A chance email to Salomon’s International Team Manager in 2011 set in motion a series of events and a whirlwind couple of years for Greg Fell and Dean Leslie, the founders of The African Attachment or TAA, a Cape Town, South Africa-based independent film company. Up until that point they had been shooting acclaimed documentaries and music videos but what followed was, for them, an introduction to the high-altitude world of mountain runners: globetrotting their way from mountain range to mountain range, hot on the heels of the best trail and ultra racers on the planet.
The results of their efforts have been two incredible seasons of Salomon Running TV, 5 Races, 5 Continents in 2011 followed by Collective Dreams in 2012. Their documentary of South African trail-running phenom Ryan Sandes entitled Wandering Fever is also getting the magic treatment in the edit suite as you read this. The guys took a little break from their hectic schedules to talk about their two years with the mountain people.
iRunFar: So Greg and Dean, TAA is known in the trail running world as the masters behind the Salomon Running TV episodes, having produced both Season 1, 5 Races 5 Continents, and also the recently completed Season 2, Collective Dreams. How did you first come in contact with Salomon?
Greg Fell: In 2011, Ryan Sandes was heading off to Australia to run his first 100k at The North Face 100k and we really wanted to source footage of this for Wandering Fever. We sent an email to Greg Vollet asking him if he was sending a cameraman and if he was could we use some of the footage in our film. Greg Vollet responded saying he had a project in mind called 5 Races, 5 Continents and would we be interested in working with Salomon on it. Three weeks later everything was in place and it’s just grown from there.
Dean Leslie: That’s what is fascinating about documentary film. You are given a license to immerse yourself in different worlds. Through doing Wandering Fever we naturally started doing more and more work within the adventure-film genre.
iRF: So how is the Ryan Sandes movie Wandering Fever coming along? Seems like Ryan just keeps finding new adventures to stop you from completing it, right?
Fell: Wandering Fever is a project we would never be able to rush. We get a lot of requests about where it is sitting and we appreciate the amount of interest in is generating. Right now as I sit here typing, Dean is deep in the edit laying out the narrative structure from all of the interviews we have. (Tim Noakes is busy talking about desert runners over the speakers at this very moment.) It is such an important film to us, but it hasn’t necessarily been Ryan’s continuous new adventures that have held the process up because the story is firmly in place. Time has been the biggest issue, mostly because we spend such little time back home.
We tried to remedy this by working with another editor, but at the end of the day we realised that the only way we were going to make the film we wanted was to have Dean edit it. A documentary is directed in the edit suite and Dean knows what he wants this story to be better than anyone. So we are getting there and I feel it is going to be worth the wait.
iRF: I am sure it will. Going back to Salomon, how does the movie making process with them work? You get a pitch at the start, for example with Season 2 it was to cover the races but also capture the culture, friendship and camaraderie behind the runners. Do you get free reign of the creative process after that, though?
Fell: At the beginning of each year we discuss what the goals for the season are and what the focus is going to be. We are then given a list of races we will be traveling to and each of those trips ultimately becomes an episode. We are then briefed before each trip on what the episode should be about. The rest is up to us. We are lucky with our client in that they trust us. I think they have seen the hours we put in. And our priorities and values are very much in line with what they stand for as a brand, to that extent they give us a lot of free reign to creatively take a piece where we need it to go. The briefs we receive for each shoot are simple and to the point and our challenge is then to operate within the constraints we have and turn this idea into a documentary piece.
iRF: The Seb Montaz/Kilian Jornet film A Fine Line has been recently released. What do you think of Seb’s vision and storytelling?
Leslie: Seb is an amazingly talented filmmaker. He has his own unique approach to bringing across the stories he wants to tell and I can appreciate that as a filmmaker. Making a film is a lot of work. The filming is the fun part but the majority of the work is done in the edit suite and you really have to love what you do to put the kind of hours in that are necessary to produce good work. Seb’s love for the craft is evident in his work. He is also a great athlete and a really friendly likeable guy, always eager to swap tips and ideas.
iRF: Does Seb film the Kilian’s Quest movies at the same time as you are doing the Salomon Running TV episodes? Is it difficult to get shooting time with Kilian between that and all his other media responsibilities?
Fell: We don’t shoot at the same time at all. The only time we have ever crossed over was in La Palma last year when Seb was also at Transvulcania and it was actually pretty cool to see the different techniques and ideas Seb uses. As far as Kilian goes, yes it can be tough to get quality time with him but it comes with the territory. Kilian is respected and loved wherever we go and everyone always wants a moment with him but the great thing about him is he never seems to let it get to him. He is always up for a chat with a local runner, an interview with the press or a 5:00 am shoot if we need him.
