interview with mike ambs on “project pedal”

Mike Ambs, his girlfriend, Amanda, and two friends of theirs left Ypsi almost exactly four years ago this week, and headed to Hollywood, where at least some of them thought that they might break into the movie business. (If I remember correctly, one of them told me before leaving that one night, while working stocking shelves at Target, it just dawned on him that he might as well be working the night shift in California.) They were readers of this site, and I encouraged them to start a blog chronicling their adventures in the city of broken dreams. Fortunately for all of us, they did. They launched a site called Caliblog, which, at least for a year or so, all four of them posted on. A lot’s changed since then. Some of the four no longer talk to one another. One returned to Michigan. The only one of them blogging anymore is Mike. He and Amanda are no longer dating, but they’re still working together on the documentary film project that they’ve been pushing forward these past several years. I just caught up with Mike and asked him a few questions about the blog, the film, and what’s been going on these past four years. The attached images are from his most recent video blog entry, which is about making the film… Here’s the interview:

MARK: When Caliblog launched… when was it, four years ago now… there were four of you. You’d gone from Michigan to Los Angeles on a mission. Now, at least on the blog, you’re the only one left. What happened?

MIKE: Yea, four years ago – almost exactly, the first post was written on Jan 20th. And when we moved out here, there was Amanda and I, then Billy and Chuck moved out just a month later. And, for a while, we were one big happy family – we all had our reasons for moving, mine was mostly the winters in Michigan were beginning to really bum me out. But Chuck and I had the goal of working on projects out here, of making short films and seeing where things led.

That… didn’t quiet work out. And it’s a long and subtle story as to why it didn’t, but one day, about a week before my 1st birthday in LA, Chuck announced on Caliblog that he was leaving. Which was news to the three of us. So things got strange – and soon after Chuck was out of the picture, with no real goodbye or explanation.

So then it was just the 3 of us, living here and writing on the blog. Billy slowly wrote less and less, as did Amanda, just out of busyness mostly. And now that Amanda and I are no longer together (we’re still very close friends), it’s just me on the blog. I thought about retiring it, starting something else up – but I was convinced to keep it going. So… now it’s a very boring and lonely site.

MARK: In spite of breaking up, you and Amanda are still working together on Project Pedal, right?

MIKE: We are – and that has been a very difficult and emotional experience for the both of us. Something we plan to get into a bit more with later episodes on Pedal, but it was hard for a while. Still is sometimes – it took a lot of trying on both our parts to stay in each-other’s lives, and to be able to still work together in a productive way.

People are always very shocked when they hear that Amanda still came on the trip, despite our somewhat recent break-up, and a part of me was shocked also, but I think it would have all fallen apart without her. She’s been there from the beginning, it was her idea in the first place to think about documenting the experience of long travel.

So, I’m very glad we’ve been able to get to where we are at now — and I’d say that Amanda feels that way also. We have a lot of fun writing the episodes and discussing the film, and we’re very much on the same page with how we want the project to come across.

MARK: For people not familiar with the project, there are a few components. There’s a documentary film, and then there’s also a video blog series, right?

MIKE: Yea, “Pedal” is the tentative title of the project as a whole, not the film itself, we haven’t said yet what the film’s title will be. But Pedal is mainly the behind the scenes of an indie film as it’s happening, we’ve been writing on the blog since October in 2004, and we’ve been releasing episodes for the last year, which cover the who, what, how, when of the project.

I think transparency is very important in indie filmmaking, and you could make the case for it being beneficial for some “Hollywood” films. But it also seems to be appealing to people, when you don’t try to come across as someone or something that you’re not, in our case: professionals. Amanda and I are just two crazy kids, who can’t even pay their rent, trying like hell to finish something they started over 4 years ago. Something that will never make any real money, and probably be seen by a very limited audience… but none of that has discouraged us.

MARK: And so far I gather the reception has been good. You won some money, and got some folks to contribute, right?

MIKE: Well, yes and kinda, I would say that people’s reactions to the episodes, the project, and to the footage has been more than encouraging, some of the emails and comments we get are just… overwhelming nice, and they really motivate us to keep going. But I could also say “kinda” in the sense that we’re still pretty low on the radar for indie projects. Perhaps we’re just not PR savvy… or perhaps we’re just not at that stage yet.

I did win a contest for – last year they asked the question “How Do You Watch InternetTV?”, and you could pretty much do anything you wanted in response, I animated a 60 second video and did some voice-over, and I guess it turned out to be a sleeper. The judges kept seeing really, really great submissions, I mean I didn’t think I had a chance at all, some of the stuff that was out there was just really creative, but I got lucky, and people kept coming back to “that little animated one”. Without that, without Jeff Pulver’s generosity, we’d still be struggling to come up with the funds – that was really an amazing moment for us. Turned everything around for us, I’ll never forget it.

MARK: Who’s Jeff Pulver?

