Events closely documented, emotions raw, the unabridged truths of professional cycling life potentially laid bare. This will be a farewell with a twist.
As part of their collaboration, director Finlay Pretsell will follow David Millar through his final year as a professional cyclist with Garmin-Sharp, aiming to make an immersive documentary film which captures the "very essence of professional cycling."
Research has been done, logistics laid, backers found and their vision shared. 2014 is the now-or-never year of filming.
On Monday afternoon, we convened with Pretsell and Millar in a Covent Garden hotel to discuss the film. The conversation spiralled out into modern cycling, its growing melodrama, Millar's retirement and reflections on the difficulty of documenting a high-level professional cyclist at professional bike races.
What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Rouleur: Who came up for the idea for the film? Who approached whom?
Finlay: It’s something that I thought about even before Standing Start, this short I made [with track sprinter Craig MacLean], making a film with a professional cyclist on the road scene. David’s has been in my consciousness for years, because he’s Scottish and made it as a pro and I… I didn’t try that hard at being one, but I did ride a bike a lot! I came across him more when I was making Standing Start at one of the Revolution track events. We met and spoke about it, I think we naturally reached almost the same point. We both wanted to make a film that transfers David’s experience of riding in the peloton.
Did you find you had different visions as subject and filmmaker?
David: Not really, I think that’s why we’re doing it, the fact we’re on the same page. Finding a way of translating that to film is the hard bit. I think it’s been organic, Finlay's been in touch with Martin [Radich], a cinematographer, we tried out different things. What we’ve tried looks different and looks amazing, we’ve realised there is a way of filming cycling that’s not been done before.
Then it’s been accelerated, we’ve now reached the endgame situation: it’s my last year racing so we have to do it now or never. It’s actually serendipitous in the fact that it gives the film a natural narrative instead of doing any year – and that last year, it’s the Tour de France starting in the UK, Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, then finishing in Spain, which is where I live now, with the Vuelta and the world championships. It closes a lot of doors.
Finlay: It has to be a collaboration. Getting the balance right takes a long time. We’ve got a filming team with so much more experience now after actually visiting the races and being immersed in them… it’s so key. You can think about it as an abstract thing but when you really become parts of those races, then it becomes something totally different.
David: It’s been a question as well of Finlay winning the confidence of my team. Because whenever any sporting team or entity appears with a film crew, they think of fly-on-the-wall documentary, and they have a very cliché image of what it’s gonna be and what it’s gonna involve: it’s gonna involve like one on one...
David: Talking heads, there’s a big ‘no, [we] don’t want to do that’. I think it’s taken Finlay time to win their confidence, that they will be filming stuff that is very much an insider looking out, rather than an outsider looking in... One of the reasons that it’s taken this amount of time has also been because it's a learning experience. Finlay found some funding to come to the last week of the Giro this year, then I got sick and left the day they arrived. So they had ten people there but not the person they were going to follow.
That’s cycling, it can change in the click of your fingers.
Finlay: I think that gave us that [laughs] quite a brutal learning curve straight away. That was actually quite a shock, it really showed us ‘okay, we have to be a bit dynamic’, think on our feet the whole time and if that happens, we have to find some other way of dealing with that.
In the film, are you seeking to convey David Millar as a human being, taking in the family, or focusing more on cycling?
Finlay: Personally, I’m much more interested in discovering that human element in David through the race. I’ve never really wanted to see him at home. We might catch glimpses of home from phone calls or people coming to visit him at races or something like that, which’ll hopefully tap into that home life and the human being behind that, but I think it’s that kind of [at-the-races] psychology which is fascinating.
David: I think basically I’m kind of a conduit, being a pro bike racer… we both want to create a film about pro bike racing that doesn’t exist out there. Like when I wrote my book, if I was with people I’d just met who didn’t know much about bike racing, there wasn’t really a book for me that I could recommend and say ‘read that, it’ll explain my world.' I wanted to get that across in my book, and it’s the same with the film. We want to create something that people finish and go ‘fuck! That’s what pro bike racing is like. I had no idea it was like that.' Really change the perception.
