By Bruce Buckley
In the new film “Chasing Legends,” famed escape artist Jens Voigt remarks that during a race he’d prefer to take the slim chance of winning by riding off the front, rather than sitting in with the pack where he is certain to lose.
“Isn’t that logic?” he muses.
It certainly is for director Jason Berry.
A self-taught independent filmmaker, Berry treaded his own path to success with the award-winning mountain bike documentaries “Off Road to Athens” and “24 Solo.” For his latest film, Berry is going all in and aiming at the very summit of the cycling world — the Tour de France.
“I wanted to do something big,” he recalls. “I needed to take a big chance and really create something like no one has seen before.”
With “Chasing Legends,” Berry and his Gripped Films crew take an expansive view of the Tour, honoring its hallowed past while chronicling the modern-day peloton, primarily through the eyes of team HTC-Columbia at the 2009 Tour. The film steps beyond the typical post-stage interviews and race recaps to offer an in-depth look at the inner workings of a Tour-tier team.
On the technical side, “Chasing Legends” provides a first-ever look at the Tour in high-definition. With the exception of historical footage, the film was shot entirely in high-def, using a creative array of cameras. Drawing on his experience in adventure films, Berry interjected sweeping majestic scenes with intense images from bike-mounted mini-cameras as racers zipped through the peloton; footage from the seats of motorcycles as they darted through traffic; and cockpit views of team cars as directors talked through various race tactics.
“I didn’t want it to just be beautiful scenery,” he explains. “I wanted to show the high energy as well. (The viewer) needs to feel a little motion sick at times to understand the experience.”
Developing the film demanded its own feats of daring. In the spring of 2009, Berry began searching in earnest for a team to feature in the film. After talks with various pro squads, including Garmin-Slipstream (now Garmin-Transitions), Gripped Films struck a deal to shadow HTC–Columbia. With no financial backers, Berry cashed out his savings and retirement accounts and sunk everything into the project with Gripped Films partner and producer Ken Bell.
In featuring HTC-Columbia, the film amasses an intriguing cast of characters. Even though the team didn’t have a strong contender for the yellow jersey, it did field a squad that could compete at every stage, including green-jersey threat Mark Cavendish, rising star Tony Martin, venerable veteran George Hincapie, top-notch lead-out man Mark Renshaw, and a host of teammates who each held distinct roles on the squad.
The film explores the constant ups and downs of HTC-Columbia’s 2009 Tour: nine riders driving the front on stage 3 to splinter the field in the crosswinds of southern France; Cavendish losing all hope of winning the green jersey, then redeeming himself on the Champs Elysee; Tony Martin coming within meters of winning atop Mont Ventoux; and George Hincapie being chased down and losing a shot at the yellow jersey by five seconds.
As with his previous documentaries, Berry worked to go inside the teams and get behind the race faces. Prior to the Tour de France, the crew headed to Tour de Suisse with the intention of establishing a relationship with the team.
“I’m not just a one-day reporter writing about how Mark Cavendish finished on a stage,” he adds. “ I want his life story. You can’t just jump in with cameras rolling. You have to get in and connect with these guys if you want to get at who they really are.”
Cavendish is one of the great surprises of the film with interviews that reveal an at-times sensitive personality beneath his cocky veneer. Berry also sat with Hincapie as he was bandaged up following a crash that left him with a broken collarbone for the Tour’s final stages. Some of the film’s best moments are in the HTC-Columbia team car with sports director Brian Holm and manager Rolf Aldag, where cameras capture critical strategic moments as well as some entertaining comic relief. Other support staff is also featured, walking viewers through the lives of the team’s mechanics, soigneurs and even the chef.
Chasing the dream
For Berry, “Chasing Legends” represents his own shot at pursing a dream. Once a professional designer in the advertising world, Berry picked up a camera a decade ago and began shooting surf and ski videos of his friends. With no formal training, he learned by doing, eventually honing his talent enough to be picked up for shoots by ESPN and National Geographic.
“I learned by watching everything I could,” he said. “I was always interested in what filmmakers missed — things I viewed as mistakes. I saw those as opportunities.”
An avid mountain biker and racer, Berry eyed a chance in the months leading up to the 2004 Olympics to follow top American racers as they battled for spots on the U.S. team. The resulting film, “Off Road to Athens” was filled with surprising twists that went well off the expected script. Trek, who originally sponsored the film, saw its riders Jeremiah Bishop and Sue Haywood miss the cut in dramatic fashion.
In “24 Solo,” Gripped Films followed Chris Eatough in his quest for a seventh 24 Hour solo world championship. A story that seemed destined for a triumphant finale instead ended in near tragedy, as Eatough lost the championship race to Aussie Craig Gordon, who nearly lost his life during the race.
“You can’t script a documentary,” he adds. “The success of those movies is how far off-script things went.”
In producing “Chasing Legends,” Berry took a slightly different approach, homing in on the event and letting the plot play out on its own.
“The main character in this film is the Tour de France,” he explains. “I set up the canvas with the understanding that what would be on it was unknown. For a filmmaker, that can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, but for people watching the movie, that’s what makes it interesting. You aren’t sure where this is going next.”
As for Berry, he hopes that “Chasing Legends” will be the winning move that gets him to the next level as a filmmaker, possibly pursuing his first full-length fiction project in the future. As Voigt explains in the film, making a bold move could be the difference between reaching your goals and being lost in the pack.
Chasing Legends is now on tour in select cities. See www.chasinglegends.com for show schedules and DVD pre-orders.