For us the most challenging part is that we are normally shooting with the athletes the week before the race so we need to respect the fact that they need their space and time to prepare which ultimately means our time with them is very limited. Essentially we schedule time with Kilian to shoot and make the most of that time but again, he is always happy to give us more time if we ask and he has never complained about us tagging along on a slackline mission or run to get some extra footage.
iRF: So you have had two years filming with the Salomon athletes now, has it become easier to work with them now that you have built up that friendship and familiarity?
Fell: Of course. Authenticity is the key to making the stories we are telling work and the only way to get truly authentic stories is through the trust of your subject. We spend so many hours with the athletes and this ultimately means we form relationships with them so they feel that trust and in that comes the authenticity we are striving for. You always see new athletes coming in and trying to work out who we are and why these cameras are always pointed at them but the longer they spend with us the more they realise it’s just part of the environment. [Anna] Frosty, Rickey [Gates], Ryan, Kilian, they don’t even notice it anymore, we’re just the South Africans with cameras pointed at them 24/7.
iRF: Can I put you on the spot and ask who is your favourite runner (Ryan excepted!) to work with and why?
Fell: The one thing I have learned is that each of the athletes bring their own unique perspective to a shoot and it’s virtually impossible to say which one is better because we rely so heavily on the different characters for these stories. I really love the interviews we do with Rickey because he is so poetic and he always has something interesting to say. Frosty is great to shoot running sequences with because she is up for anything. Emelie [Forsberg] is so much fun and always laughing. Kilian will do the most amazing things without even asking him to. It’s really a tough question to pin down one answer!
iRF: …and the worst!?
iRF: Ha ha. So you guys are not from a running background yourselves, right? Have the travels and having seen all these amazing races and performances rubbed off on you? Any thoughts on signing up for a few Sky Races?
Fell: I am really fascinated by this sport. It is impossible not be when you see what people put themselves through to finish a race and how much their families and friends invest in their success. I definitely have aspirations to run some races we have experienced and maybe even a 100-miler one day. I am working hard on getting fit and shedding some kilos to get there. So in short, yes.
iRF: That’s sweet Greg, you will have a few good people to get some tips from anyway. What races take your fancy then?
Fell: Ryan promised me last year in my inaugural 10k at Kilian’s Classik that he would manage all my publicity if my running career took off and I think he is competing with Andrew Vize and Mick Donges to handle my nutrition. I surely can’t go wrong with that brain power behind me.
To be honest while I have illusions of grandeur of one day doing a multi-day stage race in a jungle or desert and maybe even a 100k, my first plan is to do a half marathon this year and then a full next year and slowly progress from there. I really love the course out at San Fran where they hold the TNFEC50 and there is the Otter Trail Run here in South Africa which is a race that I would love to do. But right now if our shooting calendar allows it I am going to run a 20k near Cape Town in May in a valley called Jonkershoek.
iRF: Of all your episodes for Salomon is there one that stands out, that you can look at now and say, ‘This is a work of art, I’m a genius!’!?
Fell: I don’t think you can ever call yourself a genius. Without a doubt my favourite piece is the one we released from Zegama last year, Episode 3. The week we filmed in Spain was one of the worst shoots we have ever had. Everything that could have gone wrong did and it rained perpetually for seven days. The day we filmed with Frosty and Emelie in the forest and with the horses was something that just happened, it wasn’t planned. And whenever I watch that footage of Emelie climbing Zegama with the crowds screaming for her I get shivers down my spine. That’s a feeling you cannot beat as a filmmaker. My feeling is that that piece was a work of art and when I watch it I feel very lucky to work with a guy with Dean’s talent.
iRF: Yeah that’s a fantastic episode, there is a soulfulness to it that was maybe brought about by the suffering!? That was also, more or less, Emelie’s big breakthrough race. You guys had obviously worked with her previously so you knew it was only a matter of time before she smashed it right?
Fell: Soul is an important factor for us as filmmakers so we appreciate that you felt that. We met Emelie at Advanced Week in Greece last year and you could sense that she loved this sport. It was pretty evident that she was happiest when she was out in the mountains and if you combine that pleasure with natural ability you have one strong combination. There are a lot of top female runners now which is fantastic for trail running and I think Emelie is going to have a wonderful future in the sport.
iRF: The first episode of Season 2 was about the Salomon team retreat to Greece where everyone tested new and highly secret products. Does that mean you have unreleased footage of loads of unreleased , cutting edge S-Lab products?
Fell: Our lips are sealed.
iRF: Fair enough, don’t want you getting in trouble. You have been to some amazing locations all over the world in your work with Salomon, any all-time favourites where your minds were just blown?
Fell: If I had to pick a favourite it would be the San Juans in Colorado. The small town of Silverton is home to the Hardrock 100 and you can stand anywhere and point a camera and be blown away. If you couple that scenery with the emotion and ultimate simplicity of the race, it just completely encompasses the spirit of the sport of trail running and being the mountains.
