At the start of Michael Dweck’s “The Last Race,” a procession of stock cars slowly rumble up to the starting line at Riverhead Raceway in Long Island, appearing as if they were part of a Day of the Dead parade, bereft of headlights or grills that make the cars appear as if they’re creeping skulls. As the film notes just before the checkered flag is waved, there used to be 40 of these tracks in and around this area alone during the 1950s, but Riverhead now stands alone, thanks to the dedication of its owners Barbara and Jim Cromarty, who have resisted calls to sell the land coveted by developers wanting to turn it into another mall or mixed-use property, despite being in their eighties and attendance on the wane. While the crowds are sparse, with the loud speaker announcements meant to fire them up muffled by outdated equipment, not to mention that the cars on the track have seen better days as well, when one hears the engines rev up, it transports everyone both inside the cars and out of them back to when Riverhead was at its most vibrant, not only as a landmark, but as a community.

Dweck, a celebrated photographer, makes his directorial debut with “The Last Race,” and while the film is his first, every frame is imbued with the richness of having both a sharp eye for composition and the experience of growing up in Long Island. It also benefits from Dweck unschooled in the conventional ways of making a film as he creates an immersive sensory experience that’s distinctive in how it evokes the raucous weekends at Riverhead and the quiet day-to-day lives that those who race there or watch as spectators trudge through until they can get to Saturday night. Translating the sound of purring engines to the otherwise ineffable feeling of a soul stirring, “The Last Race” finds the transcendent in the most mundane, getting its subjects to speak candidly about the disappointments that life has handed them that they can put to the side on the weekends at the track and vividly conveying what it’s like to get into a stock car with meticulous attention to all the moving parts that make them run.

Born out of a photo project Dweck started in 2007 when he began shooting the Blunderbust races at Riverhead, the decade-long pursuit of finding the right way to express what he felt while he was there has resulted in a film that’s sensational in every sense of the word, and as the film makes its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, he spoke about the process of adapting his methodology to a different medium, the technical rigor that went into creating such a tangible experience and finding himself in a race to finish the film.

A scene from Michael Dweck's "The Last Race"So I understand this was in the works for some time?

Yeah, that’s how much I know about filmmaking. I told my wife, “This is going to be one month. It’ll be done.” It took me five years.

Given the various mediums you work in, how did this take the shape of a film?

It started as a fine arts photography project back in 2007. I came to the Riverhead Raceway to revisit the summer nights of my childhood spent at a stock car race track near my house. At one point when I was a kid, there were 40 of those all around and today, all those tracks are gone except this one, the last one standing. So I decided to memorialize this track with a big 8’x10’ camera shooting still photographs of the race cars. I cut the cars apart, I sandblasted them, I photographed the components and then I realized that motion and the emotion of that place were more than still photography alone could capture. It needed to be told through film.

I wanted to play with documentary format to create something between photographs and cinema, and when I embarked on the journey, I knew very little about it, but I learned very quickly. I started with one camera and I wanted the film audience to feel the way I feel at this particular place, which ties into my other bodies of photographic work, so I just observed. This place is so unique because it really attacks all your senses at once. I can’t think of any experiences like that left where you have sound – the ground is rumbling, you have the soot, the gasoline in the air attaches to your skin and you’re watching these amazing colors and explosions. It’s quite special and it makes you feel alive and that’s something I thought I wanted to capture in film.

At the same time, there was a bigger story that was unfolding as I was photographing at the track, [which] was that this town was 100 percent farmland – there’s a big sign that says “the cauliflower capitol of the world.” And the town had changed the zoning and this place changed to 100 percent commercial overnight. These big corporations moved in and it was just a matter of time before the bulldozers tried to get at the racetrack, so I decided I had to do it very quickly. [The owners] also became a friend of the film and I was watching their health deteriorate. They’re now 88 years old, but at the time, they were in their eighties. She had been run over by a car at the racetrack when she was 65 and was in the hospital for seven months. He had already suffered two strokes, two broken hips and as the film progressed, she broke both her hips, she had a stroke and he had a minor stroke. [Still,] this couple persevered and they were continually going to the racetrack, driving from Manhattan on Saturday morning, opening up the hot dog stand, the beer stand, loading this block of ice into the beer thing from the 1940s and getting the races off Saturday, and packing up Sunday and going home again. They do it every single weekend, and by the end of the film, you see they can’t walk anymore, but they were also one of the reasons why I thought it was important to do the film.

I loved the interplay between the action on the track and the quiet of the outside world, except of course all the construction and redevelopment you mention. Did you know it would have that rhythm to it during shooting?

