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A Visual Portrait of a Profoundly Internal Person: Finlay Pretsell on His Original Take on the Cycling Doc, Time Trial

Time Trial

Hearing the phrase “a decade in the making” is not that unusual in feature documentary circles, particularly for those stories that, on the surface, look fairly simple and straightforward, yet somehow beg to be told on a big screen. That long duration, though oftentimes frustrating, lends itself to finding the more peripheral, ephemeral elements around the main story. So many documentaries about athletes are reliant upon heavy use of archival footage and sit-down interviews with everyone whoever knew the person, with family members, friends, fellow athletes and coaches all weighing in to form a portrait of the protagonist as champion, star athlete, father, son, etc. Others focus on the more scandalous aspects of their subjects — for example, an athlete caught doping early in his career and subsequently suspended from the sport.

But for his first feature film as a director, Finlay Pretsell wanted to do something entirely different. By documenting fellow Scotsman and cycling champion David Millar as he embarked on his final peloton and last bid for the Tour de France before retiring at the age of 37 — doing dozens of trial shoots over the course of many years with DP Martin Radich, and even working on the film’s soundscape well before principal shooting ended — Pretsell put his instincts into filming a story of an undying obsession with the sport. Pretsell, an award-winning short-form filmmaker who once set out himself to pursue a career as a professional cyclist and rode for a few national teams, told me, “I was always obsessed with David’s form as a cyclist — how he propelled himself along with such panache. His body is a strange-looking thing, but perfectly formed to do what he was made to do with the brooding animalistic nature of the threatening peloton bearing down on him.”

The film premiered at IDFA this past November and will have its North American premiere March 11 at SXSW, followed by a special event presentation at this year’s edition of CPH:DOX. After its first screening in Copenhagen, there will be a “psychedelic electro” concert by the film’s soundtrack composer, Dan Deacon. I spoke with Pretsell recently from his offices at the Scottish Documentary Institute in Edinburgh where he’s worked as a producer, director, and distribution manager since 2005. We realized that we had met almost exactly ten years ago at SXSW where the seed for Time Trial had already taken hold.

Filmmaker: Time Trial plays with, and deftly displays, quite rigorous restrictions — both behind and in front of the camera. You did have a daunting challenge in creating a visual portrait of a profoundly internal person. For me, this only enhanced the mystery of David’s personality. When you first conceived of the idea, did you anticipate profiling a dispirited athlete at the end of his career?

Pretsell: No, not when I first set out to make it. But what I always wanted to capture was the sport from the inside, to transfer that feel of the race. That was my biggest goal right from the outset. In my view, no film had ever gotten there, the visceral feeling, the speed, the chaos, as well as the mundanity, the boring everyday life of it. I’ve never been interested in the stars. The shorts I’ve made also center more on that really tiny space between being the best and being one of the many.

Filmmaker: The only way we really get to know David is when he’s on his bike. This is where we spend the most time with him aside from briefer interstitial moments where we see the ways he’s suffering emotionally. We never meet his wife and kids, or his parents or any of his friends outside the peloton. It’s a tightly circumscribed place where you hold us to better feel this bind he’s in — wanting one more Tour de France before retiring but realizing he might not make it. Can you talk a bit about your initial vision for the structure of the film in order to realize the subtler aspects of what he’s going through?

Pretsell: As fascinated as I’ve always been with cycling and with David’s grace on a bike in particular, I never wanted to make a sports film. What I envisioned was a more impressionistic idea of the sport. In terms of those restrictions you mention, my interest was never in seeing his family life or any “behind the scenes” sense of things. I wanted to capture the claustrophobia of the sport that’s so hard to understand. We may see the Tour de France where the bikers are the big stars, heroes for those three weeks it takes to do the course. That’s the main event, their big moment. It looks so glamorous but in reality it is claustrophobic for them. David speaks about this bubble, and that’s the microcosm with its tiny details that I wanted to show. I wanted to limit the majesty of the mountains or the open roads or the magnificent scenery because the riders barely see any of that. Instead I wanted to use the mountains as a fearful place, a nightmare full of foreboding that they have to get over and through. They are really not loving the mountains at all. They’re mentally trying to get past them. That restriction was the most difficult one to get around, of course.

