by Fred Malley
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It's Tuesday morning, the first day of shooting, and my bike won't start. The roads of Vermont are ready, the blue sky and sunshine are ready, the red and yellow leaves are ready. Three Japanese motorcycles are more than ready, but the star of the morning is coughing the rain-in-the-carburetors cough.
My '73 "Toaster" has been chosen to represent the BMW brand in Cliff Adams' motorcycling movie, "Redline America". I got involved in this project the way most everyone else got involved: we work in the TV industry with Cliff, and he asked for volunteers. It's almost a club. We are directors, editors, musicians, engineers, and riders who agreed the world needed a really outstanding motorcycling film.
It was his project all the way and when we talked about it (which was all the time), Cliff would state emphatically "Redline America" will be a visual journey to some of the greatest roads in the country. "I'm trying to create a mythical tour of America, the perfect motorcycle ride," he says. "This isn't journalism with interviews and product placement; it's a level beyond that." Adams set out to capture the essence of the experience.
"Redline America" is loaded with astonishing 'on-board' footage to bring home the sensation of the oncoming road and the rushing blur of the scenery.
The landscapes of America are framed as only an artist (or maybe the National Geographic) could capture them. Visuals are supported by a soundtrack of original songs of varied styles. And while making an interesting, competent documentary is difficult enough, add to that the logistical hassles of motorcycling (everything moves, vibrates, shakes, and travels far from electricity and spare parts), and one begins to see why there are so few movies that get it right.
Cliff Adams is a still photographer who also works in the television industry as a director of photography, lighting director, and a non-linear editor. The two of us work together traveling the world, and during the waiting or down times, discussing motorcycling to the point of distraction.
I wanted to interview him before he wins an Emmy and forgets how he got there. So, I cornered Cliff with my Powerbook and a Cutty Sark in the dining room of our rented Vermont ski chalet after a long day of riding and shooting in September.
"To capture the essence of riding you have to be able to feel like you're moving, with lots of images," he says. "When you ride in real life you're constantly inundated with images and coupled with the discovering of new places; it becomes an adventure."
Producing the documentary was an adventure, too.
Adams traveled over ten thousand miles meeting up with various assistants along the way. Over 400 hours of footage was recorded using a host of custom fabricated hardware.
'Improvise and Adapt' was the motto for the making of "Redline America". Because, sometimes, despite proper preparation, bad luck would strike. For example, it all fell apart in the Badlands of South Dakota.
First, the chosen scenic road was unexpectedly closed for construction. But, luckily, after explaining to a park ranger that he rode from New Jersey just to capture this particular road, the ranger offered information as to the back way to get on the closed road.
However, the road was closed for a reason and although it was void of cars, it was riddled with potholes. Some sort of earth shifting had occurred. And that was the good news.
"When I got to the motel room that night and hooked up the deck to the TV set (the TV sets connections were the most important criteria in choosing rooms), I scanned through a good five or six hours of footage and saw nothing, no picture, no sound." Cliff said. "At this point I was really depressed, thinking I'd made a big mistake. However, the agenda was so tight, that I had to immediately move on to Needles Highway, south of Sturgis, South Dakota."
At Needles, things changed dramatically. The road was recently paved and the lines hadn't even been painted yet. Adams hit a window of only a few days when the road was open between the paving and the painting. With all the technical problems fixed (again), this time all the footage was usable and still there were no cars in sight because the signs stated the road was closed.
Cliff employed an artistic documentary style to capture the spirit of motorcycling - much the way 'Endless Summer' did for surfing. "You can watch 'Endless Summer' over and over again, and still enjoy it. And I wanted to make a movie, that in the winter, when you're not riding, you could watch and recreate that feeling of traveling, of moving. I really wanted to put the viewer on the bike."
Not satisfied with only the footage recorded while he was actually riding (sometimes holding the camera in his left hand), Adams went to great lengths to capture all those smaller, almost unnoticed visual elements that make up a motorcycle trip.
If the rider had the luxury of stopping to look and pay attention every few miles, these details are the kinds of things the rider would see. It's almost as if "Redline America" allows the viewer to be two different people: one on the motorcycle and one watching the rider go by.
"I wanted to include the things you see just by glancing off the road for a moment. A lake, a buffalo, the Grand Canyon: these are the components of the experience, the details." Adams took special care to design and edit "Redline America" in such a way that each road delights in its own character.
"The California canyon roads are twisty and tight. Things are happening all the time. So I shot with lots of fast cuts in mind because the rider works hard on these roads. But on the Blue Ridge Parkway with its long sweepers and open expanses, your shots can have longer durations. So that the road has a more relaxed feeling."
Forewarned by colleagues that a project of this scope could cost over half a million dollars for things like: equipment, crews, original music rights and helicopter rentals, Cliff pushed on. Many favors owed were cashed in throughout the industry.
Eventually my old R75 fired up and I proudly represented the blue and white for Vermont's shooting. I barnstormed the black, winding pavement being chased by a lunatic on a 600 Ninja who alternated between riding off my rear tire and cruising alongside reaching around with the hand-held camera, trying to shoot close-ups of hands, feet, motorcycle parts, and especially his reflections in the chrome plate of my gas tank (don't try this at home).
Motorcycles were invented for roads like these, and we knew from the chill in the air and the smell of the early morning wood stoves that this would be one of the last important rides of the year.
Vermont gets a head start on winter and by the time it reaches the rest of us, in those dark, frozen desperate times, at least we'll have "Redline America" to take us for a ride!