South African filmmaker Dean Leslie might not be a household name, but chances are you’ve seen his work. The 34-year-old is responsible for most of Salomon TV’s summer films and has been for the last seven years. His work has taken him to every continent, chasing down the world’s foremost endurance athletes and documenting the ways in which we interact with some of the world’s most stunning landscapes. A Cape Town resident who spends most of his time on the road, Leslie founded a production company, the African Attachment, with a friend in 2006 and helmed it successfully for ten years. Last year, he began making films under the name Wandering Fever, a new venture he created with his wife, Hannah Slezacek. His work is humane and expansive, addressing the struggles these athletes face with empathy but without drama, and exploring far-flung locales with curiosity but without blindly exoticizing foreign place and peoples. Most importantly, his films and photography make you want to get out and chase that elusive feeling of wonder.
When did your relationship with photography and video work begin, and how has it developed and evolved since then?
I have been fascinated by both photography and film since I can remember. When I was younger I used to borrow my dad’s old Pentax and shoot my brother and friends surfing. I used to cut my own little surf films from VHS to VHS on a little DIY setup I had wired up at home. So it’s something I’ve always done and somehow, through a few twists and turns, I’ve ended up with a career I could only have dreamed of.
A number of years ago I started working on a documentary with an old school friend of mine, Ryan Sandes. He had started ultra-running and I decided to follow him and explore the idea of why people run. The film is as yet still unreleased but that was probably the start of it in terms of moving into the adventure film space. I love nature and the wild, so for me it is almost the perfect marriage. I feel film has this tremendous ability to move and effect people into change and action through strong storytelling
Did you study visual storytelling formally? If so, where and when?
When I left school I actually really wanted to paint and draw but I didn’t want to study art, so at the time animation seemed like a really good middle ground as there was still a lot of line animation being done. I enrolled in a VFX/ animation course in Cape Town in 2001 but then while I was studying, computer/3D animation really took off and I wasn’t that interested in being confined solely to a computer for my work. So I started getting into photography and that eventually morphed into film.
Tell me about your relationship with the outdoors. What drew you to wild places in the first place, and what keeps you coming back?
In Cape Town it’s hard to get away from the ocean. You are almost surrounded by it. Even when you are in the mountains you can almost always see it. So it’s only natural that we spent time at the beach and in the ocean. My brother took up bodyboarding when he got into high school so I followed in his footsteps, and soon enough there was a little crew of us that would spend our weekends on the beach, getting dumped into the sand and swallowing seawater. Slowly it grew into something more. Over the years I started to understand weather patterns, how that influenced the waves. It forced me to connect with the environment and to understand it. I feel that 80% of surfing is just understanding the ocean and being comfortable in that environment. And so it just became a part of who I was and has pretty much influenced almost all facets of my life, even though I don’t get in the water as much as I used to. For me the interest and passion in the outdoors started with surfing, slowly merged into travel and now has become very general in terms of who we are and what we were; translating this to the mountains has seemed to be quite a natural process.
How has your history with the ocean informed your work with trail running?
I feel there are some obvious similarities with mountain running and surfing in that both sports are played out in the natural environment; And both the ocean and the mountains can humble you very quickly. Both of them are more than just a sport – they are not games, it’s so much more than that. It’s a lot deeper than just doing an activity and I could see that shared spirit almost immediately when I began filming trail running. Visually there isn’t a lot different between the image of a lone surfer riding down the face of a giant wave and the image of a lone runner amidst a vast landscape. Surfing also went through the shift that we’re seeing in trail running at the moment, with the growth of the sport back in the late 1970’s, early 80’s and I feel by looking back to the history of surfing we could potentially see where trail running is going to end up. It will become more popular, there will be more money, it will become more professional – these things are inevitable. But will this mean the end of that shared spirit in trail running that we all love? From a personal standpoint, I still surf because I love it. It is my escape. It is my solitude. It is my direct connection with nature; the fact that someone can make a living from it changes nothing for me. It is all a matter of perspective.
What are the major challenges of filming in far-flung locations like Patagonia and Nepal? What kind of equipment do you bring for these shoots, and what does the team look like?
Every shoot has its own set of unique challenges. Making film is a process of problem solving. With a recent Patagonia shoot we arrived in Bariloche with absolutely no idea what we were going to do. We labelled it as an anti-expedition with the goal of using public transport to get around and letting the film and story shape itself. This sounds easy on paper but it was pretty nerve wracking as a producer/director. Nepal has its obvious challenges of long overland travel. We travelled to [Nepalese ultra-runner Mira Rai’s] home village which doesn’t have much infrastructure and very few visitors, so just getting there was quite an effort in itself. I think for most of these kinds of films or adventure documentaries in general, you will find that access is often the biggest hurdle.
The beauty of independent film is there are no rules. Especially in the adventure documentary genre. We shape gear and crew according to creative briefs. For us there is a constant balancing act between weight, cost, and quality. We keep it as small and light as we possibly can. We generally operate in 2 man teams which allows us to move quicker and the gear is consistently changing, so I work a lot in trying to keep a balance. Most of the gear you end up taking on shoots is based out of fear. It is pretty remarkable what you can do with a very small amount of equipment. Often having too much gear can be more detrimental to a film than having too little.
Your career honestly seems like the dream job: traveling the world with awesome people and making videos that inspire and educate others. What about it lives up to the “dream job” title for you, and what are some of the challenges we might not expect?
I feel incredibly fortunate and lucky that I get to make films and tell stories for a living. For me the travel is a bonus but it is still work. It is so easy to glorify anything that someone is doing when you only see snap shots and highlights of their lives through social media sites. But life is messy and complicated no matter what you do. I love my job and I am incredibly privileged and I have had some really amazing experiences that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for film. But I have also struggled with stress and burn out and in recent years I have had to really try to pay attention to what I am doing and to try be conscious and appreciative of any new experiences that I have, so that they don’t go to waste. It seems ridiculous, but when you are on the road so much it is easy for it to become the norm. I also now really savor my time at home and often a bit of routine is really welcome.
With regard to film I was always taught that you are only as good as your last piece of work. So for me that has always been stressful in itself. I push really hard on each film I make. It takes so much effort to make a film and I feel that to not give it your best effort each time really feels like a waste, but this is obviously not always conducive to a healthy balance and I have struggled with this in the past. I am learning and getting better though, and Wandering Fever is also the start of a new chapter of my life with a simpler kind of lifestyle. I am trying to do things a lot more deliberately, if that makes sense.