Ever heard of the Tour Divide race? Forget the Tour de France, when was the last time Lance Armstrong had to worry about hiking over miles of snow and keeping clear of grizzly bears? From Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide, over 2700 miles, is the distance the cyclists crazy enough to “Ride the Divide” have to go in order to say that they’ve beaten the race. Still, it’s okay if you haven’t heard of the race; its status is considered underground even among the most avid of cyclists. Or, at least it was underground, until filmmaker Hunter Weeks and team decided to make a documentary about it.
Sitting at a coffee shop in Boise, Idaho, just a day before his film about the race, and the cyclists who attempt it, was to go online for free viewing on YouTube in celebration of LIVESTRONG Day, Hunter answered my call to talk all things “Ride the Divide.” A cheerful voice, I couldn’t help but immediately call the filmmaker out for his penchant for projects that involved him traveling great distances (his film “10 MPH” focused on crossing the United States on a Segway, and a project for Quizno’s rested on his ability to eat a torpedo sandwich in all 50 states in just two weeks). Should Hunter change his name to “the traveling filmmaker”?
“I think so, you know. It’s something that I think is sort of implanted into my blood early from when I grew up with my Mom. She has a pretty adventuresome spirit and just got us out on the road, even small road trips within the States, but I had the chance to do some international travel and things like that too so, as I’ve been taking on different film projects, it’s been the natural way to go.”
“It’s funny that you’re asking about that now because I just sat down with a guy who saw the movie last night in Boise and he’s got a project that he’s really eager to do that’s based on some cyclists on the Silk Road. He’s already got some money and everything else together and we were just talking about how it’s funny how you start to evolve as a filmmaker and go down a different direction and things start to align and it seems the traveling aspect is very important in my films.”
So how did Hunter find himself documenting the Divide Race?“I actually found out about it from Mike Dion, who is one of the subjects in the film. He’s also the executive producer. He was working at Starz Film Channel in Denver, Colorado, which is where Josh [Caldwell, Hunter’s filmmaking partner] and I were based with the first two films that we did and, basically, Josh and I were winding down on our second project, weren’t sure what was coming next, in that almost burnt out stage of filmmaking where it’s like it’s just grinding away and Mike came along and said, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about leaving my job and I want to make this film’ and was picking our brains and it just came together for us to get involved working on that project. And I took on a very serious, almost a partner role in the process of jumping in and helping make that.”
“I didn’t know about the race until he started telling me about it and, obviously, looking over the material and thinking about ‘this is pretty cool but it’s very, very niche-y,’ I was a little nervous about it and then, lo and behold, after going through the process two years later and now we’re releasing it, it’s been cool to see how important it is to have a niche like that to sort of attract your initial base audience.”
And who is that base audience? Strictly cyclists, the more outdoorsy-type or the broader fan of film documentary in general?
“We look at the audience as the outdoor enthusiast for sure. We play in outdoor markets, we’ve been doing theatrical screenings all over the Mountain States, in your Eastern active regions, North Carolina, D.C., various places. I feel like we start with outdoor and bike communities and that’s where people start to see this movie, but what’s interesting is what’s happening, and this is what I’ve hoped for, is that I don’t want it to be just a bike film, I want it to really have a farther reaching adventuresome spirit about it that anyone would enjoy watching. Sort of like “Touching the Void,” but without so much drama or to the extremes that goes. I feel like it’s starting to do that for sure.”
Of course, “Ride the Divide” is not entirely without drama or suspense. As the grueling endurance challenge unfolds, some cyclists rise to the challenge, such as Matthew Lee who, during the film, is on his 5th attempt of the race, while other cyclists falter and still more cyclists drop out left and right, including executive producer Mike Dion. What’s it like to set out to document one idea, only to watch everything change as the days wear on?
“It’s a good question. The biggest concern I had was that Mike was essentially the guy that had the vision for the film, and then he was a subject and I knew that he wanted this to be a film about himself. I didn’t know if he would finish or not and that was really important to the storyline so I was trying to anticipate that as I was shooting and capturing the moments. I sort of had my secret desires that he wouldn’t because I felt like there was other stuff that was important to get to and this film would be more powerful if it wasn’t just about this 40 year old guy who just decides to do this race.”
