Next Tuesday (April 1, 2008) there may be a strike by American truck drivers. By an incredible coincidence, the strike may last until Thursday, when you can see Doug Pray’s thorough and artful documentary Big Rig at the Starz FilmCenter. The film features interviews with some of the very truckers who will no doubt be in the news.
Big Rig is a series of vignettes, but a few larger themes emerge. One is the truckers’ dissatisfaction with gas prices, and with society’s underappreciation of their services. Many of the drivers say that if their trucks stopped rolling, even for a few days, the country would shut down and Americans would starve.
We’ll find out if that’s true next week. To find out even more, you can talk to Doug Pray after the screening of his film. If his interview with Marty Mapes is any indication, you’ll leave a lot better informed than when you arrived.
Does driving appeal to you? Or is this sort of a little-boy fascination with the big rigs themselves?
Doug Pray: I do love road trips. I also love how conversations get deeper, for some reason, during road trips. No matter who you’re with, if you’re driving a long distance, it seems you’re able to really talk about things in a more significant way than when just sitting there in front of each other. That is a phenomenon that I really wanted to explore when making Big Rig. And, yeah, of course it’s a blast to climb up into a huge 18-wheeler. I loved riding in the rigs and filming. I was like a kid, each time.
So it was easy to get the drivers to open up to you?
DP: Truckers, who spend their days alone in their cab, love to have company and love to talk, in general. Once they’d agreed to let me into the truck and to film them (that was the hard part), they opened up pretty easily. That’s the most critical part of my job, though, is getting people to open up.
Did you have stock questions for each driver?
DP: Sure, all the basics (who are you, where are you from, how’d you get into trucking, etc.). I always go in with a set of 15 or 20 questions, but rarely do I look at it once we get going. I let the conversation go where it wants, like a river, then bring it back if it’s getting boring or irrelevant. I try to keep it exciting and challenging, if possible. Not easy to do. There’s many interviews that I finish up and feel that I failed, I didn’t “crack their code” or get them to convey emotion or entertain us well enough...
Is there anything you can say about “truckers” collectively?
DP: They are all fiercely independent souls, the types of people who do not have an 8-5 job and do not live in their home town for a reason. Many are vets (about 40%). For reasons I still can’t figure out, many of them are from the South (just a fact, there’s a lot of truck drivers from there). And, across the board, they all feel they are not getting very much respect these days for what they do.
One of the subjects is complaining about the high price of gas while wearing an “England” t-shirt [“England” is a trucking company — Ed.]. Two years ago I was in England and was shocked that gas was $8 per gallon. Did this guy (or any of them) ever acknowledge that gas is cheap in America?
DP: I seriously doubt it. I found that equally ironic later on when I was editing, but didn’t mention it to him. But he was very serious about his inability to make any realistic profit with gas prices being so high, and that was back in 2006 when they were still in the twos.
How do you find your subjects? Do you just walk up to people at truck stops and ask to ride along? Aren’t there rules against that?
DP: Yes and yep. You’re not allowed to solicit at truck stops, so we did get kicked out of dozens. But knowing that our intentions were sane kept us going, and we eventually got our initial “pitch” down to a science. I’d see a driver (or a truck I liked with a driver attached), approach him or her in a very non-threatening way, and, in about 10 seconds introduce myself and ask them if they’d be willing to talk to me for a few minutes about my film about truck drivers. They’d either shrug me off with no reply, look at me and laugh (“... are you out of your mind?”), or, realizing I was the media, go off into a full on tirade about high fuel prices, government regulations, and the corporate take-over of the industry that’s left the independent drivers broke and angry. The latter two responses often turned into bonafide interviews. I’d say we ended up interviewing about 1 in 10 of those we spoke with.
Is that you in all those trucks?
DP: Yes, I would sit in the passenger seat with the camera, conducting interviews, and my assistant, Jim Dziura, would sit on the bed behind the cab, helping me with sound, lighting, or camera needs. Our producer, Brad “Alabama LIghtning” would follow behind in our RV (which we slept in every night at the truck stops), while I was with a trucker. When we couldn’t find interviews or rides, I would just ride in our own vehicle and shoot tons of scenic shots all across the country, as we drove to the next truck stop to look for more.
