‘Just make something great,’ Boston Globe told journalists about marathon documentary

Every time Boston Globe arts reporter Geoff Edgers worried about the cost of “5 Runners,” a documentary he and his colleague Darren Durlach made for the paper, Globe Editor Brian McGrory told him not to stress. He “just said go for it,” Edgers said in a phone call. “He always delivered the directive, Don’t worry about that, just make something great.”

The documentary airs Monday night on a channel owned by John Henry, who bought the Globe last year. It looks at the lives of five people who crossed the finish line at last year’s Boston Marathon just as the first bomb went off. Edgers said that after the bombings, “Frankly, I was doing what most newspaper people do, which is desperately trying to deal with an emotional and upsetting situation by finding how I could play a role.”

The documentary’s five subjects, just before the bombings, in a still from “5 Runners.”

Edgers wrote a story last year about the five, who all finished at 4:09:49 by the race clock. “In most cases that would be end of story, but I kept in touch with them,” he said.

He decided he wanted to do something longer on them, something that took advantage of his grasp of video storytelling, which has grown more firm in recent years. With director Robert Patton-Spruill, he made the 2010 film “Do It Again,” and in early 2013 starred in a Travel Channel show, “Edge of America,” that didn’t last long but taught him a lot about making TV. Later that year he and Durlach made a film about an area soprano that won a local Emmy Award.

Durlach, a multimedia producer at the Globe, heard Edgers’ idea for a documentary and took it to his bosses — Edgers had had some preliminary conversations with people outside the Globe about doing it. The higher-ups approved the project, which Edgers and Durlach made as they carried on their day jobs.

The one requirement: They couldn’t do it halfway. “This wasn’t a newspaper making a video or a short clip to go with a story,” Edgers said. “We were going to make a documentary that could play on television. That’s a whole different beast, and as far as I know newspapers don’t do that.”

Edgers has been at the Globe for 13 years and says that since the paper’s sale to Henry, “there’s an energy in the building, there’s an expectation for us to solve this complicated problem with readership. We have to be relevant and we maybe have to do things we haven’t done before.”

Durlach and Edgers co-directed the film, which is about a half hour long with commercial breaks. Durlach was its lead shooter and editor, and Edgers wrote the script and narrated. The doc makes extensive use of the Globe’s photo archives, which span the marathon’s 100-plus years. And they traveled over the course of six months: One of the runners, Brian Donovan, lived in the region, but the others lived in places like St. Louis, Chicago and Charleston, S.C.

All wanted to run the marathon again: But while marathon officials invited back runners who weren’t able to finish because of the bombing, they technically finished and had to reapply and hope for the best. Shifting the story’s center to this year’s race makes sense for runners, not just in their competitiveness (Donovan grumbles in the film he “got screwed out of a finish”) but their focus on the road ahead.

Lizze Lee, who almost completed the marathon, looks at the finish line of last year’s race. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The prolonged reporting period was a revelation to Durlach: “As journalists, we drop in and out of people’s lives,” he said. “We hop in and we ask them some really intimate questions.” When people know you care about their story, he said, “the wall comes down.”

Edgers said his previous video experience was very helpful: “I know all the ins and outs of how to make a production. I know the pitfalls. I know how to build a schedule. I know how much things cost in general.” He got to take on the project because the Globe knows “I can do this stuff. And I wouldn’t have been able to say that three years ago.”

Another thing he can apparently do: Balance gobs of work with family life — his wife is a journalism instructor at Northeastern University — and a kids’ book he somehow knocked out during the same period. (“I don’t need that much sleep,” he said.) “What am I going to do, say no?” he said of the extra work. One thing he wouldn’t consider: “I never quit my day job because I love being a reporter.”

Durlach took something away from the project besides frequent flyer miles and an appreciation of prolonged storytelling: “I also became a runner through this process,” he said. “I’m starting to understand more now why these runners love it so much.”

“5 Runners” airs at 9:30 p.m. Monday on NESN and will be available on the Globe website on Tuesday.

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