"Mountain biking is at the forefront of filmmaking at the moment," says Brendan Fairclough, who endeavoured to prove this point by creating Deathgrip. Released earlier this year, the movie is the result of a partnership between Brendan and Clay Porter. The result is high-concept, high-energy mountain biking that is shot more like a nature documentary than the ordinary offerings.
We recently caught up with Brendan to discuss the project, how it felt releasing a full-length movie in an online world saturated with three-minute clips, and the difficulties in securing funding.
Why did you and Clay decide to make Deathgrip?
Clay has been a good friend of mine for the last 10 years. We've both been in the industry that long now, and we've always done little film projects together. We've always talked about doing something of this size - it just came to fruition, you know.
He was in the position where he could dedicate some time to it, and I'm in a position where, thankfully, all of my sponsors are super excited and stoked to help with the project. So together we made a proposal that we presented to my sponsors, and we got some good funding to make the best film we could.
Some aspects of the film, such as the landscapes and aerial footage, resemble a nature documentary.
That was my concept at the beginning, to ride with some of the best, most influential riders in the world in some of the most epic locations. It took me a lot of time and flying around the world to check these places out, and I feel like we found some pretty cool spots.
One time we were filming in Santa Cruz, and I was just reading through tourist magazines. The next thing I know we were in the car driving down to Utah doing a scouting mission. I think it is the closest thing to a moonscape on earth. It has really black dirt. All of the rocks are eerily gold in the evening. It's an incredible spot.
Are you allowed to film there?
I got told you were allowed to do stuff there so I went to go scout it out and we did this walk along 10 miles of mountain ranges. Then two weeks later I got a crew and we went back there and we dug for 10 days, all along this 10 miles of mountain. We got back there two weeks after that, the third time I was there, and the second day into the trip we met one of the rangers. He informed us that there was a boundary that we'd crossed, but we didn't ever see this boundary – it's two sticks in the ground a hundred metres apart.
Apparently, over this boundary you are not supposed to go off of the road or else you get a $3,000 fine. It happened that half of everything I built was in this naughty zone, so we had to be creative, shall we say, with how we filmed at the location.
What were some of the most challenging environments to film in?
I think Utah. It's so inaccessible, the spot we were at; you're walking up these sandy, steep cliffs. And a lot of it was filmed at like five or six in the morning, because of the restrictions. On those extremely early mornings you don't really want to jump off of a 70-foot cliff. You don't want to jump off it at any time, let alone when you're just waking up.
We also had such a big crew in Utah, about 18 of us, two riders, then staff, crew, and filmers. Just trying to get you and your four mates somewhere is hard enough, let alone when you've got a big crew of people to get out the door.
One of the scariest moments of my life was the final shot of the film in Utah, when the credits come in. I jump off of this massive jump. That was at six or seven in the morning, and we were getting to the point where that jump needed to be done. I was dreading it the whole time.
Brandon Semenuk, who was filming with me, had a bit of a crash beforehand and said he didn't really want to do that jump, and you know, in my eyes he's one of the best mountain bikers in the world. So I was thinking, shit, if he doesn't want to do it…
But we had a drone in the air, four or five different angles, so I really stupidly thought: "Even if I have a big crash it's going to look good on video, from five different angles." So I stormed in at full speed and it worked perfectly, thankfully. But there was a point there where I would have paid a lot of money not to be put in that situation.
Me and Brandon looked at it, and we sort of 'scienced' it out. We evaluated how we were going to approach it, and how we were going to jump it. And the approach was simply to go as fast as you can. But if as fast as you can go is not fast enough then you are pretty screwed.
Why was it important for you to have such high production values?
I think that the mountain biking industry expects that these days. There is such a high quality of filming and I feel like me and Clay are of the same mindset: if we're going to do it we're not going to do it half-heartedly. On certain shoots we had RED Cameras, Phantom Cameras, Cineflex Cameras – we're so lucky we've got friends in these places that can help.
Clay obviously wants to push the limits of his creativity and cinematography, and I want to push the limits of the riding and hype, so it was a really cool partnership.
How has this kind of technology changed mountain biking?
It makes the sport of mountain biking look even more spectacular when you've got drones circling you, or when you're hanging out the side of a helicopter. Even to the point where you can just bolt a GoPro to any part of your bike and capture some amazing footage.
I feel like mountain biking is at the forefront of filmmaking at the moment, along with snowboarding, skiing, and stuff like that. For sure we're ahead of the game at the minute.
Why was the film structured into sections for different riders and locations?
The location and what I'd built in that location was sort of tailored to particular riders. So if it was a flowy, faster downhill trail I'd think about my friend Josh Bryceland, who is a World Cup champion. He's one of the fastest guys in the world and equally, in Utah, we built big jumps to suit Brandon Semenuk's style.
Where are the next spots on your horizon?
There were a few we didn't get to check out. I really want to go to Argentina. We had planned to film at a spot there but we just ran out of time, really. Also I would like to go to Japan; I've heard the riding isn't great in Japan but it's such a beautiful country and terrain, I think there would definitely be some hidden gems there. Maybe there will be a Deathgrip II on the horizon, but definitely not now.
How big do you imagine the audience to be for a film such as this?
Some of the best comments and compliments I have had are from those who don't ride, like: "I watched the movie, and even my girlfriend sat down and watched the whole thing."
At the end of the day it is a mountain biking movie, but I think it's a movie that your mum, dad, brother and sister, could all sit down and appreciate, even if they don't ride.
What is the future of high concept, long-form filmmaking?
There hasn't been a really high production, high hype film out for a couple of years now, so the industry needs it. We're so flooded with three-minute edits that you just click on and forget. I think that's a bit sad. When I was a kid it was all about putting on the DVD and watching it a thousand times over. That's what I really wanted to try to bring back.
In this day and age partners and sponsors want to pay the money and get the product out as quick as they can. We pitched this movie as the biggest mountain biking movie, but it's wasn't going to be out for another 15 months. And for a sponsor it's hard to give money over when you're not going to get the product for another 15 months. We really appreciate the fact that they believed in us. It's definitely something that can happen again and so hopefully me and Clay push other people to do the same.