The Co-Director on The Road to Sparta

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The Road to Sparta is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The film is predominantly about running, and it will hardly come as a surprise that lots of people out there don’t give a tinker’s cuss about any kind of sport, let alone running. It tires them out. They just don’t want to watch.

On the other hand, the film veers away from being a pure sports documentary by angling the lens onto ancient Greek history, the run that Pheidippides made from Athens to Sparta in 490 BC to try and rustle up reinforcements to take on the mighty Persians. Herodotus documents the run in his Histories so it must be true.

So, how to tell that story? How the hell do you work it into the story of a contemporary race without dressing someone up in an old Athenian costume and having a voiceover recite the history? Yawn.

This was the biggest problem we had in the editing process following the actual filming of the 2014 Spartathlon.

Rob Pinnington fighting the demons at the halfway stage in Nemea

For eight months, (co-director) Roddy Gibson and I worked on the contemporary story. We approached our four runners as four distinct characters. We gave them alternate monikers and for a while stopped using their real names. In a sense we dehumanized them in a documentary sense in order to reinvent them as characters, as you might do in a fiction. So, Mark Woolley became The Guru because he knew the course so well that he was our guide on how to run it. Rob Pinnington turned into The Jester because he had some lines which were funny but filled with bathos, while Angie Terzi was The Heroine. Everyone loved Angie.

As for Dean Karnazes, well, he became Pheidippides. He was running the Spartathlon on what became known as the Pheidippides Diet. No modern athletic foods, instead figs, pesteli, cured meat and water. He was intent on writing a book about Pheidippides and wanted to recreate the experience as best he could.

This association led directly to his role play as the ancient runner. We noticed that, in the interviews we had done with Dean, he slipped easily from “he” when talking about Pheidippides into “I”.

During the interviews Dean did talk about events surrounding the Battle of Marathon, but it wasn’t enough. It was too prosaic. We needed something more than that to bring the mystery of the run to the audience.

One idea I had was to use drama. We had broken the film into five acts and felt that perhaps we could use a Chorus between acts, a little homage to Aristotle and the virtues of classical theatre.

I thought about approaching an actress to play Yaya under the olive trees to a bunch of kids, telling them about the ancient history. I wanted Irene Pappas, but, when I heard that she was not well, that idea stalled.

In fact, the more I thought about it the less I liked the idea. It smacked of naffness; besides I didn’t have a big enough budget to spend a couple of days shooting with actors in Greece.

So, we had to think again.

And then came a conversation with my wife, accompanied by a bottle of rouge.

“What about Alicia?” she said.She is the best poet we know, she lives in Greece and she knows the classics and her history. She is ideal.”

Alicia Stallings. It all made sense on several levels.

For the runners, it was absolutely right. There is a lot of internalizing during a long run; ultra-runners sometimes hallucinate or have out-of-body experiences. Voices in the head would work well.

Also, we already had the basis for the score from Old House Playground, which gave the film rhythms and cadences. Because of the work we had done on the contemporary edit we knew the gaps where we wanted the history and the poetry; we knew the rhythms. We had always wanted The Road to Sparta to be a lyrical film. Adding poetry would underline that.

So on June 1, 2015, I dropped Alicia a line, partly to wish her well for the forthcoming election to the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University but mainly to sound her out about working with us on the film.

“I kick myself that I hadn’t thought about it six months/a year ago,” I wrote. “Would you be interested in writing a poem (or a series of short verses) which tell the story of Pheidippidis’ run to Sparta which I could use in the film?”

I did warn her that, although there wouldn’t be any money in it, it would be an exciting exercise.

Alicia was intrigued but non-committal. Perhaps she was just being polite. I had gotten to know her some years before when we were living in Greece. Her husband, John, had taken me on as a freelance writer at the Athens News, and Alicia had mixed memorable mint juleps for us at a Kentucky Derby party at their house.

Polite was good though. It wasn’t a refusal. I sent her the rough trailer that we cut and again emphasized the role that the poetry would play.

In short, we needed the voice of Pheidippides, musing on the threat to the Athenians, and the rumblings of Pan—who met the runner in Arcadia (perhaps an early ultra-running hallucination?)—and also the refusal of the Spartans to join the Athenians in battle. We mused on having the voice of the Athenian women or Mrs. Pheidippides. . . there was a lot of musing, but we were keen not to dictate. Voices come from all corners, depending on the Muse.

Alicia slowly warmed to the idea, politeness giving way to curiosity. Maybe it was the challenge. She sent us a few sonnets that she had already written as translations/versions of Herodotus. We voiced a couple of them and dropped them into the edit. The rhythms worked perfectly. And they weren’t too long. That is important when you ask an audience to step off the running track into a land of poetry and history. It was exactly what we were after.

In July, Roddy and I were in Athens to shoot some pick-ups. We went to meet Alicia and then headed into Syntagma Square where we were corralled by the police in the remnants of what had been a rather heated riot.

The riot police with shields and batons, Austerity, the Greek referendum, poverty in the streets, unrest throughout the city. . . . I am not old enough to have been around in 490 BC, but I suspect that the threat the Athenians felt when they heard the Persians had landed up the road in Marathon wasn’t too dissimilar. And so Alicia was also charged with giving us menace and fear.

What followed was another year of correspondence. I would send through a spec of where and when each poem would be used, the mood and the environment. Alicia might have some follow-up queries, but we rather left her to her own devices.

The first sonnet to land was Pan, the voice that the runners hear when they are in distress in the middle of the night in Nemea, halfway through their run.

The others dripped in bit by bit. One didn’t work, but the rest all slotted in beautifully. Occasionally she would tweak some verses.

There are, in fact, four sonnets and one (a double sonnet) which we had to break in two, the first half voiced by a man and the second by a woman.

Greek actor Renos Haralambidis grappling with the rhythms of Stallings’ poetry; he voices “The Road Up (Part 1),” “Pan’s Warning” and “Sparta Says No.”

We were able to match words, music, and image to create something that stepped outside the usual running film.

If the words on the page are important, then the voices are equally crucial. We had some debate about the kind of voice we wanted. Some on the team wanted pucka English voices; I preferred Greek voices. Even though the words were in English, I wanted the audience to feel they were in Greece, surrounded by Greekness.

Malamatenia Gotsi in the studio. She voices three sections of poetry “Trouble Brewing,” “The Road Up (part 2),” and “Billboards.”

Ioannis Melissanidis was set to do some of the poetry but unfortunately his commitments meant we were never in the same place at the same time. Instead we managed to rope in two very well respected actors, Renos Haralambidis and Malamatenia Gotsi. At times they struggled with the language and, indeed, the rhythm, but there is a genuine authenticity that Ian McKellen or Judi Dench, brilliant though they are, could not have given us. The actors’ voices plunge us into the crisis, the despair, the fear that we were looking for.

The poetry is such an integral part of the film that I cannot imagine it without.

We recorded the poetry in Athens in July 2016, the first screening of the film coming in Athens three months later