A little context – my brother is a journalist in Vancouver, and he conducted this interview with me for his blog. His questions provoked some interesting thoughts.
Tell me about the development of the movie. Did you expect that it would become a fully fledged feature, rather than a simple documentary?
The best way to understand this is to go back about five years to early 2007, when I was planning to cycle round the world. My best mate Andy and I had got a whole route round the planet mapped out, and we were absolutely dead set on doing it. We didn’t know how long it would take so we left it open-ended – three or four years seemed likely.
Then one day I got a call from a guy asking if I was interested in filming the trip! I hadn’t considered filming until then, and I was skeptical because I had no filming experience whatsoever. I wasn’t that interested, because I thought I’d rather concentrate on my photography hobby, but we agreed to meet this guy, Ben, and his mate James, who had just graduated from film school and set up their own production company.
Their idea was to produce a video podcast series which would run for the length of our journey. Once a month or so they’d produce and release a short web-based video using footage we’d send back from wherever we happened to be. Everyone got very enthusiastic about the idea; we bought expensive cameras and waved them about a lot, and they rented an office and hired a full-time editor.
About five months into the journey, reality struck for all of us. Andy and I realised our footage was crap; we had no experience of shooting for a professional editor, and no idea how to tell a story or come across naturally on camera. We’d sent back dozens of hours of useless footage that would be of no value to anyone other than ourselves, years later, whilst reminiscing over heroic times gone by.
Meanwhile, the five episodes that had been released failed to attract an audience, because it turned out that nobody was interested in the badly-told story of two middle class blokes on a long cycling holiday in Europe. Ben and James ran out of money, the sponsors weren’t interested in renewing their contract, and their company almost went under. Andy and I agreed with them that we’d keep on filming under our own steam after the death of our video podcast, and one day we’d see if a future video project might emerge from the whole thing.
Fast forward three years. Andy and I had long since gone our separate ways. I’d been through a series of enormous changes of direction in my life whilst alone on the road. I never did cycle our planned route – instead I disappeared off to the Middle East and Africa for a long and difficult solo journey, which became my adventurer’s coming of age – my baptism of fire. Having learnt the ropes of filming during that first six months on the road in 2007, the footage I sent to James from those solo adventures now forms the main story thread, from which various other story strands are brought forward. James and I (mostly James) have worked together over the last year and we’ve now got a completely finished feature-length documentary on our hands; one which nobody involved could ever had envisaged at the outset of the whole project – in fact, to be honest, it’s so far away from what we imagined that it deserves to be considered a separate thing entirely.
If you want to know what happens – well, you’ll have to wait until it gets released!
How was your experience of shooting a film yourself, starring yourself, for the first time?
Once I’d been convinced to do it, I took it on wholeheartedly as I tend to do with most things I decide to do. It was very exciting because of the prospect of what might be created, but horribly disappointing when it came to actual results. It wasn’t until we’d reached Vienna at the far end of Western Europe that we sat down to watch our footage and realised how bad it was. It took literally months of daily filming to break away from ‘home video’ mode – that’s the mode in which people simply attempt to vacuum up the sight of anything remotely interesting – and to learn what images I’d need to capture for a complete, good-looking, successfully-edited story within a film. Doing that is a full-time job and requires an incredible amount of thought – you have to be completely on the ball, no matter how tired you are. Which is perhaps why it took four months just to get to Istanbul – some cyclists have done that in three weeks!
Shooting footage of myself, in retrospect, was even more difficult. If you look at the majority of amateur travel videos online, you’ll notice that they typically have either no characters whatsoever – just pictures over music – or at best a part-formed character who appears occasionally to deliver a one-liner and then leaves you thinking “so who the hell was that?!?”!
This film would never had worked at all had it not been character-led. This meant that I had to learn to be uncomfortably honest with the camera, letting go of any and all inhibition and clinically scourging every last trace of pretension and acting, and doing a hell of a lot of talking. This took months and months of practice and some serious soul-searching, because how can you be honest and genuine with the camera if you can’t be so with yourself? But the result was that James had a very rich palette of ‘sync’ (that’s dialogue spoken to the camera during the action itself) to build his film from.
I also had to deal with the stigma of wandering around, in places I’d just arrived in and with people I’d only just met, whilst holding a camera & microphone pointed at myself and talking into it. This never became particularly comfortable, but it did eventually become second nature.
As for setting up shots on the tripod and cycling off, only to have to cycle back to pick up all the equipment – there are hundreds of such shots, all laborious and time-consuming. They must have added quite a distance to my total mileage. I try not to think about all the shots like that that never got used!
What was the most challenging part of the production process?
I think that’s a question for the producer, James, but I think he’d say that it was figuring out what the actual story was, and how best to tell it. He had 300 hours of footage to wade through – that’s two and a half weeks of back-to-back footage – which he had to watch through two or three times, whilst making notes, in search of the sequence of sub-stories that would all add up to the story he wanted to tell.
