Film Capture - Klunkerz: Billy Savage
You know my roots aren’t really in mountainbiking. Like almost everyone else my age (mid 30’s) there was no such thing as a ‘mountain bike’ when I was a kid. You rode whatever you had…racers with cow horns, trackers, Raleigh Commandos, Grifters, in fact any old bike (even ones with solid rubber tyres)…and of course later BMX’s. We are not going to get into the argument here about who invented off road riding, people have been doing it for a long, long time. But there is a definite consensus of opinion that modern day mountainbiking grew from a scene of like minded individuals riding their bikes in the hills of Marin County in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
You know I be straight up with you, I haven’t even seen the film yet, But when, by pure chance, I stumbled across a trailer for it on the internet, I immediately knew that it was going to be important. Klunkerz is the story of the very beginnings of mountainbiking. It is shot in a documentary style (not too dissimilar to the skate film Dogtown and Z–Boyz), mixing archive footage, photographs and interviews with all the main players. The list reads like a who’s who of mountainbiking, names like Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Alan Bonds, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey, Otis Guy, Mike Sinyard…they all seem to be in there.
The man behind it all is writer, producer and director Billy Savage. A guy who started out as a skater, then a BMXer, and then a mountainbiker. Reading his brief biography I noticed that at one time he worked for George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch and has worked on projects with the Rolling Stones, The Who and many others…a fair old CV. When you read the interview you will soon see that he is driven and passionate about bikes. Klunkerz is a film from the heart and soul of Billy Savage. Mike Rose.
Dirt: Tell us where the idea for the film came from?
Billy: I was working on a script about bicycles and my childhood in Marin back in 2002 when a producer friend asked me to attend a screening at the Director’s Guild for a film he’d been working on. He had just returned from Sundance, where the film had won several awards. The film was Dogtown, and since I had been a sponsored skater back in the ‘70s, it really struck a chord. I kept working on my script, but the idea of a documentary just kept haunting me.
How did you get started with the project?
I did some initial research and made a wish list of interview subjects. I had lived in Marin for many years and I still had friends and family there. I went up to Fairfax on a scouting trip, just to check things out. The first morning there I rode my old Klunker to a coffee shop. Some guy came up and said, “Nice bike, but it really needs an Alan Bonds paint job to be authentic.” Of course, Alan was on the interview list, so I asked if the fellow knew him. “Oh, he rides by here about this time everyday.” Five minutes later, I was talking with Alan. Within an hour I was at Joe Breeze’s house and things started to roll.
Were you yourself involved with the scene back then?
No, I’m a bit younger than those guys, but growing up in Marin, you heard things. I was a 20” BMX guy and I rode the hills of North Marin, in Novato where I went to school. There used to be a great all-ages club in Fairfax (The Sleeping Lady) where we could watch punk bands, so I’d go down there. I remember seeing all these really funky bikes outside the place. Those were the first Klunkerz I ever saw. I learned later that the doorman back then was Alan Bonds, so it’s no coincidence that there were these cool bikes all over the place. I had a Schwinn ‘Hollywood’ girls 24” bike for a while that was kind of a Klunker. I painted it black and bombed a couple of fire roads on it. I think that bike lasted about two runs down Baldy before it broke. I stayed with my BMX bikes until I got my first ATB in 1983, a Specialized Stumpjumper. I’ve still got it.
The names and characters in the film are giants, legends in mountainbiking. Did you know them before you started the project or has it been a gradual process of getting to know them?
It was a gradual thing. In the beginning I only knew what I had read about them. They were all just hometown heroes that I was hoping to interview. I hadn’t lived in Marin since the mid-1980s, so it had been awhile. I never dreamed I’d get access to most everyone on my interview wish list. I still can’t say I ‘really’ know any of them, but I did spend copious amounts of time poking around their lives. They probably know more about me than I do about them. It’s been a rough couple of years for me, as I lost both my Mom and Dad up in Marin over the course of shooting the project. They gave me some shoulders to lean on when I really needed it.
Who was the wildest character out of all the old riders?
