The Jimmy Levan documentary, entitled GO FAST PULL UP, is available now and you should definitely do your best to see it and/or own it. Even more so if you came up being stoked on Jimmy Levan’s riding and persona.
After watching the doc, I wanted to hit Chris Rye (who directed/edited GFPU) with some questions about the project. This is a solid read for sure with PLENTY of info and stories. Click below.
First… I need to mention that I thoroughly enjoyed GO FAST PULL UP and think you did a great job. This is a must see for anyone who came up in this era, no doubt about it. So thank you! Now, how did this documentary come to be? Fill us in on the backstory.
Thanks Nuno. Sometime in late 2014 I got a message from Will Smyth from Dig. He had seen the Baco documentary I did and mentioned something like, “Hey would be cool to catch up and I have an idea for a project about a guy we all know and love.” But he didn’t say who it was and I didn’t ask. I just said, “Sure let’s do a call” and then maybe 3 months passed and one day he pings me and reveals the mystery person: Jimmy LeVan.
At first he was thinking a short-ish piece but the more I thought about it, it seemed there was enough storyline to be a longer feature type documentary which is what it ended up being.
Who approached Jimmy with the idea for the documentary and what was his reaction? Was he on board right away or was there some hesitation?
After I had talked to Will, I was at my friend Corey’s house visiting one weekend in the summer of 2015. Corey and I had met in 2007 when we did a non-BMX topic documentary and we have been good friends since. He doesn’t really know anything about BMX but is a writer and always has great ideas for skits, short films and what not. He had helped me with a few things on the Baco doc and I was telling him about Jimmy, his crazy voice and whatnot, and that I was thinking about doing a documentary about him. We ended up calling Jimmy out of the blue that night and I put him on speaker phone so Corey could hear his voice. So Corey was sitting there listening to me ask Jimmy if it would be cool to do a documentary about him.
There was no hesitation from Jimmy whatsoever. “Yeah yeah, cool cool” or something along those lines was his response and he told me he’d be in Louisville with his mom and sister early September for the Grands. So I put that on my calendar figuring I could knock out a handful of interviews that weekend and it was basically on from there.
Having a history with Jimmy yourself, did you think this would be an easy story to tell, or was it a bit daunting?
I never thought it would be easy, but I was thinking a lot about what I remembered about him, my time around him and the things he had done in BMX, the launch of all the Midschool brands during that era etc. Just re-hashing what I knew and thinking about how it might all go together into a documentary story. Any new project is daunting, especially as you get up to speed with what it’s actually going to be, the scope of it and all the work involved in getting there, all of which I didn’t really know yet at the beginning of the project. It wasn’t until after I had shot a couple dozen interviews and started digging around for materials that the reality of how difficult this was going to be started to become clear.
Getting to the end seemed almost impossible at some points, but I just kept slowly pressing along trying not to think about all the struggles that were yet to come.
What was the most difficult part of GO FAST for you?
When you start shooting interviews with people, you hear them talk about all kinds of things you either 1) know about 2) heard about 3) had no idea about. When a specific topic or event was talked about on camera, I would sit there listening and kind of do real-time mental editing of what they’re saying, trying to figure out how to put this into a visual form, and what will be needed as far as b-roll, photos, etc.
Then later you have to go dig up all the specific bits of b-roll and imagery to bring the interviews to life. All that was in itself a 2 year research project just trying to find all this stuff. For me I always like to have options when editing, so I would try and find way more cover material than I might need just to feel more at ease with whatever might come up. Then with some things I eventually give up and never did find.
All that is difficult for sure, and seems never-ending, but the real challenge is making a film that is engaging and isn’t boring to watch. To be creative and make something that does justice to the topic. That’s the absolute hardest part when you really get down to it.
What was the initial projected timeline for the project and how long did you ultimately work on this for?
There was no timeline or deadline of any sort. It’s an interesting way to work in the sense you have freedom with no deadline pressure, but at the same time months would fly by with not much accomplished for whatever reason. During the summers my young son would be at home with me so it was hard to work then. Then other times I wasn’t motivated to work on it, and would go through phases of that on again off again. I know I did that for sure, probably because I knew this was going to be hard and wasn’t sure if what I was producing would be good. You spend all this time shooting interviews, gathering up materials and by the end I had put a lot of pressure on myself trying to make something special.
A deadline would’ve made me finish it quicker, but for this project it was good not to have one. It gave me a lot of time to just think about how to put things together, run things over and over in my head trying to envision it playing out on screen in a way that would be cool. If I had been rushed the final film would’ve been a much different thing for sure. Plus, at this point in my life I didn’t need the stress of a deadline constantly nagging at me. In the end it took 3-1/2 years from start to release, which is crazy when I think about it now. My son was 3-1/2 when I started and 7 when I finished. Half his life I was working on this.
