Over the years, we've screened a lot of films that take place on the salt flats and Dark Rider certainly stands out for its uniqueness and storytelling authenticity. In this Q&A, we'll take you behind the scenes with director Eva Küpper, the creative force behind TMFF 2023's Best Feature Film award winner.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your connection with motorcycles.
I’ve been riding since I was eighteen, enjoying travelling and cruising the Alps tremendously and was riding quite intensely on many European racetracks for several years while volunteering at a track day organization (EYBIS) and improving my skills under the wings of former double WSBK champion Troy Corser.
The nickname ‘Rambi’ you see on my suit was jokingly given to me by the former President of the Blue Angels MC who laughed and said, “You know, you’re really some kind of badass Bambi...we’ll call you Rambi!" The Blue Angels are the oldest European 1% MC, I was the first to be allowed to spend time with them and film, for over two years. A crazy, intense, great time that made a deep impression.
How did you get involved in the telling of Ben and Magoo’s story?
I was in the UK in the summer of 2014 doing a track day at Silverstone GP when a friend of mine handed me a newspaper article about blind Scotsman Stuart Gunn who set a land speed record together with his father. I loved this story so much that we met with them a few months later and tried to get the project off the ground. But sadly we discovered after a while that it wasn’t the right time for them and filming wasn’t going to happen.
I was really dreading to let go of the project but then Stuart told us about Ben and Magoo, and how they had been training for five years to break his record. We got in touch with Ben just weeks before their first record attempt at the salt. I called Carl, my cameraman, right away, who was delighted as he’s even more of a petrolhead than I am, and we jumped on a plane to the other end of the world shortly after. It was quite a risk but we hit it off immediately with Ben and Magoo, the stars aligned, we went back to film three years in a row and the rest is history as they say!
What was the experience like working with them?
Dark Rider was an intense adventure beyond compare, filming over the course of three years, we got to know Ben, Magoo and Jed and witnessed their incredible story. Aside from their unique personalities and the courage to go out there and beat all possible odds, what made me fall head over heels with them was their shared dark sense of humour. The banter between Ben and Magoo was just next level, and I made sure it received its rightful place in the film.
There are also Ben’s moments with his mother, little is said yet so much can be gathered from observing their relationship. We also loved spending time with Magoo, he has such a disarming way of doing things. Whether it's cleaning bike parts with a beat-up electrical toothbrush or warming up sandwiches on the engine during a break on their road trip, it’s these simple things that tell you so much.
Dark Rider is less about the motorcycle and speed and more about the people. Less about gears and oil, and more about emotions. Less bravado, more authenticity. Did you go in with that angle in mind?
Being both a petrolhead and a filmmaker for quite a while now, I hoped for a story to come along one day that allowed me to merge those two passions. At the same time, I always intended to make a film that all audiences could love and identify with. I wanted to give people who have never ridden a motorcycle before a hint of the sensory experience and thrill of it, while deliberately not going overboard and making it into something only petrolheads could truly enjoy.
So right from the start, I intended Ben’s dream and the races on the salt flats to be the arena, the backbone of the story, but for me, the real story and depth come from getting closer to the men and women that carry this film. So that is how I approached the whole filmmaking process, and I aimed for each scene to reveal something new about them: a new emotion, a new perspective on someone, a dash of humour, a particular aspect of a relationship, a surprising insight from the past, moments that emphasize a recognizable, universal aspect of life, to invite the spectator to become submerged in their world, for many a very foreign world. It often seems to me that when there is a big story to tell, what is really important actually lies in the small moments, the silence, the intimacy. And for me, that’s what this film is about too.
What was it like filming in such remote and extreme conditions?
The utterly remote, scorching hot (50°C and more!) salt lake and the entire racing event was also an incredible experience etched in my memory. It is so remote we needed to drive there in a convoy with all doors, windows, and vents taped off with duct tape, and everyone equipped with walkie-talkies as it was impossible to see anything in the fine, red dust that circles the salt lake for hundreds of miles.
Are there any stand-out moments or anecdotes from the experience?
The race event itself, the final frontier of salt lake racing, with its larger-than-life characters, like Animal, the race director, who literally walks around in underpants all day, and emotions running high on this vast lunar landscape. Sleeping underneath a majestic night sky, grateful to witness this breathtaking beauty so sacred to the indigenous people, who are asked for their consent every year to organize the event, sharing a camper van with three guys, my DOP, sound guy and production assistant, with no electricity or running water for over ten days...insert musky scent here ;) Goosebumps when Ben and Magoo are cleared to pull up at the start line after the contender before them just walked away from an insane 340mph crash, and the eerie sound of their Kawasakis as they disappear from view in the salty heatwaves.
On juggling multiple roles
The third and final year that we went back to Australia to film with the guys, we also took my one-year-old daughter Ellie along. My mother and husband were there to care of her while we were filming and it was so special to have them there with me. Not always easy though, things got pretty intense during our 4000km road trip in one week. Filming, directing, mothering, sharing ups and downs, our families and lives, we all created a wonderful bond and made memories for life.
Eva Küpper is a Belgian documentary filmmaker who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent. Her film studies provided a broad background in the tradition of both fiction and documentary filmmaking, which becomes apparent in the incorporation of elements of both styles in her films. Alongside her filmic endeavours, Eva holds a position as a lecturer at the Centre for Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Ghent and frequently teaches master classes on documentary filmmaking both in Belgium and abroad.