MFS talks with “Desert Runners” Film Director: Jennifer Steinman !

desert runners interview jennifer steinman 01 Today, I have the great pleasure to share my interview with the talented and gutsy film director: Jennifer Steinman. If you haven’t yet heard about her latest award-winning documentary “Desert Runners“, don’t miss out! This soul-touching story brings you inside the journeys of the courageous, non elite, ultra-marathoners taking up the extreme mental & physical challenge of racing through the four most treacherous deserts in the world! Truly touching & inspiring, this documentary makes you rethink about your own limiting beliefs and how you handle day-to-day life challenges and obstacles!

Isabella:  Jennifer, tell us a little bit about yourself, how did you get into the film making world?

interview with Jennifer Steinman

Jennifer: I’ve been a film editor for almost 20 years, and started Directing about 7 years ago.  Most of my background has been in TV and independent film and a bit in the commercial world, as well. You can read more about Jennifer HERE.

Isabella: How did this particular project come to realization?

Jennifer: In October of 2009, I went to a conference on health & nutrition where one of the guest speakers was a funny, wacky Irish guy named Dave O’Brien.  At this conference, Dave announced to the audience that at the age of 56 he had decided that he was going to attempt to run the 4 Deserts Ultra-marathon Series—one of the most difficult endurance challenges in the world!

Just one week earlier, I had been at the hospital with my mother, who had been very ill for several months. Dave was not much younger than my mother, and yet my mom didn’t think she could even walk around the block.  I thought to myself “What makes this guy think he can run 1000km through the desert?”

I became immediately interested in this huge difference in perceived limitations that human beings seem to have

— how can one person think something is totally possible, when most others would perceive it as “impossible?”  And are our perceived limitations actually real, or just something that we arbitrarily decide for ourselves?

I was really drawn to finding out the answers to these questions, and I think that was my initial draw to the story.  I wanted to understand the mindset of some one who would decide to take on a challenge like this.

Isabella: That does sound highly intriguing…What is the Desert Runners story really about?

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Jennifer: I think this film is really about the complex ways human beings deal with universal issues– taking on goals, pushing through barriers, making hard decisions, building friendships, failure, success, heartbreak, triumph.  I am not a runner myself, but I am fascinated by the mindset of these athletes and what it takes to complete a herculean challenge like this one.

Out in the Desert all barriers are stripped away and people are at their most honest, authentic and vulnerable state.  It is brutal and it is beautiful all at the same time.

Isabella: Wow, that’s something! On those days when I get caught up in my “lazy mode”, my boyfriend & I tend to joke around, suggesting that I should attend a hardcore boot-camp or something so challenging & mind-boggling that when I come back to my reality, every other so-called “life challenge” becomes a piece of cake!

How has this experience changed your life and those of your filming crew and runners?

Jennifer: I think anytime you set a difficult goal for yourself and go for it with everything you have, you are bound to change your life and grow as a person just through the process of attempting it.  It really is always about the process, not the final outcome.  For the runners it was 1000km through the desert that transformed them all in powerful ways… for me, it was finally finishing this movie after 3.5 years!

Jennifer Steinman interview Desert Runners

Isabella: I most definitely agree. As I like to remind my readers, fitness or any physically demanding activity whatsoever is truly mental after all, what have you learned about “mental fitness” in the process of creating this film?

Jennifer: The biggest thing I learned out there was that the difference between who makes it and who doesn’t has nothing to do with fitness. I saw people out there who you wouldn’t think in a million years could run a 5k race actually finish a 250k race.  Ultimately, the thing that distinguished the people who finished from the rest was that they always knew they would.

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They never entertained doubt. They didn’t even allow it to enter their consciousness. I would ask them “what does it mean for you if you don’t make it?” And they would reply, “I’ll make it.” They weren’t even willing to have that conversation. They were focused on what they needed to do next and how they could move forward. That was it.

I think the lessons we can learn from them are all about mental commitment, belief in yourself and sheer determination, and it can apply to anything in life you want to accomplish.  If you believe you can do it and that you will do it, you will.

