Published on: 10 August 2015 in Longform

David Street: shooting cycling legend Graeme Obree and the Beastie

Reading time: 14 minutes and 46 seconds

In 2013 cycling legend, Graeme Obree aimed to set a new human-powered land speed record for riding in the prone position (this involved him travelling head first and face down with his chin just 2cm from the front wheel) using a very unusual bike designed by himself and christened “The Beastie” by his friend Sir Chris Hoy.

Directors UK member, David Street followed Graeme throughout the process to produce the feature doc BATTLE MOUNTAIN : Graeme Obree’s Story.

What first inspired you to take up this project? 

A few years ago when most of my peer group started retiring or leaving the industry to write, it made me realise that all I wanted to do was make films. It was more than just a job, it was something I needed to do. I love the process of filmmaking, finding the story, capturing the images and editing. That process has never been easier – we can do the whole thing on our phones, so why not just go ahead and do it?

As a self-shooting PD I’d acquired my own kit over the years so there was nothing stopping me. I’d got a decent computer with Avid and a couple of hard drives so why not get on with it?

The first couple of films I shot are still waiting to be cut because this story came along and took over my life. 

I’ve been fascinated and curious about work and the creative process for as long as I can remember. I wanted to make a documentary that was entertaining, visually rich and as cinematic as possible. After years making factual TV I’d wanted to make a feature documentary and thought it would be a simple transfer of skills, how wrong was I? More of that later…

Do you have a particular interest in cycling?

As a sports nut, I could remember Graeme Obree’s achievements from the 90s, but I had no idea about his life away from the track and the turmoil that had engulfed him since then.  

Opportunities to make films about living legends rarely present themselves. Being allowed access to observe such a legend at work is an even rarer privilege. One that I couldn’t refuse, but it didn’t come without its own challenges.

Over the years Graeme has felt that areas of the press, and to a lesser extent the media in general, haven’t been particularly kind to him. Sensationalising his suicide attempts and his experience as a married man with two teenage sons coming out as gay. This hinterland caused Graeme to instinctively mistrust anyone with a camera. I had to work at building his trust over the course of the filming. I hope we have now built a bond of trust. 

Beastie at Battle Mountain
Beastie at Battle Mountain

The Beastie in Nevada

Graeme Obree has already been the subject of books, documentaries and a feature film; what did you feel was still there to uncover and tell people about?

Years ago I had a boss who insisted we come into the morning meeting every day with three new stories, ones that had never been in print, on the radio or TV before. It’s a discipline and mind-set that has stayed with me. 

I got hold of everything I could find on Graeme, read everything from snippets in the tabloids to his training manual. Watched all the documentaries and the 2007 movie. There was a lot out there, but after a couple of meetings with Graeme I knew I could show the audience something fresh and different.

His actual method of designing and building had never really been covered – yes, there were clips of him using tools, but these were set up for the camera really as B roll material. I wanted to be in the moment with him, when something didn’t work and then when something did, taking the audience right in there with him. The DVD extras will show this in real detail. I also wanted to make an entertaining documentary, one where the audience left the screen with a feeling of enjoyment and started thinking about the deeper messages in the film a week or two after they’d watched it.

Setting myself a challenge like that, I hoped would bring an immediacy to the film and the audience.

As the story unfolded so many things happened that we managed to keep out of the media and I hope Graeme’s trust in me developed to allow him to be open and let me and the audience into some of his most difficult moments. So there’s plenty that’s new for the viewer. 

Was this a complicated project to shoot/cover?

Having been on the set of The Flying Scotsman, the 2007 movie in which he’s portrayed by Jonny Lee Miller, Graeme really didn’t want to get involved with another production. He could remember all the waiting around for lighting rigs, camera setup, sound stopping for planes etc. “I can’t build a bike like that, once I start I just keep going”. We came to an agreement, that I would be the only person filming: I would do the camera, sound and, when necessary, light. I would never ask him to do anything for the camera, and I would never ask him to repeat anything if I didn’t get it – that was just my fault and so we’d move on.

Graeme couldn’t afford a workshop; he was going to build his 100 mph machine in his kitchen. This presented a number of filming problems. The kitchen was tiny and Graeme’s natural position was to work with his back to the window, giving him the most light for whatever he was working on. Great for him, a nightmare for the lens. It quickly became pointless asking him what he was going to do as it always changed within a few seconds of turning over, as his mind took him off on a tangent or down a completely different route. It meant that I would often leave his home absolutely shattered, but what a brilliant experience.

I love to try and get the camera moving and whenever possible feature movement in the frame. I also want to take the audience inside the contributor’s head and to use a well-worn cliché: “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. Getting those extreme CUs are fine if you’re on sticks and in a controlled lighting environment, but doing it on a monopod on the end of the lens proved challenging.

A couple of years working on Top Gear gave me the knowledge to shoot on my own while driving. It’s all about rigging the car in the right way, then using your mirrors – it might not pass all the health and safety rules, but on the quiet roads of Ayrshire, there’s not much traffic.

It was a different matter when we got to Battle Mountain and began filming the Beastie on its runs. The International Human Powered Vehicle Association had very strict rules and insisted on one of their team driving the follow car. He had never driven for filming before; he was adamant that he wasn’t going to be any closer than 200 meters as it might help Graeme go faster! The reality was that he was invariably 300 to 400 meters behind Graeme. This nearly worked on the end of the lens on the XF305 but it meant that all the cameras I rigged on the front of the car were virtually useless. The Beastie was either a tiny dot on the horizon or there was so much camera shake we couldn’t use it.