That’s a tough one. I guess that depends on your definition of ‘wild’. If I had to pick one, I’d have to say that Alan Bonds is pretty wild. He’s still really fast and fearless. He bleeds when he rides. It’s still part of the game for him. He hits it hard, with no helmet and whatnot. He likes big travel bikes and uses them. He does Downieville and all that. He’s still building the old bikes as a hobby. He hooked me up with ’35 Excelsior, Sturmey drums f/r, T/A cranks, Tommoselli levers, etc. Thanks Alan!
Were there any of them that were really hard to track down?
These folks have lives, and some of them travel for a living, so that makes it tough. Tom Ritchey is in Rwanda right now for his inaugural ‘Wooden Bike Classic’. Gary’s (Fisher) all over the map too. I guess the hardest was Mike Sinyard from Specialized. I’d been calling for months, but he just wasn’t around. I finally decided I’d go to wherever he would be and give it a shot. I finally caught up with him at the top of the downhill course at the Sea Otter Classic in ’05 and made my pitch. I cruised up the course on my Klunker amidst all of these 9” travel beasts. He saw me and two seconds later he was like “you’re that guy who keeps calling”. I told him that I would put a crew together and drive from L.A. up to his offices in Northern California for just a half hour of his time, and I’d bring my old ’83 Stumpy. Well…that did it. We booked a date right there. Our half-hour turned into half a day and he couldn’t have been more generous.
It must have been some job tracking down all the old footage and photographs. How did you go about that?
Joe Breeze helped me with that. He’s the keeper of the “The Rolling Dinosaur Archives” for the Cragg family and he helped me make a deal for some of the images. He also helped me track down a fellow (Mush Emmons) in Brazil that had road footage of Joe and many others from the early 1970s up on Mt. Tamalpais. Once Joe gave me his blessing, I had access to his phone book. I couldn’t have done it without Joe. Another guy, Ray Flores, was a cinematographer who shot a bunch of the Dogtown and Z-Boys archival footage. He made a trip to Marin in ’76 and shot some reels of the Repack race. I heard he was still in Santa Monica/Venice and in the surf/skate world. I just started calling shops. The first call I made, the guy knew him and gave me his digits. I hooked up with him at his surf/skate shop, Board Gallery, in Venice, CA (Dogtown) and we made a deal right there. I ended up with a nice new skate to boot.
Were you surprised at some of the stuff that you found, both images and information?
There were surprises everywhere. It was a very rich time, artistically, in the Bay Area and I think that was a big influence on the pioneers of the sport. Back then; people were free with their bodies and expressing themselves. It’s the kind of thing that, if you weren’t in the Bay Area in the 60’s and 70’s, you just can’t comprehend what was happening. I wanted to bring some of that magic to the audience. Those images made me realize what an uptight society we live in today. It was wide-open back then. I mean, Gary Fisher did light shows for the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. That’s heavy.
Similarities are bound to be drawn between your film and Dog Town and Z Boys. How much of an influence was it?
Obviously it was an influence. I saw it with the filmmakers before its release and it got me fired up. I think any documentary about the birth of a cool sport will be compared to Dogtown forever. They did it first, and they did it really well. If my movie can be mentioned in the same breath as Dogtown, I’m stoked, but it’s a different type of film. I’ve seen other docs that took that formula and tried to make it work. It’s tough to pull off if you don’t have the resources and the wealth of source-material that the Dogtown filmmakers had access to. Vertical skating was a perfect subject for photography. Everything was confined in a 1000 square foot space (a pool) and you’d shoot until you were out of film. I mean, in the 70’s you couldn’t hook up a cable-cam and shoot a cyclist for hundreds of yards down Repack in a single take. Cameras were heavy, bulky items that no one wanted to carry, especially on a 50+ pound bike. Thankfully, Wende Cragg took her trusty Nikon on every ride she went on with Joe, Gary, and the rest of the boys. Even with Wende’s Rolling Dinosaur images, I was forced to work in a different way, as I didn’t have 10,000 images and 1000 hours of archival footage like the Dogtown guys had.
Has the film been self funded or do you have backers and sponsors?
