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RJ McNichols on Making Running Documentaries + Immersion Among The Sport’s Stars for Storytelling

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“There’s no bigger high for me than watching your work get screened in front of people. Good or bad. I’ve had screenings where we’ve packed out a 250-person room with 400 people but I’ve also had screenings, where it’s a 50-person room and only six people, show up and it’s your parents and your friend that you begged to come along. For good or bad, those are the scenarios. It humbles you. It boosts your ego.”


We recorded this back in August when RJ McNichols and I were in Boulder, Colorado together. He’s one of the first friends I made while covering the sport from my days with Flotrack. He is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles and he’s produced some really cool projects including 16 2 1 and Beyond”; “Running Away to Flagstaff”; “Year of the Bison”; “Fear and “Loathing from Pier to Strip” and “The 41st Day”. They’re excellent and make for a great complimentary watch to this podcast. Plus, with all this extra time at home before the holidays, it’s the perfect time to catch up on some running films you maybe weren’t aware of.

You can catch the latest episode of the podcast on iTunes so subscribe and leave a five-star review. We are also on Stitcher, Google Play and Spotify!

How to Watch RJ’s Running Documentaries

16 2 1 and Beyond: The Fall and The Rise of North Central Men’s Cross Country Team (Vimeo)

Running Away to Flagstaff (Vimeo)

Fear and Loathing from Pier to Strip: A Speed Project Documentary (YouTube)

Year of the Bison: A Portrait of Nick Symmonds During His Final Track Season (Amazon)

The 41st Day (Amazon)

RJ McNichols running documentary filmmaker

Follow RJ on Instagram – @RJMCNICHOLS4

SHOW NOTES AND QUOTES

– “In terms of Workout Wednesdays, I shot over 30 of them…For me, it was: How can I bring the viewer along on the workout almost as if they were sitting in a golf cart. It took me about four or five Workout Wednesdays filmed to really figure it out. They’re very difficult. You don’t get any re-takes on the second 200 rep of a 6 x 200. I really started getting in the groove when I shot Nick Willis’ workout, which was basically coach Ron Warhurst gave him a workout that would test him as to whether or not he would move up to the 5K…One of my GoPros wasn’t working because I was planning on biking and filming alongside him. I didn’t want to wreck my $6,000 camera. I’m like, ‘I have to capture it with the camera and make it seem like they’re running alongside me.’ Here I am with one hand on the handlebars and another hand on my $6,000 camera. I’m just praying to God that I don’t wipe out and break my collarbone…That was the Workout Wednesday that was the recipe for future ones: Interesting workout, interesting athlete, fast times, great camera work.”

– “When I first started filmmaking, I just wanted to make comedies. Wayne’s World is my favorite film of all-time. Because it’s Wayne’s World, it’s a goofball comedy. When people ask filmmakers what their favorite film is, it should almost be like Criterion Collection-worthy. I’ve watched that movie two or three times per year since the age of 6. I think I relate to it so much because it takes place in Aurora, Illinois and I grew up right next to that. It’s just guys that have a dream of making a TV show. I draw a lot from comedy. I draw a lot from other sports and what they do filmmaking-wise.”

Year of the Bison

– “I really don’t watch too many running documentaries. At least nowhere near as much as I used to…I think for me I feel like they’re almost too serious. It’s like this is an all or nothing kind of documentary. It’s very win-or-lose and there’s no in-between.”

– “With the Nick Symmonds documentary Year of the Bison, I wanted to see him grow right after his last race to six months later. I had to not film him for six months and then catch up with him. I wanted to see that character transformation from the last time he was on the track to Nick Symmonds the retired athlete. I go back and forth on whether or not releasing it in feature-length form was the best decision. Part of me thinks the ‘give a shit’ factor of a story goes away for a movie if it’s not released at the right time. The documentary was released in May of 2018. He retired in the summer of 2017. At that point, he did a 180 on his career – YouTube star, RunGum, etc. Some people stayed with him and some people didn’t. Part of me thinks maybe I should have done a web series and threw it up instantly but I don’t think I would have gotten to put together the story in a way that was as thoughtful as it could have been.”

