Krystian Morgan's blog featuring motion graphics, short film experiments and feature film.

By Krystian Sep.27.2009
In: Blog, interview
5 comments

An Interview with Mike Ambs pt.1

What was your inspiration for undergoing creating your own film. Did you see any films or filmmakers that gave you the ‘I Can Do This! moment’?
The “I can do this!” moment didn’t really stem from any filmmakers I followed when I was younger, it was really a result of the 2001 bike trip itself (my first bike trip).
The idea of taking a bicycle that, previously, you’ve only really used to get around town – and loading it with 30-50 pounds of clothes, and food, and camping gear, with the goal to get from point A to point B, when those two points are 4,500 miles apart – is really hard to fully wrap your head around.
The chances of you not making it, of having to turn back, are fairly high. You’re taking on something you can’t actually train for. You can ride your bike excessively before leaving, and that can help your body physically from hurting itself: tearing up your knees, etc. But mentally it’s something you just have to jump into, and it’s a very different thing. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, lonely and quiet.
So when the 1st day of your trip goes by, and you’ve put in a modest 40 miles, you tell yourself to do one more day like today. 45 more miles. Then a week goes by, and you’ve made it through your first state, you tell yourself to do one more week, one more state. You do this because it’s manageable – because telling yourself, “ok, I’ve done 45 miles out of 4,500 miles.” can be crushing.
But when it’s over with – and you’ve spent 2-3 months pushing yourself every day, some days harder than most, somedays digging slightly deeper than you’ve had to dig before – and you’re finally staring out at the ocean. Something clicks. And I would say that was my “I can do this moment”, that was my “people can do anything if they put their minds to it” moment (to quote Back to the Future).
That’s the approach I’ve taken with Pedal – one baby step at a time.
Why was documenting a Bicycle road trip an important subject for you?
I think I could answer that two ways – I could say that I wanted to say something that inspired people, that gave a hint to the kind of things they could accomplish if they only tried. And that is very true, those are my hopes for the film, that people will leave the theater feeling like it’s time to stop putting off X. But I would say, the most honest answer, the thing that really drives me and keeps me going after all the dead-ends and hurtles the last 6 years has thrown at Amanda (the 2nd half of Pedal’s team) and I, is that this is just something I have to get off my chest.
When I came home from my first trip – I felt still on the road, I felt split in a way that left me distant from everyone I was close with before leaving. The memories and emotions from the road ate away at me constantly.
And this next part might sound silly to many people, it might sound over-dramatic or over-nostalgic – and for many years I tried to write it off as that – but I felt, after my trip, that I had lost a love. And I know how that comes off.
But since working on this film, and since following Larry, our main subject in the film, across the country for the film and meeting so many amazing people, many of whom have stayed in touch with us while we’ve been busy editing and writing. I found out that many people find this is the only real way to put into words the void that is left when you return home.
It’s not that I really felt like I lost “the love” of my life – but that I, and others, just cannot find the right words to explain it in any other way. And that may sound awful, and may seem like I’m trying to say “don’t do a bike trip, because it’s terribly depressing when it’s over”, but I’m not. You do have to move on after you’ve come home, and that can take years, Larry, two years later, goes through bad days of missing the road and the miles, and I know I still do, and it’s been 8 years.
So this film is a way to say these things… all these little things that have been eating away at me, reminding me to push myself harder… reminding me that I’ll be happy if I’m reaching for something hard to attain.
Did you have any other ideas for your project before deciding on a bicycle journey story or did the idea of the bike journey come first and the idea of filming the story come later?
The idea of filming a bike trip came and went over the first few years after coming home. I had and was spending a lot of time finding creative outlets for the baggage I had brought back with me from the road. It took different shapes as an unfinished book, to a scripted film, and eventually, because of Amanda’s push in that direction, a documentary. Which was immediately exciting for me – because I had been slowly falling in love with filmmaking, and her idea for Pedal just seemed to mash everything together that I was feeling in my life at that point.
What was your driving force, What pushed you into wanting to undertake this huge project?
I’d say… it just felt like the next natural progression. Even before ever leaving on my bike trip, I knew that it represented a test. And *that* reminder, during the trip, was something that kept me going, that voice in your head that reminds you, “if you can’t do this, you can’t do anything”.
Telling stories is something that makes me happy – sometimes it feels like one of the only ways I really know how to communicate with other people. Pedal has become my next test, I am constantly reminding myself, “if I can’t do this, I can’t do anything”. That’s what initially pushed me, and it’s a large part in what continues to push me.
