ideas. Some bits came out of that. Along the way I read some great stories. I wrote a treatment and included possible locations and communities. It was all hypothetical and in reality some ideas weren’t possible or by pursuing them we found better stories. I was assisted by Runner’s World in developing the story, finding compelling groups of runners, and also connecting with the communities once we decided to approach them.
One hope I had was to represent an foreign Islamic community. I’ve been around Islam in many countries in the past and have always been challenged by it. Part of me truly admires the culture it inspires and another part of me struggles with accepting the negative culture it can create and support. My feelings are very similar for other religions and cultures but coming from North America, it is timely to focus on our relationship with foreign Islam. It’s a big topic so to stay focused on Finding Strong, I hoped to film in Iran, with a woman athlete who had reached a level in competitions to be accepted into the Olympics. This was not easy, and in the end the search for the right connections to make that happen lead us to Girls Run 2, in Djibouti. This community in the small East African country was approachable, significantly more accessible diplomatically (though there were very real obstacles to entering the country as a film crew), and in the end this became my favorite part of the film. I was crying the day I left Djibouti. The girls have very hard lives and have through pure willpower and indelible spirits made their lives better as well as given themselves a chance to have an even better future.
Finding Strong is about transformation, and as a backbone to the film which illustrates that is a community. Each part of the film was a challenge to produce, but each part also felt like the right puzzle piece to bring it all together. With the connections of Runner’s World and Saucony, and through some of my own efforts, we were able to connect with some great humans around the world.
Do you have plans to make this a fuller project, like a full 90 minute documentary? We were talking this afternoon that we wanted to see more of each character.
No. It was all-in for this one. Though I think each community I filmed in would deservedly make a great subject for its own film.
Have you done much running yourself? Did this inspire more from you?
I was running a lot when I was racing cyclocross more seriously 10+ years ago. I would run three times a week all through the Fall. Never competitively since 7th grade cross-country. I like it and I definitely got deeper into it from making the film. I resist timing/routing apps, and only loosely track my elapsed time. I like to go out and see how I feel and take it from there. I’m not training. I run though. It ain’t jogging.
There is often times a lot of travel associated with the films that you make — but this one in particular saw you on a few different continents over a short period of time. What was your travel schedule like?
It was impossible. The film was made in a very short amount of time considering the travel involved, and also all the associated diplomacy, permissions, and the demands of organizing an international crew. Besides myself there was always a dedicated cinematographer in each location, local producers or handlers, and in some locations on certain days of shooting there were three or four of each. I honestly kept it very minimal but regardless there is a lot to do when traveling and filming.
Was there somewhere that stuck out as a favorite spot to visit?
There was very little casual travel time in any location, but I really appreciate the surreal places we ended up. Definitely lac Assal in Djibouti (a salt lake 500 feet below sea level), Mt. Fuji (Fuji-san), NYC never disappoints, and the forests of Finland are special and very densely alive. The trees aren’t dense but every surface seems alive, even the rocks. I would love to go back to each place.
One of the craziest scenes in the film is of the runners barreling down Mt. Fuji. You alluded to it a little bit on Instagram, but what were some of the challenges / filming or otherwise that were associated with this particular shoot?
I guess I can say this now because it all worked out…I went to Japan without permission to film anything. That’s sort of how it works in Japan. You can ask all you want but for the man to say yes you have to go there and meet face to face, have some tea, and show the right deference. The story is about National Guard soldiers and of course there are a lot of rules about filming inside the military in any country. Japan is no exception. I had to show up and present myself to the General, the top of command at the base where we filmed. He liked the idea of the film and though he didn’t let on in our meeting I later found out he is himself a passionate and competitive trail runner, and he really liked the Saucony Peregrine trail shoes we brought him as a gift.
So that’s just organizational. Filming the guardsmen was one thing but the focus was the Mt. Fuji Ekeden, a relay race from the base of the mountain, to the top, and back down. We had to hump gear up the mountain three separate days, each time climbing a few thousand feet on ground-up pumice (like climbing a sand dune). On race day a key part of the race is the turn-around on the top of Fuji. There are no roads to the top and the hike up with gear is six hours. So the options are to leave the night before and sleep in a shack at the top with fifty other people, or start climbing in the middle of the night and be there in the morning. I sent one of our camera men, Ryota Kemmochi, up there the day before to be safe. I had to hope he made it as there was no communications after we dropped him off at the start of the hike.
Also, do you think that you would ever head back to try the Mt. Fuji race? (That’s a little bit of a leading question I know!)
YOU KNOW IT!
What is next on the horizon for you? Big projects in the works?
I’m in NYC right now. It’s sort of a move. We’ll see. I have some California plans later in the Summer, as well as that Mt. Fuji Ekiden we signed up for, so for the Summer I’m floating a bit. I love making films and creatively I like the balance of being a photographer and making films. The short commitment to a project with photography is nice because the results are there right away. With film the projects are infinitely more complicated, potential for disaster seems close by always, and emotionally it’s much more involved. In the end a film is incredible to have made and insane in the making. To do both photography and films is very healthy and satisfying so I hope I can keep having the opportunities to do both.
As far as specific projects I just shot something with runners in NYC. It will be a short film and will be done this summer. I’m excited about it because shows NYC in a way only runners experience. Over the winter I was in Sweden and I shot a ridiculously fun and surreal and beautiful film project and photos for our favorite camping brand which will come out in the fall.
So I guess a lot of short films right now, some for brands, and photography is always a mix of my own thing and stuff for brands, but generally the two things are coming closer together. I’m enjoying this time for sure, and trying to be patient and see what big projects seem right to do next. There’s only so much time on this amazing planet and it’s important to use the time to do the things you love and can call your own.
So, there you have it. A man on the move. Stay tuned to see what happens next with Brian Vernor. We cannot say too much about it at the moment, but there might be some Athletic Adventures with this gentleman in the near future.