“All I ever wanted was, give me one Tour de France,” says David Millar towards the beginning of “Time Trial,” a goal that seems further off in the distance than ever before for the cyclist who is coming off a two-year ban for doping. Millar is among the elite few to wear the yellow jersey for Britain during the pinnacle of the sport, let alone win four stages of it, yet was denied an overall victory throughout his heyday at the turn of the century. While Millar wanted to the win the race on his bike, his dream was shared by the filmmaker Finlay Pretsell, who held the ambition to commit the visceral experience of the Tour to film. For both men, it was an impossible undertaking and yet the mere fact that “Time Trial” shouldn’t seem to exist adds an extra electrical charge to the already incredibly tense experience of watching it, joining the 37-year-old Millar on what is likely to be his final race where the strain of his muscles and the weight of his memories are vividly translated to the screen.
It’s possible that Pretsell could’ve chosen any cyclist to make such a film around since the immersion is so complete that it’s feels like it’s you rather than Millar who is peddling furiously up the Pyrenees Mountains and through the cobbled streets of small French villages, but in Millar, he finds a soulful partner whose awareness that the end of his career gives considerable weight to every fleck of mud and drop of rain that crops up on the camera. The same stubbornness that has pushed Millar to try the race one last time even as the odds are stacked against him also make him a challenging subject to capture personally, not exactly eager to look back at the past either in success or failure or allowing anything to break his steely concentration. Deftly navigating emotional terrain as treacherous as what Millar encounters on the course, “Time Trial” finds ways to get inside the cyclist’s head, whether it’s reframing interviews into narration of what he’s going through during the race, speeding up and slowing down images to mimic the energy around him or creating a soundscape through the intricate work of sound designer John Sampson and composer Dan Deacon to give the film the hypnotic rhythm that makes racing so alluring.
Although “Time Trial” feels immediate, the making of it was anything but, in the works for over a decade, and during its North American premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, Pretsell spoke about untangling all the logistical and practical obstacles to deliver as pure a racing experience as one could without actually hopping on the bike.
Did this idea start with David Millar or just making a cycling movie in general?
Just making a cycling movie in general, really. I have this obsession that’s been around for many years, from the day I thought I could maybe make films, to capture the experience of being in a big, professional road cycling race. After making a few short films, I came across David, who I’ve always been aware because he’s a fellow Scot and a great bike rider and I revisited this idea of following him in a race. When we finally met, he was very open to the idea of making something that was not very straightforward — talking heads — and not necessarily a hero’s story. I saw in him that he was ready to go the extra mile, no pun intended, to make a film that was going to be an experience rather than a character piece, more [from] this real obsession that I had of capturing these sensory feelings of being in a race.
A sit-down with David becomes a crucial part of the film, but you can also envision a version of this where it stays exclusively on the track. Was that kind of interview always a part of this?
I always wanted for him to be present and we did various interviews – not that many, but [where it would] be this confessional moment in this unrecognizable space. When you’re watching something, if you see something behind it, a kitchen or a hotel room or something like that, you’re bringing something else to that place. I always had this idea of [the background] being black, this single light kind of interview in a confessional space, questioning him in a way police might do if somebody were arrested. We did three or four of these big sit-down master interviews and they were quite hard to put into the film because they’re so striking, but they’re also very static. I always imagined this movie to be always in motion, like these guys are. They’re in this claustrophobic world and they never get out of it. They’re always in it. It’s constantly moving. They never get to see the scenery. They don’t get to enjoy the cities or towns they visit or the beaches. They can’t do any of that. They’re either in a hotel room or on their bike, focusing on a race and then they’re in an airport, flying somewhere. So [with] these interviews, we had to really use them sparingly and the ones that we used capture the most emotion visually.
Logistically, how do you even think about covering the Tour de France?
It’s extremely complicated. My [cinematographer] Martin Radich and I have a really good friendship and we both push each other along the way. He’s constantly asking questions, as it should be, and we ended up doing many research trips to the Tour de France, the Tour of Oman, the Tirreno Adriatico, Paris-Roubaix, Tour de Flanders – all of these big races just to get a sense and just to filter out the noise of these races. Especially the Tour de France, there’s literally so much noise. It’s so loud and so blocked off and so impossible to penetrate that we had to find a way of cutting through that. These races are covered by big broadcasters with their big cameras and we were a bit under the radar, so we were around and we had all access, but we had to operate in a different way. We were much more undercover. For example, we were the first test project for the World Cycling Union for these onboard cameras and we luckily got these Replay XD cameras that are extremely small and you can put them in lots of strange places, unlike other onboard sports cameras that I’m sure we all know about. These are so good because you can make them disappear and record for a long time, and just to show a crazy downhill or a sprint, it’s not that interesting, but I thought this is great if we can make a sequence out of all this onboard footage.
The other way we did it was this very bespoke motor mic that we built and developed in France. Basically, [we found] places on the motorbike for four cameras, one being the big one on the back for the main camera. That was a fluid head and Martin was facing the Peloton the whole race, sitting backwards. [laughs] I don’t know how he did it without feeling incredibly sick, but for thousands of kilometers, he rode backwards, staring into the cyclists’ face. It sounds like hell, but he said he would much prefer being at the back of a motorbike than being at the back of a van with us, traipsing across the countryside to hang around in another town waiting for them to come back. He much preferred it to experiencing it from afar, which most of the crew had to do.
