“This was a much darker film than what I set out to make, but I wanted to show what trucking is really like. And I knew it was a success when truck drivers came up to me after seeing and said ‘that‘s the real deal.‘” -Doug Pray, the director of “Big Rig.”
Point of full disclosure here before we get started: I love movies, especially documentaries. I‘ll sit back and watch Ken Burns‘ legendary epic “The Civil War” for hours, even view those ghastly “Rock & Roll” documentaries on VH1 when they come on the tube. So getting a chance to talk with Doug Pray, the director of instant documentary classics such as Surfwise (made last year about the legendary Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz and his family) and Hype (released in 1996 about the Seattle grunge music scene) is like winning the lottery for me.
Pray also just made a documentary about trucking called “Big Rig,” a film now available on DVD and one that‘s going on a “summer tour” of sorts today, being shown at 25 TA/Petro truck stops starting in Foristell, MO and wrapping up in El Paso, TX, on August 14. Pray and his producer, Brad Blondheim, and an assistant spent months out on the road in two-week blocks, traveling 21,000 miles across 45 states and dozens of truck stops to film independent owner-operators at work: delving deeply into their lives, personal struggles, and above all their love of truck driving.
“We spent days in truck stops pitching what we were doing to drivers, and most of them were shocked we were making a documentary about them,” Pray told me. “They were like, ‘why the hell do you want to make a movie about truck drivers?‘ But it‘s a subculture that‘s always fascinated me. I loved ‘truck driver‘ songs, loved the truck driver movies of the 1970s, so I really wanted to see what it was like.”
He knew his naïve and boyish “Smokey & The Bandit” perception of the industry wouldn‘t hold up under the cold light of his camera lens. What Pray didn‘t expect to learn was just how hard it is to making a living in trucking today, how the commonly held stereotypes about truck drivers are miles and miles from reality, and most of all how truly sad the “old timers” are about how this industry has changed.
“The drivers that have been out here for a decade or more, the ones with 1 million or 3 million miles under their belt, they are the ones that are the saddest,” Pray said. “They remembered how drivers used to be a close-knit community, how they used to be viewed as heroes of the highway, how it used to be so much fun to drive a truck for a living. While they still love driving trucks and seeing this huge, amazing country of ours, they now deal daily with a culture of disrespect. ‘We used to be a family‘ one driver told me. It‘s not like that anymore.”
The days are long, fuel prices are out of sight, and the pay doesn‘t begin to cover the needs of most of the independents Pray talked to. “Now, I realize our film is slanted that way in part because I didn‘t get to talk and film company drivers, or ones working in more profitable segments such as car haulers,” he explained. “But what truly shocked me is how much we rely on trucks to keep this country functioning, yet we treat drivers and the industry so poorly. We completely depend on them, yet we treat them like dirt.”
Pray quickly stressed to me that he did not approach making this film with an agenda in mind. His modus operandi was simple - find subjects willing to talk, to let him and his assistant ride shotgun in their truck as they discussed whatever happened to be on their mind. When the interviews ended, Blondheim - following them in an RV - would pick the team up and they‘d go shoot exteriors, scenic vistas, etc., until they found another subject willing to talk on camera for a while.
“We got kicked out of a lot of truck stops, let me tell you,” Pray told me. “And it would have been a very different film if we just followed one character around for a month. But I just love the way this project turned out - the meandering, almost random journey we take with these drivers is just great.”
His cameras follow Jessie, a Mississippi driver who is battling Graves disease while his son fights in Iraq; Loretta, a mother from Ohio who carries a concealed weapon in her cab for fear of truck stop violence; Ron, a native-American who uses his 18-wheeler to visit tribes throughout the country while delivering vinyl; and Bear, an Idaho steel-driver whose love of country has him wanting to overhaul the government, to name a few. All of them are fiercely independent souls who, as one young driver says, “represent the last of the spirit of the American cowboy... it‘s a dying breed out there.”
(Big Bear at the wheel, with his canine companions by his side.)
Screen Media Films is releasing Big Rig, with financing by international sales company, Ocule Films. The movie runs about an hour and a half and features a musical score by Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65. Brad Blondheim produced it, along with executive producers Kirt Eftekhar and Randy Wooten.
The “Big Rig Summer Tour 2008” will be presented by Sirius Satellite Radio‘s Road Dog Trucking Radio, and the DVD also contains a short documentary about the Freewheelin‘ with Meredith Ochs and Chris T. radio program.
“The main thing drivers tell me about this movie is that they feel they‘re being portrayed honestly for the first time,” Pray told me. “And non-drivers that see this movie tell me the feel very different about trucks and truckers afterwards, that they don‘t look at tractor-trailers as just big ‘boxes‘ on the road anymore. I don‘t sugarcoat anything; I feel it‘s an honest a portrayal of this industry and its people. The main thing for me was to be a conduit for their stories. It truly was a great and fun experience for me.”