With Little 500 just days away, Bloomington and the IU campus are gearing up for this annual rite of spring.
So is a film crew, which has been tracking four teams all spring for a documentary that the filmmakers claim will cover Little 500 in a way that has never been seen before.
“Even people at the race will not understand the story the way that we’re going to present it,” said Peter Stevenson, BA’12 (political science).
He, Tom Miller, BAJ’12, and senior Ryan Black are working on a feature-length film, One Day in April, a documentary that explores the famed bike race. They plan to release the film next spring just before Little 500.
Armed with a fleet of high definition cameras, dozens of microphones and an army of production assistants, they are working on giving viewers an intimate look into both the magic of race day and the path the riders will have taken to get there.
“I would say that if our movie is boiled down to one point, it’s the journey,” Stevenson said.
Miller and Stevenson said they have approached the Little 500 from the individual riders’ vantage points to tell their stories.
“I think it would be really easy to go out there and get a bunch of wreck video, some cool shots of people riding on the roads, and close-up shots of people wearing badass sunglasses,” Stevenson said. “But that’s not really a story. That’s a Sports Center commercial.”
Instead, the filmmakers said their cinematic approach will give the audience a bottom-up, insider’s perspective into the Little 500 experience.
“The story we want it tell is a story people can relate to,” Stevenson said. “And what we have found is a really common Midwestern story, the idea of working as hard as you can and to become an athletic champion.”
In order to parse out this narrative for the documentary, the filmmakers have been following the journeys of four teams with storied histories at the race: the Cutters and Delta Tau Delta in the men’s division, and Delta Gamma and Teter in the women’s division. Miller and Stevenson said they want to craft a story that speaks to the whole experience, one that represents all 33 teams that will take to the track at Bill Armstrong Stadium this weekend.
“We are hoping that by telling the stories of the teams that we’re focusing on, we can do justice to the story that all of them live in a way,” Miller says.
The toughest obstacle still ahead for the film team is, of course, race day. On that day, Miller and Stevenson will find themselves conducting a virtual symphony of more than two dozen production assistants and 18 standard- and high-speed cameras trained on everyone from riders whizzing around the quarter-mile cinder track to the teams’ coaches operating in the pit.
All those cameras will help them reveal dimensions of the race that no one has really seen before, the filmmakers say.
“What we feel like we need to capture in order to get race day right is the little moments that change the course of the race,” Stevenson said.
“That means you’ve gotta have the moment when the coach is like, ‘All right Lisa, you’re in,’” Miller said. “You’ve got to have…all of these tiny sort of ’micro moments’ that add up to the story of the race.”
Tackling a project of this size has been a learning experience for Miller and Stevenson, one that forces them to think not only about how to tell the creative story they envision, but also the business end of filmmaking.
“I think for both of us, this is by far the most logistically complex project we’ve ever done,” Stevenson said.
Though a political science major, he was active in student media at IU, serving as photo and managing editor at the Indiana Daily Student. He and Miller often collaborated at the IDS or in other media projects.
Miller and Stevenson said they have found that coordinating with everyone from camera gear suppliers, their two-dozen assistants, the members of the highlighted race teams, and IU officials and legal staff is an art in itself. To help manage the workload, they have delegated tasks. While Stevenson concentrates mainly on writing and other storytelling aspects of the project, Miller is in charge of nearly everything going into telling the visual side of the story.
“Tom knows a lot about running a live production with multiple cameras going,” Stevenson said. “He is in his element when we have 25 people to assign different jobs.”
“There’s nothing I love more than just barking at people to go do things,” Miller said, laughing.
But the two say their progress would not be possible without the help of their colleagues, especially Black and IU alumna Kirsten Powell. Black, a telecommunications senior, is the other co-creator of the film project. He collaborated with Miller on their 2012 short film All We’ve Built, which debuted at the Cannes International Film Festival last summer.
“Ryan is very much like my right-hand person. At this point, it is like having my brain in another person’s body,” Miller said. “I can just tell him to go do something, and I know he’ll execute it how I would do it.”
Powell, a telecommunications alumna, was brought onto the project as a consultant and producer earlier this month. A former Little Five rider for Delta Gamma, she has the insider’s knowledge. Neither Stevenson nor Miller have participated in the race.
“She’s our Charles Barkley,” Miller said. “She doesn’t have the technical background in terms of the filmmaking part. But what she does have is an incredibly deep understanding of the race and the psychology of the riders.”
Current journalism students also are integral to the team. Chet Strange, Mark Felix, Steph Langan and Anna Teter are among those capturing images and footage that will contribute to the wealth of material the crew hopes to accumulate.
Miller and Stevenson said creating the documentary came at a good time in their careers. Miller had finished months of work for the Barack Obama campaign and the presidential inauguration, and Stevenson had been working as a freelance political reporter for The New York Times.
“Tom was sleeping on my basement floor at one point in December, taping some meetings in D.C.,” Stevenson said. “I think I turned to Tom and said, ‘Look, I always thought it would be really badass to do a Little Five documentary. Isn’t it a shame that we never did.’ And his answer was, ‘Well, why don’t we?’”
As freelancers, neither had trouble dropping everything and coming back to Bloomington to begin organizing the project. To raise money, they crowdsourced through indiegogo.com, an online funding platform, to solicit support, and they used Facebook to alert friends and followers to the campaign. To raise the stakes, they offered perks based on giving levels, such as screen credits for top donors.
“I’ve been living out of my suitcase since February,” Stevenson said. “It’s tough, but it’s a lot of fun. And it’s a good excuse for me to live in Bloomington for another spring.”
After editing throughout next autumn and winter, the film team plans to show preview screenings of One Day in April in Bloomington in the run-up to next year’s Little 500. Soon after, they said they hope to hit the festival circuit and hope to get the documentary shown at South by Southwest festival in Austin and possibly the Sundance Film Festival.
Neither put much hope in financial success stemming from the film.
“We’re not in this for money. We’re not in this for fame. We want people to see the story that we’re trying to tell,” Stevenson said. “As a creative person, that is the best kind of reward you can get: People being interested in your work.”