Interview: Serge Roetheli, Director John Davies of ‘The 25,000 Mile Love Story’
CHICAGO – One of the oddest feats of the early millennium was a five year odyssey by endurance athlete Serge Roetheli, who set out to run across five continents – in the equivalent of one marathon a day – with his wife Nicole following along via motorcycle. The film of this journey is “The 25,000 Mile Love Story,” directed by John Davies.
The quest, which is tempered by the fact that Serge and Nicole – who live in Switzerland – took it on partially for charity, is a crazy quilt of extreme conditions, daily camping and gallons of Coca-Cola (which Serge insisted was better than water for running). The adventure is interrupted by disease, accidents and weather conditions, but the tenacity of the athlete and his willing mate does fascinate in an expressive and almost dreamy way.
Photo credit: The25,000MileLoveStory.com
Recently, the film production staff was in town with Serge Roetheli to promote the film at a special Chicago screening. HollywoodChicago.com spoke with director John Davies, editor Brian Kalles and producer Priscilla Pesci – who added anecdotes of perspective and putting the film together – along with Serge’s reminiscence on the tour itself.
HollywoodChicago.com: It’s obvious that Serge had the video footage of the journey in his archives for several years. To complete the other journey to complete the movie, what was the process in breaking down the initial footage?
John Davies: Producer Priscilla Pesci has seen another film that Brian and I made, called ‘Phunny Business: A Black Comedy,’ which was about a launching pad comedy club for black comedians here in Chicago. She thought the story was put together well, and pulled me aside at a screening and told me she was working on this project, which needed some help. They had 90 hours of video footage, but didn’t know how to put it together as a story.
She sent Brian and I a hard drive, and we spent a couple of days fast forwarding through the stuff, and agreed there was a story in it. That began the journey, Priscilla got us hired, and we spent six months in a room looking at the video that Serge had shot around the world. You know that famous story about ‘how do you carve an elephant out of marble?’ You chip away at all the pieces that don’t look like an elephant. That’s how Brian and I approached the film, we chipped away at the footage until we had an 86 minute film.
HollywoodChicago.com: Serge, you seem addicted to the challenge of endurance and pushing beyond the limits. What do you believe is in your psyche that says you are never satisfied with an accomplishment, that you are just looking for the next one?
Serge Roetheli: First, I would just say that my life is an adventure. I don’t make this adventure, I just consider life to be an adventure. And inside that you can find several things, like ‘The 25,000 Mile Love Story.’
HollywoodChicago.com: Do you feel an accomplishment, like the end of the journey, or do you feel like you’ve got to get to the next thing?
Roetheli: I feel like I have finished something great, of course, but at the same time I feel like I’ve got to get going again, to keep on the move, both as a runner and a mountain guide.
HollywoodChicago.com: Brian and John, you had a spaghetti soup of video footage, you had Serge and Nicole, but what was the theme that created the final documentary?
Brian Kalles: Well, it could have been just a linear story, because we started in one place and ended up in another. But that’s not enough, you have to create an atmosphere. I feel weird sitting here with Serge, because after watching him for six months I feel like I know him. You have to care about who you’re watching, so it was finding the peaks and valleys in that story. It’s not just the physical struggle, but the mental one. What was Serge thinking when he was doing this? There was a mental toughness that was unrivaled.
Also the love of freedom became a theme. It was about being out there with nature and not being constrained. And certainly this adventure was a testament to that freedom.
Davies: The film had a lot of love in it. Serge had invited his wife Nicole to go with him, that must have been quite a pitch. [laughs] Serge also loves people and children, plus many endurance athletes line themselves up with a charity, to motivate himself every day to keep going and get out there.
The type of films Brian and I do inevitably involves a quirky character at the center. When we experienced Serge we thought, who is this guy, why does he do this? It’s never over for him.
HollywoodChicago.com: Serge, one of the interesting subplots in the film is the relationships that are tested due to your absence in completing these events. What was harder about keep the relationship between you and Nicole going than running in the desert, for example?
Roetheli: What was hard about what we were doing was being together 24 hours, seven days a week. It was a strange way of life, and we had to fall in love with it. And because Nicole also fell in love with it, we succeeded.
Davies: And when they got to the end, and Serge said this fairly succinctly, when he stopped the run and she stopped the motorbike, the glue that had kept them together also dissolved, they didn’t have that much anymore to hang onto, although they had been on the road for ten years and together for 18 years.