If you think about the variation in quality of the stories that were actually shot, plus the incredibly unpredictable sequence of events that did unfold over those three and a half years of life on the road and in far-flung lands – you can perhaps see how difficult this was.
There are a million ways to tell a story like this, and James had to find the best of the bunch, and then make it – and make it successfully. I can’t put into words how much time, energy and passion he’s put into getting to that point, and how well I feel he’s pulled it off.
Were there any other films that influenced Janapar during the production process?
I went through a phase during my time in Armenia of watching as many travel documentaries as I could lay my hands on, to see how I could improve as a cameraman. I studied series like ‘The Long Way Round’ closely – how the cameraman framed his shots, what shots he actually filmed to let the editor tell the story, what stories he chose to focus on, how the filming style changed depending on the mood and atmosphere of the story that was unfolding – things like that which all add up to effective, editable rushes (raw footage).
The Canadian travel series ‘Departures’ is a stunning example of how good camerawork can really set off a film that might otherwise have been fairly average. The director of photography on that series is incredibly talented, and is also a brilliant example of why knowing your equipment inside out is so important. I wish I’d seen it earlier!
In terms of films influencing the post-production process, James and I watched several other notable recent bicycle-journey films (yes, there are a few!) including Rob Lilwall’s ‘Cycling Home From Siberia’ and Mark Beaumont’s ‘The Man Who Cycled The World’, and it became obvious that we weren’t going make anything like either of them. The format and focus would be completely different, because what we had was neither a road movie nor an athletic record. James is a big fan of ‘Into The Wild’; I think he’d liken Janapar more to that than to either of the films I previously mentioned (although without the dying-at-the-end bit!).
But in the end, we basically seem to have invented an entirely new format. It lands at the intersection of fictional road-trip and fairytale romance, despite being a documentary of actual events. It’s entirely self-shot, yet it looks like a film crew was following me around. We don’t really know how to categorise it. At a test screening, someone actually asked us afterwards if the film was based on a true story!!!
Was it difficult to keep motivating yourself to set up the camera, before cycling off into the distance, and having to cycle all the way back again to collect it – over and over again?
Yes. It usually felt like a huge waste of time and I huffed and puffed and whinged at the camera when I eventually arrived to pick it up. I tried to get maximum value by making sure I got a ‘going away’ shot and a ‘coming towards’ shot in the same take, giving the editor a bit more to play with. In the end, though, these shots have brought the finished film to a level of visual quality that I’m unashamedly proud of.
Did you have any clue during the early days of Ride Earth and its Podcasts that this whole endeavour would end up on the big screen?
Not really. Someone mentioned ‘feature film’ early on, but it was always far off in the background. The end was so far off that we never really thought about it. It’s not on the big screen yet, though – I’m not counting my chickens!
What has been the most rewarding part of producing the film?
Getting the opportunity to work with James, who is hugely talented and driven, and all the other creative minds who have contributed to the post-production process. Vince, the composer, has delivered some unreal background music – the way in which it sets the scenes off is amazing. The fact that it’s come to a conclusion and that I’m actually happy with the end result is pretty unbelievable. I was the biggest skeptic of all when it was decided that the production would go ahead.
Are there any aspects of your story that you would have liked to have made it into the film?
There are so many stories about people and events on the road that I couldn’t begin to list them. But the truth is that James had to be so very selective. The film was never going to be primarily about the cultures or conditions, so it was of utmost important that any of that that we put in served to further the main story rather than distract from it.
What it does mean, of course, is that there’s reams of ‘bonus’ material that we can release online and put in the DVD extras. There’s some fascinating stuff in there. I was really sad to see Ethiopia being skipped through fairly rapidly, especially the section in the Afar desert, still populated only by tribes, and which is where most palaeontologists think the human race originally emerged a few million years back.
There’s also the entire alternative story of Andy cycling alone to Pakistan, India and Nepal! I haven’t seen the footage, but Andy and I have chatted about getting that made into a standalone feature.
Was it tough summoning the motivation to keep going through Sudan’s Nubian Desert rather than hitch a ride?
Lifts were rather hard to come by, especially once I crossed the river, after which there was literally no traffic, and no road or track in a lot of places. I once got a lift to a road-workers’ camp, which was a couple of kilometres away from the main trail through the desert, but that was all.
Nubia is actually one of the most delightful places I’ve ever been, once I’d got used to the heat, sand and solitude that came in between the little riverside villages. The reaction of the local people was invariably of the “Hello! Meal? Chat? Bed? Bye!” variety. I don’t think I’ve ever met such gentle, hospitable people than the Nubians of northern Sudan. That was motivation enough to stick to cycling!