I didn’t because that place is so consuming you’re just sucked into it. It’s was a constant challenge to approach imagemaking – to be deliberate as a filmmaker and composed as a photographer. It was loud – we had to use this makeshift sign language to the crew to get us through the cacophony of craziness, but it ended up coming together. I had the confidence that it would in the edit room and thought our challenge was to synthesize these elements into a lyrical, haunting whole.

But it took time because I wanted to do something that I thought hadn’t been done that often in filmmaking. I didn’t really know the story when I set out to make the film, I just knew I wanted to capture things and most of the time you have films that are three-act structures, and this was never going to be that. This was always going to be, in my mind, a portrait and I didn’t know if I’d be able to hold their attention with something that had a storyline yet was very poetic. I decided I wasn’t necessarily going to have talking heads, though in some places we have the owners of the racetrack performing for the camera.

How far did you want to stray from the track – since the focus is so intense, how much leeway did you give yourself to go outside of it into the community?

I shot 370 hours’ worth of footage and most of it was actually that. They’d leave the backdoor open for us to drivers’ homes, we’d get in there at 4:30 in the morning and literally we’d camp out and have a camera in their bedroom, so I really wanted to see their daily lives and we filmed them from when they got up to when they went asleep and followed them throughout their jobs. I always believe everybody has a story and one thing I wanted to show the audience was that ordinary people being transformed into heroes [because] if you dig deep enough with anybody, you’ll find a lot of them are heroic. [In the film] you see their normal lives, and some of them really have tough times – most of them are laborers [or] mechanics and they have no health insurance. It’s not in the film, but at one point, I talked to one of the drivers and he looked at me, straight into the camera, and he says, “Look at me, I’m 41 and I’m broken. Broken soul.” He’s the guy in the film who’s giving a lesson about the birds and the bees by his tomatoes and raspberries [in his garden] and [physically] his body was tilted off to the side. That was very telling.

But what we noticed was as soon as these people came to the racetrack, they were transformed. Not only the racers, but the owners. You’d see them limping [outside the track] and once they got to the track, their postures were straight. Everything was fine. It was like this magic fairy dust. Everybody was transformed into somebody else. The videographer you see in the film, this guy called Captain Video, he goes around and he videotapes the races with a 1979 camera probably and hands out DVDs for a dollar to the winners the following week. He also is a postal carrier and you see him walking [in his daily life], he can hardly move, but at the racetrack, you see him spry, running down the stands, hopping around at every race, filming everybody, cheering them on like a kid. Everybody’s identity was tied to this place and it gave everybody’s life meaning and that to me was the most important part of the film – to show that transformation.

You used telephoto lenses to film your subjects with a certain amount of distance – was that an initial idea or did it evolve over time?

It did evolve over time. I had a problem – this group of people are all reality TV-icized. They all watch so much reality TV that [they see] all their lives are a performance. And no matter how much time I would spend with them, then I would tell people, “Oh, forget about the camera. Just give it another week.” But they weren’t forgetting about the camera. It was really really difficult because they were so attuned. They kept thinking it’s a reality show and everybody was performing, whether it was intentional or not. The scene at the beginning of the film where you have two people, talking to one another on the back of a car, I shot that from across the pit, probably from 80 feet away because at some point, I put microphones all over the cars.

What I did was I would take microphones and put them on eight drivers and I said, “Look, I don’t know who I’m going to shoot today. I’m just going to have you mic’d up.” And we would just turn them on when I was across the lot and shooting towards them. That would be the only way I could do this. It was very, very difficult. And then we’d weld cameras into the racecars. I started out shooting with a single camera and by the end of the filming, I was shooting with between 12-15 cameras at the same time, all synchronized. and I learned how to weld, so that [the drivers] wouldn’t know the cameras were even there. I would sometimes put them in and sometimes I’d have the chance to turn the button on and sometimes I couldn’t, but a lot of the beautiful scenes that we have in the film are just that. They just forgot about the cameras because there was no person there. It just became a planted fixture for them. But it was a challenge.

What was it like to have sound in your toolkit, coming from a visual arts background?