“It’s kind of one of those things where, when you start… all of a sudden when the day hits and you’re out there shooting and, as you see in the movie, we missed the start. Very small crew and it’s like it got real really fast and i’m like ‘oh god, I don’t know what’s going to happen out there.’ As a documentary filmmaker in this run-and-gun style, you just got to give everything you can to the moment you’re in production and try to be as close to the story as possible, so I started all of a sudden getting to this point where ‘Mike’s going to drop out, Mary’s going to drop out and Matthew’s got this mechanical and other things are starting to happen to him.’ It’s foreseeable that the three people that we’re really focusing on fall out of this story, and then you start going nowhere fast.”
“The story, I felt the shift; it was a little different in terms of how it came together. I was not sure how much of Matthew we’d really get. If Mike stuck with it, we would’ve stayed on Mike and then the second camera, probably, we would’ve been split on how to cover Mary and how to cover Matthew. Unless Mary and Mike did stick together, so there was that challenge/juggle of who to follow and trying to anticipate the story the whole time.”
It’s easy to forget, when watching a documentary, about the technical challenges the crew themselves may be facing. In this case, I seemed to assume that the film was made with a huge budget and covered by multiple cameras all of the place. That, of course, is inaccurate. What is it like tackling a race like this with minimal equipment and crew?
“At the beginning, the riders are close enough that you can… we’d have a moment where we’re like, okay, Matthew, Ruben, we knew Ruben was in the front a lot, we need to cover the leader but we have a situation developing with Mike and Mary’s puffy legs. Do we let that go for a little while, run down, try to catch Ruben in the front down in Rawlings, which is like a four hour drive away from where they were at, and then get back? There was actually one point in there where we were driving down to capture another rider and then Mike calls us, and this is after Mary had her puffy legs problem, Mike calls us and he’s breaking down and sounding like he’s about to quit and we’re literally two hours out on the road and we’re like, crap, what do we do? Do we go back to him to cover him or do we go… do we keep going where we were going to go? We ultimately went back to cover mike just in case he kept on going. You’re stretched pretty thin when you have limited resources out there.”Despite the challenges, though, one cyclist does come to the fore, both in the race and as the most powerful example of single-minded execution and endurance. Eventual race leader Matthew Lee seems to operate in an entirely different headspace than the other cyclists out there.
“He’s so strong and just somebody who I think is the epitome of endurance. I realize, as a filmmaker, you need huge endurance to be able to get through the project, get to that finish line and eventually distribute the film. All parts of that are quite exhausting, so it was neat to be out on this endurance event and try to capture the essence of that and somebody like Matthew is so tuned in to how he does this. I think the process starts with him and the other racers because he’s kind of a shepherd of this whole race. He actually starts talking to these riders before they get involved. Like Mike, before he decided to do the race, before he even talked to me about the idea of a film, he started talking to Matthew Lee and that was when their relationship began and that’s where Mike started to gain the confidence that maybe he could do this. An endurance event like this is so much about trust and believing that somehow you can actually do it and get it done.”
Honestly, I never thought I’d enjoy a film about cycling. How do you keep the film from straying too far into the niche?
“The guy that is talking to us at this coffee shop about a new project, he said he told his wife about it and she’s like, ‘bicycling sounds boring, I don’t want to go see a movie about bicycling’ but she ends up watching the movie and she comes out and goes ‘wow, that was a really good movie’ because it’s really a story about these human beings that are struggling through this process that seems impossible. I think anybody who is human that has to go through something that’s tough in life, they’re gonna be able to relate because that’s really what we focus on rather than trying to ‘bike porn’ it up with all kinds of cool stuff and great shots.”
But how do you express that message? How do you market it so that people see that, as opposed to automatically thinking about it as a “bicycling movie”?
“Fortunately the cycling community is much bigger than I expected it to be. Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve had tremendous support, buying the product online at much faster paces than they did my previous films… I’m seeing the early adoption is very strong with this film. I think partly because there’s not a lot of great content that’s truly story-driven in the cycling world but I think what starts to happen is that now that we’ve started to launched it in the way that we have, we have to create a bigger message that this more of an adventure film that we have to get on the more mainstream channels. Like our YouTube stunt that we’re doing… I think will inevitably force people to see it that wouldn’t normally see it because it’s there, it’s available and somebody just gets bored and they start to watch this thing and all of a sudden they go ‘hey this is actually a cool movie’ and then they share that through social media. We’ve seen incredible social adoption of the film in terms of how people are sharing it. It’s so cool to do that. As you evolve as a filmmaker and each project comes out it’s always a little bit different and it’s wild to see how people are consuming stuff. Trying to re-position it a little bit more as an adventure film which is, with this kind of human spirit, an adventure film with human spirit, I think that’s what we have to do now to reach beyond just the cycling niche.”