Finlay: And to feel you’ve actually ridden the race in a sense.
David: There’s some beautiful films out there about cycling: A Sunday In Hell, Stars and Watercarriers. But they’re very much about a race.
And from the Seventies too.
David: Yeah, there’s nothing modern, it’s quite fortuitous, maybe, the fact that it’s me. There is a… we’ve spoken about this before, I’m sick of talking about my past. I think it’s necessary but at the same time, I want to live in the now and kind of love my sport again rather than forever…
Pay for your sins?
David: Exactly, exactly. But in a way, with me as the centre point of the film, it allows us to explain to people in as brief a way as we can, but poignantly, about where I’ve been. It’s kind of a positive finish: I was a doper and I was part of that generation, this is where the sport’s been, this is where the sport is now. The film's got to be very much be about bike racing now, today… I’d like to send a postcard of my love of pro bike racing [with this film].
Is this something you can look on for posterity in the future too?
David: Very much so. Even last year, I was being asked at some events ‘how much longer do you want to race for?’ ‘39 or 40 if I can, so at least my older son can remember watching me race.’ When I had my second son this year, I was like 'fuck that!' [laughs] I want to spend time with my children rather than have them watch me race and not know me. So if we can create something next year that, in fifteen years time, I look back on and go ‘fuck, that’s what I used to do, that’s what it was like.' My sons can watch it, even my friends, like Christian [Vande Velde] and Ryder [Hesjedal], can watch it like ‘fuck yeah, that’s what we used to do. It was nuts!’
Finlay: I think it has to be honest as well. We’re not about making this nice promotional film, I think that’s why David is particularly good. He’s quite honest about what he does, how he does it and his past and that for me is quite fascinating. I think there’s a lot of dishonesty in the sport.
One thing. Personally, I feel David isn’t any cyclist. He has a magnetic personality and he can’t be the everyman, the every cyclist. It isn’t such a bad thing. Will you try to get to the bottom of David and his complex personality?
Finlay: Of course he’s interesting, not just because he’s honest, there’s a complexity there which is fascinating.
David: If I could understand it, that’d be good [laughs] – ah, so that’s why I’m like that.
Finlay: With the film about Craig MacLean as well, in some ways, he’s a complex character. In the film, it’s all about this power and physicality. With David although he’s physically graceful…
I'm mentally comparing Craig MacLean and David Millar.
David: I’ve got the bar… [grimaces and mimes someone painstakingly doing a pull-up in a gym].
A lion and a gazelle…
Finlay: [laughs] Yes. But it’s almost like this deep thinking is fascinating. It’s these different characters. With Craig, there’s a lot of similarities in a way because he was in a band and he was a drummer… David has something else going on too, it’s not this unbearable focus on cycling – even though he is so focused on it.
What were the biggest difficulties in making the film? I imagine access was one…
You’ve got to find funding, haven’t you?
Finlay: Well, we’ve not made the film yet. I think access is the biggest thing. David’s travelling, people are on him constantly for interviews. And trying to work out a communication is tough, he needs downtime like anyone... But I feel like we’ve got quite good relationships with a lot of the Italian races, the UCI as well.
David: The moment the film’s actually being made, everything changes as well. All of a sudden, doors start opening. [Before that] it’s a bit of a conundrum. In order to make the film, you need to do all the research beforehand, but you can’t get the access to do the research. Without the research you can’t make the film, so it turns into a cycle. Fortunately I think we’ve managed to do it, it’s at the point now we’ve got stuff to show people to make it and then next year can go all guns blazing, I think everyone’s committed and it can happen on its own. Then there is a certain leap of faith… the funny thing is, every season has things happening. Even when a race goes badly, that’s almost a better story than a race going well… It is a bit of a win-win situation, cycling, where a loss can be a lot more interesting than a win. In most sports, everyone just sulks off and goes home whereas you’ve got to stay around and live with the people who lost in cycling, which you don’t do in other sports. Bandaged, injured and carrying on.
