From the get go I was really excited about this project. My last doc was basically shot in one location, with the subject repetitively going through the same motions. I felt like this one would give me some freedom to try some new things.
But I think I'm putting the cart before the horse so let's back up. I initially went out to the track with the idea this would solely be about lawn mower racing. After a few 4 hour roundtrip drives out to the track and a lot of shooting I realized something wasn't working. A short doc on the sport could be interesting but it wouldn't be compelling. I needed a story to tie it all together otherwise it would have felt like an infomercial. The time shooting wasn't wasted though. A lot of that footage ended up as good B-roll.
After coming to this conclusion I put down my camera for a bit and went into discovery mode. I started talking to people, learning their histories, why they loved the sport, etc. I was trying to find something interesting. Eventually I came to know Mike Graves through the chapter president. Mike has cerebral palsy and I naively though it would be the story, "Man with Cerebral Palsy races lawn mowers!" But after a few weeks it seemed too shallow, simple & typical. The second interview we did was the one that changed the course of the doc. I started asking about his past and his childhood and his family. That's when I learned how much his father meant to him. Finding that story was part lucky break and part persistence.
Adre Borher and I decided to do the third and final interview at his sisters house. We had to go there to pick up the archival footage and photos, we figured he would be more comfortable talking there than at the track. Getting Mike into a space where he felt at home was really instrumental in the success of the interview. It also allowed us to change the visuals a little, something I'm always eager to do.
Ok, so back to the actual shooting. I knew going into this I was going to use some POV camera angles (we had to use GoPros due to budget. If I had the money we would have rigged some nicer cameras on and around the mowers). I wanted to get the viewer as close to the action as possible. At the top of their class these mowers are fast and mean and you really feel that speed and power when you're on one (side note: they offered to let me drive one of the fastest ones but I declined. I didn't have health insurance at the time 😬). I think POV did the job in showing the viewer that.
But after doing this for a while I knew I needed something else to make it pop. Naturally I thought hi-speed would be a good solution. It's often overused but with something like this I think it works. I asked Matt Hutchens, a great steadicam operator based in Orlando, to help and he happily agreed (he also lent a hand for Mr. Gold). I had an idea to shoot a profile of Mike while racing. So I ratchet-strapped Matt into the back of a borrowed pickup and drove him around the track at 30 mph. After several passes we got some good stuff. Thankfully he's still alive. I only careened off the track once.
I really wanted to do some drone shots too (Matt's an excellent drone operator and has some nice rigs). My idea was to do some really high aerials and a couple tracking shots looking directly down at Mike as he raced. Again, drones are often overused but I'm confident our way would have worked well. Unfortunately we will never know because the track sits directly next to a small municipal airport! Long after shooting wrapped I learned there was one way we could have pulled it off but the tracks insurance wouldn't have allowed it anyway. Talk about bad luck, right?
Most of the shooting actually took place in the pits though. That's where you see a lot of the family atmosphere, camaraderie and fun happen. And it makes sense because that's largely what this film is all about.