How did the YouTube free streaming event, in celebration of LIVESTRONG Day, come about?
“’10 MPH,’ my first film, was the first feature length documentary on YouTube and it came around the same time that ‘Four-Eyed Monsters’ did, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, and we were always following them and whatnot and we had this idea that ‘maybe we should throw it out there and see what happens.’ I remember how ridiculous it felt like and seemed at the time because nobody was really doing anything like that at that point, but we did and it was amazing because we were first and we got some good visibility on YouTube. That really helped drive a lot of demand for the film, big bump on orders on Netflix and all this stuff so we knew it was a pretty cool way to go. We decided with this film, “Ride the Divide,” a while ago that we would do something similar, but not keep it out there, so we decided to limit it to two days. We’re going to potentially get some good influencer push, activities, Lance Armstrong might tweet about it, that type of thing and then there’s a possibility because we have the relationship with YouTube, there’s definitely the strong possibility that we’ll be highly positioned.”
“It’s almost an experiment but at this point we feel like it’s a good way to go because the film is releasing… we’re not a giant, high budget independent distribution so we have to sort of create ways to do our own P&A that are affordable. And this is what I look at it like, a two day exercise like that. We’ll have anywhere from 50,000 to half a million views, would be my guess, and that gets a lot of quick attention around the title and we’re raising money for LIVESTRONG too through the project, so that could be great too.”Influencers? Positioned? P&A? This doesn’t sound like filmmaker jargon, but is more the language of New Media and social marketing. Has the role of the filmmaker changed that much? When does the filmmaker stop being the filmmaker, and start being the marketer or self-distributor?
“Good question. It’d be fun to just be the artist and not worry about it, just go out there. I think the modern “baby indie,” as I like to call us, that are not of that higher independent realm that are funded, has to think about projects when you decide to make them and make sure that if you get to point where you don’t get picked up, you’re going to be able to find a way to market your film. You’ve got to do something that has a strong niche. It’s not just film but everything is niche-ifying in a pretty big way right now. If you don’t have an easy way to get your film rolling when it’s done, on the distribution side then, you’re going to lose energy quick and be frustrated and you’re going to be back in that stifling cube farm that you don’t want to be in, or whatever. I think you have to think about it a little bit beforehand but then hopefully with the creative process you can forget about it and just create but then, pretty much when you’re wrapping on your shoot, you’re going through post-production, you’ve got to start thinking about a good strategy on how to get it out there and you’ve got to be prepared.”
“Unfortunately, 99% aren’t going to get into the top tier fests. That’s just the facts. Even with me, I get frustrated because I’m like, I’ve done 7 years time now, three films and it’s like, why can’t I get into Sundance or SXSW? I know Janet Pierson and various people and I’ve conversations with them and it’s just a tough game.”
This begs the question, in regards to Hunter’s experience with his films and self-distributing and other unique marketing tactics, if film festivals are even necessary anymore for the modern indie filmmaker?
“I think film festivals are special and they’re wonderful, but they aren’t necessary. There’s always going to be a level of influence that they cast on the film scene, so I think you shouldn’t ignore them, but you can definitely not let them discourage you because I think that, probably in a lot of cases, there’s some pretty decent content that’s out there that’s not gotten to see the light of day because of the frustration that the system can cause. What’s beautiful now is that we’re all empowered, if we want, to be our own distributors.”
So what advice does Hunter have for the indie documentary filmmaker, looking to bust out and make a film on the quick-and-dirty?
“I would say that you can’t do it for money; don’t plan to make money, but it’s a truly enriching experience in a way that you won’t be able to see until you do it. Keep the revenue stream coming in through other types of work, like commercial projects or a part-time job. There’s nothing that gets more difficult than trying to depend on the early money that comes in for your film when you start to sell it or when you start to get it out there and even when you’re producing, you can’t be burning through the money. You’ve got to find the balance.”
“Stay focused on your objective of why you’re making something and stay true to that and don’t worry about the rest of it because that’s what’s going to get you there.”