Bicycle – an interview with the director

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Bicycle is a documentary film celebrating the bicycle, and exploring its history and current popularity (watch the trailer here). The movie speaks of the modern bicycle from its humble beginnings in the UK through its ascendancy, decline and ultimately its modern rehabilitation. It includes interviews with mountain biking notables Gary Fisher, Keith Bontrager, Rob Warner and Tracey Moseley.

Singletrack had a chat with Bicycle’s BAFTA award-winning director, and cyclist, Michael B Clifford, about documentaries, bikes and all things cycling…

Bicycle Doc logo hig-res

Singletrack: So how did the idea for the film come about?

Michael Clifford: I started out making documentaries, but over the last ten years I’ve been more focused on drama – and I was really missing doing documentaries, so I had been looking around for opportunities. One of the people I wanted to work with was a producer called Pip Piper. So I had a meeting with him, and we kicked a few ideas around, but nothing conclusive. I left the meeting, and went to get on my bike, and something clicked. I know he’s a cyclist as well, and I said we should do a thing about bikes. It just seemed to be the right time to be doing it; because the film’s about Britain, and I think that bikes in the UK are in a very interesting place at the moment, and also because of the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire, it just felt like the time was right. And so Pip became the producer of the film, and it went from there.

Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford

ST: How long did the film take to put together? Was it challenging getting everyone together, in terms of your interviewees?

MC: It was quite challenging, but really I have to give all credit to Pip, who is the sort of person who gets things done. So I had my wishlist of interviewees, and he made sure that we got those people – which wasn’t always easy, but he’s just someone who just – you know – makes people say yes! Which is great for me…

ST:Was there much of a budget to play with?

MC: Well, it was quite an unusual setup for a film, in that it’s not really made in a traditional way. The traditional route – which has probably been changed more by the internet than anything – is that you go out and secure your finance from one source, which would  usually be a broadcaster; you’d then have your budget, you’d go away and make your film, and you’d deliver it to that person – who’d have a fair amount of editorial say. But this has been made completely independently, in that we started out with no budget, and then we secured some sponsors, and then we crowd-funded and then secured more sponsors. We succeeded in raising over £100,000 like this, which was enough to get the film made.

ST: So it’s like a ladder – once you’ve got one person on board you can use that to persuade more people to come in?

MC: A bit, yes. The very first sponsor was Chapeau, the clothing company, although the big breakthrough for us was getting Trek on board. They obviously put more money in, but they’re such a big name that it really helped to attract other people.

ST: Did getting Trek help with interviews?

MC: With some interviews it definitely helped, no question – for example Gary Fisher, Keith Bontrager and Tracy Moseley are all connected with Trek, but it didn’t dramatically change anything though. Trek was a really great sponsor, as they were quite hands off, and they recognised it was a creative project with a specific story to tell.

ST: And what of more plans for bike films in the future?

MC: We’re very fired up by this one, so we’re very keen to look at other countries and cultures – obviously this one was very much about Britain. And I’m very interested in how to incorporate bicycles into the film making process. So cargo bikes are very exciting!

bicycle film mtbST: There’s perhaps been a perception in the UK until recently that cycling is something that kids do. I heard recently that for some people the death knell for cycling in the UK was the introduction of the Raleigh Chopper – do you agree?

MC: It’s been flagged up to me before, but certainly the mountain bike was the first bike that made cycling acceptable to adults again. It wasn’t just that people wanted to ride it off-road; they wanted to ride it because it was cool; it was hip. In fact if it wasn’t for mountain bikes I don’t think I’d have started cycling again as an adult.

ST: Do you think it was BMX specifically that provided the opening that mountain bikes exploited in the UK?

MC: That’s a hard question to answer, but I think that what was happening in Marin County would have happened anyway. But I think there was a similar mindset – the thought in peoples’ minds that if BMX had become a worldwide phenomenon, that mountain biking might enjoy the same sort of success as well.

ST: Do you still mountain bike?

MC: A little bit. I’ve been up to Cannock Chase, and I really enjoyed myself there. Recently Pip got a new mountain bike, and one of the fun things in Birmingham is to ride around the canals. There are all sorts of little technical bits to get around in order to keep moving, and it’s one of the things I remembered liking about mountain biking in the first place. This is what I really like, much more than being on the road!

ST: There’s an old still of you in the film astride a mountain bike – what was that?

This one failed the ‘woodsy singletrack’ test

MC: Ha! The mountain bike I’m pictured with in the film is a Falcon Everest. That would have been the mid-Eighties I guess; I don’t think the company that makes them is around any more!

ST: On a more general note, is there any one thing you can think of that might make cycling better in the UK?

MC: Through making the film I’ve come to realise that ultimately the simplest change would make the biggest difference, and that is the government recognising cycling as a form of transport – which it doesn’t at the moment. What would hopefully follow on from that would be a guaranteed spend, and you’d start to see many forms of change and accommodation, so that more people would feel comfortable using bikes on a day-to-day basis.

I remember a comment made by someone from the London Cycling Campaign. It doesn’t appear in the film, but it was a dream she had that ultimately she wouldn’t be called a cyclist – she would just be someone who uses a bike, and it’s not something that is different, it’s just a way of getting around. It makes a lot of sense – if you’re not labelled as something else then you’re seen as the same, and cycling is normal.

‘Bicycle: A Great British Movement’ is out on DVD in mid-September and is available for pre-order now – click here. It’s also on Twitter and Facebook.

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