Interview: Em Baker hits the road in ‘Spoke’

Spoke the movie em bakerFor most of us, travelling across the United States would likely involve a lot of flying, tour buses, and train travel. Not so for Em Baker, whose film Spoke will soon screen at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Baker filmed herself and her companions as they rode 5600 kilometres from one side of the United States to other, purposefully travelling through the nation’s least bike-friendly states. Her aim was to explore the reasons that, according to the research, bike riding is significantly more dangerous in the United States than in other Western countries.

The result is a warm, likeable and always engaging film that nicely balances the pleasures and freedoms of bike riding while interrogating the inherent risks that come with this activity in America. I sat down with Em to talk about Spoke.

Em, I’d love to hear about how this film came about?

I guess it came about because I had moved to the United States and I had really wanted to make a film where I rode a bicycle across the country. I just thought that would be amazing, and the more that I floated this idea with people the more push back I was getting and people saying that it was going to be really dangerous. That interested me and I did a bit more research to find out if the statistics bore up to the fear that there was around cycling in America, and they did. I thought that was an interesting story in itself, so I guess rather than taking people’s advice not to make the journey I just thought I’d make that into my film.

Were you a big bike rider up to this point?

Not really, I was a commuter biker. I basically just rode my bike to work and that was about it, I hadn’t ever really attempted anything like this.

Wow. How long did it take you?

It took us just over 100 days, but that’s a very, very slow time to cross the country on a bicycle. I’d estimate that we took probably a month and a half off. We’d get to an interesting city and we’d think lets stay here for a week. New Orleans, LA or Austin… these are places that we wanted to stay for a while because I didn’t know when we were going to be back there again. We wanted to stop and talk to people and really experience everything that we could on the journey.

In terms of filmmaking, what was your background in film up to that point?

I have a really unusual background in film, I suppose. In the previous year before making the journey I had just graduated from a journalism degree at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. I found that although I was really interested in the process of television and dealing with video content, I had a lot of ethical qualms with journalism and the way that most media outlets function. At the same time I contacted some people in the States who had created a short film I’d seen on YouTube, not really with any agenda, but basically just to tell them that I thought it was a really incredible piece and that I was so glad that people out there were making art like that. I joked at the end, you know, “P.S. If you ever want someone to get you a coffee, I’ll move to the States and work with you”, and the producer of the film, Josh Penn, wrote back and he said, “Sure, we’re making our first feature. How soon can you get here?”

I was blown away. I uprooted and moved to San Francisco and worked in visual effects as an intern on that film and it did very well. That was really exciting, and then after that I worked on a range of things, like different feature length documentaries and narrative films. I did a little bit of work for Discovery Channel. That was basically my way in. I was really lucky. And this production company Court 13 Pictures, they also really helped mentor me with my film and gave me so much support and encouragement to even attempt something like this. I think for a rookie such as myself, you do have that impostor syndrome and think, ‘Who do I think I am to even attempt to ride across the country and make a feature film?’ You need someone there saying, “Well, why not?” You know?

Spoke the movie em bakerDid I also see Mad Max: Fury Road on your IMDB resume?

Yeah, but that was after I did production on Spoke. I’ve worked in visual effects on some Hollywood stuff, but the original film was Beasts of The Southern Wild.

An amazing film.

Yeah, it’s a great film. I thought it was going to be great but I didn’t think it would get the kind of recognition that it did, so I was really excited for them that they did get that. Then when I came back to Australia I did work on Mad Max and Wolverine and a couple of other big budget Hollywood blockbuster-y type things. That was a cool experience as well.

Going back to Spoke, you undertook this big riding adventure with two friends, Nick and Lauren. How did you know those two?

Lauren I met a couple of years prior in a monastery in Nepal, where we were staying at the time. Nick I also kind of met in a really serendipitous way, I was looking for a place to live in San Francisco and he interviewed me over Skype while I was still living in Australia and at the same time he interviewed another guy, I think from Indiana, and his mom consulted a tarot card reader who said, “Don’t go with the guy from Indiana.” So he chose me, and then I moved in and we became really great friends. I was very lucky.

Making this film, what did you learn about what makes riding a bike in America more dangerous than in other Western countries?

