A Conversation with Filmmaker Joel Wolpert

An in-depth interview with ultrarunning filmmaker Joel Wolpert.

By on March 4, 2013 | Comments

Run TrampWhen the trailer for In The High Country dropped a couple months ago it shot to the top of trail runners’ ‘must-see’ lists for 2013. The man behind the lens is Joel Wolpert, a West Virginia-based Renaissance Man who has been steadily building up a glowing portfolio of trail running short films. In The High Country will be his most adventurous project to date – in more ways than one. Joel kindly took time away from the editing suite to talk about, amongst other things, films, Flatirons and farming.

iRunFar: Joel, can you tell us a little more about your own background, where you grew up, how you first became interested in trail running, photos and video?

Joel Wolpert: I grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. I’ve been running and photographing since high school. I got into trail running heavily the summer after my senior year of college. I lived along the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. Most days, I would run south or north on the trail. For my birthday that summer, I ran my first ultra: an unsupported, self-motivated 50k along a pretty rocky section of the trail. I always say that I don’t make a habit of running ultras. I’ve only run two as races: the Vermont 50 in 2005 and Highlands Sky in 2008. I did pretty well and could cope with the suffering, but was too cheap to pay the entry fees. If I want to suffer that much, I’d rather do it for free!

I started making climbing films when I was in college. I worked for climbXmedia for several years and even compiled an hour-long film called the B sides. For me. photography and filmmaking are a good match. They blend the scientific mind (How does a mechanical device record an image?) with the aesthetics and emotions. I also really enjoy the pairing of still and motion projects. They balance one another out. Still photography is like being a sprinter: you just have to be in the right position with the right light for a split second. Filmmaking is much more like ultrarunning: you spend more time filming and then 10 times that sourcing music, scripting, editing, post-producing, etc.

Joel Wolpert - phone

Joel taking a call at the office. © Katie Wolpert

iRF: That’s an interesting analogy Joel. You sure did well in those two ultras – second at the Vermont 50 and a win at the Highlands Sky race. So apart from the entry fee, is it a case of not being competitively driven to race more? You think you’re happy doing your own thing?

Wolpert: Not at all! I am about as competitive as they come. I’ve actually been hurt for a while, about five years with some freakish peroneal tendon issues (since about mile 30 of Highlands Sky). For a while, the only running that I would do was while filming. I finally turned that corner this summer and will be back to competing soon. I’ll race more at shorter distances – 10k to 20-milers.

iRF: Ouch, that’s been a pretty long-term injury. How did you deal with not being able to run so much and how did you get it sorted out in the end?

Wolpert: I made running movies. I had a lot of help from a lot of good people: Jay Dicharry, Dr. Russ DeGroote, and Phil Wharton. Phil really got me back on my feet with his active-isolated flexibility.


Joel Wolpert - ankle

The troublesome ankle immediately prior to surgery. © Joel Wolpert

iRF: You have a passion for farming and farmers markets too, right? I have watched your movie Try Something New about supporting the locally produced products and farms. How long have you been growing your own and involved in the small-farmers community?

Wolpert: Yeah, I’ve been growing food since 2006 with my wife, Katie. As we were starting the gardens, photography and filming took a back seat to slogging with a hoe or some horses. I managed the local farmer’s market for three years and I bake bread in our wood-fired oven. That’s actually me driving the Belgian/Halflinger mares in that short. Little known fact: Katie and I are actually featured on the other side of the lens in the recent young farmer film The Greenhorns. That ought to give your film-buff audience something to dig for!

Joel Wolpert - horses

Joel driving the horses in the garden. © Katie Wolpert

iRF: Was farming something you were always interested in when you were growing up, too?

Wolpert: My mom aspired to small farming when I was a kid, but it never got farther than the backyard garden. I got interested in it after college. If you can believe this, farming is my latent laziness showing through. My family has a history of this kind of laziness. When something is bothersome or cumbersome, we avoid it. To me, buying food is a pain, so I’d rather grow it.

