Wake up, bicycle until you can’t really move anymore, set up camp, go to bed, then repeat ad nauseam for the next five and a half months.
It’s a formidable challenge for anyone, let alone a filmmaker attempting to chronicle the journey every step of the way, but for Texas native Chandler Wild, it was something he felt compelled to do in order to process his father’s suicide several years earlier.
The end result of this cycling odyssey spanning 6,700 miles and over 700 hours of footage — Wild’s “Mount Lawrence” — is perhaps the most compelling independent documentary in quite some time and definitely the most visually spectacular.
It follows the young director as he takes off from New York City with a friend on bicycle, bound for Homer, Alaska, and a date with an unnamed mountain he would hike and rename after his father.
One of the top nominees for Best Feature at this year’s event, the film will be shown later this month at the Hill Country Film Festival.
Visual travel journal
“Mount Lawrence” opens with a montage of gorgeous still shots framed in Kodak Ektachrome slides, the ones all too familiar from those family slide shows of days gone by.
It’s an important tone setter for the remaining 95 minutes of the film, crafted into what Wild described as a “personal essay” but feels more like a visual travel journal as viewers are taken along for the ride — sometimes quite literally, thanks to GoPro technology.
Each and every frame of the film evokes a wildlife photographer’s sense of visual style, making the most of what ultimately becomes a cinematic love letter to America as much as it is a documentary about understanding loss, depression and suicide.
Limited crew and the toll of the road forced Wild’s hand as a filmmaker, creating the need for a personal essay style of documentary, he said.
“It became very apparent as soon as we took off that that wasn’t going to be a reality because I didn’t have the luxury to have a huge team of people,” he said.
Daily journal notes kept on the road became the footage map of the film as the “Mount Lawrence” team was unable to finance an assistant editor to log each day’s shots.
“When I went back and edited the whole thing, really the only notes I had were my personal ones about what happened each day,” he said. “As I was working on and writing my outline for what it was going to be, I took mostly from those notes, so I think that’s kind of where that feel comes from.”
The lonely road
Even though much of “Mount Lawrence” is a self-reflective solo venture, Wild’s trip — and subsequently the look and feel of his film — became more dynamic with the involvement of various travel companions, who also served as cinematographers chronicling Wild’s journey.
“In a selfish, narcissistic way, I thought the film was going to be more about me when I initially took off. I’m glad that it wasn’t,” Wild said. “I’m glad that we had these people join because that’s what the film actually came to be about.”
a personal struggle
The film works on a larger level — besides just being a visually stunning documentary — because of the very real emotion and heart that seeps through in an authentic manner during Wild’s voice-over commentary track, which help bridge the segments of the film together.
Because the journey was so personal for Wild, finding that right balance between being the subject and the filmmaker was key to the documentary’s success with audiences.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be translatable for someone who didn’t know me or my family or my dad and if they would be able to connect with it,” Wild said. “So, on the very top level this feeling that people are connecting with it is a very satisfying and gratifying feeling.”
The film touches on depression and suicide not in a typical fact-based documentary style, but through Wild’s unique voice as a family member of someone afflicted by the disease, providing a new perspective on the topic.
“I think that a big part of the growing process personally for me while making the film was suddenly for the first time actually saying the words suicide and depression,” he said. “It takes away from any worry that I have that I’m giving up too much personally to know that people are watching the film and hopefully having conversations about suicide and depression in hopefully a way that allows us to destigmatize this disease in our country.”
Audiences are able to connect with Wild and his journey thanks to family-made videos that help capture the essence of Wild’s father for viewers who never knew the man.
“People have responded to it because I think we’re at this point now where since everyone has 20 years of home videos now and the camcorder has become such a part of our lives that it’s almost like they’re not my home videos,” he said. “Everyone has home videos and sees these images of the people in their lives that they’ve lost and there’s this kind of feeling that we get from them that I think that we haven’t totally fleshed out yet as a people.”
The film uses small clips of Wild’s father in his element — camping in the outdoors — to help put things in context for viewers in a truly authentic way.
“A lot of people have responded to those really viscerally and it’s pretty cool to see,” Wild said.
The victory lap
While it may feel like Wild’s journey starts and ends on a bicycle, some of the most compelling and rewarding elements of “Mount Lawrence” happen off bike — from backpacking in the Pacific Northwest to climbing the Alaskan mountain he would later rename after his father.
“I got to the end and I could see the mountain, so I was kind of like ‘This is like my victory lap,’” he said. “I genuinely thought it was going to be a nice easy walk to the top.”
Three days and miles of Alaskan scrub brush later, Wild finally made it to the top where he was only able to spend a short time before weather forced him back down.
“It really wasn’t until I got to the top and I was able to see the end of the road that I really started to feel like ‘Wow I made it to the end of the road,’” he said.
Though things were finally settling in about the completion of his journey, the drive back reinforced just how long the road had been.
“Day by day (on bicycle), it just kind of became a way of life and I thought less about how much distance I had travelled and how much more I had to go and it was more like just wake up and bike,” Wild said, realizing the length of the journey during the 12 days of driving required to get back to New York from Alaska.
Cutting it all together
Putting the film together in the editing room became a new mountain to climb in itself as Wild and his editor faced 700 hours of footage to traverse and cut down to a 98-minute feature film.
“It was almost an exercise in the complete opposite of what the movement of the journey,” he said. “As much as I was moving in the film, I was stationary behind a desk for four months and we just tore through it.”
“I think if I knew then what I know now it would have been a very difficult process to jump into but I almost jumped into it blind,” he added. “I did the biking portion and now we just have to finish the film portion.”
Bridging the gap
Wild is out on the road again, promoting “Mount Lawrence” on the film festival circuit and will take the film on a regional bicycle tour later this year.
Additionally, his journey making “Mount Lawrence” led to the development of a non-profit group called Healing by Adventure.
“I knew I wanted to do something to help, but I also knew that I didn’t have any of the education, experience or facilities to offer any kind of psychological support,” Wild said. “I came up with the idea that the best way to bridge those two would be to create a scholarship organization to bridge the gap between outdoor leadership schools and organizations that deal with depression and other mental illnesses.”
More information on the film is available online at mountlawrencefilm.com.
(Note: Film critic Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival.