I still haven't seen this film yet, but ahead of the film's premiere, Leonie Watkins (herself a film editor) hijacked the film's director, Gareth Maxwell Roberts, and producer, Lucy Selwood, at London’s Bike Shed for an exclusive hour to talk about their film, the process, reshooting and the potential struggle of keeping Gareth Maxwell Roberts on budget. (GI)
Leonie Watkins: So let’s talk about the film’s beginnings. How did you come to make a documentary about the custom bike scene?
Gareth Roberts: Contemporary custom culture is very welcoming and inclusive. It's very refreshing, in a sense, if you compare it to the old chopper scene or the sportsbike community - it doesn't really matter what you ride. We wanted the film to feel contemporary to echo that. We didn’t want the film to feel too heavy.
It feels exciting, doesn't it? People are open to just chatting about their projects.
Lucy Selwood: That's what I was nervous about to begin with, just turning up... thinking I've got nothing to contribute but people love to tell you their story as well and everyone has a different story to tell. There's this connection between everybody. And that's the brilliant thing that comes across in the final edit. There are all these different characters and stories to tell and yet there's this one strong connection between all of them that you can't really explain in one sentence but it's there.
GR: Everybody's got an itch that needs scratching and for everybody, it's in a slightly different place, so you talk to each individual person, they've all got the same gnawing feeling and that's what makes it interesting. And because it's so broad, culturally, in the sense it encompasses so many different types of bikes.
How did you go about selecting which bikes to include?
GR: When I started out it just began with people that I kind of knew or knew of, personally, just from being in and around custom bikes for a certain amount of time. It became one of those things. You speak to one person and three other people appear who you should be talking to, so we’ve done almost 300 interviews. I could have done at least another 150. There are dozens of builders out there that I feel quite guilty about not interviewing.
Was this just due to time restrictions?
LS: Time and budget limitations!
GR: We would go to the shows and we’d be filming interviews for the entire time we were there. That’s where we got the bulk of our interviews. Then we did as many workshop visits and interviews as we possibly could, but that then starts to become a lot more difficult, logistically and expense wise you know. I would have loved to have gone to Walt Siegl’s place in New Hampshire but that would have been a 2 day trip out of New York.
LS: The biggest costs were camera costs and editing costs. Every time you do one interview, it’s not about getting there or the time you spend doing it and getting back, that’s fine. You have to pay travel days for camera, then the days you shoot, and travel days back and then all the editing time afterwards because Gareth will shoot an entire day there so then David (Editor) has to wrangle with all of that and it becomes something like a $5000 shoot for what will ultimately be a few seconds or shots of a bike!
A weighty element of any passion project is the reality of the business side of things and corresponding considerations. Did you feel this pressure?
LS: The budget did go up but I don’t think it went far beyond what you see on screen. Camera fees and editing costs were the bulk of our budget. It’s all there on screen and it was all worth it.
GR: You’ll make your own mind up about that but you know, I think we got some pretty high production values, really. It was a really good working relationship between the 3 of us. Between us, there were enough checks and measures in place to get what we needed to get and make judgements as to whether or not we had it. There were a couple of occasions where I thought we haven’t quite got it and we need to go and do this one more thing and I could check in with David on that and we’d have a conversation. I’d be able to present a case to Lucy to go and do it – not just based on me being self-indulgent!
LS: I’d look at Gareth and think, ‘is this necessary? Or is it just because you want to go and do that?’ But actually, I give Gareth credit because what we actually ended up doing was all for the sake of the film and for all of us so, that’s good. As much as it gives off the impression it was all fun and games there was a lot of hard work.
GR: It was hard work. I mean, we did it on skeleton crews and we worked long hours.
Did you have a strong narrative already written? Or did you organically allow the story to find its way?
GR: It was yes and yes! I wrote a very detailed treatment about what the film was about. The kind of subjects we wanted to cover and a kind of loose narrative structure in terms of how things were connected to each other but that said, I didn’t want to make a film that was just my 2hr opinion of this. I wanted to find out what other people’s opinions were.
It’s a really hard way to connect [them in the edit].
GR: It really is! It’s really labour intensive, so essentially we called them questions but actually they’re more themes.
LS: They were like chapters…
GR: We called them questions as well because they kind of mirrored the list that I came up with at the beginning – they ran to around 27 at the beginning (27 throughout the whole process, actually) so what we would then do was we would go through each interview and we would pull out relevant or pertinent statements and then we’d put them into any one of these seven bins so d by the end of shooting we had anything between 45 minutes and an hour for each one of those subjects, so then it was a matter of getting 25-30 hours worth of material down to two.
You said you handpicked many builds and that a lot of people came to you through contacts and people you met, but was there a particular build that really stood out for you - one that you really wanted to get a story on?
GR: The biggest gem for us was the Mama Tried show because I had heard about it vaguely and then by chance we met a builder called Magic Mike who’s a chopper builder. We met him at the Brooklyn Invitational - well, Lucy met him outside while having a cigarette - he was a real find.
LS: He’s become our mascot!
GR: Yes, he’s become one of our best mates. He’s brilliant and he’s a very, very good builder and he’s from just outside Milwaukee. We were hanging out all weekend and we interviewed him. He said, ‘you should come to Mama Tried’. And we thought it sounds pretty cool - we thought it was a chopper show. And he said, ‘yeah, it’s kind of a chopper show but it’s like all these shows now - there’s choppers, there’s race bikes, there’s vintage bikes, the whole lot but just come, it’s a great show.’ So the following winter, we were going to The One Show, we kind of doubled these up and went to Mama Tried with honestly, not a huge amount of expectation but we were completely blown away by it on every level. For a start, the two guys and woman that run it are just the nicest people and the coolest people that I’d met along the way, just great on every level. They put on a fantastic show. They welcomed us with open arms.
And do they have a long history?
GR: Yeah, they’ve been mates for decades. They just put on a show where they feature bikes that they like and also bikes that they don’t particularly like but they think other people will like. So there’s no other real criteria for it other than they think they’re interesting bikes. So you get these amazing bikes and of course they have Flat Out Friday, the flat track racing on a Friday, which is in an MBA stadium, so it’s indoors on a basketball court. They basically put Dr. Pepper syrup on the floor to get grip. Absolute chaos! And then they have ice racing on the Sunday on the frozen lake. So that was a great surprise!
LS: 3 months before that we’d been in the Sahara Desert with El Solitario with Harley Davidson, and then 3 months later we’re on frozen lakes in Milwaukee shooting ice racing. That was a crazy 6 months! That really opened up your eyes even, didn’t it? Thinking you knew the scene to a degree. Even Gareth’s face when we were standing on those frozen lake! Wondering what was going on!
I wanted to ask you how it started and how it came about. What compelled you to want to tell the story in the first place?
GR: Well, the thing is, I think I’ve been riding bikes my whole life.
How many years, can I ask?
GR: It’s coming up to 38 years! And you know, I’ve been through a few phases in my bike odyssey, my bike journey. But mostly it was more kind of sports bikes. Sports bikes and racing. But when I was a kid it was social. By the time I got into my 20s and went away to art school, I was still riding bikes but it became a lot more of a solitary thing. Well not solitary but I had 2 or 3 mates that were into bikes but that was it. And we’d go out for rides and that sort of stuff but most of the other people I knew that you’d meet riding bikes I didn’t really have a lot in common with. And that’s fine, that’s just the way it was. And then when this thing took off suddenly, it was this community that kind of sprung up out of nowhere. A lot of likeminded people… but who were different at the same time. There was a kind of social thing and it seemed to have stripped away a lot of the chauvinism and closed mindedness of what I’d experienced in motorcycling for decades. I found it really invigorating and I also found it sparked an interest and broadened my horizons as far as motorcycling was concerned. I started becoming interested in bikes that I’d never been interested in before, in genres I’d never been interested in before.
Which seamlessly takes me onto my next question. Do you hope it will have an influence on the scene, and what sort of influence do you hope it might have?
LS: Yeah, I hope it will have a positive influence on the business side of things for a lot of these guys. If there’s one thing the documentary highlights, is how hard they work, how much effort they put into stuff and what little they financially get out of it. So I hope it will help people understand how it works and want to give a little back to those people.
GR: Yeah, I hope that it will inform people about what it is to build motorcycles.
LS: To be a little bit more encouraging and supportive.
GR: And just a little bit more knowledgeable, understanding and empathetic to how involved and how difficult a process it actually is and that it’s not just a frivolous fashion based thing…
Which I think is a lot of how people perceive it, generally speaking.
GR: I think people do think it’s a bunch of hipsters riding around on un-rideable bikes and I think hopefully if people watch this they’ll see that actually that’s not what it is. In fact, there were things we did want to examine and we did talk about that we abandoned in the end – the discussion about whether it’s just for hipster bikers… The more we got into it the more we don’t even talk about that aspect because the more we put the narrative together, we realised that answered our question without having to ask. Because how can people who dedicate their lives to something because they are passionate about engineering, fabrication, designing… by its very nature of the commitment it’s not a fashionable life choice. None of the people we spoke to have arrived in the last 5 minutes. You don’t just start building a bike and become good at it in 6 months. These are skills you develop over years and years and years. So that was one issue and I thought it was just about understanding that as a culture, it’s changing motorcycling in a much wider sense, in a more positive and enduring way. It’s encouraging people to engage with their motorcycles again, their machines – to actually get their hands dirty, understand how these things work and attaching a value to those old skills. You know, like in the 60s and 70s if you owned a Triumph Bonneville, or a Norton Commando, you had a workshop manual that was an inch thick telling you how to change the pistons, how to replace the crank if you needed to. Now, you buy a new Triumph and you get a little warranty booklet and that’s it! This change has encouraged people to think about it. Even if they’re not diving in there and pulling the heads off regularly and changing gaskets, they’re at least thinking about how these things work and seeing there is a value in understanding these things. And I think that’s interesting and it’s really important because it’s stripping away the rabid consumerism that has come to dominate the motorcycle industry. Instead of going in and buying a brand new bike on credit because you are told by the manufacturers it’s the shit hot thing, and then a year later they bring out a new model and so the thing you bought last year that was the shit hot thing is no longer the shit hot thing, but come in and trade last year’s shit hot thing for this year’s shit hot thing! People lose thousands of pounds just being on this constant kind of hamster wheel of having to have new. This has turned the whole thing on its head and has said actually, you don’t need to do that. There are plenty of old bikes out there, plenty of boring bikes, or unloved bikes that you can turn into something that’s far more an expression of you than going into a Triumph dealership or Harley dealership or a Ducati dealership and buy a brand new bike. You may still want to do that, but it’s just… giving people a slightly different perspective on it. It has given people choices. And it has given people the choice to be involved in motorcycling at a very cheap level and that’s what’s great about it. It has brought a whole load of young people in that weren’t coming into motorcycling in the early 2000s.
Did you have a score composed for the film?
GR: Yeah, we did. By a guy named Rocco DeLuca. He’s more of a recording artist than he is a film score artist. I first heard his stuff when he was doing a live accompaniment to the chopper film, ‘Sugar & Spade.’
Your composed score adds to the something that’s a whole, it’s a part of the piece and it’s entirely yours.
LS: It strings our whole film together. We had holding tracks in there and then when they came out and this new score went in it was really hard to know where to match it. Gareth went, ‘forget that! Forget that track ever existed before and just hear it as it is now.’
A lot of people may not necessarily look at the film from a creative perspective, yet as soon as you hear the music and are engaged with the audio, it draws you in.
GR: Yes, exactly. It was really interesting, we have a section about Mama Tried and when we put Rocco’s score to those images, it hardwired me. Literally, we put the music down and we listened back to it and the hairs stood up on the back of my and it was like, Wow! It hardwired me right back to that experience we had that weekend and it just really captured the essence of what that weekend was about.
One of the first questions I asked, and I asked this of pretty much everybody is, what is it about a motorcycle, what is it about riding a bike? When we put together that section of answers there was about two and a half hours of just brilliant stuff. And of course, you can’t have 2.5hrs of that stuff so there ends up being 2 minutes of it in the film! But what I wanted to try to do was throughout the film was just remind people who ride bikes what it is to ride bikes. And to people who don’t ride bikes, suggest what it is to ride a bike. I suppose that’s what that cinematic and atmospheric aspect of the films is about. It’s to try and plug into that emotion. We had to make sure there’s enough emotion in there. Because ultimately, you know what’s it like – those moments where it just clicks in and everything is just so. There’s no other feeling like it. You can’t compare it to anything else. Well I can’t! There’s nothing that feels just like that… when everything’s aligned. The bike’s running well, you’ve got a great piece of road the weather’s beautiful, the lights just right. It’s indescribable. But everybody who rides a bike knows what that feeling is. So you’ve got to try and get a sense of that across. It’s difficult when it’s not actually you on the bike. I think there are two places in the film where it really does come across and I think that’s the El Solitario bit in the desert and the ice racing.
LS: I think people will be surprised. For me, there’s that same feeling in the flat track. There’s a real imagined sense that when you’re there it can feel loud and aggressive and in your face but actually, watching it in the film you see the poetry and really feel it’s an experience. Especially on a big screen! It’s amazing because lots of people don’t race yet you really see how the riders are controlling the bike, or trying to control the bike. It’s something super loud and aggressive turned into something emotional and slowed right down.
GMR: The thing that I have found really interesting during making the documentary is the relationship between custom bikes and flat track racing. The resurgence of flat track racing going hand in hand with the resurgence in custom culture.
Do you think that’s because it’s a relatively affordable way to race, as well as the necessity of building the bike in order to race?
GR: I wish it had been around when I was younger when I was racing, which was 20 years ago. I’d have loved it, I could have done a whole season on what I spent on road racing in a single meet and I did that at a really modest level. I’d rebuild the engine after pretty much every race! It (flat track racing) is cheap and relatively affordable. You can’t go and buy a flat track bike, you have to make one. You have to modify it, so it talks to the same mentality of people who like to customise bikes, pulling them apart and putting back together again. We spoke to people like the Suicide Machine guys and Roland Sands but it’s from the hooligan side of it rather than the pro side. Not really from preference but more relevance, because we really wanted to connect the dots between the custom world and the flat track world. I think there’s an interesting documentary to be made on flat track racing. Which is one of the projects I want to get off the ground, once the dust has settled a bit on this. I think it’s a fascinating sport
Is that something you’ve been considering for a long time or did the idea come about through making this film?
GR: Through this really because my experience of flat track here was Dirt Quake and the spin off from that. I went to a few race meets with friends of mine who were racing and had got into it but it’s really funny here because it’s a relatively new sport. In the States, it’s grassroots racing and it’s grassroots racing that was dying on its feet. It’s really interesting that Scott Johnson from Fuel who runs Mama Tried said, ‘Sideburn has been instrumental in reimporting flat track back into the US.’ Which is great! Who’d have thought Gary setting up his magazine would be able to steer a revival and save a dying motorsport? But that’s what I love about it. It’s grassroots racing. The guys from Suicide Machines said you know, you can go and build and race a competitive bike in the hooligan class for $5000 and win races on it. It’s another thing that’s democratising motorsport and getting a whole bunch of people involved in motorcycle racing that couldn’t have before. People get into DTRA racing but they would never have been able to race otherwise because they never would have been able to afford it. That’s amazing to me.
LW: It opens it up to everybody.
GR: It’s affordable racing but it’s community-based racing because you know everyone you’re racing against. Everyone helping each other out. So the whole thing becomes more enjoyable.
Are there any aspects of making the film that has made you view the custom community differently?
GR: What I found fascinating about this, is that we’ve made a documentary where someone like Dan Thomas from Lions Den can be in a conversation with somebody like Hugh Mackie from Sixth Street Specials, so you’ve got a young guy in his 20s from north London making some really exquisite top end customs and a dyed in the wool, grisly bitten Scot who’s had a shop in the lower east side of New York since the early 80s and there’s a common ground there - they talk about the same things, the same passions. They even have the same philosophical views on life! I really found that. It’s the same with me. A bloke in his early 50s – I can be stood outside here or at a show and I could be chatting to a 22 year old woman young about something we’re equally passionate about, knowledgeably and on a level. What other kind of interest can bring people together like that? Music doesn’t. You can’t go to a gig and start chatting to a group of 22 year olds, you know. They’ll all be wondering, ‘what’s granddad doing here!’ If you go to a classic car or classic motorcycle meet and a 22 year old woman turns up they’ll be treated like idiots because of the prevailing attitudes in those cultures. That’s what’s so interesting about this. It’s this sense of diversity. So that’s what’s interesting about chatting to Hugh Mackie at Sixth Street Specials, who was making custom bikes without realising he was making custom bikes.
You’ll almost certainly need a break after this but what do you think you’ll do next? Are you formulating plans for another film?
GR: We have ideas for other feature documentaries and potentially, a series. There are lots of possibles we’re thinking about and looking at. There’s a lot more on the horizon!
Look out for the commercial release of Oil in The Blood, coming soon.
16th & 17th February at Mama Tried
21st February at Federal Moto, Logan Theatre, Chicago