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Q&A with the Director of the New Yorker’s First MTB Film

This week in Women in the Mountains, we sat down with director Josephine Anderson to learn more about her film 'On Falling'. The acclaimed short film with the New Yorker, tells the story of three elite mountain bikers and the risks associated with their sport.

We’ve all taken a nasty fall at some point in our lives. It’s happened on a cold winter night when you lost your footing on an unsuspecting patch of ice. Or maybe it was when you took your first real pedal strokes without the training wheels, and you tumbled to the ground. Not every fall is a physical experience, though. Being laid off from your job feels like you’ve fallen out of rhythm. Getting dumped stings just as bad road rash, even though it doesn’t leave any scars.

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But for a few of us, like elite mountain bike racers Miranda Miller, Brittany Phelan, and Andréane Lanthier Nadeau, falling can lead to some extreme repercussions: broken bones, concussions, or a lost podium. From the outside looking in, the risk these women constantly take feels hard to grasp, which is why documentary filmmaker Josephine Anderson sought to dig a little deeper. Her latest film, ‘On Falling’ is a fresh perspective of what it means to crash as a top mountain bike racer. It’s a thoughtful piece that stands apart from the traditional action sports mold. Our stars—Miranda, Brittany, and Andréane—are still painted as incredible athletes, but they’re not infallible. In many ways, they’re like us, simply coping with stress, pressure, and adversity in ways that we can empathize with.

We caught up with Anderson to learn more about the project, and how she got hooked on the idea, despite not being a mountain biker herself.

If you haven't seen the film yet, be sure to give this one a watch.

Can you tell me more about your background in film?

Josephine Anderson: My background is in documentary filmmaking. That’s my main focus and I’ve done a number of short films over the years on all sorts of topics. I tend to gravitate towards the arts. For example, I did a short film on drag artists. Even though I don’t think of myself as a sports filmmaker, I’m currently working on another doc about curling, and my very first film was this interactive documentary about an Olympic wrestler. So yeah, even though my work has been all over the place, sports seem to be a topic that I explore every once and awhile. Mountain biking isn’t something I tend to focus my work on moving forward, but it was fun to dive into its world.

Anderson isn't a rider by any means, but as an outsider to our world, she provides the viewer with a fresh perspective on our sport. Jackie Dives photo.

What intrigued you about mountain biking to pursue a short film about the sport?

JA: Well, living in Vancouver, I’m on the edge of North Vancouver, Squamish, and Whistler which are these big mountain bike destinations with incredible trails and strong communities of riders. I know a lot of people who ride, but I’m not a rider by any means. I tried it once when I was 12 and immediately realized it wasn’t for me.

I guess I’ve always been in awe of people who mountain bike because the risk factor is so high. I think that’s what drew me in, I wanted to explore what this world was like from an outsider’s perspective. I felt very privileged that Miranda Miller, Brittany Phelan, and Andréane Lanthier were so willing to let me inside their world.

You filmed with three elite female racers: Miranda Miller, Brittany Phelan, and Andréane Lanthier Nadeau (ALN). Why did you choose these athletes?

JA: At first it just happened out of convenience. One of our producers is involved in the mountain bike community. He had connections with Miranda and ALN, so we started with them. Once I met with them I was blown away by their athleticism and how accomplished they were in the sport. ALN suggested that I reach out to Brit, so she joined the project as well. Brit brought an interesting layer to the story too because she’s not just a pro mountain biker, but an elite skier. She won a silver medal at the 2018 Olympics for skier cross.

I feel so grateful for how it worked out because they’re such accomplished athletes.

How was it working alongside them?

JA: As an outsider, I found mountain biking to be a pretty strong subculture and at times it can feel a bit intimidating and exclusive from the outside. When I was coming into this project I was a bit nervous because I wasn’t sure if these athletes would be receptive to someone like myself who doesn’t share their same experiences.

It wasn’t like that at all. Everyone was so open, kind, and chill. It was such a great experience working with them, especially once we got on the trail riding with them. They worked hard, and knew exactly what to do, and just hustled to help get the shots we needed. I was so impressed by the dedication and work ethic of these women. Off the trail, I probably threw them for a loop because my film concept was so different from the other films they’re usually doing. They’re filmed regularly by their sponsors, so for me to come in and ask them to drop their head on a pillow is certainly different for them. Regardless, they were trusting and went along for it.

