Award-winning broadcaster and director David Street (pictured above) made programmes for all the main UK’s TV channels before he turned to feature documentaries. A lover of life in all its complexities, he’s on a constant quest to find out why we do what we do and why we are who we are. The 40 year Film & TV veteran has just premiered Battle Mountain at Edinburgh International Film Festival. Here he explains just what went into creating this epic documentary where he followed “The Flying Scotsman” (Graeme Obree) for two years as he prepared for the human-powered vehicle land speed record attempt in Nevada.
two .. tick.. name .. check.. thank you note.. done. one .. tick name.. check and on it went, 76 tickets and thank you notes put into addressed envelopes on the morning of 24 June 2015.
If I’d known three and a half years earlier I would be doing this on the morning of the world premiere of my film Battle Mountain: Graeme Obree’s Story, would I ever have started filming?
The project started as a simple taster tape but when the production company couldn’t sell it to a broadcaster, I felt it was a a story too good not to be told.
I decided to go along with this Ayrshire cyclist who had broken world records and twice been a world champion in the 1990s as he set out two decades later to try and break another world record. Even if it didn’t work, I told myself, it would be a fun ride.
Over the years I’d gone from being a film editor to a producer, director and then as the industry changed found myself as a self-shooting director/producer, along the way I’d built up my own camera and sound kit so I had the freedom to jump in the car and go down to Graeme’s tiny 1st floor flat in Saltcoats and shoot whenever he felt like building.
This man who rose to fame by breaking world records on “Old Faithful” – a bike he built himself with bits from a washing machine, was now going to build a new machine to try and break the Human Powered Land Speed record. He no longer had a bike shop so he was going to build it in his kitchen.
When I got there an engineer’s vice had been bolted onto the dining table, the washing machine was still in one piece, but with a cooker and fridge freezer as well as sink and kitchen units there wasn’t room to swing a cat, so getting in there to film was going to be fun. Thankfully I’m used to working on my own, doing sound as well as camera, it proved a really useful skill in such cramped conditions, especially when Graeme’s family turned up. The room had a big window which was both a blessing and a curse. It meant that there was plenty of natural light, no bad thing when there was hardly room for me and the camera, so definitely no space for lighting stands. Graeme’s natural working position when he was building “The Beastie” was with his back to the window, so without lighting to balance the outside, getting a big wide of him meant he was either in silhouette or the background was grotesquely burnt out.
Part of the deal I made with Graeme when I was negotiating the access, was that I would never ask him to do anything specifically for the camera, nor would I ask him to repeat anything. He didn’t want a filmmaker stopping him in the middle of his thought pattern and creative flow. His building method is incredibly tactile and in a sense evolutionary. While the agreement worked for Graeme it meant I had a challenge on my hands every time I went to film. I started by asking him to talk me through what he was planning on doing so I would have some idea of where I could be to get the best shots to tell the story. However, after the first couple of minutes I realised this wasn’t going to work. As with many geniuses, his brain is always working and trying to find new and better ways of doing things, so even if he said he’d be doing x and y, 30 seconds later he’d be doing ax and cz. From then on I was trying to cut it in my head whilst filming and making sure the sound was right. I didn’t want to miss any of Graeme’s pearls of wisdom, so the sound had to be continuous. My thinking was that in any given period I would get non-sync action of Graeme brazing, sawing, filing and making tea – he made a lot of tea – to help the editor get round some of the problems, mostly it worked.
I was shooting on a Canon XF305 with a radio mic and a top mic, occasionally I would use 2 radio mics. Most of the time I was using a Manfrotto monopod, it meant I could scoot round Graeme and his kitchen while still being able to use the long end of the lens to get in for covering close-ups. There was hardly room to put a tripod up, but even if there had been, Graeme is so fast on his feet when he’s creating, that within seconds that shot wouldn’t work, the monopod is a boon for flexibility and I wouldn’t be without one.
To balance the developing sense of claustrophobia the film was acquiring by filming in the small kitchen, I wanted to film Graeme out training on his bike, ideally riding round the beautiful Ayrshire countryside. I still find it staggering that some of the locations where we shot are less than 30 minutes from the centre of Glasgow. At this point the film was still self-funded so I couldn’t afford to bring in a cameraman or a driver. I had to do it myself. Two years working on Top Gear and watching how some of the top DoP’s rigged cars for filming car-to-car and cars-on-the-move helped me get round these problems, that and the fact the roads were incredibly quiet. It’s one of those things though that you really shouldn’t try at home. One problem that did surprise me was how fast Graeme could go downhill and how well he could corner. I quickly realised I had to pull over and let him go ahead on the big downhills as he could go faster round the corners on two wheels than I was prepared to go in a four wheel Qashqai.
This is just a small part and some of the experiences that I enjoyed as I spent nearly two years filming a Scottish icon and another 18 months getting it to the stage where I was putting tickets in envelopes. And NO I wouldn’t have started if I’d known what it entailed but I am so glad I did and I know that I can’t wait for the next opportunity to come along. It’s been a blast.
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