Most filmmakers might wince to see their footage muddied up by the elements, whether it’s condensation on the camera or the mud that flicks up on the lens, which all add to the texture of this. Did you immediately embrace that?
It was brilliant, man! All of those things. The first half of the film was shot in Tirreno Adriatico in middle Italy, and the year before we went there, it was hosing down with rain the whole week, so we thought alright, we need to be prepared for this because the cameras on the bikes need to be well looked after. We expected rain and when we got there, it was the most amazing, sunny, freakish weather ever in March. It was boiling hot and a joy for the crew to work under. However, what the rain added was pure drama, pure excitement – it puts everybody under pressure, Including the riders, the team staff and all of the crew – and the images are fantastic. These splashes on the lens and those shapes and images it creates are so much more interesting.
We used these little cameras years before on a test project, and the images were so bad and pixelated, and [then] roll on a few years and the technology is so much better, but actually, less interesting and less raw, which [is what] we loved about the cameras in the first place, so the rain just added this rawness and gave us back our abstract agitation that it brings. There’s a few images when there’s a crash, let’s call it, and it really goes crazy into black and purple and I think that was the water penetrating the camera because it was absolutely getting rained on so much. It’s not a fake experimental collage we put together – that is the actual footage from these cameras, and I think that is so exciting. It was such a happy accident.
You’ve got such tension coursing throughout the film that when you cut back occasionally to join the guys in David’s support car that rides alongside him, it becomes this great release valve. How did you decide to place a camera in there?
It’s quite a personal space, the team car. As you can see in the film, there’s a lot of swearing and just like in any race, or making any film, or [any] behind the scenes [footage], people don’t necessarily come across very well, but we recorded quite a bit of this in the past and a lot of these days, especially when it’s sunny, they’re quite long and there’s not much going on. These guys just make the best of what they’re doing. They’re sitting in the car for five, six hours, just following a race with occasional jobs to do. It’s quite dry and they don’t have much to say, but when the rain comes, it becomes way more stressful for them, so they were quite reluctant to have the cameras in there and what we filmed was very limited, but I love the play between Robbie and Charlie, the two guys [in the support car who] are just so great. They really let you in and at first, you just think they’re messing around. They’re not very serious and then towards the end, you can see they’re absolutely 100% focused on their job and helping the riders to win the race, so this contrast was interesting.
There’s definitely this tension between the car and David and them being the support but also the ones who can take it away and stop something happening. They’re the team boss all in one who can see your every move, so they know if [the rider is] playing well or not, so it was quite important for us to have them in there. We always had this [idea] of capturing the race, capturing the speed, the riders, this flow of the race, but to keep that tension going, we had to go somewhere else all the time to keep us wanting to get back into the race. When we’re in the hotel rooms, [we wanted the feeling to be there of] “Oh, I want to get back in,” but we had to be strict on how we used that. If it’s just guys riding bikes, it becomes long to watch.
I’ve read that while you’re a big cycling fan, you intentionally surrounded yourself on the crew by people that weren’t. How did that benefit the film?
Hugely, from the producer Sonja [Henrici], who had no idea about cycling and she did by the end of it. [laughs] She researched and became obsessed. Martin, the DOP didn’t —and still doesn’t have any interest. [laughs] the editor Kieran [Gosney] wasn’t really attached to it, [or] the composer Dan Deacon, and for me, that’s ultra reassuring to have because I’m seduced already by the sport – the riders, the images, the gravitas of it. None of these people around it were, so they’d be constantly just questioning it for things that I would take for granted that [they would] find exciting…and the other way around where things I would get seduced by, they were like, “This isn’t interesting.” [I would] recognize all these stars on screen, like “This is Mark Cavendish or Cadel Evans or Fabian Cancellara and…” they don’t care. They don’t see it. They’re just faceless riders, which is far more interesting and I think it helped the film open up to a much wider audience. One of my fears is [someone will say] “Oh, it’s just a cycling film” and for me, it’s far more than that. It goes way beyond and their advice going through this process was invaluable. aThere’s a lot of [cinematographers], editors, producers and all the rest of it that would love to be involved in a cycling film, but I was very weary of that.
What’s SXSW like for you and getting to the finish line with this?
It’s been really good. I’m amazed that with so much going on that all the screenings have been packed and we’ve done a couple of sessions with Dan Deacon [about] the making of the music. He’s has been here for a few days, doing many shows, and he’s been to SXSW hundreds of times, but [seeing him] doing these shows, it made me feel quite proud. There’s so much buzz around and what I love is that at usual film festivals, you generally meet filmmakers, but here you’re getting a whole lot of people inspired for their own reason. I had these shoe designers who were here mostly for the interactive conference, but they thought, “Oh, we’ll take some time out and try to see a film, and they happened to come see my film, and it was great speaking to them because they were so excited. They felt that my film could inspire them in their work, which [is making these] traditional leather boots, and it’s exciting that it goes out to really different people and you can tap into different audiences. So it’s been fantastic and having David here as well for a few days was good because he had a great time. I think it’s very strange for him watching the film. It’s very intense and I think he struggles to watch it, but he also appreciates what we’ve done.