Turning a Corner

L.A. Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell and members of the running club he founded on L.A.’s notorious Skid Row.
How Mark Hayes ran and wrote his way into Skid Row Marathon.

Written by LISA ROSEN
Photo by Mark & Gabrielle Hayes


A wiry, silver-haired man runs down the middle of some of the meanest streets of downtown Los Angeles in the dark, passing homeless encampments and destitute people. He runs up cement steps, echoing a scene out of Rocky. But he’s not taking on Apollo Creed; he’s a different kind of fighter. Judge Craig Mitchell works at the Los Angeles Superior Court, meting out harsh sentences for harsh crimes. But he also started the Skid Row Running Club with a bunch of folks he met at the Midnight Mission.

With Skid Row Marathon, documentary filmmaker Mark Hayes tells the story of Judge Mitchell and a group of unlikely compatriots as they navigate long-distance running and even longer chances at redemption. In between trips to film festivals—the documentary has won awards at over a dozen of them—Hayes talked to Written By about his own motivations in making the film, some of which came from unlikely sources. His producer and wife, Gabriele (nicknamed Gabi), has a part. So does the FBI.

Lisa Rosen: Tell me about your filmmaking background.

Mark Hayes: I grew up in New York, I went to film school, and I got a job at a local television station in Dallas, Texas, doing local programming which included documentaries. Then I took a trip to Germany. I was always fascinated with stuff about the Iron Curtain. My parents met in the FBI a long time ago, so I was a real Cold War kid. I couldn’t wait to see the whole deal.

“We turned the corner on a summer night, and there were 300 people on the street. Gabi said, ‘What’s going on, who are these people?”

I said, ‘These are homeless people.’

‘What do you mean they’re homeless?’

‘They’re living on the street.’

‘It can’t be.’
“She didn’t believe it. Having this idea of not only America, but Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, all the wealth that you see here, it was impossible for her to think that there were so many people living on the street. That was Gabi’s first introduction to homelessness.” — Mark Hayes

So on one of these trips, I’m driving around in a van in Weimar, a bus broke down, and there were a bunch of people hitchhiking to the next town. I stopped and picked up five or six people and dropped them off where they were going. And Gabi was among them.

What year was this?

<i>Skid Row</i> Marathon filmmakers Mark & Gabi Hayes

1985. Things were still very serious. Imagine, we come out of a pub on this hilltop, and right below us are tanks and soldiers having war games. There were probably only 100,000 inhabitants in Gabi’s hometown of Jena; 70,000 were Soviet soldiers. They had nuclear weapons nearby.

But I moved over there, and we got married in 1989. This does play tangentially into how we got into the project. The wall fell in November 1989, and I wanted to stay, but Gabi said, “No, they’re going to change their minds.” So we left. Eventually we wound up in L.A. We were living downtown in a high rise. One night I was too cheap to pay the high valet parking at a restaurant, and I cruised around the block to look for a parking spot. We turned the corner on a summer night, and there were 300 people on the street. Gabi said, “What’s going on, who are these people?”

I said, “These are homeless people.”

“What do you mean they’re homeless?”

“They’re living on the street.”

“It can’t be.” She didn’t believe it. Having this idea of not only America, but Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, all the wealth that you see here, it was impossible for her to think that there were so many people living on the street. That was Gabi’s first introduction to homelessness. That was probably 2002.

How many documentaries did you two work on together before this one?

We did a piece for the Wende Museum, a Cold War museum in Culver City. We did Soviet Jews in the City of Angels. I was always trying to keep my hand in it.

How did you make the move from the Cold War to this subject?

One day we’re reading the Los Angeles Times. There’s an article about a judge who started a running club on Skid Row. Gabi runs every day. She’s a serious runner. And after my dad got out of the FBI, he became a New York Supreme Court judge, which is a criminal court judge. So it immediately piqued our interest: a judge, a running club, and Skid Row. So we called the judge, said who we were, and we thought it would make an interesting documentary. He didn’t hesitate. “Sure, let’s meet.”

We met him the next day, and he just said, “Look, I’m in.” But he was not so sure how the members of the running club would react. Most of these people are at a low point of their lives, and the idea of having a documentary crew sticking cameras in their faces, and memorializing on film how they were living and what they were going through, might not be very appealing. He said, “Why don’t you guys come down and run with the club? Get to know them, and when you think the time is right, you can pitch them the documentary.” So we took the judge’s advice. We would meet at the Midnight Mission—they’ve been in existence for 100 years, servicing the homeless community, the addicted community, supplying meals and shelter.

