Heaven and Hell

My Apologies to those who have been wondering where my blog has been.

Fact is: I was filming the Tour de France for a documentary on Lance Armstrong I am directing for Sony Pictures.  Yet, early in the morning on every stage, when I was supposed to be blogging, I was working on the editing of two other films I have been working on, "My Trip to Al Qaeda," based on a play by Lawrence Wright, and "Casino Jack (and the United States of Money)" about Jack Abramoff and the ongoing political corruption scandal in Washington.  Now that the editing of "My Trip to Al Qaeda" has been finished, I can resume some blogging.

first up - the beginning of a blog I started in France, coupled with many pictures from the Tour.

Here I am with cinematographer Maryse Alberti ("The Wrestler," "Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room"; "Taxi to the Dark Side") and Sound Recordist and Grand Prix Driver Rob Davis, on top of legendary Mont Ventoux.  Note that we are facing away from the action...


What follows was originally written on July 11:

Filming the Tour De France is somewhere between heaven and hell - a peculiar kind of purgatory.

First of all, glimpsed from the window screens of our camera car, there are the trailers of heaven: scenes of Monaco; the cathedral of Gerona; the architectural wonders of Barcelona and the vista of Font de Magica high above the Plaza Espana; the craggy drama of Pyrenees.  And this is just the beginning.

But filming the tour is some kind of hell.

We have seven cameras here.  One is in the Astana Team car capturing the instructions to the riders of the legendary Directeur Sportif, Johan Bruyneel.  One is on a motorcycle following the riders. Four are out on the course at various times and one is an extremely lightweight camera that we were able to put on the bike of one of the Astana team members (more on that later).

Every morning most of our team gathers to plan for the day.  One crew usually starts filming at the Astana bus, where the crush of fans seeking a glimpse of Lance Armstrong is inexorable. The other crew gathers a bit of the daily circus around the starting gate. Jimmy Buffet, who made a brief cameo appearance in Barcelona, rightly calls the Tour Mardi Gras on wheels.

Out on road, things get complicated.  The very best shots of the riders - head-on closeups - are mostly forbidden because a motorcycle in front of a rider can give him a draft. Also, for safety, the number of cars near the riders must be limited.  So, every day, in two press cars, our two teams set out on the "Hors Course" - the side route - to find a fast way around to get ahead of the race course to secure camera positions for the fleeting moments when the riders fly by.

Care must be taken to avoid the Caravan Publicitaire, a nightmarish fleet of commercial floats, honking their horns, thumping bass-heavy music and showcasing hot young women throwing swag to drunken fans.  In a reversal of the Odyssey's Sirens, these hotties are the ones who are harnessed, tethered to the posts under the plaster statues lest they go flying into the crowds when the float driver takes a wicked turn down a switchback.

The Caravan precedes the riders on the race course by an hour or so.  In trying to find our camera positions, it's tough to weave in and out of the floats.  So we try to precede the caravan.  When we find a spot, we set up two cameras - usually one with a telephoto lens and one with a wide angle - to capture what we hope will be a "moment." We have a list of shots we are looking for - full peleton, breakaways, etc. - but we are also ready to capture whatever might happen.

Here's the drag.  Once in a spot, we have to sit there for hours waiting for the race. Now that's not all bad.  The fans are interesting - particularly if we catch them on a rising high before their stash of beers takes them to raucous oblivion. They come from all over and as far away as Australia.  In Andorra, we met Basques, Catalans, French, Italians, Germans, Dutch...Yesterday, we positioned ourselves next to the van of El Diablo.  He's a German "fan" who follows the Tour in his fan, getting smellier stage by stage.

During the time trial in Annecy, he got a French network car bounced from the tour when he hitched a ride and then mooned the crowd in front of the race director. In the pictures below, you can see him sneak his way into a photo of me and the former editor (he's been kicked upstairs at Rodale Publishing) of Bicycling Magazine, Steve Madden.

stg18_steve madden_tdf09.jpg

Here's the start of a picture gallery:

Stage One - Monaco -  Lance Armstrong in the daily crush of reporters and his fans:


Monaco.  Lance Armstrong, in his hotel room, after his ride in the Prologue, watching Alberto Contador on his ride:


The mass of bikes in Montpellier.


More later...