Did I see another “Pray” in the credits?
DP: Either my wife and kids, who I always thank in the credits (for helping me and putting up with all the all-nighters, and in the case of Big Rig, being on the road during the holidays). Or it was Tim Pray, my nephew who was the production manager for our first test-shoot way back in 2003.
The movie is dedicated to... ?
Rob Bennett, who died in 2004, a year before we got funding to make this. I honor him because he was a dear friend and my cinematographer for years (he shot my first two features, Hype! and Scratch, and lots more projects with me). He would have loved to shoot Big Rig for me because he just loved chrome, loved trucks, loved truckstop culture, and loved the road. I ended up shooting Big Rig myself, but thought about him throughout the whole journey.
Across State Lines
There’s a shot of a spider crossing the road. That made me laugh and realize just how much footage you probably had to work with. Do you remember shooting that?
DP: Definitely! it was near the great smoky mountains. I’d stopped to shoot a gorgeous sunset with trucks zooming by, and Jim and I noticed this weird spider which had hundreds of little baby spiders on its back. You can’t see those in the shot, but I filmed the spider and loved how it hit the floor whenever a truck drove by. I like mixing big wide shots with super close-up details.
How much did you shoot? It seems like you had a lot to choose from ... the editing was nice and brisk; it never felt like anything was stretched out too long.
DP: We shot a little over 100 hours — not too much, but still a lot to deal with in the edit room. The hardest part, editorially, was just trying to figure out a narrative structure for the film, because we knew we wanted it to feel like our own experience: a road film where you hitchhike across the country, meet someone, get to know them really well, and then they let you out and drive off, never to be seen again. That’s kind of how the film feels now, the way you meet one driver at a time.
Yeah, there is footage of trucks driving away from you. I wondered about that.
DP: I’d be in the truck for however long the interview lasted, then, when we were done and saying goodbye, I’d ask them to drive with our van for a few miles. We’d parallel them and pass them and I’d swing the sliding van door wide open and just get tons of driving shots of their truck hauling along the highway.
How long were you on the road?
DP: We went out in four 10- to 12-day trips, spread out over a year. Each was in a different season and a different part of the country: south-west, south-east, north-east, and north-west. In the end, we drove about 25,000 miles through 45 states, stopped at 115 truck stops, and did interviews with 60 truck drivers (some short, some long)
It was shot on video, I presume? How are cameras these days? Where is the best to compromise between camera quality/lens size and portability?
DP: This was shot in HD (24p720)on a Panasonic VariCam. They have smaller cameras now that are as good, but still, the VariCam is an amazing camera that I didn’t find too cumbersome in the trucks. It’s got great broadcast-style lenses and incredible color reproduction. I just love the camera and still use it for other jobs when I can.
Are you able to support yourself as a filmmaker?
DP: Call me a sell-out, but...
DP: ... but if I didn’t direct commercials from time to time I couldn’t possibly support myself and my family with the documentary features alone.
How do you go from Scratch to Big Rig?
DP: Brad Blondheim is also the producer of Scratch. We mutually came up with the idea to make Big Rig while working on Scratch, actually, just driving all over the place to film DJs. We just thought it was a cool idea and pursued it. We had no idea it would take 6 years for the film to be finished and finally released, but that’s not too atypical for documentaries, either.
How did you know when to stop editing?
DP: The editing stops when you’re contemplating death as a reasonable alternative.
Did I miss anything between Scratch and Big Rig?
I made a smaller, more underground-type film called Infamy in 2005, which is a fairly intense story about the lives and aspirations of illegal graffiti writers. The project was only released on DVD and its marketing and promotion was non-existent, so not a lot of people heard about it. But I’m extremely proud of it (it can be purchased at Amazon, or visit www.infamythemovie.com).
I also finished another feature documentary this year (coincidental timing) called Surfwise which is being released into theaters this May by Magnolia Pictures. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last September and also played at the Denver International Film Festival in November. It is the story of legendary surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, his wife, and their nine children, who the couple home-schooled and traveled around the beaches of the world with in a tiny camper, adhering to the strict diet of what animals-in-the-wild would eat. Visit www.surfwisefilm.com.