Photo credit: The25,000MileLoveStory.com
HollywoodChicago.com: John, one of the more interesting emotions I got out of the film is that there seems to be more unseen than seen in the love story you portray. What do you believe, after working on this for a long period of time, is the main element for you that is unseen?
Davies: Serge wrote a book about the journey that we read as we were looking at the footage, and there were many things described that weren’t taped – such as Serge being arrested at one point in Morocco, or being chased by machete wielding natives. They didn’t film parts like that, but the coverage that eventually was recorded was pretty good. People ask Brian and I if we would have liked to be there. No, not for five years. [laughs]
Kalles: Serge is in such good shape, and a lot of the footage was of him looking great on the road. But when we were putting together a story of journey and struggle, that type of footage wasn’t helping us. [laughs] We really had to find the moments of – for example – popping a blister. It was hard to us as storytellers to find the struggle in the hours of footage.
Roetheli: Admittedly, I wanted to tape the wonderful things around the world, not the problems we encountered.
HollywoodChicago.com: Serge, there have been many sites, cities and spectacular scenery to be absorbed in your many journeys. Which area or site felt the most spiritual to you, as in your connection to the universe or if you believe in God?
Roetheli: Definitely the mountain countries, because I have as a mountain guide I have a strong love for this type of country.
Kalles: That was some of the ‘non elephant pieces’ in the film. He saw a mountain in South America, and he stopped the run to climb it. That’s what he would do, so we included it, but mostly we stuck to the running.
HollywoodChicago.com: John, you began your career partially here in Chicago, working on ‘Sneak Previews,’ the earliest pairing of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. With the recent passing of Ebert, what story do you think defines those early days, either of their partnership or the motivation and soul of Roger Ebert himself?
Davies: I was there when they were still highly competitive, they hadn’t figured out yet that they were – as they said in vaudeville – a double, or a two man act. The story that sticks out the most was on the Thursday before the taping, my job was to type up the script. Gene Siskel used that particular conference room I worked in as a napping place, he would stretch out under the conference table.
One day I was typing away, and Gene was under the table, and Roger poked his head in to say he was going to lunch, but right before that he picked up the phone in the room to set up an interview in New York City with Nastassja Kinski, for the film ‘Cat People.’ He put the phone down and left for lunch, and without missing a beat Gene got up from under the table, hit the redial on the phone, and said, ‘hi, this is Mr. Ebert’s assistant, he needs to cancel the interview, something else has come up.’ Gene hung up, looked over a me and said, ‘Not a word to Roger.’
HollywoodChicago.com: What happened as a result of all that?
Brian Kalles, Serge Roetheli and John Davies in Chicago
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com
Davies: The next week Roger was insanely angry, thinking that the cancellation happened on New York’s end. But that is a perfect example of how mean they could be to each other, that was a really dirty trick. That symbolizes their competition at the time.
HollywoodChicago.com: Serge, one of the X factors in this story is Nicole. What did you learn about her and your marriage, both before and after the 25,000 mile run?
Roetheli: The adventure is about both who I am and who she is, and you have to know something about Nicole – she is a very powerful woman and kept us together for a long time. If we hadn’t done the strange things that we did, we wouldn’t have stayed together so long.
HollywoodChicago.com: This is for all of you. Besides the charity, which is monumental, what do you each feel is the main lesson of ‘The 25,000 Mile Love Story,’ either what is on-screen or off-screen, as to the impact it has made on your lives?
Priscilla Pesci [Producer, ’The 25,000 Mile Love Story’]: In terms of how this film impacts people, I think that there is an emotional connection that happens, and it actually has you questioning motivations regarding hope. What is your potential? What is the possibility of your life? It makes you question all the boundaries and constraints that you put upon yourself.
It’s not a story about a man running around the world. It is a story about the human spirit, and how you can transcend the obstacles in front of you. The universality of it all that is the main theme, and all ages can make that connection.
Kalles: You can manifest your dreams, and Serge has said this many times before. It’s just about putting in the ‘leg work.’ While we were examining the footage for six months – over and over – ultimately the footage dictated to us what was important in the story.
Davies: My life is about telling stories, and every project that I take on is a mountain I have to climb. I remember saying to Brian – this is really hard, there is a language barrier, this footage is all over the place – how will we write this story? What I learned, and what I keep learning, is that I’m not happy unless I have this story telling problem to solve. It’s made me a better writer and communicator.
Roetheli: Nothing is impossible if you’re willing to pay the price. In one’s life, we may not do great things, but we can learn to do the small things well, step-by-step, mile-after-mile and day-by-day. That’s important to me.