Joel Wolpert - farming

Ho-ho-hoeing in the garden after an afternoon run. © Katie Wolpert

iRF: So, your trailer for In The High Country has created a lot of buzz. Can I ask how the concept came about? You made a video about winter running with Anton [Krupicka] a few years back. Has it been on the cards since then?

Wolpert: The concept evolved over the past year. I guess you could say that The Runner in Winter was the first step because it’s how I connected with Anton. I had only met Tony two days before we filmed that and we spent two days on it. The concept was simple, just to inspire people to get out running in the winter. It fit in with the other profiles that I did for Running Times [Magazine] and was well received. I guess it laid the groundwork for the In the High Country, although the actual concept came later. I was looking to approach filming in a different way from the editorial perspective, to create a more impressionistic piece.

iRF: Okay cool, so can we expect the movie to be biographical or is it just focusing on a specific period of AK’s running in the Rockies?

Wolpert: There will definitely be some of Tony’s history in it, though it isn’t a fact-based documentary. I’m not as focused on any specific run as I am in the cumulative time in the mountains and how he got there.

In The High Country - film posteriRF: Were your ‘wrecking yourself to get the shot’ principles tested much while making In The High Country? Anton says at one stage in the trailer that, “I haven’t been that scared in a while.” What was going on there?

Wolpert: I suppose so. That’s actually Tony’s quip that you quoted, ‘wrecking yourself…’ I always work alone because I would feel bad asking someone else to do the stuff that I do. This trip relied heavily on my abilities to drool at high altitude. Coming from 1700 feet here in West Virginia, 14,000-foot peaks were hard to run. By the end of my month out there, I was only desperate above 13k. “I haven’t been that scared in a while… or ever” pretty much summed up our experience on Longs Peak. We had an epic and dangerous four pitches on the left flank of the Diamond on my last day in Colorado. I was joking with Tony afterwards that, though it was my last day in Colorado, I didn’t want it to be my last day on Earth! I’ve got a short behind-the-scenes article coming soon at Running Times  that elaborates on that particular climb.

iRF: Great! Your filming of the movie coincided with AK’s focus shifting more towards ‘scrunbling,’ as it’s been coined. Have you borne witness to the rise in performance and the fall in times on the Flatirons?

Wolpert: Tony is definitely pushing things on the Flatirons. I’m not sure that he’s bagged any records yet because he almost never runs car-to-car. After summitting one or more of the flatirons he can’t help from tagging Green because it’s a thousand or so feet higher and a couple more miles of running. Tony comes to speed-soloing from a runner’s perspective so he is still building his climbing fitness and comfort with technique and exposure. I have no doubt that, if he chooses, those records will come.

iRF: How was it keeping up while carrying filming gear? Were you roped in or just hanging on?

Wolpert: Like I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of slogging and a lot of drooling. I suppose one of my assets is being able to think and act rationally when I am uncomfortable or strung out. This helps tremendously for this kind of filming. We were obviously shooting a film, but the goal was to not slow down too much. For instance on Grays [Peak] and Torreys [Peak], we took the Kelso Ridge. The guide lists a knife-edge ridge feature. It’s not that bad, so we filmed our way across it: Tony running and I following with a Steadicam.

In the midst of this we had to pass a group of gripped hikers. Rather than stop and wait, I just dropped down the ridge slightly and one-handed my way by. Like I said, not too crazy in our world, but I’m sure that they were floored by it. Here they are inching across this pretty sharp ridge when a couple underdressed dudes, one with a camera in one hand, come trundling by, without slowing, hop 10 feet down towards the abyss and keep right on trucking.

All the footage and photos were rope-less. In a couple cases I could have gotten cooler angles with less danger if I had been roped in, but I would have had to lug the rope in addition to my other gear. My goal was always ‘lighter is better.’ As I adapted to Tony’s schedule, it became (reasonably) comfortable to go out for five or six hours without food or water. You get used to just being wasted upon your return.

iRF: Sounds pretty cool Joel, so the hairiest moments were the final day on Longs? No dramas on the Flatirons?