I wanted the film to be an experience where viewers are thrown into this world for a moment in time and spat out at the end. That was a big thing for me, this complete immersion. As any sportsperson, David is tough. But he’s used to speaking about what he does, doing interviews so he can better control his image. As well, he has to control his daily life and be in total control when he races. My goal was always to focus entirely on one person. I chose David, in part, because I connected to his openness about everything, including the drug taking. He had an angriness that I quite liked. I wanted to pull that into the film because we don’t see that so often among professional athletes.

Filmmaker: One of the many things I appreciated about David’s performance in the film is that by the time you sit down for what I guess was supposed to be the big interview between director and subject for this feature-length documentary on him, he is completely unwilling to give you anything at all, even a rote recitation of this scandal he’s had to talk about over and over again. It’s like your own subject helped you avoid these requisite tropes of a documentary portrait. And while he doesn’t give you much off his bike, he’s full on when he’s riding, very aware that he is being shot from all these different angles, the camera in his helmet, on his bike, and all the other ones that surround him, essentially becoming an integral part of the crew.

Pretsell: This speaks very much to why I wanted him. I felt he could see the potential of capturing the sport, and that’s something we shared. It was ten years ago that he and I met and when I first started talking about doing this film. But I couldn’t really see a way into it for all kinds of reasons. And then he mentioned that he was thinking of retiring, and I thought that could be something to go towards, the swan song of his last Tour de France, or whether he could even make it that far. I sensed that he likes being the kind of tragic hero in many ways. He doesn’t mind that idea. He’s written a book or two so he does really understand that that kind of tragedy is interesting. I’m not quite sure I could have found another athlete that would go along with that. It’s clear he understood what that would mean, what life would be like after retirement. It was his last chance to do this.

There’s this interview towards the end when he’s in tears and the day after we shot that, he told me that he was sure I’d gotten some great stuff there. He knew what it meant for us to see him upset like that, to be so exposed. I mean he’s got this typical Scottish Calvinistic way about him. It was the same when he was caught doping. He confessed to every single specific date that he had used drugs to win these races. He didn’t really need to do that. He wanted to tell it all, to get it out of his system. At the time, as well, he hated cycling. He wanted out of what he felt he was mentally forced into doing and that spoke to the whole cycling world and how it worked from a rider’s point of view. He couldn’t stand it and so he didn’t care. I liked that attitude. When he tells me that he won’t talk to me about that, that is the most real moment in the film. The rest is a construct built out of various elements.

Filmmaker: Filming the peloton must have been quite difficult logistically, I would imagine, since everyone’s moving so fast in treacherous conditions.

Pretsell: Martin Radich has worked with me on many of the shorts I’ve done and we worked on Norfolk together, his debut fiction feature. He and I did so many recce shoots for this film, all these tests to see how we could shoot this in an interesting way whilst avoiding that standard television footage we always see. We wanted to try and capture the speed, the energy, as well as the unreality of it. We didn’t see the point of covering absolutely everything the whole time. The onboard cameras in the team car were always meant to be there since that’s good material to cut around. Years ago, these cameras captured just really nasty footage, and I liked that too, these degraded images from these tiny cameras. I loved what that contributed to the overall texture. Of course the quality got slightly better as the years went by. We ended up shooting inside the team car only a handful of times. There wouldn’t necessarily be a shotgun rider next to the driver but that tension of these people being in such close quarters in the car was great because that tension is real. Logistically, we absolutely needed a motorbike; we had to have it.

Filmmaker: How did you figure out what we would see when we move outside of David’s head? You could have made a film, for instance, that never broke away at all.

Pretsell: I felt the breakaways should highlight the difficulties and claustrophobia of what he’s going through. We talked a lot about this during the editing process, how we maintain the intensity. I wanted it to be an intense experience all the way through and all the micro-details that sustain that intensity. But we do need to drop out and see a bit of what’s around him. I liked those worlds too — the team car, the hotel room.

Filmmaker: It does seem to more deeply inform that terrible feeling of watching him fall apart on the bike. That tension and those long takes of him struggling are very painful to watch.