I went through all the typical scenarios for financing this film. You’ve basically got investors, banks, sponsors, and family. That’s simplified, but that’s pretty much the deal. I knew the movie I wanted to make, and it didn’t fit in traditional models that would appeal to investors. Typically they want conflict because conflict sells. I wanted to make a film based on accomplishment and camaraderie for historical purposes. No one got what I was trying to do. I couldn’t go to the bank, for obvious reasons. I thought about sponsors, but I wasn’t going to be able to secure a sponsor to float a six-figure check and let me disappear for a couple of years and make my movie. This is a very personal film, and it became apparent early on that the money was going to have to be personal as well. All the funds came from my family and myself. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I don’t know many filmmakers who get this kind of autonomy on their first feature. Good or bad, I made the film I wanted to make.
Do you think that we have lost something since those early days? It did all seem much freer and not so dependent on what bike you have and what clothes you wear. Or is that just rose tinted spectacles?
I don’t think you can really look at it like that. It’s a different world now. Back then, what you rode still mattered. It was just that you, or your friend, did the wrenching and built the bikes. You had to maintain the Klunkerz religiously, but they were still prone to catastrophic mechanical failure. The bikes were 40 years old in the 70’s, so stuff went out from under you in most spectacular ways. Those old bikes rusted from the inside, so you wouldn’t have a clue that the welds around the head tube were ready to let go at 35 mph down a rocky fire road. Speaking of that, the clothes did matter. The Marin guys used steel-toe boots to kick rocks out of the way, or jam against the front tire when the coaster brake failed. They wore garden gloves to keep from blistering. They wore long-sleeve flannel shirts to guard against some the rocks that would, invariably, get imbedded in their skin. So what you rode and what you wore did matter, it was just a different world. Right now, Tom Ritchey is riding with guys in Rwanda who make their bikes out of logs and they’re smiling so big they catch flies with their teeth on the downhill. Jacquie Phelan’s still going down Repack on her Raleigh Tourist 3-speed in a ripped, pink, wool sweater and a big, rubber duck on her helmet. I do think technology is really cool. I’ve got a big bike, but it doesn’t get much use since they closed Big Bear. It’s amazing what the kids are doing on these big-travel machines, but that’s not what it’s all about. I made this film as a counterpoint to all that stuff. I like to ride my bike in the woods with my friends because it’s fun. Einstein didn’t ride bikes so he could huck 80 feet off a cliff in Virgin, Utah, he rode because it was fun, too.
Do you think that we have lost some of that pioneering spirit?
I guess it depends on how you live your life. The spirit of the pioneers is everywhere. If you use a bicycle, you’ve got some of that spirit. The pioneers were, and are, ecologists first. They use their bikes for transportation, they consume only what they need to, and they use old things in new ways. Reduce, reuse, recycle, that’s what they’re about. There isn’t a conspicuous consumer in the bunch. We can learn from how they lived then, and how they live now. Those old Klunker bikes they made were headed to the junk pile, and they gave them new life. I see the same thing today on the streets of L.A. The kids here take throwaway lightweights from the ‘60s and ‘70s and make fixies out of them and they ride them everywhere, to work, to school, shopping, and for fun. My movie only looks at the Marin pioneers, but there were so many other pioneers from which to draw inspiration. Check out what the VCCP were doing in the 50’s outside Paris, or the Buffalo Soldiers, who rode bikes 1500 miles in 30 days off-road, from Montana to St. Louis, in the winter of 1897, or Annie Londonderry who rode her bike around the world in that same year. My film is but a sliver of this rich history. Next time you buy a new bike, donate your old one to a worthy cause and you can claim some of the pioneering spirit for yourself.
Will the film be available here in the UK to buy?
I will spend the next year on the film festival circuit in an attempt to secure a distributor. I hope to have the film available, worldwide, by the end of 2007…at least my family hopes so. I hope you enjoy watching the film as much as I enjoyed making it. Ride on.
you know my roots aren’t really in mountainbiking. Like almost everyone else my age (mid 30’s) there was no such thing as a ‘mountain bike’ when I was a kid. You rode whatever you had…racers with cow horns, trackers, Raleigh Commandos, Grifters, in fact any old bike