Has working on the film been as hard as you’d imagine it would be?
Yes, and then some. The first blog post I ever wrote on our production blog ended with this,
“So stay tuned, and you’ll have front row seats to the long and painful process of independent filmmaking… before this ends I’ll have been turned down, shut out, knocked out of the race, dragged through the mud, riding on the edge of disaster, against all odds, between a rock and hard place… and that’s just preproduction. Strangely enough… I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Which cracks me up to read now, but it has been one challenge after another. I’ve had to push myself every day, some days harder than most, somedays digging slightly deeper than I’ve had to dig before. We’ve had financial issues we’ve had logistical issues, we’ve had legal issues… personal issues… on and on. And they show no signs of letting up before this film is finished.
What was the best surprise you’ve come across whilst working on the film?
I’d say that the best (or biggest) surprise came from people’s reactions to our 64 Days (making-of) series that we began to release several months after returning from production. When I think back to the first five episodes we put out months before actually filming FToM, these we’re a lot fun for us, they were an engaging to way to say some of things we had covered many times over on the blog. But…
64 Days was intentionally told in a way that is very close to the film. It’s about the after effects of something challenging – and people’s reaction where really positive. People have left comments and wrote emails saying that 64 Days had hit a chord with them that they hadn’t experienced (with any film) in years… that’s a level of compliment that I honestly never really thought we’d receive.
It was a great reassurance that we were heading in the right direction.
Aside from 64 Days though, some of the other biggest surprises came from the amazing connections we’ve formed by having the site up. Without our production blog, we’d have never worked with The Black Sheep, an amazingly talented film crew, who I admired and watched very closely long before Pedal ever existed.
Could you briefly explain the highs and lows and how you found motivation to keep going in the hard times?
Well, that’s a tough question… it being six years working on this project, we’ve been through a lot.
The first “lows” were made up of failing at raising our initial funds for production three years in a row. The 1st year that happens you can brush it off as “oh well, let’s try again”. The 2nd time it happens it’s a little more difficult. And by the 3rd time you’re starting to have a really, really hard time convincing yourself you don’t look like a joke. But we put in a lot of hard work… always believing that things would happen if we just never stopped trying. And that’s exactly what happened.
One of the first “highs” was releasing episode one. And also when a video (unrelated to Pedal) I entered to an online contest took first place, winning $25k… that was a surreal moment. All the weeks that I had spent working a shit job for no pay… unable to save enough money to even put a dent in our production expenses… all that fear and doubt being removed was… just amazing. It still seems like a dream.
Other highs came and went randomly… I have fond memories during production of riding on-top of the van – or the Command Center, as Larry called it – and filming with the jib… it would suddenly occur to me how much effort and patience it took to get to “this” moment. Those were good feelings… worth everything we went through.
There were highs and lows between Amanda and I – we were a couple for over six years and when that came to an end… it complicated the entire process of working together for a long, long time. We’ve been through hell together, and we’re both stronger for it. But some of the unresolved issues in our relationship came out in full-force during production on the road. Which lead to some pretty awful stuff… which is hinted at briefly in the first episode of 64 Days.
People are often confused why the first few minutes of that episode are such a downer, and it has everything to do with how our relationship played out near the end of filming (which will be explained in later episodes of 64 Days).
The production vlogs and 64 days have been an important aspect of getting across your story and goals, not to mention the fact that you also create the websites for all the different sections of ProjectPedal yourself, do you ever get overwhelmed with the amount of work you’ve bestowed upon yourself?
I do. Amanda has always kind of been there to help me prioritize between writing, editing, coding, outreach, fundraising, design, community, research, etc.
But there are many days I really do wish the two of us had a larger team to collaborate with. Chances are though, that’s just not going to happen during this film – and we are far from the only indie film wishing we had more people and more money behind us. So, we just work with what we have and try to be as efficient as possible.
How important has the online community and the collaboration with Amanda been in the production of the film?
None of this would have been anywhere near possible without Amanda or without the online community. Simple as that.
The film that Amanda first suggested we work on is much different than what For Thousands of Miles is today – and much of that shift has come from the online support and feedback and engagement.
