Newton Marshall’s journey took him from Jamaica to Alaska, from reggae to frostbite, from obscurity to E:60.
Producer Mike John’s journey was the opposite – minus the obscurity.
“Mush Mon” is the story of the first Jamaican to pilot a dogsled in the Iditarod, the 1000-mile Anchorage to Nome race. It is a light-hearted story, a variation on ‘Cool Runnings’, about the Jamaican bobsled team of 1988, and as inspirational.
To tell it, Johns and reporter Seth Wickersham, a native of Alaska, started near Fairbanks, where the 27-year-old Marshall trained last February.
“You think of him going from Jamaica to Alaska, but we did the main interview in Alaska and the follow-up in Jamaica,” Johns said.
Johns shot Marshall on a rural expanse owned by Lance Mackey, the four-time Iditarod champion who was hired by sponsor Jimmy Buffett to teach Marshall the ropes. The weather was milder than expected.
“Zero degrees,” said Johns.
To shoot Marshall on his dogsled, Johns put a camera in a sled towed by an all-terrain vehicle. But when the ATV braked, the sled kept on going. Wipeout.
Minus a smashed camera battery, Johns soldiered on. He shifted from an outdoor shoot to a heated indoor location. Oops. His cameras fogged up from condensation.
“They needed at least 45 minutes to warm up,” Johns recalled.
The crew flipped on the light switches in Marshall’s cabin, adjacent to Mackey’s house. No light. Broken generator.
They used natural light from a window.
“Given the humble nature of the cabin that kind of limited lighting worked,” Johns said.
Marshall, raised in poverty with little education, proved to be a strong character, after he overcame his initial shyness.
“Our first day around him I was a little concerned that he wasn’t going to be as expressive as you would like to tell his own story,” Johns said. “But this was a kid stuck in a cabin in Alaska for four months – after a couple of days with him – in some ways he was anxious to talk to people. Once we sat him down we couldn’t shut him up.”
When the race began early in March, Johns was gone. Footage from the race and interviews at four checkpoints came from Iditarod organizers.
Johns finished in Jamaica, where it had begun for Marshall. He shot the back-story about how Marshall came to be in the race, as well as Marshall’s reflections on his 12-day mush and 47th place finish.
In the telling Johns and Wickersham managed a bit of story magic. Marshall had related that at his lowest point, in the second week, he had sung to himself – a popular Jamaican tune. Wickersham asked him to sing it for the E:60 camera.
Marshall offered up his front porch version of “All Will Be Fine”, by Buju Banton. Johns transitioned from Marshall’s song, at the Jamaican location, to the Buju Banton studio version, over a shot of Marshall guiding his team across a frozen trail.
Johns called it “a device for emotional resonance.” He could have said it was a device to tug at the heartstrings, or to make the spirit soar. In the end, “Mush Mon” did both.
posted by Steve Marantz, October 22, 2010