Wolpert: Yeah, Longs was an eye opener. But I can see why people get addicted to free-soloing. After an epic day of intense focus, life’s little niggling details don’t matter much and you really appreciate the simple things. To an outsider it might seem like we take a lot of risks, but at least on my part (and I think Tony’s as well) they are very calculated. We know our skills and our weaker points and we’re a pretty good judge of how close we can walk the line. The Flatirons are pretty straightforward. There’s one tenuous move on the First (in running shoes), but other than that it’s all gravy. Compared to Alexander’s [Chimney on Longs Peak], it’s nothing. Six or eight hundred feet of exposure on a big slab feels much safer than a thousand feet of air on a near-vertical to slightly overhanging climb.

iRF: So you took a love of free-soloing back to West Virginia? You temporarily gave up the farm life for the life of a highland-hobo, right? How was roughing it while filming for a few weeks?

Wolpert: My life doesn’t divide easily into compartments or careers. The running, farming, photography thing is a continuum. I’m interested in most anything, when taken to its simplest and logical limit, free-soloing, farming by hand, light-and-fast alpine climbing. Farming isn’t exclusive to mountain running or itinerant living. Most days, I have to wipe the mud off my hands before I pick up the camera. Nomadic life wasn’t too rough. I was dry and comfortable. About the most inconvenient thing about sleeping in my car was that I had to sleep on a diagonal to fit in the back of the Subaru. (That and the time when I woke up to the sound of someone closing my car door.)

iRF: Your Mike Foote short film In The Bitterroots as well as your Geoff Roes short are pretty chill, laid-back-style movies while the trailer for In The High Country makes the movie seem more fast-paced. Can we expect a change in style?

Wolpert: I get a charge out of personalities and characters. And people are all different. To some extent, I let my subjects dictate the mood for a given piece. So sure, this will be a bit of a departure from the simple profiles that I’ve done in the past. In the High Country will be a more intentional and cinematic impression of a life up high. I’ve had much more time to both shoot and edit, but more importantly I’ve had time to mull things over and figure out exactly what I want the movie to share. It should be an exciting step in a new direction. I’m psyched to share it with all of you.

iRF: I think it’s safe to say we are all psyched to see it, too. So this film has a running time of 30 minutes approximately, right? What have you got planned next, any thoughts on a feature-length movie?

Wolpert: Yeah, it should clock in around a half an hour. It’s my intent to make every cut count, kind of like the editing in a good Langewiesche book. Not sure what’s in the cards after this. I have some ideas floating around for this elemental piece filmed here in West Virginia… but I’ll have to see what comes up as I finish this project. Feature-length films are another animal. I don’t feel like I’ve got an idea suited to that format yet. There’s a lot of potential out there; interesting people are everywhere.

Joel Wolpert - WV trail work

Clearing trail with WV Mountain Trail Runners prez Dan Lehmann (at left) and Steve Rautner (at right). © Joel Wolpert

iRF: Sure, there is a certain Hardrock 100 course-record holder, heavily into farming that could be a good subject for you. Any thoughts on that!?

Wolpert: Skaggs sounds very interesting. I’ve never met him, but from talking with Tony, he wants to be out of the public view. And I respect that. I’ve been through phases in my life when I didn’t have an email address, wrote letters by hand. I only bought a cell phone when I was in Boulder this past summer. (It’s currently sitting, uncharged and without a phone plan in a drawer in my desk.) And you know, the world still exists. You can still go out to run or paddle or work. You can still connect deeply with people that you see in your everyday life. Not having met him, I can’t say whether or not we would mesh well. Who knows? Maybe we could bail on digital stuff to film one of those beautiful analog creations, like Greenough’s Dolphin Glide, that no one ever sees except late at night projected onto the wall of a friend’s house with no sync-sound…

iRF: Now that sounds like an interesting concept! Okay, Joel, so how will folks be able to purchase In The High Country, download as well as a hard copy?

Wolpert: Good question, I haven’t figured that out yet. I need to edit the thing before I worry about distribution!

Robbie Lawless
Robbie Lawless is a runner, graphic designer and the editor of RunTramp.com. His fascination with the simple act of moving fast and light on ones own two feet – and with the characters that are attracted to it – keeps him both in work and in wonder. He hails from Ireland but now calls Sweden home.