It’s a hot summer’s day in Girona and ex-professional cyclist turned documentary filmmaker Angus ‘Gus’ Morton walks into the cafe with his wrist strapped up. Unable to ride, this enforced period of inactivity mirrors the break he’s taking from his hugely influential Thereabouts and Outskirts film series.
Depicting long-distance bike adventures, in this first part of our conversation Gus candidly discusses the origins of these films, how he decides which shots make the final cut and why it’s not particularly advisable to eat a 72 oz steak in a single sitting.
To quote the last message you sent me, you’re doing fuck all at the moment. How does that sit with you?
It’s good to sometimes do nothing but I guess I’m in a slightly odd situation in that I live in Boulder but I was recently back in Australia for my sister’s wedding and had my visa revoked.
Your US visa?
Yeah, that’s right. I’ve been resident since 2015 and every few years you need to re-apply and I pay a lawyer to do that. They made a clerical error so basically I need to go through the whole process all over again. Which is a huge pain in the ass but also means that I can’t travel back home.
I was wondering whether you’d done anything to upset the current political administration?
You could speculate on that [laughs] but it turns out that the visa I’ve been happily using for the past three years was in fact the wrong type.
So you’ve got a home in Boulder that you can’t go to?
Fortunately I was living in LA before moving to Girona to finish off a bunch of projects so I don’t actually have a place that I’m renting but all my stuff is there.
And it looks like you’ve also been in the wars. What’s happening with your wrist?
I was mountain-biking on some local trails and it was getting late. About 9:30 at night and starting to go dark. We were getting to the bottom of a run and I just didn’t see a drop; max speed into a 3 metre ditch and I planted face first. Knocked off part of my front tooth.
You can’t tell.
Dude, if you need to get any dental work done, come to Spain [smiles].
And the wrist?
It’s not broken but I’ve done something to the tendons. Because immediately after the accident I had to go out to Vietnam for a week-long photoshoot so I was straight away back riding. And it hasn’t been right since.
All this travel – you grew up in Australia, you’re currently in Girona but all your stuff’s in Boulder – how do you define home? Places, people, belongings?
For me it’s people; family. My brother and parents all live in the US so at the moment that’s where I associate as home. I certainly don’t see Australia in the same way.
But that’s where you were raised?
I’ve not lived there in a long time. I still love visiting and potentially that’s where I’ll end up but right now I’m just where the people are.
Applying this sense of movement you’re describing to your recent films, they appear to be very fluid in the way they were made. Was that an aesthetic decision or simply how you like to work?
It was very much a certain feel that I was going for. When you look back at the original Thereabouts film, Lachy [Gus’ brother Lachlan Morton] was in the World Tour but wasn’t super happy with it. I was working in TV, had got to a point where I was directing shows and I guess like with everything you always have a boss and I suppose I wasn’t feeling that creatively satisfied. Constantly being hemmed in and pushed in certain directions; making a product for a certain audience and accountable to someone else’s plans. So I was looking for a way to have a creative outlet, Lachy wanted to do the same thing and we just decided to go on this trip.
With the freedom that brings?
It was born out of this idea that you should take the time to go out and do things the way you want to do them. And I’d been working for the past 18 months on this long-form documentary and when they were condensing it down I was frustrated by the demand from the network that everything had to be really well explained.
Maybe forcing a story that wasn’t there. And the style that came out of Thereabouts was to tell it how it happened and not scrap a bit because it was out of focus or the audio was shit. That we’re actually going to embrace that. The rawness of it demonstrating an honesty that reflects our own experience. This was the way it happened – it wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t polished because life rarely is – and I guess that became a kind of house style.
A working method that continued into Outskirts?
I wanted to hone in on that even more. To be as minimal as possible in terms of impact. Removing the requirement for a large crew size; a storyline reduced to meeting people on the road with no real agenda. Just seeing what they talk about and in doing so, gaining an authentic understanding of place.
It made for a very immediate style of film-making and there’s a quality in those interactions that maybe you’d lose if they were scripted?
The first Outskirts [Route 66] was truest to our original idea. The others had to be somewhat modified to suit a particular audience but, again, it comes down to who’s paying your bills. And in essence, we’re using cycling as a film-making tool. The characters we met, that’s the sort of stuff that happens. Especially in America [smiles].
More so than other countries?
In my experience the people are more willing, when they see a camera, to engage. And that’s, at a fundamental level, what people have always done. They’d look you in the eye and express their opinion without this layer of separation we now have with social media. And that forces you to try and find some element of common ground or to at least respect someone’s views even if they differ from your own because they’re standing right in front of you. And, increasingly, we don’t have that anymore.
