The Tecate SCORE Baja 1000 is the longest nonstop, point-to-point race in the world. And that, apparently, was all a filmmaker like Dana Brown needed to hear before he embarked on filming the spectacle—it’s the MTV Music Awards on wheels, a desert road race that boasts as much glam as it does raunchy, cutthroat competition amidst a revelry of screaming fans. Add death-defying debauchery to the mix and the entire package suddenly smacks of must-see. Enter Brown, who never really does shy away from adventure, or misadventure for that matter. He has, in fact, become somewhat of the pied piper of extreme sports documentary filmmaking.
You may recall that his Step into Liquid (2003) made waves—it also showcased some of this area’s hottest surf talents, Peter Mel and Daryl “Flea” VXXXX, among them—before it launched his quasi-celebrity status. In fact, some believe that film officially moved Brown out from the shadows of his father Bruce Brown, who won accolades decades earlier with The Endless Summer, a surf classic, and Any Given Sunday. Both Browns sat behind the camera in The Endless Summer 2. So, when the Baja 1000 hit Brown’s radar screen, the filmmaker plunged head first into what would become an intricate project. Not only would it prove to be mindbending but far more dangerous than anything Brown found while filming surfers in the mighty ocean. The result is Dust to Glory, a breathtaking spectacle that manages to be engaging and—believe it or not—poignant. Brown used more than 50 cameras to transport his audience right in the middle of an absolutely consuming race, one that has been dubbed “the most dangerous” in the world. He further illuminates how the Baja 1000 goes beyond competition. There’s camaraderie here—1,200 participants driving 270 vehicles of all sizes and shapes create a carnival-like atmosphere witnessed by 200,000 spectators but somewhere in the mix bonding happens. Like Step Into Liquid, Dust to Glory celebrates unique people and geography. In this case, it’s the stunning Baja expanse, from its sun-drenched mountaintops to the dusty deserts, all the way to emerald blue waters of the Pacific.
“The place is everything,” says Brown. “If the race were someplace else, it wouldn’t be the same. It’s like going back in time.”
Along the way, Brown spotlights a few quirky riders:
• Mike “Mouse” McCoy—he also served as one of the film’s producers— a motorcycle maniac who boldy decides to ride the entire 1000 miles of the race solo—with no other drivers to spell him for over 18 hours.
• The McMillin family, which includes16-year-old prodigy Andy, with a brand new Calif. driver’s license, ripping up the earth in the family’s open wheel Class 1 buggy.
• The enigmatic father-son team of JN and Jimmy Roberts. Sixty-two-year-old JN won the first Baja in 1967, when the first Baja 1000 launched, but hasn’t been back in 30 years.
• An all-women team.
• The unmodified pre-1983 VW bugs—the little engines that could.
• Mario Andretti, who presides over the whole event as the Grand Marshall. Of interesting note, celebrities apparently have been jazzed about this rapturous desert soiree—Steve McQueen and James Garner make cameo appearances in archival footage.
Ultimately, Brown delivers a ***1’2 matrix of intensity, something that isn’t simply geared to just extreme sports aficionados or race fans. This seems to be a staple in both Brown’s works—we get to see human beings in extreme situations dealing with the natural elements. That Brown can illuminate nature and the human condition with such precise nuance is commendable. GT recently caught up with the filmmaker and learned more about the filming of Dust to Glory and a career, which, by the looks of it, just continues to move full speed ahead.
Good Times: How in the hell do you go about filming something like this? It seems so vast?
Dana Brown: Stupidity helps. (Laughs) But you are absolutely right. We sort of deluded ourselves, saying, ‘Oh this won’t be that hard.’ But by the time we’re doing it, it’s too late to get out of. You’re right—we ended up with a crew of almost a hundred, 60 cameras. It was ridiculous. And still, you’re traveling hundreds of miles getting coverage just hoping to get something. It’s literally thousands of hours [of footage]. We had three helicopters and about a dozen in-car XXXX and 13 drive units spread throughout the course. And I was at the start and the finish. Everybody basically had a camera. We had 35mm in the helicopter at high-def and on the ground we had Super-16, high-def and what they call mini hi-def.
GT: What were some of the most challenging aspects of filming a documentary like this?
DB: Probably editing it, really. Going through so much footage. There are so many stories, you know, so trying to find the ones that best represent it …
GT: What budget were you working with?
DB: Two million dollars. You know, that’s decent, but it’s less than Step Into Liquid cost. Most of the budget went into shooting it. We had all this fancy stuff. We had to. It had to be pretty big scale.
GT: You seem to be the type of filmmaker that does not mind challenging yourself. Your work leans toward the extreme. So, do you pick projects that keep challenging you further?
DB: Yeah. Pretty much. I don’t look at what I do as a job exactly. I mean, I like to get paid, but this is pretty much a love affair. So yeah, you challenge yourself in the sense of what I need to do? Especially with something like this where we look at it and say, ‘We can do this.’ MY father shot the 1968 Baja film and for some reason when I saw him do it, I thought, ‘well if he can do it, I can do it too.”
GT: You must have learned a lot from your father.
DB: Yes—that hard work—and I don’t mean this to sound like puritanical or something—but there are a lot of people in the world that sort of talk a lot. They don’t really work a lot. So you just have to put your head down and go at it the best you can. Nine times out of 10 you will become successful at what you set out to do as long you don’t compromise who you are. I mean, your opinion and my opinion and their opinion—there’s no real expert to bow down to. I mean I’m just as worthy, and you’re just as worthy to do this [type of work] as anybody else in Hollywood. I think it’s a very elitist thing—film is. People say, ‘oh you’re making a film. The fact is, anybody can make a film.”
GT: How have things changed since Step into Liquid.
DB: Yeah. You get offered a lot of things. But you’re the same. You’re the same person. And I have learned this from my dad—not to confuse your professional success with your self worth. You know I am a father of three; you have to be a good person. It doesn’t matter how successful you are if you’re an asshole. But professionally, it’s made the field wide open. It’s whatever I want to do. But then again, it’s also responsibility. I realize this as much as anybody. You can’t go out there and be cocky and do something horrible—you end up right back where you started from. Plus, I don’t want to change part of my outlook on what I am doing. My ultimate goal is do what I am doing.
GT: With Dust to Glory, what pitfalls did you encounter along the way?
DB: God… the whole thing at one point felt like a crisis. It was nerve wracking to send 90 guys out. We heard about an accidental death early on, so I stressed to them not to put themselves in harms way. No movie is worth getting killed over. Luckily we only lost one camera, it got run over. But other than that no damage. It was long day, though, we stayed up for 40 hours. ’ And I was thinking, potentially, that somebody in our crew was dead. And then I started thinking about the helicopter and thought, ‘Oh Christ, helicopters go down occasionally… I mean you start thinking … I mean, there was that sort of anxiety throughout the whole shoot because as much as it makes great cinema—it’s wonderful, it’s sweet—but it is also dangerous. So there is that side of it where you go, ‘God, it’s only a frickin’ movie… I hope nobody gets hurt.’
GT: So, how important is the place to the race?
DB: The place is everything. If it was something place else it wouldn’t be the same. It’s not like they built a course, you’re going on ranch roads for a 1000 miles. Baja is a very unique place. For some reason everything seems brighter there, all the rocks are sharp, everything has spines and stickers on it, everything is cactus. But people are really nice. It’s like going back in time even though it’s so close to the U.S. You’re just in the middle of nowhere.
GT: Would you do the race?
DB: I wouldn’t race it. I don’t think so.