What was the most rewarding part of the African leg of the adventure?
It might sound cliched, but it was having my preconceptions demolished – specifically, my preconceptions of what people in African nations want, what they need, and what we (rich countries) can give them. The whole generalised notion that ‘they’ actually ‘need’ anything, or that anything ‘we’ give ‘them’ will ‘help’ (sorry about all the apostrophes, but the very sentence is so loaded with presumption), is up for question, in my opinion, if the ultimate goal of society is well-being, contentment, purpose and stability.
Why I think that is difficult to explain in a couple of paragraphs. But if you want to know, I’d suggest riding a bicycle through Africa with your mind a blank slate and your eyes fully open.
Oh yeah – I promise that cycling through the Ethiopian highlands will make you fitter than you’ve ever been, or will probably ever be!
And the most physically and mentally challenging?
Yep, that would be Ethiopia again. Imagine mountains the size of the Alps. Now imagine the roads all go straight up and straight down, rather than having nice gradients and switchbacks. And that they’re made of gravel. Ethiopia is actually the most mountainous nation in all of Africa.
It’s also a fairly unique place to be a cyclist from a social point of view. A Canadian cyclist I met there (and the only other cyclist I met for five months) pointed it out quite well: “Usually things chill out when you reach the countryside… but here it’s the other way round!” He was referring to the shepherding and goat-herding children, great crowds of whom will chase you, shout at you, grab your stuff, and throw rocks at you, on a daily basis, all over the countryside of Ethiopia. I couldn’t even take a piss without an audience of ten-year-olds watching me. It was the only place where I would dive for the village ‘hotel’ at the first possible opportunity each evening, and spend a couple of dollars on a mud-and-straw box room for me and my bike rather than camp.
If you could do it again would you do anything differently regarding how you shot the film?
I’d spend a couple of years learning the ropes of filmmaking before setting off. That way I’d have been able to produce quality footage from day one, rather than having to write off huge chunks of story because my skills weren’t up to scratch. People imagine that shooting film is essentially the same as photography, but with a bit more movement involved. Totally wrong – framing the picture is the last step in a huge series of considerations, and you can’t learn what they are simply by holding a camera.
I’d also take a better quality camera. Partly this is because better quality cameras are available now which weren’t available when I set off. But it’s also because I became frustrated at the creative limitation of my little Sony hand-held. The pictures it produced were quite amazing considering the size, but technology has come on so far in the last five years that the creative options are now far broader.
But I need to reiterate that there’s no point in having flashy kit if you don’t know how to tell a story. A skilled filmmaker could shoot a better film on a smartphone than a beginner with the most expensive camera kit in the world ever could.
There is also a book in development about your adventures. What can we expect from that?
The book is the result of a couple of years of thinking – like the film, the main story thread is based on events from 2008 and 2009. It wasn’t until early 2011 that I’d come to a strong enough realisation of what the story was really about to start writing.
I sent drafts of the manuscript to James throughout the writing process, and this had a large influence on the script. The result is that the film tells the same story as the book, albeit in the far more condensed and singular form of a movie. The book goes into a lot more detail on the events of the story, shares far more anecdotes of my adventures on the road, and expands on many of the themes that the film can only touch on in its 78 minutes of screen time.
It was hugely enjoyable and rewarding to revisit such a rich vein of memory and experience, to unravel it and reassemble it in the form of a manuscript, and I hope that those who do enjoy the documentary will find the contents of the book equally enjoyable and interesting to read – and maybe a little source of inspiration too. There is a cast of characters whose stories inspired me to take the plunge with this trip in the first place, and I’ve tried to pass on some of that inspiration myself.
Is there an expected date of release for it?
I’m planning to self-publish the book during the first half of 2012, both as a traditional printed volume and an electronic edition for e-readers. I’m also hoping to publish a photobook alongside it.
When can the public expect to see the film? Will it be screened at any film festivals?
That’s entirely up to the whim of the selection panels of the film festivals! The film has been entered for all the ‘big ones’, because at the end of the day we’ve nothing to lose. If it’s not our time, we’ll look at smaller festivals. In any case, we’ll make it known when and where the film will be screened on the film’s website, janapar.com, through which we’ll also be selling the DVD when it’s released next year.
What do you hope the viewers will take from this film?
First and foremost I hope that viewers find themselves emotionally ‘on board’ with the journey and the story as it unfolds. In terms of what people take from it, I think that it’ll depend largely on the person in question. Perhaps some will find that the romance resonates with them; for others it’ll be the coming of age, the breaking free; some more might find that my world doesn’t look as they expected it to and be compelled to go and explore it further themselves. If any inspiration is to be found in the story, I’d hope that it’s to stop making excuses and grab life by the balls. It’s not a rehearsal.
Would you like to do it again?
Impossible – I’m married now!