We started going down there twice a week. We’d run six miles, from Skid Row over to Boyle Heights, to Little Tokyo, through downtown, starting at 5:45 in the morning. Gabi loved it; I went kicking and screaming. It was not fun for me. Although it was probably good that I did some of the running, because I could understand, it does make you feel better. When you finish, you feel good; you’re relaxed. And also being in a group like that was fun. That became actually one of the themes we dealt with.

Rebecca Hayes’ drug use and criminal behavior landed her in L.A.’s Midnight Mission family shelter. She now thrives on the discipline of running and has been trying to get a job as a surgical technician.

When did you start writing the story?

During that initial six-week period, that’s when the quote-unquote “writing” actually began. This is when I started to get an idea of who among the group had a good story to tell. After the runs we would hang out, we’d have breakfast at the Mission, eating oatmeal with everyone, and rotten bananas, and I’d get an idea of who’s who, and who’s got a good story to tell. Some of the people we were meeting had some pretty big dreams. That, I found encouraging.

So they’re deciding whether or not they want to let me make a documentary, and at the same time I’m also asking myself, is there enough material here for a feature-length documentary? One guy, drug addict, alcoholic, had a successful career as a musician, he was a bassist in a heavy metal band that used to be the house band at the Viper Room, tattoos all over the place, and he’s telling me he wants to go back to school and maybe teach music, or maybe get his career going again. I’m thinking OK, good luck, he’s 50 years old, that’s not going to happen. Another guy was telling me, in conversation, “I’m on parole.”

“For what? Robbery? You had a joint in your pocket?”

“No, man, Murder One.”

“Excuse me?”

“I just got out of prison for murder.”

I was like, Oh my god; I never met a murderer before in my life. So that took a while to get over. Slowly but surely, I’m thinking, OK, that’s an interesting story. Here’s a guy who committed a very serious crime, who has a very close friendship with a superior court judge. At this point I’m also looking for a through line that is going to enable me to tell this story in an interesting way that has some emotion and that is worth watching.

I started to realize, OK, there’s enough here, and then I made the decision that I would start shooting. Fortunately, the running club, for the most part, agreed to let us shoot the documentary. One of the characters, his name was Ben, was not for it, but over time he became one of the more interesting characters, and we’re still friends to this day. It was interesting to see him turn from a nasty guy who was always in a bad mood to somebody who had a wonderful arc. Not only was that good for me as the filmmaker, but for him in his life that he’s enjoying a new career as a musician. So that was the first part of the writing, during that early stage.

After you amass all this footage, how do you carve out the story?

The first step of the writing is you catalogue all the footage, and you create index cards for each scene that you have, almost as if you’re writing a script. We got a huge bulletin board. We put up all the cards, and we put up colored dots for each character. If Ben was in a scene, he got a green dot, Rafael got a red dot, David got a yellow dot, Rebecca got a blue dot. Then you could see at a glance how often the characters were appearing, and if you had too much green, you might move a scene around to even things out. The emotional scenes you’d want to make special note of. They’re hard to find—people don’t get that emotional when they’re running down the street. So if you’re lucky enough to get some of these emotional scenes, they get special consideration on the board. You have to be careful too, because you don’t want to milk it.

Then you start looking, OK, where can the act breaks be? Are there any places where there’s rising action, or a mini-cliffhanger? Before we started really editing, for the better part of a week, we all sat in front of the board, pulling some of the cards off and seeing where the holes were. The editor, Tchavdar Georgiev, the consulting editor Yana Gorskaya, and I decided the basic rough draft, so to speak, of the documentary.

Tchavdar is very experienced, and he just knows when things are not working. Some of the scenes that I loved, he’d go up to the board, take the card off and throw it. “This is not working. No good.” He’s very cold about it, which is what you need, someone who’s objective like that.

What was something that wasn’t working, and how did you address it?

Tchavdar would always say that with the judge character, we were not “peeling the onion.” At the beginning of the documentary, the judge comes off as a very mean middle-aged white guy sending people of color off to life sentences behind bars. So we knew we had a problem.