MIKE: I guess I did just kinda throw that name out there randomly. Jeff Pulver is the guy behind, and the VON conferences (Video on the Net), he’s the one who put on the contest and it was his personal $40,000 that he gave away in awards to the top 3 finalist. Very generous man.

MARK: So, what now?

MIKE: Ha, that’s a long answer. So, last summer we finished filming the bulk of the project – we have about 120 hours of HD footage, about 500 clips of Mp4 footage from little cameras both the crew and the bikers had, and 4 rolls of 16mm film. We’re in the process of importing/developing/logging all that footage, which will probably take a while, especially considering we don’t have enough hard drive space for all of it at the moment.

Amanda and I are writing episodes that delve into several different layers of the production – there’s a lot of personal things, and story-related things that we’d like to share. We’re working on our plans for gaining a wider audience at South by South West, coming up this March in Austin, Texas. We’ll being writing and cutting the actual film and planning post-interviews and maybe a handful of pick-up shots (do mostly to equipment that was damaged while filming on the road).

It’s hard to say how long the edit will take… could be six months… could be a year, maybe longer. I know Amanda and I want it to be right – more than we want it to just be done. And once the edit is done, and we’re happy with what we have, we’ll begin small screenings, submit to a few festivals (but not many, it’s just too expensive and really just an old way of getting your project out there), we’ll begin to show the entire film online for free, put together a DVD that we’ll sell through the site.

Four Eyed Monsters did something really innovative with their film, which was they had people (through myspace, and their site) sign up if they “would go see the film in a theatre”, if they managed to get more than a 1,000 signatures for one city, they were able to convince a few dozen places, using those number, into showing their film several times for one week. Which was really exciting. We’d like to use the tools F.E.M. have developed and do something similar.

MARK: Are you confident that you have a story arc that will pull people through the movie? I don’t want for you to give anything away, but was there drama that carried through to some kind of climactic moment, and ultimately a resolution? And, more importantly, did you capture enough
of it of film?

MIKE: There was a fair amount of drama… unfortunately. Larry had said something in a Myspace bulletin earlier in the week after watching Episode 6, “These people bled, laughed, cried, screamed, and helped me make these; a preview of my fondest memories”. And I found it very
fitting, and very literal.

But much of it (drama) won’t find it’s way into the film – at least that’s the goal. The project is meant to reflect the way a long distance experience haunts you afterwards. The way it seems always present in your day-to-day routine.

I don’t remember the drama from my first trip (across country on a bike), I mean, if I think about it long enough, I can remember a few examples. But that’s not what snaps into my head randomly as I’m staring at frozen vegetables in the grocery store… the memories and emotions and perspective from those days on the road – are like a dream, a different life, and they seem to always remind me that there is more “out there”. The documentary is meant to stress that people are capable of far more than they would ever give themselves credit for. So there will be no real story arc or resolution – just a mesh of memories and their effects.

But I will say, that the episodes about the making of will be full of drama – so I’m sure they’ll do better than the actual film. And I’m okay with that, I suppose.

MARK: So, it’s not money standing between you and a finished product at this point, and it isn’t a lack of knowing what you want to convey, it’s just time… It must be difficult working your day job when you know the footage is waiting for you at home.

MIKE: Well, there’s a few things – First, money is always an issue with a low-budget project like this, we have over a hundred hours of HD footage, that’s almost 3 TBs of storage needed, we have one. There’s promotion expenses, etc. But for the most part – if we are just patient, we’ll get by.

Second, my day job was making it difficult – but I was laid off at the end of December, so I’ve gotten a huge amount of importing and editing done in the last few weeks. I can’t pay rent this month :) but I’m editing. And editing makes me happy, so it’s an even trade-off.

MARK: Can you get it all done before they shut the power off?

MIKE: Oh no, don’t say that. You’ll jinx us! No, we should make it – we’ve been in worse situations… money wise.

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  1. California Don
    Posted January 28, 2008 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’ve watched a few of the videos and there are some beautiful shots. The kid has a great eye. I hesitate to criticize as he’s young and no doubt just finding his narrative voice but I found some of the autobiographical shots to be overwrought. The scene in the tub, which you show here, while beautiful, is over the top. The same with the scene in which he crumbles up the paper. They come across as staged. It’s incredibly difficult to film yourself and have it come across as authentic. He’s got real talent, and I do look forward to seeing his film.

  2. Posted January 28, 2008 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Don :) Thank you! You’re the first person that’s given me any real criticism what-so-ever. First off, yea, any scene where I need to be infront of the camera, kinda bugs me to look at… and it’s hard for me tell what’s strange looking or staged because I don’t like any of the clips to an extent :P

    Some people *have* mentioned they thought the tub scene was off just because they didn’t believe that I fell asleep in the tub at least twice a week :) but I swear… I do, it’s relaxing, easy to think in the tub I suppose. Anyways, I’m rambling. But thanks for watching and for giving some criticism that I can use… and thanks for saying you’re looking forward to the film – hope you check in for the next episode :)

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