“I’m working out of my flat – editing from the couch – so there’s the challenge of getting in some steps. Basically, I’m a potato.”
Filmmaker Ryan Le Garrec is perhaps over emphasising this current period of inactivity. Working on the edit of his most recent film – a 1600 km bike packing journey into the Atlas Mountains of Northern Morocco – clearly he’s exercised enough to balance a few days stuck behind his laptop.
Dressed casually with a tousled head of hair and a beard traced with grey, Portugal is now home after a peripatetic life lived on the road. Growing up in Paris with a French father, a Tunisian mother and a British passport courtesy of his London birthplace, Ryan studied in Belgium before taking a job in Sweden where he met singer / songwriter Damien Rice.
“Someone once said that home is where they hadn’t been yet. And for years I was on tour with Damien as a kind of Swiss-Army-Knife video and pictures guy. I didn’t have anywhere permanent to live because it wasn’t necessary. You’re on the bus or maybe there’s a cab ride, but it’s mainly the venue and your hotel room that you see of the city you’re playing in. So I decided that when I was done, I would find a little apartment with a bakery down on the street which I would visit every fucking morning. And since then, I’ve become really hooked on routines. To such a degree that my wife despairs with me wanting to go to the same place to eat all the time. But that’s the point—it’s good, it doesn’t change and that’s reassuring. I didn’t need that before but now it’s increasingly important.”
With routines fixed and a bakery within easy walking distance, Ryan’s days are now filled pursuing his first love as a profession.
“I’ve always wanted to make films. Maybe because I was born into a family that worked in French television. My Dad was a war reporter, my Mum a news producer, my Uncle a news anchor and my cousins were journalists.”
Tasked with describing his style of filmmaking, Ryan recounts – with a wry smile – how his wife tells him that he’s terrible at telling stories. That he often misses the point.
“Maybe it sounds a little pretentious but the word poetry feels appropriate. That fits and doesn’t seem like a lie. Because what I try to do, rather than simply telling a story, is to convey the emotion of the moment. Most people can say how happy or sad they are, for this or that reason. But expressing that in a single shot and without words? That, for me, is where it gets interesting.”
With his current project, it’s this emotional intensity that leaves Ryan visibly upset in the final frames of the film. A powerful and unexpected conclusion balanced by dreamlike vignettes of everyday life – gas stations, city street corners, farmers tending fields – that intersperse the scenes of riding.
“I’d planned to work with three cameras and each had a different role to play. The DSLR in black and white was totally personal. A sort of image journal made up of random stuff that touched me somehow. Sequences that conveyed another layer of the story—my own personal state of mind. I wasn’t depressed before embarking on the trip but I had my own shit to deal with. And what’s interesting is how we process our feelings and the subconscious decisions we then make. Looking back at the Morocco edit, the scenes outside Casablanca speed up after I mention how much I was missing my kids. Something I did during the editing almost without thinking.”
Asked what metrics he uses to measure the success of a particular project and Ryan initially struggles to arrive at a succinct answer. After a momentary pause for thought, he suggests that even if the reaction is negative, it is a reaction.
“One of the first films I made with a long-distance cycling theme featured Josh Ibbett riding in the US. And a lot of people hated it. If you look on Amazon, the reviews are nasty—the film has maybe 2 stars. But there’s also the odd comment from someone who really loved it, so that’s okay. And someone once said to me that if no one hates your film, there’s something wrong with it. You’ve played it too safe. And do you really want everyone saying how nice they thought your film was? Do you want a viewing experience like when you’ve eaten a hamburger and a half hour later your body has forgotten the meal and you’re hungry again?”
Coupled with the vagaries of viewer feedback is the changing way we choose to consume media. The argument that the purposeful environment of a cinema screening allows more creative freedom compared to a project streamed over the internet where the focus is on holding someone’s attention before they swipe to the next video.
“But there’s two sides to every story and streaming perhaps offers an easier path to building an audience. We might not have everyone gathered in one room at the same time but we can release whatever we want, whenever we decide it’s ready. And a cinema release demands a production budget which, in turn, requires you to pitch an idea and have someone put their faith and funds in your hands. YouTube doesn’t give a shit what you’re doing.”
“I do hear complaints that attention spans are getting shorter but people still binge on a television series so if your content is engaging, they will watch. There’s nothing I’d rather do than share my work but if it didn’t find an audience, I’d still be doing it. Ultimately, you make films for myself, no?”
Looking back at his work for television, Ryan would be filming a Japanese chef on one day and a drummer from a rock band on the next. He couldn’t simply start by poking a camera into the subject’s face—he needed to invest some time in getting to know them a little. But with his cycling films, Ryan is literally passing through with a camera so there’s a need for more immediacy.
“Perhaps strangely, considering my job, I find it so difficult to film people. I guess it’s called shooting for a reason but that’s a harsh word with its own connotations. Which is why I’m such a big fan of smartphones and tiny cameras that are way less intrusive. For shy filmmakers like me, they’re such an advantage as they make you look harmless. And whenever people ask me what I do, I say it’s like when you go on holiday and take pictures or record a video—and I just do that for a living. But what do I really do? I have a bike that I ride and I make myself miserable and I try to meet people on the way and I take pictures and then I write some words to go with the pictures. But not about what is happening but how I feel about what is happening.”
Here Ryan is perhaps being a little playful—especially with reference to feeling miserable on the bike. Not owning a car, an electric cargo bike is his chosen mode of transport for picking up groceries and taking his children to school. A lifestyle decision that harks back to how happy a girlfriend looked whenever she rolled up on her bike.
“I was taking buses and subways—usually arriving late and in a nasty mood. But she would have this massive smile on her face as she climbed off her bike. So I got my own bike because I wanted some of that too. Later I became a bike messenger so the bike was also a job as well as my daily transport. And you experience so much more that is pleasurable about city life when you travel by bike—the little neighbourhoods that you’d never discover travelling underground from one metro stop to another.”
“I can’t say that it’s ever been a sport for me but at some point, I did fall in love with long-distance riding. Such an amazing experience the first time I crossed a border and the meditative state you get from passing through a landscape. This interest led to the Transcontinental where you push your limits and learn to deal with shit which in turn inspires you to switch things up in your life. If I can deal with saddle sores for three weeks, maybe I can question my boss about a particular decision. And it was these thoughts that gave me the impetus to quit working in television – where I was so comfortable – in favour of focusing on my filmmaking. So it’s fair to say the bike is my favourite object and if I couldn’t film or take pictures and just ride my bike, then I would do that. I’ve worked as a bartender, a bike messenger, a sailing instructor and I loved all of these roles. But working with stories just adds another level and I can’t not do what I do.”
All photography with kind permission of Ryan Le Garrec / ryanlegarrec.com