Runnin’ Down a Dream: Interview with Balázs Simonyi

A movie about running? Yes, exactly, though much more is revealed during the many miles along the historical route from Athens to Sparta. 84 minutes and 246 kilometres of true struggles and pure values – we sat down with Balázs Simonyi, the director-producer of Ultra, and an experience ultrarunner himself.

First off, I would like to congratulate, the movie is fantastic. Do you remember how did the idea of making a creative documentary about the ultramarathon race first occurred to you?

Well, I have always wanted to make a movie about running. I write about it a lot, but I was always looking for another way of capturing what it means to me. It has been such a big part of my life since 10 years ago and my evolution in running from 5K to 200+ ultra races has given me so much that I felt like giving something back. Laszlo Jozsa,  my producer partner also inspired me as he had already run the marathon before I did. So, it was a kind of idea we were tiptoeing around for quite a while. The ultramarathons, especially the first few ones, had such a great, cathartic impact on me in a both negative and positive ways. We took our time, almost 2 and a half years to find out how exactly we wanted to make this movie and then at some point it all became clear: we wanted to capture the different motivations and stories behind the runners and though it all started out as a movie about running, the emphasis was rather put on the participant’s lives and inner struggles, naked thoughts and emotions.  I am a commentator, analyzator, guide in the film. I connect the antiheroic characters, and I am the cynical man provided comic relief in the end. ULTRA is an individual and family psychodrama, in which the act of “surpassing oneself” amounts to physically testing the absurdity of our human condition. During the race (film) everybody hurts, running is a healing. There is a lot ugly deepdigging, processing and cleaning during the run.

What was the most difficult thing about shooting the movie?

The preparations (researching, casting, background shootings, financing, writing, crew and equipment testing) took 2 and a half years, and the post prod another 14 months. The race is the backbone of the film. We worked with 8 units that included about 50 people. That’s quite a big crew even for a feature fiction film and it is especially huge in case of shooting a documentary. The protagonists wouldn’t run backwards, so they had to be followed by the film crew which wasn’t easy from the point of logistics, sleep-deprivation, back-uping either. The crew had to stay awake for a very long time. Working 12 hours is quite usual in this industry, but our crew had to work three times more. Plus, as I was also running as one of the characters of the film, I wasn’t always present as a director. It wasn’t easy obviously, but looking back, I believe that it was completely worth it! We shot all together 250+ hours footage in total.

You ran the ultramarathon several times now. Have you ever had to give up a race before you could reach the finish line?

No, I could always manage to pull through the worst moments. I know myself quite well and I think that when people decide to give up, it is usually a mental surrender. Ultrarunning is a soul sport, and you have to train your mind more, than your body.  If I had some sort of physical trouble I would give up the race, too, you don’t want to harm yourself by not dealing with a serious injury. I wouldn’t give up, though, just because it hurts a bit. It does hurt here and there, but you have to be there, mentally, to be able to overcome those moments that I consider rather just uncomfortable than painful. I think it’s better to hang in there and keep motivating yourself, keep telling yourself that you are there for a reason and concentrate on that. Of course, it takes some routine to learn that. Everybody can do the ultra if they are determined, obsessed and if they’re able to convince themselves of having something on the road and in themselves to explore  But you see, that is the best thing about running: you’re in control, you can push your own mental and physical limits, then always come out stronger in the end.  I want the audience to run with me – and you could do it in the cinemas.