'On Falling' stands apart from most action sports films. It's less about the action and more about what's happening under the surface of these riders.

This film has a different style than most action sports films. It’s not a “shredit.” It’s got beautiful riding, but overall it’s introspective and dreamy. What was the creative thinking behind this?

JA: I knew going into the project I didn’t want to make the quintessential mountain biking film just because it would feel out of line with the kind of work I normally do. So I came into this project simply wanting to understand more about the subtleties of these athlete’s personalities, mentalities, and their psychology. I’ve been calling this their “inner landscape.” I think if people use words to describe how they're thinking or feeling, it can honestly only go so far. Films do rely on dialogues and voiceovers to get across important ideas, but there’s going to be gaps. I think the medium of film has the potential to create complex meaning by connecting these gaps. For example, we as viewers are going to watch and make our connections as the information is being presented to us.

A lot of the film is showing not telling, for example, the shot of Brit’s Olympic rings tattoo rather than her telling us that she’s an Olympian. What compelled you to do this?

JA: I wanted to create a film that left enough space for the viewer to understand and bring in their own personal experiences. In one way this film is an exploration of the inner lives of these three women, as well as an exploration of what it takes to ride at an extreme level like this. But I also wanted the audience to be able to connect with the athletes and find similarities with their own life experiences by leaving just enough space for contemplation.

Also, I’m not a rider. So I was motivated to make a film that was also interesting to people who didn’t ride. I wanted this piece to be able to speak to both riders and to folks like myself who don’t ride, are in awe of professional athletes, or have obstacles in their life that metaphorically relate to what these women are psychologically going through with the ups and downs of their careers.

I found that film really humanized the athletes. I am still in awe of what these women are capable of on the bike, but I also feel like I can relate to their experiences—at least in the way you’ve presented them.

JA: I love the classic mountain biking film where you’re seeing epic riding and incredible scenery. That’s a beautiful genre in its own right. There’s so much talent and work that goes into the cinematography, riding, and production.

However, I’m a documentary filmmaker and I’m more interested in humanizing people and using film to explore what we all have in common. I think that’s so important right now considering the polarity that we’re seeing now in society, and as humans, we really cling to the ideas that make up our identity. It’s not a political film, but even though it’s a mountain biking film I wanted to apply that same perspective to the whole project.

Of course, these athletes are riding at an exceptionally high level, but it doesn’t mean that they’re superhuman. Ultimately, they’re just humans like the rest of us. I wanted to make a film that addresses their incredible athleticism but gives space for the viewer to consider their vulnerabilities.

Miranda Miller pinning it through the forest. Despite 'On Falling' not being a traditional action sports film, it's got plenty of beautiful riding interspersed throughout the piece. Scott Secco still.

The film explores the idea of falling as this multi-faceted thing. (For example, falling could mean crashing but it also could mean falling in love or the weightless feeling from a jump.) Why did you choose to explore all the layers of the sensation of falling?

JA: I mean the film could have answered this question really simply: these athletes love to ride and that love outweighs the risk. But I think there’s more going on underneath the surface. I think as an athlete you have to develop a really complicated psychological relationship with failure and joy.

I’m also a big word nerd. I love to play scrabble, so I thought it would be a cool way to explore the psychology of falling.

It’s easy to think of the sensation of crashing as this intense physical experience but in reality, it’s also emotionally and psychologically taxing. That experience is relatable to beyond just mountain biking. I think the idioms we explore in the film like “falling behind” or “falling in love” serve as a reminder that the idea of falling happens in all different ways. We experience some version of this sensation at some point in our lives. In a weird way, falling can also bring out a lot of beauty and strength. The people that Miranda, Brit, and ALN have become is also a direct result of their resilience towards falling.

Did you enjoy dabbling in the action sports world?

JA: It was awesome! I feel like a guest in this world and was so lucky and privileged that I was able to work with some incredible athletes and filmmakers from this community. We worked with Scott Secco, who did a lot of riding cinematography for the film and he’s such a veteran of mountain bike cinema. It was exciting to tap into his skills and merge that with the documentary-style/sensibilities that we were bringing to the overall concept. Overall, it felt like a play date. 

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