Finlay: But it’s very much about David’s role in the team as well. And how all that communication happens, that you don’t see, feel or hear. I think that’s what we want to get to, all the other stuff that goes on. Not just this sport from afar. You see it on TV, it’s very much pretty pictures and the word epic gets used constantly. I think we want to get away from that and show a certain reality. Not that it’s so difficult and such a tough sport – it has an inherent difficulty in it - but it's about transcending that.
Do you want the love to come through? That it is a very tough sport coupled with the fact that you love it and have done for 25, 30 years?
David: Exactly, that’s the reason we do it. Last year, I got a total renaissance in my love for it without any illusions that it’s going to carry on. I don’t care what happens next year, I’m stopping. It’s lovely to know, it’s almost like this weight has been lifted off, to know that I can just enjoy it again. When I came back, I was just getting to the point again that it was just getting too much, having to be the anti-doping statesman, it was stripping my love of racing and training…. Like doing this. I can’t do this now, I’m terrible at interviews.
David: Yeah… it’s not like I get bored, I just don’t want to talk about myself. Then I get pissed off 'cos I know I’m supposed to, then I know it’s a story that people need. Then I get pissed off about the state of the sport, it turns into a negative. I’m becoming more and more of a hermit as regards the press. I don’t think it’s necessary anymore in my position. I think there’s a new wave coming through, there’s other people and I don’t think I’ve got much to add. I’d just like to be left alone, race this last year and have fun, still enjoy it, sign off and then do something else for a bit. I want to go back to basics – it’s good because I can channel my energy into something else.
Finlay: Mmm - into promotion of this film. All the touring you’ll have to do with that, it’ll just be the same [laughs].
David: But the bottom line is, I wanted to just do something… positive. I’m just sick of cycling being fucking dark, so dramatic – melodramatic. There is a reason we all fell in love with it, there is a reason we do endure it. I do think we’re getting confused now and we love it because we love the melodrama, we love the soap opera that it is…
We love to hate it sometimes?
David: Yeah, we love to hate it. I think we have to step back from that otherwise that’s all we’re gonna become: some soap opera of a sport, an entertainment, an X Factor, rather than a performance-based sport. I don’t think it’s fair for the young guys coming through.
So how are you going to film it?
David: We’ll choose certain races and periods of training where he’ll come and kind of immerse himself. I think there’ll be a certain kind of narrative curve that we want the film to have, then Finlay will very carefully pick the moments that he’s around to hopefully get the material to fit into the story that he wants – it’s not going to be a case of hanging around waiting for it to happen and doing talking heads filling it in with stories about me or cycling.
Finlay: Making documentary is controlling those factors, as many as you can. As you know with professional cycling, it’s really difficult to do that. It’s about us trying to control the elements within our means and being as prepared to possible to capture it in a unique way. That goes back to the relationships we have with the race organisations. It’s about getting that access… I think access can be misconstrued in some ways; I remember [Garmin-Sharp directeur sportif] Charly Wegelius saying ‘what more access can people get? Watching them do the toilet?’ and it’s like…
David: Charly got a bit stressed, but I think that’s normal. So many people have a firewall up, I think they’re conditioned to now by the press officers or the team, to be on the defensive all the time.
In the heat of the moment, do your feel your relationship will be strained?
Finlay: Of course it will! But as long as we have that understanding. It's just about trusting each other.
David: It’s gonna be pushed to the limit... Behind the scenes. Imagine, wrestling on the floor... [mimicking a scene from Borat - ed.]
Finlay: In our pants! In this cheap hotel in France! [both laughing] That would make brilliant film.
David: One for the ‘making of’.
Finlay, this is your second cycling work; David, you’ve recently worked on the Seven Deadly Sins film recently. Is there anything else you’d like to do in the cycling film genre?
David: Hopefully not, if we do this one properly.
The film is being produced by Cycling Films and the Scottish Documentary Institute. It is scheduled for release in 2015.