Pretsell: Yes, that’s why a release from that every now and again was necessary. But as soon as you have that bit of release, you’re desperate to get back on the road. That scene of the steep hill climb is something I really love. We shot that fairly early on. It’s long and it’s agonizing and it’s so easy to feel what he must be feeling. And then he also allows us to laugh when he reaches the top with an explosive “Fuck!” But the struggle continues after that; it’s relentless. That’s his world. It’s always like that. Just like the doping scandal — that never goes away. He lives and breathes that every day.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the robust sound design by CJ Mirra accompanied by Dan Deacon’s original score. They create a wall of sound that lends the piece a lot of power and emotional heft. There’s a lot going on there aurally. It’s evocative, in places, of these grand wuxia death battles, very exhilarating, as if the footage was choreographed to go with these vibrant, loud, atonal sounds that with a crash of cymbals finally ends only when the race is definitively over for David.

Pretsell: CJ also worked with Martin and me on Norfolk. Over the years we’d work on scenes we shot very early on for Time Trial, so we were working on the soundscape well before we finished shooting with long discussions about how to create this sensory, experiential soup, using sounds we don’t associate with this kind of footage. I’m, of course, a cycling fan but no one else on the crew is and that was intentional. I’m seduced by it all; others working for me might have been excited by other things that I’m pretty blasé about. But CJ — or as I like to call him, John [laughs] — and I worked extremely closely together. We did the foley work together. There are things like all the electronic gear sounds on a bike, tiny sounds you would never hear otherwise. When you have the bike in a silent place, there’s this electronic sound it makes and it’s peppered throughout the film. Whether people notice it or not, I know it’s there, and I love it. There’s the particular sound of carbon wheels and brake pads that results in a very particular high-pitched ssssshhhhhhh sound that we can hear mostly at the end when everything starts to go blurry visually. It was great fun to create all this. John’s such an easy guy to work with and he just got it. It was a joy for him to do this.

The composer, Dan Deacon, also did an incredible job. We’ll release the soundtrack to the film incorporating John’s design with Dan’s music. Again, it was one of the most joyful things about making this when Dan invited me to his home studio in Baltimore. He was very doubtful that he could do it. He actually felt he was the wrong guy. I was always convinced he could do it. When he sent through compositions, especially the music that accompanies that hellish end footage, it took everything to another level. It sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it.

Just to go back to something we were talking about before in terms of the life and mindset of an athlete and trying to capture that: in filmmaking, unlike professional sports, there is so much gray area around what we do. It’s very much the antithesis of black and white. In David’s mind, everything is black and white. If you train hard, you’ll do well in the race. It’s not quite the same for us. If we work hard, it’s not necessarily going to result in a good piece of work. That divide was a struggle all the time. We spent hours with him not filming, just messing about, chatting, and not doing much of anything except spending time awkwardly in his presence. He couldn’t understand what we were doing especially in the days of the final shooting when we were in his home with nothing to do.

Filmmaker: You chose to make this very strange, but quite moving, final scene of the film where, again, we see David by himself in his own little world — but this time he’s dancing joyfully to some unheard music.

Pretsell: That was actually one of the first scenes I ever thought about shooting. We shot it twice because the first time it didn’t quite work. For me, it encapsulates so many things about him and is a huge release, this way of seeing him unburdened from this thing that has given him so much, has taught him so much, a privilege that ended up becoming too much of a nightmare. The end of his riding career was devastating nonetheless. It’s also reminiscent of past times when he was younger and would just go off the rails and party, breaking free from such a strict lifestyle. I felt it was a nod to that past, as well. I’m not sure it was always meant to be the final scene but somewhere along the way in the edit, we knew that would work in all the ways I just described. He was a bit reluctant to do it since it was a total set-up. It’s not like we just happened to be there at the disco. But I did want to continue this theme of this odd isolation he’s always in but in a more tender and safe way, to show us he’s all right. What was paramount for me and what I wanted more than anything to get over is exactly that kind of complexity, so that your admiration for the guy builds as it did for me in all the years I spent working with him. He’s difficult to get close to. So essentially what we got was all we were going to get but it turned out to be exactly what we wanted. This piece has a complexity to it that I wasn’t able to realize in my short films exactly because of that long period of time spent with him. It was absolutely everything to be invited to go with him into these deeper places.

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