If I have learned *anything* while working on Pedal, it has been that creating and maintaing our production blog, and sharing everything we possibly could has been the only way we’ve gotten as far as we have. That is always my first piece of advice to other people: share. Your ideas being borrowed-from or flat-out stolen should be the last of your concerns… you will always have to work harder say something unique, or something that is consistent with your own voice. The benefits of being open far outweigh the negatives.
What advice do you have for other documentary filmmakers and filmmakers in general who want to follow in your footsteps and independently create they’re own large-scale film project?
[laughing] I’m not so sure I’d recommend anyone following in my footsteps – but ignoring that, my advice is always:
1) Share everything possible (of course).
2) Be patient, there are much faster ways of making a film that the road Amanda and I have taken, but that road comes with a lot of baggage and compromise. Going the independent route is a slow… terribly slow process. But at the end of it, you will be able to say you made exactly the film you wanted to make.
3) Make as much supporting material as you can stomach… between the first 5 episodes, and our 64 Days series, we have learned so much – and more importantly, we have made countless mistakes that we can now avoid in the finished film. Every bit of feedback and criticism we’ve received is applied towards the film where possible.
4) If making films is not something you want to do *every* single day… If it’s not something you love doing, even at it’s worst, then it’s not for you. Eric Simonson gave me that advise once, and I’m glad he did. Even when things aren’t going as planned, I remind myself that I wouldn’t rather be working on anything else, and it helps focus me.
What would you say is the biggest thing you learnt from the whole production process?
That this *is* what I love doing. That I’m happiest when telling stories. There’s never been a moment when I’ve considered giving up on Pedal. And maybe that doesn’t sound like much a “learning experience”, but for me it was really a question that was always in the back of mind: is all this work going to pay off… is this going to be something I really want to do? Being able to say “yes, without a doubt”, after all these years, is a great feeling.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently, (had something, could be a piece of equipment or a shot you missed etc…)?
There’s always the shot I wish I’d gotten or the camera that might have looked just a little bit better – but really nothing jumps out. That’s not to say I haven’t made thousands of mistakes while working on this film… but each mistake was something to learn from, and I need to keep that in mind when thinking about the times I’ve felt naive or unprepared.
How would you ideally want a viewer of ‘For Thousands of Miles’ to react when they see the film?
We want the film to shake something awake in people – we want it to inspire, and chip away at the limitations we set on themselves.
To be honest, For Thousands of Miles has very little to do with riding a bike – I think the people who will enjoy it most won’t necessarily be bike-enthusiast, but anyone who has ever wanted to take an adventure and put it off… anyone who has ever wanted to write a book and never got around to it… anyone who has ever felt weak and stuck in their life. Those are the people are trying to reach.
What are the future hopes for ‘For Thousands of Miles’, regarding festivals and distribution?
When FToM is ready for release, we’ll most likely submit to 3 or 4 major festivals: SXSW, Sundance, Ann Arbor, etc – and regardless of our acceptance or rejection, we’ll then release the feature length film online for free. I’ve been keeping an eye on Nina Paley’s distribution method and I’ve been really excited / relieved that it’s working so well. Her model is fairly simple: the content (film) is free, the containers (DVDs) are sold. The creative commons attribution she’s wrapped the film in has allowed her to leave it online at all times, while also continuing to share her film in theaters, and even partner with conventional distributors.
We have no real disillusions about making returns on our investments – or being the next sleeper-hit. We just want people to see it, we want them to be moved by it, we want them to pass it on to someone else. FToM is just going to be something we can look back on and be proud of.
You have alot of behind the scenes content on ProjectPedal.com do you plan on referring the future DVD owners of ‘For Thousands of Miles’ to discover the site and have a whole new experience of what went into what the have on their tv screens, or are you panning a slew of supplementary extras on the ?-disk set special edition dvd of all that content?
We’d like to do a bit of both – we plan on selling the film on it’s own DVD, and the 64 Days series on their own DVDs, for people who really just one and not the other. But our main DVD set will contain both the film and the making of the film. Our plan is to cram as much as we can into the DVD package – make it as fun and immersive as we possibly can. Especially considering the film *and* 64 Days will all be watchable online, we’ll need to be extra creative to have people wanting a physical copy.
But in any case, there are a lot of things that just won’t make it onto disc, and for those things we’ll do our best to draw people’s attention back to the site. And hopefully a lot of new people can get involved in the community and even the next film after Pedal.
I know you’re not at the end of your production yet, but as things have been going so far, would you think you would do something like this again? (create another independent film).
Without a doubt. I can’t wait for the next challenging project.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the viewers of this post?
I don’t think so 🙂