And the fact you’re travelling by bike helped?
Absolutely. It was a really remarkable way of achieving this connection because you’re vulnerable and an outsider.
Some of the people you met had quite challenging views.
They’re the ones that made the film [laughs].
So there were some you chose not to include?
We’d ridden quite a long day and went to a bar and started talking to a group of guys. One of them was a classical pianist even though – and I say this with the deepest respect – he looked like someone who worked on the land. So he can play Beethoven and Bach but then all of a sudden it turns into a discussion on guns and the right to bear arms. It then moves on to the mass shootings that had recently happened in the US and he’s explaining to me how the weapons used were not the best way to kill large numbers of people. Five minutes ago this guy bought me a beer and now he’s telling me, in some detail, how he would shoot people more efficiently. Obviously very challenging as your views are totally irreconcilable.
Did you set out to document or react? How far along that line can you go?
It’s sometimes hard not to react but the Outskirts series is about conveying what actually happened. And if we do any more we’ll continue on that path.
Does that mean you’ll be eating more steaks*?
[*Gus successfully took on the Big Texan Challenge to eat a 72 oz steak, baked potato and shrimp in under 60 minutes]
Dude, that was intense [laughs]. I guess I’m competitive – nowadays more so with myself than others – and I wanted to find out what would happen. Which I did. Projectile vomiting. My body just rejected it.
But, crucially, after you’d beaten the timer and got the t-shirt?
We’d just ridden 3,000 miles but you’d pull in for supplies at a gas-station in New Mexico and an old lady would spot that t-shirt from way over and that’s what would impress her. And even though the whole episode is laden with so many moral complications, there’s also something kind of wonderful about everybody in the restaurant whooping and high-fiving when I’d finished. People were loving it and it brought them together.
But you’ve got to feel sorry for all these high-end manufacturers making cycling kit and Outskirts starts this fashion for simply wearing a t-shirt.
It’s pretty funny, I guess [laughs]. It started with me and Lachy just doing it. A reaction to the team kit our sponsors would require us to wear. Kind of like our non-uniform day or dress-down Friday. You’re doing the same thing – in our case riding bikes – but your whole perspective is subtly changed. And then, with Outskirts, when we’d meet people on the road or stop off in a bar after a long day, we’d just fit right in.
So what else is new and exciting you at the moment?
When I finished off Shadow of the East I was in Australia – in exile [laughs] – living in this remote spot in one of the national parks. I couldn’t go back to America, I didn’t have a job and I’m not someone who likes to be idle. So I set out on paper a bunch of ideas that I’d had kicking around in my head and some of these projects are now slowly beginning to take shape. One of these, in particular, being pretty extreme and a big undertaking. Outside of that we have another serialised show tying into some adventure stuff.
Is it important to have control over this process?
Yes but it also helps if I have team members that can fit around my way of working. Handling communication with clients; telling me I’m a month late [laughs].
Are you a natural delegator?
Not naturally, no. With the first Outskirts we had a post-production company doing the edit after we’d shot over 70 hours of footage. The film’s structure was all in my head and the shit they decided to cut out is what we wanted to keep in. That’s our MO. So when we got the first edit back it was so far from what it was meant to be that I took it back off them and re-cut it.
Because I generally find that with creative individuals, it’s often difficult for them to let go of something that they’ve invested emotionally in.
Totally. But I am gradually realising that I need to do that [smiles]. And in terms of what’s next. Nothing but everything. Not being able to go home has put a lot of plans off because I’ve kind of been floating around. And, as I came to all of this from a directing background, I’m not really sure I want to be in front of the camera anymore.
As your work is so influential and you now have a public persona, is the fact that you’re known and recognised ever a burden?
I don’t think that many people are aware [laughs].
Maybe I don’t pay attention to all of it? And it’s interesting because the last three films that I’ve done, I’m not really happy with any of them. I’m thinking that it could of been better here or there.
Can you see yourself ever being happy?
That’s the thing. No, I don’t think so. Maybe someday I’ll produce something that I’m legitimately happy with [smiles].
I wouldn’t put money on it. I think that people working in creative industries; they’ll always be something.
I kind of like that. And I just want to be always working. Working on something that I like.
Is that when you’re happiest?
The only time that I’m truly happy is when I’m on location shooting. When I’m looking through the lens of a camera and seeing something that’s beautiful or if I’m standing next to someone who’s telling me something that you could never have imagined. When you’re editing and a sequence just clicks and then you know people have watched it and got something from it; that’s kind of cool as well [smiles].