In retrospect I should have hired a couple of camera men for this part of the shoot rather than trying to do it all on my own.

Graeme Obree in his kitchen

How did you find the experience of crowdfunding?

Kickstarter and I guess any form of crowdfunding is both a blessing and a curse. When you’re working on the crowdfunding campaign there is the challenge to get it over the line - it could easily become all-consuming but the feeling of achievement when you reach your target, and even manage to go over as we did, is pretty damn good. But you do have to work at it.

We ended up getting £23,000 from 491 backers. This confirmed my belief in the project and the fact that there was an audience for it. If nearly 500 people are going to put money into something even when they’d seen nothing but a few clips, then we must have a core audience.

Once they’d committed I felt a real personal responsibility to each one of them.

What made you go down the route of crowdfunding for the project?

I finished filming with Graeme in Nevada the day after his last run: September 14 2013. I’d got well over 200 hours of rushes on hard drives, but none of it logged. All the way through the shooting I’d been PDing regular TV programmes to get the funds to keep filming, so there hadn’t been time to log and cut sequences. The material needed a fresh pair of eyes and someone who was prepared to come in and kill a few of my babies.

I didn’t have the money to hire a craft editor so it was a case of let’s give crowdfunding a go. A couple of friends had done it and I’d backed their films, so I researched the various platforms and decided to go with Kickstarter, on the basis that if you didn’t raise the target figure you didn’t get any money. I hoped this would give our backers the confidence to know we were serious and that their money was safe.

We were lucky Graeme had just over 15,000 twitter followers and we took on a young researcher to approach every single cycling club and magazine in the UK. But I think the biggest stroke of luck we had was attending a short workshop by Alan Blair Beaton who showed a few of us at Digital Enterprise Glasgow how to maximize the use of social media through [social media management tool] Hootsuite.

It quickly became apparent that you could sell directly to people, using their posts and tweets to answer their questions, all while offering them something in return – but always with a direct reference and link to the Kickstarter campaign. It also seemed that if you’re funny, or even just a little witty, then you’d get more retweets etc. and eventually bring in the funds.

It’s interesting to see the analytics from Kickstarter and there does appear to be a direct correlation between when the campaign started to work and when I began using Hootsuite.

Do you think crowdfunding is something you might revisit for future projects?

I will probably do it again for the right project, and if I do I will really plan it well. Have several short films made: the more media you can include in your pitch the better. I think one of the most important things though is not to overpromise. My lack of experience of feature films and theatrical releases meant I didn’t warn the backers that it could be a couple of years before they got their DVDs and downloads. There’s still the odd backer even now who’s upset that they can’t have theirs, seeing as it’s finished. That same backer also feels we should have gone back to Kickstarter to raise the extra funds we needed once I realised how badly I’d miscalculated the length of the edit. We did think long and hard about doing that, but eventually decided we needed more than we felt we could reasonably collect from our backers.

Obree is a bit of a hero in British cycling. Have you found there’s been a lot of interest from the cycling community?

Sir Chris Hoy says “he’s a genius both on and off the bike”. Graeme’s constantly involved in grassroots cycling in Scotland. He doesn’t have a car or drive so he still uses his bike as his main form of transport. I think many in the cycling community really appreciate that he’s “one of them”. 

It’s difficult to know from Kickstarter profiles how many of our backers are cyclists but I’d guess the majority of them use two wheels.

The cycling press have also followed the story quite well and even L’Equipe in France has kept its readers abreast of the film’s progress, so I think Graeme’s fan base will help take the film across the globe.

Graeme Obree in The Beastie

How has the project been received more widely? We noticed it’s included in the Edinburgh International Film Festival programme.

I felt very fortunate to get it into Edinburgh. It was still a work in progress when their Deputy Artistic Director, Diane Henderson viewed it, but she obviously thought it was worth taking a chance on. It was maybe that she had been at the Festival 8 years ago when The Flying Scotsman premiered – there may have been a certain synergy.

The upshot though was that it had two sell-out screenings and I’m sure a lot of those were Graeme’s fans and certainly cyclists. But interestingly, it seems as if nearly everyone gets something out of the film, cyclist or not.

The critics have so far been really positive about it as well. So we’re hopeful we can take it to a bigger audience. Not just that, other festival programmers are asking if they can show it too - we’ve had a couple from the UK and a couple from abroad so far, but they will have to fit in to the distribution strategy.

What will you be working on next?

I naively thought that once we’d shown the film that would be my work finished and I could get on with editing or assembling my two previous stories. I got quite a shock when one of our execs told me I be spending the next year or two trying to sell the film, entering it into festivals and putting it up for awards, but already that feels as though it might be the case. But I started this because I love making films, so whatever happens I’ll be shooting some story or other before the summer’s over.

David shooting in Nevada

What are your plans for the distribution?

We are exploring all options at the moment. We didn’t get any pre-sales and as it was such a rush to get it finished for Edinburgh the first people to see it were those who came to the screenings. Now it’s a case of showing the film to distributors and sales agents to see if they’re interested in taking it on. There’s also the possibility of us doing self-distribution or direct distribution. One idea that has been mooted is that we do an ‘event tour’, taking the film, the Beastie, and Graeme around the country. That way people can see the film, try and get in the machine, and do a Q&A with Graeme. But it’s still up in the air and nothing has been decided yet. Hopefully we’ll have a better idea soon.