Rafael Cabrera, a convicted murderer, joined Judge Mitchell’s running club to provide a sense of belonging missing from his life.

Also the judge doesn’t change; he doesn’t really have an arc. He wasn’t a drug addict that fought off addiction, put himself through law school, and now becomes a judge and helps the very people like himself or something like that. He came across very dry. There was no arc that you could see. And it was kind of bizarre, having this character helping all these people, and you had no idea where he came from, who he was, if he had a family, what was the deal.

I knew at the time the judge’s wife is African-American. But the judge told us at the very outset, “I will do this, but my wife wants no part of it. She does not want to participate. As long as you can deal with that, then no problem.” Not that it’s a huge thing that’s he is married to an African-American woman and has a multiracial family, but that certainly gives him a whole other dimension that’s kind of necessary for the story. I told Juliet, his wife, “Look, we have a major problem. I understand you have reservations about appearing on camera, but it’s going to really hurt. Would you reconsider it?” And she did, fortunately. Those were some of the last scenes that we filmed. We don’t go into great detail about it, but it does fill out the character of the judge, which was really important. Tchavdar was the one who forced us to go back and get the results.

Were there any other moments when you didn’t think you had what you needed?

With a documentary like ours that’s character driven—even though we kind of had a spine, hopefully—you want to go into it with some kind of idea of where the beginning, middle, and end is going to be. At the beginning, we’re going to introduce everybody to these characters, follow them along their arcs, and it’s all going to come to a head with the running of marathons: Will they reach their goals, will they complete the marathon, will they relapse and wind up back on the street? But you can’t force the hand of your characters, and you have to be patient. You want to go into the whole process with as clear a picture as you can, because you can’t film everything, you’ll go insane.

For example, we filmed the L.A. Marathon. You can’t get authorized to have a vehicle on the course. Without a huge budget it was very difficult to find six runners on a 26-mile course. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t satisfying enough. Tchavdar said maybe we don’t need that. So we dropped that and put all our eggs in the Rome Marathon, which was a good idea.

You funded the documentary yourselves, and it took years to complete. How did you find the stamina for your own marathon?

Whenever we were thinking of quitting the project, we’d have discussions about freedom. Gabi grew up in a communist society with no freedom, and now here she is enjoying the benefits of her freedom, and part of the responsibility that comes with her freedom is telling this story, and putting our own hard-earned money to make that happen. I hope it doesn’t sound too preachy. But she really took it to heart.

Skid Row Running Club member Mody Diop [left], <i>Skid Row Marathon</i> producer Gabrielle Hayes, and Judge Craig Mitchell

It was the strength of the story that we thought needed to be told that gave us the wherewithal to continue. When I was shooting in Rome, it’s raining during the marathon, it’s awful, and I hear someone calling to me. It’s the subject Rebecca. This is at Mile 4 of a 26.2-mile event. She’s white as a ghost, doesn’t look good, she’s drenched from the rain, and she says, “Can you lend me 20 euros?”

I said, “Yeah, is everything OK?”

“No, it’s not OK, I need a pack of cigarettes and I need a pizza.” She would not let me film it. But she smoked a couple of cigarettes and had a couple slices of pizza, tucked the cigs away, and continued, and she finished the marathon. Whenever we thought, there’s no money left, it’s not happening, we’d think of somebody like Rebecca. She was homeless, on the street, with a kid, heroin addict, alcoholic—if she could finish that marathon, we can suck it up and finish, which we finally did.

The problem of homelessness has exploded even since you started making the film.

When we had our first rough cut, I think the graphic read, “34,000 people in the County of L.A. are homeless.” We did another cut and had to jack it up to 48,000. Then we had to change the graphic again to 57,000. And then now, it’s 59,600. So it’s not getting better. When I lived downtown, sometimes I would go and buy a case of water and hand it out to homeless people on a really hot day, thinking I was like a big hero. But I felt helpless; there was nothing I thought I could do. Then meeting the judge, I thought OK, here’s a guy who saw the same thing that I saw, but figured out a way to do something. Even though he’s not solving the homeless problem, not by any stretch, hopefully the takeaway in our project is that it’s better to do something than to do nothing. Each of us can do a little something to contribute to a larger solution. The judge taught me that.

Skid Row Marathon will be screening in select theaters nationwide on Monday, October 14th. Please go to Skidrowmarathon.com for locations and information.