A Place in the Run: Fred Lebow, shown in the red Mercedes, in the subject of Judd Ehrlich's "Run for Your Life."
While vampires made a big splash at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, a documentary about a son of Transylvania carved out a decidedly different niche for itself. Judd Ehlrich’s heart-warming documentary Run For Your Life tells the story of Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, and the New York City Road Runners Club, one of the preeminent runners’ organizations in the world. The doc has a lot going for it: great archival footage, a cool soundtrack, a large and fascinating supporting cast of talking heads, and at the center of it all, a main character who can’t run well, yet makes marathoning his life’s passion. Lebow is in many ways a dream subject: he beds women, garners celebrity, copes with scandal, invents sports marketing, wrestles with the demons of his past in war-torn Europe, and lives a life of such color and comedy that it could fill several films and a few books on the side. But faced with a bounty of material, filmmaker Judd Ehrlich had to make some tough choices. He talks about the film and its reception at Tribeca with The Independent’s Mike Hofman.
How did you come up with the idea for a film about Fred Lebow?
I’m very good friends with Moshe Katz, Fred’s nephew, and the idea for the film came out of discussions with him. I am also a native New Yorker who grew up knowing who Fred was. He was always a great New York character. But when I was talking more with Moshe, his nephew, I learned a lot about Fred that I didn’t know—that he came from an Orthodox background, that he was an immigrant from Transylvania, and a survivor in every sense of the word. He had such an incredible biographical story that was part of a larger story of how he inspired so many millions and millions of people around the world as the father of big city marathoning.
Given that Fred was such a rich character, what threads of the story did you end up focusing on?
Part of the story of the marathon is that people thought Fred was crazy to run the race, starting in 1976, through all five boroughs, which meant going through the neighborhoods that were burning. He had the vision and foresight to say, ‘You know what? This can work.’ People running through the neighborhoods brought everybody out in the neighborhood. The number of spectators went up and up and up into the millions. And that had the effect of showing New Yorkers and showing the world a completely different New York than people were used to seeing. And then part of it too was that Fred was a great character. He was charismatic and came out of the garment industry, so he knew about marketing and selling and special promotions. But he was also a bad runner—he was the guy at the middle or back of the pack, so he identified with the average runner, not the people who won the race. And that was important. Fred understood that a marathon not so much an event about winning, it was an event about finishing. The marathon gives everybody a sense of personal accomplishment, a chance to go on journey, to make it happen for themselves.
Where did the archival footage come from?
From a variety of sources. We got some amazing stuff from the private collections of old New York Road Runners members, we got some old Super 8 movies from his family, and some old family photographs from Romania. And we went to every major news outlet and sat on Steinbecks and looked at film not been looked at for 30 years. It was a case of going everywhere we could, and really digging and continuing to dig, being lucky, and hitting the right stuff.
What kind of stuff did you find?
Just as an example, we knew a certain story had to be in the film. Fred put on the first all- women’s road race in 1972, and it was sponsored by Crazy Legs shaving cream. And being a marketing genius, he got Playboy bunnies to run in the race. ABC actually had news footage from 1972 with the Playboy bunnies warming up, along with serious runners like Kathrine Switzer and Nina Kusick in the background, and all of them are interviewed.
People have such strong memories of New York in the 1970s. It was such an interesting time. Did you spend a lot of time thinking about how to evoke that era in the film?
We did spend time thinking about how to do that. Fred’s story sort of went hand-in-hand with the story of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s. The marathon helped change the city, and it reflected what was going on in the city and the country. Part of film is looking at where the city was back then, in terms of “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” being on the verge of bankruptcy, “the Bronx is Burning,” and high crime. So we wanted to put the viewer there without making it kind of a stereotypical bellbottoms view of the 1970s. So far, we’ve gotten a lot of positive response. People will say, ‘Oh I love your choice of a Bauhaus font. I love the music.’ All that stuff is important in terms of getting the ’70s vibe, but at the same time, we didn’t want to go overboard—we didn’t want to be kitchsy.
Where did the music come from?
We used a lot of ’70s funk tracks, but it was all stuff that people had never heard before. And if you listen to lyrics really take scenes to a different level. They’re always commenting on what’s going on. A good friend of mine did the music direction, and was constantly sending me CDs of stuff that we could get the rights to.
How long did it take to make the film?
A year and a half to two years, which is pretty good for this type of doc, for the way it turned out. We did research for half a year, and then we filmed off and on for maybe half a year. Then the editing went from the end of November to the beginning of December, up until Tribeca. So we had 4 to 5 months of editing time.
What did you shoot first?
We shot the 2006 marathon, but we ended up using only a few little clips from that footage. We actually went out to film it knowing that we had some archival materials that gave us grand shots showed the scope – aerials and things like that. So we didn’t need to worry about that. We used a Red Rock lens adapter to get a more cinematic look for that footage. We wanted it to be as different from news footage as possible—shots of crowd and close ups of runners and abstracts of stuff.
What was your favorite interview?
All of the former city officials were great – Ed Koch, Percy Sutton, Henry Stern, and so on. The ’70s in New York had all of these great characters. The same city that let Fred Lebow plan a a marathon in all five boroughs is the city that let Ed Koch and Abe Beam be mayor. And where else could Henry Stern become parks commissioner? Characters ascended in that time period. There was a sense of wanting real human people to be important.
How much money did you need to fund the film?
We had a much larger budget than we ended up getting. It was a constant struggle. The actual budget was somewhere around $100,000.
Where did the money come from?
I set up a non-profit, Brooklyn Film Networks, to raise grant money mostly from family foundations and some individuals, including Jack Rudin, who gave Fred the initial $25,000 he used to fund the race in 1976. Like the marathon, this was a passion project for many of the people who supported it and worked on it. I was always seeing analogies from the race to the film—both were volunteer-based, and relied on people giving so much time. Fred could get anyone to do something for a slice of pizza. Fred made them believe in a larger mission. So I tried to do that too.
And we’re still not done. I ended up getting festival clearance only for a lot of the archival footage, so I’m in the situation that when we get theatrical and broadcast and video deals, we’re going to need more clearances, which will mean raising more money.
The film debuted at Tribeca, where it was well received. What was that like fo you?
It was unbelievable. We sold out, and we had unbelievable rush lines. And Jane Rosenthal was talking up our film everywhere. It was really great to have her on our side. She told people she saw herself, DeNiro, and the other founders of the festival as being kind of like Fred Lebow, and festival itself as being like marathon. Fred had to fight every step of the way, deal with city bureaucracies, to create a massive event that, in the end, really benefited the city and the city’s economy. Both the marathon and Tribeca bring people together.
Did you have an inkling she was going to adopt the film in this way?
No, not at all—it just happened. I didn’t see it coming at all, but then she showed up at the opening. And people came up to me and said, ‘I heard about your film—Jane’s been talking about it. And a few newspaper articles alluded to some comments she made.
Have you ever run the marathon?
I haven’t, but I am now. I started training for my first marathon, as has most of the crew on the film—our PR guys, the editor, our co-producer. At least 5 or 6 of us are going to run a marathon now. Our cinematographer—he’s the only one I’m not so sure about.