quote

For the past six years Mike Ambs has been working on ‘Project Pedal’. Project Pedal consists of three primary areas, the blog, ’64 Days’ the making of series and of course the film itself. In his own words, ‘Pedal’ is, ‘A feature length documentary about riding bikes, taking chances and pushing yourself to do the things that scare and overwhelm you.’

Mike and the other half of ‘Pedal’, Amanda Walker handle all areas of the film. Now coming to the tail end of post-production, Mike has organized a fundraiser campaign at Kickstarter, the goal…to raise $8,300 towards finishing the film.

I as a wannabe filmmaker and many others alike admire Mike for his dedication in following his vision head-on from conception to soon to be completion. Mike has kindly taken some time out of his film-making duties to answer a few questions….So if you’re a filmmaker or even just a film-lover i think you’ll find these posts really interesting and motivating no-less.

If you enjoyed the read, and like the project, please consider contributing to Mike’s Kickstarter Campaign. Then you can feel good that you’ve played a part in getting this independent movie seen!
Mike Ambs - On Location

What was your inspiration for undergoing creating your own film. Did you see any films or filmmakers that gave you the ‘I Can Do This! moment’?

The “I can do this!” moment didn’t really stem from any filmmakers I followed when I was younger, it was really a result of the 2001 bike trip itself (my first bike trip).

The idea of taking a bicycle that, previously, you’ve only really used to get around town – and loading it with 30-50 pounds of clothes, and food, and camping gear, with the goal to get from point A to point B, when those two points are 4,500 miles apart – is really hard to fully wrap your head around.

The chances of you not making it, of having to turn back, are fairly high. You’re taking on something you can’t actually train for. You can ride your bike excessively before leaving, and that can help your body physically from hurting itself: tearing up your knees, etc. But mentally it’s something you just have to jump into, and it’s a very different thing. It’s slow, it’s painful, it’s uncomfortable, lonely and quiet.

So when the 1st day of your trip goes by, and you’ve put in a modest 40 miles, you tell yourself to do one more day like today. 45 more miles. Then a week goes by, and you’ve made it through your first state, you tell yourself to do one more week, one more state. You do this because it’s manageable – because telling yourself, “ok, I’ve done 45 miles out of 4,500 miles.” can be crushing.

But when it’s over with – and you’ve spent 2-3 months pushing yourself every day, some days harder than most, somedays digging slightly deeper than you’ve had to dig before – and you’re finally staring out at the ocean. Something clicks. And I would say that was my “I can do this moment”, that was my “people can do anything if they put their minds to it” moment (to quote Back to the Future).

That’s the approach I’ve taken with Pedal – one baby step at a time.

Why was documenting a Bicycle road trip an important subject for you?

I think I could answer that two ways – I could say that I wanted to say something that inspired people, that gave a hint to the kind of things they could accomplish if they only tried. And that is very true, those are my hopes for the film, that people will leave the theater feeling like it’s time to stop putting off X. But I would say, the most honest answer, the thing that really drives me and keeps me going after all the dead-ends and hurtles the last 6 years has thrown at Amanda (the 2nd half of Pedal’s team) and I, is that this is just something I have to get off my chest.

When I came home from my first trip – I felt still on the road, I felt split in a way that left me distant from everyone I was close with before leaving. The memories and emotions from the road ate away at me constantly.

And this next part might sound silly to many people, it might sound over-dramatic or over-nostalgic – and for many years I tried to write it off as that – but I felt, after my trip, that I had lost a love. And I know how that comes off.

But since working on this film, and since following Larry, our main subject in the film, across the country for the film and meeting so many amazing people, many of whom have stayed in touch with us while we’ve been busy editing and writing. I found out that many people find this is the only real way to put into words the void that is left when you return home.

It’s not that I really felt like I lost “the love” of my life – but that I, and others, just cannot find the right words to explain it in any other way. And that may sound awful, and may seem like I’m trying to say “don’t do a bike trip, because it’s terribly depressing when it’s over”, but I’m not. You do have to move on after you’ve come home, and that can take years, Larry, two years later, goes through bad days of missing the road and the miles, and I know I still do, and it’s been 8 years.

So this film is a way to say these things… all these little things that have been eating away at me,

reminding me to push myself harder… reminding me that I’ll be happy if I’m reaching for something hard to attain.

Did you have any other ideas for your project before deciding on a bicycle journey story or did the idea of the bike journey come first and the idea of filming the story come later?

The idea of filming a bike trip came and went over the first few years after coming home. I had and was spending a lot of time finding creative outlets for the baggage I had brought back with me from the road. It took different shapes as an unfinished book, to a scripted film, and eventually, because of Amanda’s push in that direction, a documentary. Which was immediately exciting for me – because I had been slowly falling in love with filmmaking, and her idea for Pedal just seemed to mash everything together that I was feeling in my life at that point.

What was your driving force, What pushed you into wanting to undertake this huge project?

I’d say… it just felt like the next natural progression. Even before ever leaving on my bike trip, I knew that it represented a test. And *that* reminder, during the trip, was something that kept me going, that voice in your head that reminds you, “if you can’t do this, you can’t do anything”.