– “Sometimes with running documentaries it’s all about their running and not who they are as a person.”

The 41st Day

– “When Tim (Jeffreys) was like, ‘I kind of want you to edit the movie’ I was like, ‘Bring it. Give it to me.’ As soon as I got all of this footage, I was like, ‘Holy hell. What did I get myself into.’ There was so much self-doubt in the initial four months of editing that documentary…The fact that there were a lot of rights issues and these little moments so it took way longer than it usually does. I had to watch every single interview. I remember telling Tim that I was doing a road trip from Portland to LA, I told him to send me the audio. I just listened to all of Ryan’s thoughts and what he was going through at the moment…You can tell that he was changing almost every other month in terms of his mindstate. You can see that throughout the film. One of the things that people often point out is often the physical state he’s in. He’s got crazy long hair or he’s got super short hair. He’s got a beard. There are all these varying states. I feel like sometimes hair can be a reflection of what someone is going through in the moment and it’s important to figure out what to weave in and what to keep out.”

– “I was definitely very anxious. If a film is not released, it’s like it doesn’t even exist. I feel like every video that I’ve done and every feature-length doc that I’ve done is almost a stepping stone to get you to that next bigger project. I had worked hard for four or five solid months non-stop on this. It was like four or five months of my career didn’t exist. When Tim gave me the call last month, he told me that quality control went through and the movie was going up on iTunes next month. That’s when I got really excited but more importantly, I had felt this weight since 2016 when I began editing it. Tim had felt this weight since 2012 when he first started the Kickstarter campaign. That has been the biggest gorilla and demon on Tim Jeffreys’ shoulders. Seeing that come off him, I’m incredibly thrilled that he fought the battle to really get it out there. I don’t know if I could have gone eight years to get a feature-length film out. I don’t think I have the patience.”

Reactions to His Work

– “There’s no bigger high for me than watching your work get screened in front of people. Good or bad. I’ve had screenings where we’ve packed out a 250-person room with 400 people but I’ve also had screenings where it’s a 50-person room and only six people show up and it’s your parents and your friend that you begged to come along. For good or bad, those are the scenarios. It humbles you. It boosts your ego…Watching people react is almost music to my ears because you spend months or maybe a year just you by yourself in a room putting everything together and somehow it doesn’t feel real when someone texts you that it’s good. When somebody walks up to you, gives you a great big hug and says, ‘That was fucking awesome.’ That makes you feel amazing.” 

– “The fact that I made a movie that got someone laid is a really high compliment.”

The YouTube Generation of Running

– “I never want to knock the younger generation because that’s what every generation before us did. I think they’re obviously connecting with someone. Just because it’s not for you, doesn’t mean it’s terrible. I think kids are taking in videos a little bit differently.”

– “I think of the internet as this world. What you put out there, you can think of this as a LaCroix can. If you emptied it out and tossed it out the window, just like how some YouTubers or filmmakers are: point, shoot, out. It’s an empty LaCroix can going out the car window and just sitting there. For me, I’m trying to put out a steak dinner. At the end of the day, all of these “content creators” – I don’t like that word because it feels like you have no heart and soul into what you put into – I want to put out something that’s good and I’m proud of….The conversation I have with my co-workers is that there are different types of hamburgers in this world. There’s a McDonald’s burger and there’s the steakhouse burger. We want to put out the steakhouse burger every time and make it that quality but the truth is that we can’t always do that. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

How Filming Runners Helped Him Cover Football or Basketball

– “I can adapt much quicker. Football is one of the most difficult sports to shoot because there are so much territory and so much unpredictability. With basketball, I don’t have to sprint alongside with a camera to get to one point of the course or track. They go back and forth on this 150-foot court. Because I had to sprint and work so hard to get all those shots for running, I know what to do and just basically adjust filming whatever sport comes my way.”


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