Isabella: I can totally relate, I remember having that “no matter what” mindset many times in life, feeling unstoppable is truly empowering! Was it difficult finding non-professional runners who were willing to be part of this journey & documentary? Did you have any specific criteria for selection?

Jennifer: Looking back, I think all of them were exceptionally keen for us to follow them on their journey.  When you are attempting to complete such a tremendous personal goal, I think there must be something nice about knowing it is being documented along the way and that it will live on in a film.

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As the journey unfolded over the course of the year, we all bonded and became really close, and then I think we as filmmakers became even more integrated into their experience.  When people ask them now, they have all said that having us there made their journey even more memorable, which is a huge complement to me as a filmmaker.

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In general, when casting I am always looking for people who have an interesting life situation and/or story, but who are also going to be comfortable and authentic in front of the camera.  They need to be honest, relatable, and most importantly willing to be vulnerable and share themselves openly with us.  Our runners were all willing to let others witness their lives at the most raw and intimate moments, and they were able to live it all and talk articulately about it at the same time.  As a filmmaker, those are your dream characters.

Isabella: No doubt! Was there a point where you thought that everything would just fizzle out and that your BIG idea was never going to come to life?

Jennifer: Yes, I think that happens all the time when you’re trying to get a movie made!  There are so many obstacles and road blocks, especially when it comes to resources and funding.  Ultimately I always knew I would finish the film… I just wasn’t sure when.

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Isabella: This reminds me of a quote by Christopher Reeve that I like to reflect upon when facing certain challenges and road-blocks:

I  think a hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere and  endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

I can only imagine the connection the cast and runners have built throughout this challenging, near impossible mission… do you guys keep in touch, or go for jogs together? Lol

Jennifer: In many ways  we all lived the experience together.  Granted, I had fewer blisters… but we all suffered the highs and lows together, and it certainly was a feat of endurance for all of us.  We were completely bonded by the end of the year, and we are all still in touch.  In fact, most of us have reunited over the past year on the festival circuit and it has been a really fun excuse to meet up again in different parts of the world.

Isabella: Out of all 4 destinations you’ve been to (Chile, China, Egypt, Antarctica), which one has proven to be the most challenging one for the runners? Is there a specific location that has been particularly demanding and unexpectedly taxing?

Desert Runners Jennifer Steinman interview

Jennifer: Each one is ridiculously difficult and unique, it really would be like comparing apples and oranges.

  • The Atacama Desert was so dry that you were dehydrated from the moment you got off the plane.
  • China was the most varied terrain– rocks, riverbeds, sand dunes for miles– and local kids would often steal the trail markers causing runners to get lost in the desert for hours.
  • The Sahara Desert was literally the hottest place in the world and by far the dirtiest and stinkiest I have ever been in my life.
  •  And Antarctica… well… besides being completely frozen, and running in a 2km loop for 11 hours (a pretty serious mental challenge!), we had to travel on a boat for 12 days through the roughest waters on planet Earth. I think that trip might have been one of the worst experiences of my life!

Isabella: This documentary was quite a success for you and your teammates, can we expect any more epic or “nearly-impossible” project ideas for the future?

Jennifer: Yes, absolutely!  We are pitching several ideas at the moment and looking for funding.  I’m pretty interested in doing a dance/choreography/creative process film, and also have a great story in the works about Brain Science/traumatic brain injuries.  Other stories include one around women’s reproductive rights and the history of sex education in schools.

Isabella: Love it! Keep doing what you do Jen, it’s truly inspirational!

Finally, what advice & tip would you give to people who are having a hard time sticking to their goals (physical or not)?

Jennifer: I think the lessons we can all learn from DESERT RUNNERS are all about mental commitment, belief in yourself and sheer determination, and it can apply to anything in life you want to accomplish.

If you believe you can do it and that you will do it, you will.

MFS Suggests…


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Isabella Bazzara

Isabella is the founder of My Fit Station. Her mission is to spread a healthy, balanced and FUN approach to mind/body health & fitness, one that encourages growth, empowerment and a lavish dose of self-loving!
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