There are a lot of things. I suppose that the landscape, both culturally and geographically in the United States, it’s more similar to Australia than it is to somewhere say like Europe, but Australia still fared better in a lot of ways. The other thing about the United States is it does vary from state to state and we did deliberately travel through the most dangerous states. In those states, the cars are really big, they go really fast, and there’s not really much encouragement for cyclists. There’s always strength in numbers. The statistics show that the less cyclists you have, the higher the likelihood of individual cyclists being hit. When cars aren’t used to seeing cyclists, they’re not looking for them.

There have been a lot of issues in the United States around drink driving as well. They don’t have booze buses, I suppose, in the same way that we do in Australia. This issue is further contributed to by the fact that there’s not a lot of public transport in a many of the places that we went to (or that public transport is looked down on). The infrastructure in many places is really poor. There are lots of issues. It’s very, very difficult.

There’s this scene in the film when you’re asking your travel companion, Alex, about why he doesn’t wear a helmet. He attempts to use the pro-choice argument as an analogy. It’s a funny scene but it also articulates some differences in thinking between Australians and Americans. What did you learn about the cultural differences between the two countries?

It’s funny you mention that moment, because it always makes me laugh. It’s just such a clunky and awkward analogy. I don’t really know if it works, but it’s a classic Alex moment so I wanted to include it.

I guess, for want of a better term, there’s less of a nanny state mentality in the United States. To be clear, I don’t mind the nanny state at times and I think that maybe the pendulum’s swung a little bit too far towards that libertarianism in the United States. I think that’s reflected in the crash rates and the issues around, drunk driving or driving dangerously in the US. They’re just not monitored in the same way.

We have static speed cameras in Australia, and I never saw those in the US. I could be wrong but I never saw them personally and I spent a lot of time on highways. Just things like that, I think there’s less monitoring because people are more concerned about their civil liberties. It’s a delicate balance, but I do think it means that people’s behaviour on the road is often more erratic and more dangerous.

Spoke the movie em bakerOf course, there’s another side to Spoke. A lot of the film is just about enjoying the ride. How much of the structure of the film was planned and how much just happened?

It was really important to me that we showed both sides of cycling. I didn’t just want to show it as this kind of really negative, dangerous hobby or way to commute or whatever. I wanted to show how liberating it is and how fun it is, because I really think it’s such a unique way to travel. I don’t think that you can see a country in any other way and have that simultaneous experience of being so close to everything around you, but still be able to get places very quickly.

As far the structure goes, before we left, I had contacted lots of different people and we’d kind of structured our trip around meeting them. For instance, the Ortega family in Orlando, Alvaro Bastidas with Please Be Kind To Cyclists, and a range of other different people that didn’t end up appearing in the final cut of the film. We had organised that we were going to arrive and speak to them on our bicycles, and that brought its own challenges because it’s quite difficult to set up an interview with someone and say, “Well, we’re going to be there in this three week window.”

We were really lucky that the people that we were interviewing were keen to speak to us and they were very patient and flexible, and it all worked out really well. But I suppose the other sort of narrative and the more personal stuff, I had always intended to capture that because I thought that it would be a really great story, especially because we weren’t anybody special, we were really just anybody on a bicycle. I thought that that would lead to some interesting moments, and I think it did.

Would you ever do something like this again? An epic bike trip like that?

Yeah, I’ve actually always kind of had a bit of a streak of doing trips like this. Before I got into bikes I was very into hitchhiking. I’ve hitchhiked around Europe quite a lot. I’ve hitchhiked in Timor, in Australia, a lot of different places. I do like getting to places on my own steam. I like doing long distances without much of a plan because I think that that takes a lot of the fun out of getting places.

That’s something that kind of comes intuitively and instinctively, so I’ll probably just continue to do that, but as far as filmmaking goes my current film is very different and I’m realising how much easier it is to fly somewhere with all of your equipment and to bring it in a car, and to take it home and edit it as you go. It’s feels like such a luxury.

And what is that film going to be about?

It’s a work in progress, I’m thinking it will be feature length but I’m not sure at this time. I don’t want to give too much away at this point but it’s going to focus on women around the world getting married, and we were shooting earlier this year in India and we’re going to go to Mexico in a couple of months.

Tickets for Spoke are available at:  

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James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

One thought on “Interview: Em Baker hits the road in ‘Spoke’

  1. That was some challenge to take on indeed. Looks like an interesting viewpoint on travelling across America. We have seen it done in cars and on motorbikes, but it looks very different from the saddle of a bike.
    Cheers, James. Pete.

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