The Bikes of Wrath: Make America Grape Again

January 24, 2019
We spoke with the co-directors/co-producers/subjects behind a documentary following five Australian blokes riding their bikes along the path taken by the depression-era Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Grapes of Wrath is a strange thing to cling to as your central thesis/inspiration here. Do you think the US is going through similarly extreme times now to then, and can you expand?

Charlie Turnbull: I guess it probably does seem like a strange and random idea, but it made sense to us, especially given how compelling we all find the novel and the USA. When I first read The Grapes of Wrath, I was stunned by how relevant Steinbeck’s writing was. The issues he wrote about seemed to be just as pressing in 2011 as they were in 1939. I can’t really say whether or not the times are similarly extreme, but I do know that wealth inequality, migration, the role of the family, and the health of the American Dream – essentially all the things Steinbeck reflected on in The Grapes of Wrath – are front and centre in American cultural and political discourse right now.

The guys featured in the film, can you tell me how you all know each other? You all seem like high school mates.

Charlie Turnbull: We actually met over a period of about five years. Leon [Morton], Oliver [Chiswell] and I all got to know each other while working for Outward Bound Australia – a great organisation that facilitates wilderness adventures for high-school students. A few years after that, I was in Central America and met up with Leon who just happened to be travelling through Costa Rica with his good friend, Cameron [Ford]. We all got on really well and stayed close over the years. When we came up with the idea for The Bikes of Wrath we were all in, but we needed to find a cyclist-come-cinematographer. Cameron got in touch with a few friends in Melbourne and was introduced to Red[Chaouki]. About a month before we began the adventure, we all met as one group for the first time. The rest is history.

To devote so much time to this trip and the film…. Is the artistic life something that you hold onto as hard as you can?

Cameron Ford: I’ve been a freelance filmmaker for 20 years, and while I am extremely fortunate and grateful that I’m able to do it for a living, I also work ridiculous hours, am constantly in debt, and I disappoint a lot of people because I’m never around! My goal many years ago was to try and combine filmmaking and travel as much as possible, and over the last few years I feel like this has become a reality. So, I guess you could say I’m holding on as hard as I can, but I’m also working extremely hard to create something to hold onto.

In some ways, the byproduct of the film is the positive depiction of masculinity. Was this something you thought about when making the film?

Cameron Ford: I was blown-away a few months ago when a female theatre director and friend watched The Bikes of Wrath for the first time. We were chatting afterwards, and I said that I was mindful of the film not having a substantial female voice/representation. A day later, she wrote me a message:

“Hello darling! I keep thinking about what you said … and I would say I’m a fairly hard-arse feminist. What I saw was a film that happened to be with five men on a journey. The men however, I would say represented feminism beautifully. These are men who represent how men should be. You each showed such deep respect for your fellow human beings. The women who formed part of your journey you showed in a completely non-male gaze way. The film just wasn’t about that. But I don’t think the film is lacking at all in female presence or energy. It’s about us as humans”.

I’d never looked at the film through that lens before, particularly because I’m in it, so it was a pretty humbling and powerful message to receive.

Did editing take a long time, and did the film write itself in the editing or in the shoot?

Cameron Ford: The Bikes of Wrath was 100% unplanned, right down to the route we took, and where we would lay our heads each night. So, the mantra of the journey was ‘let’s shoot everything that happens and see what we end up with’. We returned home with 160 hours of raw footage, and I began logging it over the course of 6 months. And during that time, I quickly learned that there were no short-cuts. You have to watch every second, know how it fits into the broader story, and be able to find it when you need it.

Fortunately, so much had happened to the group on the road that by the half-way mark, I realise The Bikes of Wrath could actually be a series as well as a film (Think The Trip with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon). Hence in post, it was cut as a 6 x 50 minute series first, and then into a feature shortly after.

I can easily say that the editing process was the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. Shrouded in doubt, arduous, no end in sight; but then the themes slowly began to emerge, pivotal scenes were cut, and suddenly there was a 6-week period where it all began to click, and I was cutting a 50 minute episode per week. Once we had a rough shape, Charlie and I went back to the book, honed-in on the parallels, and weaved them through the greater narrative. All up, I’d say it took 2 years to vision-lock both versions.

I understand that you have already shot another around Huck Finn. Is there a trilogy in this and why the American obsession?

Charlie Turnbull: That’s right. In 2017, we spent three months travelling down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft looking at wealth and racial inequality along the riverbank. It was an incredible journey and we hope to put the film out in 2020. We’ll embark on the third chapter of the trilogy shortly after, though we can’t say too much about it right now.

In terms of the American obsession, there’s just something about that country and its inhabitants that we all find completely compelling. The whole world looks to the USA and right now it’s going through a pretty interesting stage. For us, we want to be on the ground in towns and cities that don’t often see film crews, speaking to communities that are rarely heard, while it’s all unfolding.

Click here to find out where The Bikes of Wrath is screening or to host your own screening

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