Leslie: Yeah, I loved the San Juans but I think one of my favourite trips was the Leadville 100 trip in 2011 with Ryan. I have known Ryan since I was six and it was quite an emotional experience seeing him run the race as well as being one of the final trips for Wandering Fever.
iRF: Dean, can tell you us a little more about growing up with Ryan and your development as a movie maker and his as a runner and how you both came to making Wandering Fever together. Has it been something that you talked about for a long time?
Leslie: Ryan and I were at school together in Cape Town. We had the same group of friends and we spent most of our teenage years hanging out on the beach surfing. Both of us traveled after school and kind of worked and drifted around before settling down to study. Filmmaking for me was a kind of natural progression. I left home after school to travel and work overseas. The first thing I bought when I had enough cash was a camera and a plane ticket to Indonesia. I came home after a year and studied animation and VFX and then slowly started doing more photography and selling some work. Eventually the photography merged into filmmaking.
By this time Ryan had studied and traveled as well and was now quite a successful quantity surveyor. One day I got a phone call from him – this was early days in TAA and we were still struggling to get the company on its feet – saying that he was going to the Gobi Desert to run a 250k race. It was totally out of the blue. I didn’t even know he had been running. He asked if I wanted to come film it but we just didn’t have the cash at the time and obviously no one was prepared to back a fairly novice filmmaker and an unknown runner.
The rest is history. Ryan won the race, we started to discuss a documentary and once he won Sahara we knew there was something special there. So it all began really in early 2008.
iRF: Apart from the Salomon team you have met some great characters in the trail running universe, people that have devoted their lives to running. Looking in from the outside, what’s your take on it all?
Fell: I find that 99% of the people we meet on these trips that have this love of trail running or the mountains are people that I would love to sit around and have a beer and a braai with. I get the feeling that no matter where people are from in the world, if they love running in the mountains they’re good people and they are making an effort to get away from the nonstop mayhem of modern society. I really like balanced people and I have found most trail runners to be just that. You can take your iPhone to the mountain and still be a good person.
Leslie: It has changed my perceptions on a lot of things. I grew up with the ocean being quite a big part of my life. Being introduced to the mountain running culture, and the deep respect for the land that is ingrained in the people that run trails seemed very natural to me. And it was easy for me to identify with this at an early stage in our work when we were totally new to the sport and lifestyle. Now often instead of going for an evening surf, I’ll go for a run in the mountains whereas a few years ago I would never have thought of doing that.
The sport is also going through a lot of change and I think in the next few years we might start seeing a shift in professional trail runners’ careers where you’ll start having a split between competitive runners and “soul” runners. Much like what happened in surfing. Time will tell. I am going off topic here I think, though.
iRF: It’s an interesting topic Dean, the change that the sport is currently going through. You guys have been involved in filming the trail running scene at a pretty exciting time, the years during which we see incredible growth and a shift towards professionalism. Looking through the lens, have how have you perceived the changes, do you see major differences in the last two years?
Leslie: Change and progression are inevitable. I don’t think there are major differences but certainly there are more companies backing more athletes. There is a lot more media, more videos, which is great for the sport. And I don’t think any of it will affect the core values of trail running. People that run in the mountains, or in the wild, are generally good people and if you want to escape and get out into the mountains on your own, you will always be able to do that.
iRF: Also Dean, has your surfing background influenced your filmmaking? I mean, surf culture has always had a deeply ingrained surf-movie scene, any favourites from when you were growing up?
Leslie: Definitely. I grew up watching surf films so my style of filmmaking and the manner in which I approach a lot of my treatments have been influenced by surf culture and the films I grew up watching. Surf films have also progressed over the last 10 years bringing in more story elements. I have been quite heavily influenced by Woodshed Films and Taylor Steele‘s Sipping Jetstreams. But I learned the craft on more traditional film sets and have worked on bigger feature film productions where story is ‘king’ so I try to combine these two influences in the films that we make.
iRF: You worked previously with bands making music videos, right? So you are used to rock-star behaviour. Have you seen any TV’s thrown out windows or cars in swimming pools on the road with Team Salomon?
Fell: Rickey and Anna put rock stars to shame. No, it’s actually Dean who I worry about the most. Last year alone he “broke” his knee in Spain, almost got arrested in the USA after his 30th birthday dinner and passed out in the aisle of an aeroplane on a flight to London! He was sober in all three instances and he still calls me the clumsy one.
iRF: So what’s next for TAA? Will there be a Salomon Running TV Season 3?
Fell: First and foremost we want to finish up Wandering Fever, so that edit is priority number one. I am also getting married next month so I cannot contain my happiness around this special chapter of my personal life that is about to begin. Yes even though we are never at home we have people that love us here in South Africa, for whom we are very grateful! As for Salomon Running TV Season 3, it’s in the planning phase so nothing is final right now but, I won’t lie, I am really excited about what is potentially on the cards. You should be, too!