You went around interviewing a bunch of notable people. How many hours of footage did you accumulate?
I personally shot 34 interviews, Dave Mavro shot 1 and Will Stroud also shot 1. So in total there were 36 shot and I would estimate about 40-50 hours of interviews were recorded. For b-roll there’s gotta be somewhere in the 50-60 hour range. Overall probably around 100 hours in total, which sounds like a lot but some documentaries have 1000s of hours. But for this project it was just me editing so I had to be able to manage what I had. Bigger docs have teams of people split up doing what I did myself on this one.
For photos, which make up a lot of the film, there were around 75 contributors who gave me everything from slides, negative strips, Kodak film discs, prints and digital files like scans or RAW files. The photos folder is 125GB alone.
There were also lots of scans used from the magazines going all the way back to the early 80s, which I spent quite a bit of time and money tracking down and combing through looking for things relevant to the story and about Jimmy. Thanks to Gork putting me in touch with him, we got permission from Bob Osborn to use scans from all the Wizard Publications mags, like BMX Action, Freestylin’ and Go, which was really special to me since I grew up worshiping those magazines. And even though this was a project with Dig, Jeff Z at Ride was absolutely amazing and sent me Jimmy’s folder from their archive full of slides and negatives. So I am very thankful to all the photographers and people who helped dig up the things needed for a film like this.
Looking back, what stands out to you as a whole from all the interviews you did? Is there a general vibe, theme etc…
Excitement for sure and maybe a touch of concern. Whether concern for Jimmy himself or in my ability to do him justice I suppose. People were very excited it was happening and everyone was very accommodating with their time to help us.
Everybody that is close to Jimmy surely has some interesting Jimmy stories to tell. Was there a lot of stuff that came up that simply couldn’t be shared?
Oh yes for sure. So. Many. Stories. Jimmy’s a walking storybook, literally any person who comes into contact with him has at least one wild story. They are endless.
One of my favorites, which isn’t on camera but was told to me from the period when Jimmy was living in Seattle. Jimmy and a crew of the Metal Bikes dudes took a road trip down to So Cal one weekend, I believe to ride some trails. So they get down there and they are all staying at a friend’s house. He had a wife or girlfriend who had been saving up for a very expensive white leather couch she had been wanting for quite some time. Right before they get down there she finally buys her grail couch and it gets delivered to the house. When they all show up to crash the first night, she comes out and tells Jimmy and his crew very specifically, “The couch is off limits. None of you dirty fucks sleep on my new couch. No one.”
So the friend prepares a little spot for Jimmy on the floor to sleep, with blankets and what not, then they all go out to the bars and get annihilated. The next morning everyone is asleep and the girl wakes up first, comes out into the living room and finds Jimmy sleeping butt ass naked on her new white leather couch. Jimmy wakes up and is like, “Oh shit, sorry about that.” She loses her shit and from I can remember, gets the couch somehow returned to the store or replaced. Just a typical Jimmy story man.
Another was when they were all out riding and they go into some taco restaurant. As they enter the door, some dude is in the middle of robbing the joint with a gun pointed at the register girl. I guess he got scared and started to run out just as Jimmy and the crew were coming in. So as the robber passes Jimmy on the way out, Jimmy turns to him and says, “Ya dumb dick!” and immediately starts ordering a taco meal with the shellshocked girl as if nothing had just happened, “I’ll take a cheesy nacho burrito #3 with a Diet Dew…”.
There are so many stories it’s ridiculous.
Is there a personal Jimmy memory/story that comes to mind that you would care to share?
The photos on the cover of the book. I had an idea for the cover to show a contrast between a high and a low point in his life. The top of course is Ed Docherty’s famous Church Gap photo from Dig Issue 8, an obvious high point, but the bottom one was tough to figure out.
About a year into the project Jimmy had decided to leave the west coast and move out east to live with his sister Susie in New Jersey. He had rented a moving truck and was towing his car, literally living off his last bit of savings driving east. Coast to coast by yourself is a long ass drive and he had planned his route so he would stop by my place in Wisconsin on his way through to take a break for a couple days. He doesn’t do well with modern tech so he was using a paper map that someone had drawn a line on showing which highways to take.
Just west of Minneapolis he was at a truck stop getting food and he somehow slipped and cracked his head on the floor, knocking himself out. He said he woke up not knowing where he was with restaurant staff and cops standing over him. He had an expired California driver’s license and still 1300 miles to go. The fall had cut open a huge gash above his left eye and the cops were like, “What the hell is going on with this guy?” They told him, “We’re going to walk over there and if you’re gone when we get back we didn’t see anything.” So they let him go. He showed up at my house 6 hours later and this gash is still bleeding everywhere. He went into the bathroom and used super glue and butterfly stitches to close it up but the dude was seriously frazzled and a mess. The next morning I came out into the living room and he was standing by himself looking out the window. I ran and got my camera and that ended up being the bottom photo.
