Calgary filmmaker Gary Burns breaks through the wall with his latest Man Running

Making a movie is usually a marathon. Especially in the world of Canadian indies. 

You get an inkling. Maybe it’s good enough to become an idea. You write a pitch, a treatment, an outline. How are you going to make this thing? You sweat over a first draft. Writing is re-writing. And re-writing. And that’s just the script. Then you have to find financing (which is an arduous process in itself), scout locations, find a cast, hire crew and then shoot the thing. Then it’s post-production hell, where there’s never enough time or money. If you’re lucky you get to take it on the road, hitting the festival circuit, chatting up the movie to journalists who want to hear your story. It’s an endurance trial. Usually.

Ironically, when it comes Man Running, the latest film from Calgary writer-director Gary Burns which is set against the backdrop of the gruelling world of ultramarathons, making it was more like a sprint.

“Ten months — from the time we put pen to paper — we were shooting,” says Burns. “That just doesn’t happen … There was one other pass. We already kind of got the money. We hadn’t really done the second pass on the script. It just happened really quick.” 

Man Running tells the story of Jim (Gord Rand), a troubled doctor who embarks on a 100-mile ultramarathon in the wake of huge personal and professional upheaval. Estranged from his wife, battling depression and wading into the murky waters of medically assisted death for his 14-year-old patient, he feels as though he’s got nowhere else to run. With each step, and every breath, Jim has nothing but time to think about how his life has imploded. But in the world of round-the-clock ultramarathons, dehydration and hypothermia lead to hallucinations and breakdowns. Each memory becomes a slightly skewed and dreamlike flashback that puts Jim through his paces and keeps the audience wondering what really happened.

“Running an idea through your head, over and over again, your perception and your perspective changes over time,” says Burns explaining why this story offered him such a great dramatic opportunity. “You wish you had done it that way, or you had done it that way and you wished you had changed the end of it.”

Burns co-wrote the script with writer-director Donna Brunsdale and the pair took inspiration for the spine of the film from a neighbour who had been regaling them with tales from the ultramarathon circuit for more than a decade. Despite shooting in rugged Alberta locations, in unpredictable October weather, the filming of the movie, like the writing, proved to be more manageable than you would expect. Aside from the fact that Burns had to piggyback on the start of a real-life ultramarathon to get some crucial footage, the rest of the shoot didn’t push the limits of logistics. Locals will no doubt recognize scenes shot at Fortress Mountain. Burns and his crew also spent time in Bragg Creek, but admits that once you get into the bush at night, making a movie becomes a lot easier than you think.

 “You don’t have to be too far from the parking lot to do that,” says Burns. “At one point, we could have shot some of the running stuff up on the bluff by our house.”

These night scenes in particular show Burns growing confidence as a filmmaker. As Jim and his fellow racer (Ivana Shein) carefully find their footing and trade stories on the path, the camera captures it all in an extended take with the only light coming from their headlamps. It adds to the dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality of Jim’s headspace and forces the audience to really focus on the words.  

“How black can it be?” asks Burns. “How much can you get away with? It’s that idea of you just see a point of light. We don’t need to light anything. It should just be headlights — I think the simplicity of it and being happy with real dark. 

“You could see how there would be a reluctance, like if it was 10 years ago. Well, you can’t have it be completely black with just a little point of light. What are they going to look at? I just think there is a lot more leeway now.”

Burns indicates that this movie couldn’t have been made this way a decade ago and he’s right. Part of it has to do with the hand-held shooting style, but part of it has to do with Burns’ growth as a filmmaker. The behind the scenes of his film may not have much in common with a marathon, but his career does. Those of us who remember his scrappy debut Suburbanators or his high-concept Waydowntown will see this film as a departure. Burns has gone full drama with Man Running and it’s all the better for it. He just keeps breathing and putting one foot in front of the other, metaphorically speaking.

“I’ve really never liked running to be honest,” he says. “I ran a bit when we’re about to shoot the film … I thought I needed to get in shape to be able to even just to be on set, ’cause even though you are not running yourself, you’ve got to cover some terrain. 

“I haven’t run since.” 

Man Running opens Friday, April 12 at the Globe Cinema. For showtimes please go to

Jason Lewis is a writer and TV producer who not-so-secretly aspires to have a one-a-day movie habit.