I learned sound, of course, is just molecules moving at a different speed and I knew I wanted in the sound mix to have a toolbox of all these different sounds [for a] separate language for the film. I wanted a distinct visual language and a distinct audio language, so early on in the process, I started to have another sound person there with me just collecting sounds. We had two people doing audio for characters, but then I’d say to one, “Here’s your list for the day and if we were shooting at a, let’s say, mechanic’s shop, I’d say an airjack, a tool dropping, people yelling, phone answering,” so by the time we were done [with the filming] I’d say we had probably 3500 pieces of sound. In the final mix, we had 4600 pieces of sound are actually in the film. But when I went to Peter Albrechtsen, who works with a lot of artists doing sound installations, I told him to first listen to my collection of sounds and then come up with a totally different language in your mind before you see the film. And then [I told him] I want you to work with a composer Roger Goula and I want you to swap stems – I want the sounds to merge. I don’t want the audience to necessarily know where the music stops and starts or where the sound design stops and starts. I want those to merge as a beautiful symphony. So they swapped, which is unusual, and sometimes they didn’t love the idea, but now if you listen to the sound, it’s the pulling and pushing of these beautiful sounds once we get into the sound mix [where] the sound design [has] these modern contemporary music stems. We spent weeks trying to get this interesting, surprising, mysterious soundtrack for the film.

There were some moments that were jawdropping because of that.

It’s not easy. There’s a lot of risk because first thing you think is put in a lot of rock ’n’ roll, right? Just let them have it and it’s tempting, but then you think of what this place means and how you can allow an audience to feel certain things that you want them to feel that are completely unexpected, so I started thinking of classical music – Mozart and this Gregorian choir. A lot of times when I was shooting, I would have classical music on my headphones and that helped a lot in the way that the shots are lyrically composed.

Was an obvious decision to keep this entirely in the present, even when referring to the past? I really appreciated how you would build context into every composition like when you show that video of an old race, you see everything around the TV as opposed to the clip on its own.

It was conscious because in these portraits of these drivers’ homes, I wanted you to notice certain things. The example that you brought up, that guy’s name is Crazy Eddie and to me as a character, he was somebody who just never grew up and I found that really interesting. In his house, there were three shots – the one where he’s looking at his TV, and you look and you say, “Wow, his TV is from 1990,” [then] he has pictures on his wall from 1960 and ’70 with his father when he was a kid and these giant trophies and you see him talking to his fiancee. Here’s a man who’s 60 years old and the doctor told him not to race [because he has had] heart attacks, and high cholesterol, but he still continues to race. And he says in the film, “My arm hurts and all these other things, but I promised my father who passed away that I would continue racing for him.”

He’s living in the past as a lot of these people are. At the racetrack too, you’ll notice the walls are handpainted, there’s exposed wood, the lights are very old, the speakers are really from the 1970s, so it became a time capsule, an echo of the past in the present and I wanted that to come through in the film. There’s a lot of people living in a different world and a different time for two reasons. First, I don’t think they want to age and then also, it gives them an identity, either tied to when they were a child or it’s tied to now. That’s why some of these people haven’t taken a break, like the announcer has been working at the racetrack since he was 16. He’s 70 [now]. He has not left that chair in that booth, and if you look around, it’s an oldish microphone, the shades are kind of shaking [inside], so it’s barely holding together, but he’s there, which I thought was charming, but it can also be misleading.

What’s it like to get to the finish line yourself and release this out into the world?

It was a relief because this film had another edit to it. I thought I had finished this film three years ago and it was almost three hours long. It was a different type of film and I didn’t like it, so I decided to just start again from scratch, looking at all my material and deciding it had to be a new film and to not give up on it. I edited in Denmark to be away from the craziness of Riverhead and to be in a place of calm. So I ended up camping out there for three-and-a-half months editing the film and the challenge that I gave the editor Charlotte Munch Bengtsen was to create this living, breathing alchemy from this chaotic place.

What was beautiful to watch was getting to a certain point [where] you have to trust in the material and the decisions that you have made with the film. Because it was my first film, that was very difficult to make these decisions and to stand by them because it was me and Charlotte locked in a box in Copenhagen, working alone – and we just kept moving. We started with 1600 selects and then we were like, “These are all the good ones,” and we kept whittling, whittling, shaping, forming and we knew when it was time. Each shot had to take us deeper and deeper into the emotion of the film and I said that at some point, we had to allow the material to take flight and that’s the moment we were looking for in the edit. I also wanted to leave things mysterious and invite an audience who [may] have judged all these people [already] into their beautiful sensitive world, which in the times we live in, I feel is important as well.

“The Last Race” will show at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23rd at noon at the Temple Theater in Park City, January 25th at 9 p.m. at the Tower Theater in Salt Lake City, January 26th at 4 p.m. at the Redstone 2 in Park City and January 27th at noon at the Park City Library.