During the 3-1/2 years of making the film I never sent Jimmy any previews as I was editing things. So I don’t think he really had any idea what I was up to and I’m sure it was driving him crazy after awhile. It took so long and some points I knew he was getting kind of impatient for it to get finished. So when it was finally done I flew him out to my place in Wisconsin and Dave Freimuth came over and the three of us sat down with some beers and watched it that night. I had no idea how Jimmy was going to react to some of it and it was surreal sitting there watching it with him for the first time. When it was over Jimmy was sitting on the couch in front of the TV and Dave came up behind and gave him a big hug and congratulated him. Jimmy was drying his eyes and it was at that moment I knew this was something special for him. I teared up a little myself seeing him emotional about it. I’m sure it’s weird as hell watching a documentary about yourself and at the same time it was a huge relief for him to finally see it and be happy with the result.
The next night we had a little party with about a dozen friends over, and we all watched it with Jimmy when he saw it the second time. It was Jimmy’s birthday, so afterwards we brought out a cake with “One Lap No Crap” written on it that my wife had picked up. At one point he was standing in the kitchen with everyone gathered around listening to him tell his wild stories with everyone laughing and having a blast. I was just sitting back watching this all unfold and it was a really special night for everyone there.
In terms of producing this thing, where was the lion’s share of time time spent? Filming, editing, storyboarding etc… ?
By far the most time is spent sitting at the computer working in Adobe Premiere. Going through the interviews is very time consuming. When I first watch them I split them into many subclips, then type in notes about what is being said. Basically this is the main organizational stage of a documentary project where the interviews are going to serve as the backbone to the storyline. When all this is finished you can do keyword searches or sorting to find specific things people said while putting together a specific part of the film.
For photos I always try and track down the best quality I can find, like an original source slide or negative to scan. I have a rad film scanner which produces a really good quality image. A lot of time was also spent in Photoshop cleaning up scans or other random image work. Near the end of the project I got to test this new software that uses A.I. machine learning to enlarge small images without losing quality. It doesn’t work all the time but when it does it’s pretty amazing.
Editing is for sure the longest task and very slow going. If you’ve ever seen how those big thick steel cables are made, like the kind used on cranes and ships, there are all these smaller cables being twisted and wound into one end of a gigantic machine, and on the other end the big cable is slowly formed and spooled onto a huge reel. Editing is kind of like that, but you’re feeding in interviews, b-roll, photos, graphics and music on one end, it all passes through your brain as you shape it in the timeline and something watchable comes out the other end.
I had so many problems with Premiere on this project too, it was constantly crashing and I would lose work sometimes and get so fucking pissed. Very frustrating. Adobe support was useless so I just had to work like that until it was done and just assume it would crash at any moment. Every night I would backup everything up on to 4 different drives in case anything happened.
Was there something you wanted in the final doc that didn’t make it for one reason or another?
When the idea of Metal Bikes was first being hatched in fall of 1998, there was a weekend meeting held in Louisville with Jimmy, Brian Castillo and Zack Phillips from Kink. The late 90s were a wild time in BMX and Zack was super loose back then always doing wild shit. So the first night of the meeting Jimmy invites in these very attractive female neighbors to his apartment and everyone starts drinking (except Castillo). Next thing you know things start getting loose and a camera comes out. There was a photo taken of one of the women topless, standing over Zack, who was naked and bent over with a leather whip sticking out of his ass.
This photo was a thing of legend of course and no one had any clue where it was. I called Zack and he initially gave me permission to use it in the film, I’m assuming because he thought we would never find it. Then a few weeks later, straight up needle in a haystack style, Will Smyth miraculously pulls the slide from the Dig archive and next thing there’s a scan and we’re all just blown away this was found. I edited together the part where the photo was used and sent a preview to Zack with the note, “We found the photo, do you still give permission?” I already knew the answer and, completely understandably of course, Zack ultimately didn’t want it used. At least finding it was a good story ha.
Between the doc itself and the badass booklet it comes packaged with, GO FAST PULL UP is a great piece of BMX history. So for that, thank you and everyone that was involved in making this a reality. Any closing words before we wrap this up?
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the film or supported it in any way. I think BMX needs these types of projects and without a support system they would never happen. Thank you to the J man himself for living such a crazy life and putting his trust in me to tell his story the best way I knew how. Thank you to Susie and Karen LeVan for all their help and support the whole way through. Thank you to Will Smyth at Dig for the genesis block idea and all the work and time he put into everything and for laying out the book. Thank you to Jerry Badders at Vans for support that helped me travel, and also for helping make the Swampfest premiere happen. Thank you to Jerrod Glasgow for companionship, laughs and memories while we road tripped all around America shooting interviews. And thank you to my extremely supportive wife Ginia and son Evan who encouraged and supported me the entire time from start to finish.