Telling stories is something that makes me happy – sometimes it feels like one of the only ways I really know how to communicate with other people. Pedal has become my next test, I am constantly reminding myself, “if I can’t do this, I can’t do anything”. That’s what initially pushed me, and it’s a large part in what continues to push me.

Could you briefly explain the highs and lows and how you found motivation to keep going in the hard times?

Well, that’s a tough question… it being six years working on this project, we’ve been through a lot.

The first “lows” were made up of failing at raising our initial funds for production three years in a row. The 1st year that happens you can brush it off as “oh well, let’s try again”. The 2nd time it happens it’s a little more difficult. And by the 3rd time you’re starting to have a really, really hard time convincing yourself you don’t look like a joke. But we put in a lot of hard work… always believing that things would happen if we just never stopped trying. And that’s exactly what happened.

One of the first “highs” was releasing episode one. And also when a video (unrelated to Pedal) I entered to an online contest took first place, winning $25k… that was a surreal moment. All the weeks that I had spent working a shit job for no pay… unable to save enough money to even put a dent in our production expenses… all that fear and doubt being removed was… just amazing. It still seems like a dream.

Other highs came and went randomly… I have fond memories during production of riding on-top of the van – or the Command Center, as Larry called it – and filming with the jib… it would suddenly occur to me how much effort and patience it took to get to “this” moment. Those were good feelings… worth everything we went through.

There were highs and lows between Amanda and I – we were a couple for over six years and when that came to an end… it complicated the entire process of working together for a long, long time. We’ve been through hell together, and we’re both stronger for it. But some of the unresolved issues in our relationship came out in full-force during production on the road. Which lead to some pretty awful stuff… which is hinted at briefly in the first episode of 64 Days.

People are often confused why the first few minutes of that episode are such a downer, and it has everything to do with how our relationship played out near the end of filming (which will be explained in later episodes of 64 Days).

The production vlogs and 64 days have been an important aspect of getting across your story and goals, not to mention the fact that you also create the websites for all the different sections of ProjectPedal yourself, do you ever get overwhelmed with the amount of work you’ve bestowed upon yourself?

I do. Amanda has always kind of been there to help me prioritize between writing, editing, coding, outreach, fundraising, design, community, research, etc.

But there are many days I really do wish the two of us had a larger team to collaborate with. Chances are though, that’s just not going to happen during this film – and we are far from the only indie film wishing we had more people and more money behind us. So, we just work with what we have and try to be as efficient as possible.

pedal

What was the best surprise you’ve come across whilst working on the film?

I’d say that the best (or biggest) surprise came from people’s reactions to our 64 Days (making-of) series that we began to release several months after returning from production. When I think back to the first five episodes we put out months before actually filming FToM, these we’re a lot fun for us, they were an engaging to way to say some of things we had covered many times over on the blog. But…

64 Days was intentionally told in a way that is very close to the film. It’s about the after effects of something challenging – and people’s reaction where really positive. People have left comments and wrote emails saying that 64 Days had hit a chord with them that they hadn’t experienced (with any film) in years… that’s a level of compliment that I honestly never really thought we’d receive.

It was a great reassurance that we were heading in the right direction.

Aside from 64 Days though, some of the other biggest surprises came from the amazing connections we’ve formed by having the site up. Without our production blog, we’d have never worked with The Black Sheep, an amazingly talented film crew, who I admired and watched very closely long before Pedal ever existed.

How important has the online community and the collaboration with Amanda been in the production of the film?

None of this would have been anywhere near possible without Amanda or without the online community. Simple as that.

The film that Amanda first suggested we work on is much different than what For Thousands of Miles is today – and much of that shift has come from the online support and feedback and engagement.

If I have learned *anything* while working on Pedal, it has been that creating and maintaing our production blog, and sharing everything we possibly could has been the only way we’ve gotten as far as we have. That is always my first piece of advice to other people: share. Your ideas being borrowed-from or flat-out stolen should be the last of your concerns… you will always have to work harder say something unique, or something that is consistent with your own voice. The benefits of being open far outweigh the negatives.

That was awesome, where’s Part 2…. Right Here.

Keep up to date on the film at ProjectPedal.com. and don’t forget to donate to the kickstarter campaign.

  • Larry

    Mike,
    You’ve inspired me again.

  • @Krystian: Thanks again so much for doing this 🙂 it was a fun interview.

    @Larry: That means a lot to me – thanks, man.

  • Thanks for the comments guys!

    Looking forward to posting part 2 next week.

  • Donna

    Awesome interview, and very inspiring. I can’t wait to read part 2 asap!!

  • Looks like i stumbled upon this a few years late..ha. Still inspiring all the same.