AMSTERDAM — Sports films mostly follow a familiar arc, usually an underdog story in which the little guy fights back, or comes back, against extraordinary odds. At first glance, that would appear to be the case with IDFA Competition entry “Time Trial”, in which Scottish director Finlay Pretsell chronicles a heroic effort by professional road-racing cyclist David Millar to end his blemished career on a high by winning a place on the Tour De France for one last time.
Millar is a smart, intelligent and sometimes thorny subject, who becomes especially difficult on the subject of his arrest in 2004 – and subsequent suspension from the sport – on suspicion of doping. Millar was by no means alone, as the subsequent scandal involving world-famous U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong would show, but his confession cut short a once promising career. Millar has since renounced his drug use and has become an advocate for clean sports; “Time Trial” finds him facing a self-imposed cut-off point, giving himself just 18 more months in which to go out in a blaze of glory. But, as this immersive and surprisingly intimate film shows, life had other plans. Variety sat down to talk with Pretsell at IDFA’s Brokke Grond café.
Did you know David Millar beforehand?
Finlay Pretsell: Not really, no. I made a short film [“Standing Start”], about 11 years ago, about a track cyclist called Craig MacLean, who’s a contemporary of Chris Hoy. It was this kind of experiential blast of a race. During the making of that short I saw David [in action]. I knew about him, because I’m a big cycling fan, and he’s like a contemporary of mine – he’s almost the same age – but he was hugely successful and went on to do great things. It gave me an idea.
What was that?
Something that had always been burning in the back of my mind was a film about road cycling – it fascinates me. But not the big winners, or the big losers even – just what they do. What about all the other 200 guys that are there? What happens? What are the conversations, the sounds, the positions? What do they all do in these races? What drives them, and what motivates them to keep going?
How did you approach him?
I met him maybe a year after I made that short, and I made sure he got a copy of it. He loved it. He watched it 12 times. We had dinner together, and he just talked at me for so long. I said, “Would you be up for doing something on a bigger scale?” And he said, “Yeah, sure. Definitely.” [Laughs] Roll on 10 years!
What took so long?
I couldn’t quite work out how to do it. I’d made two or three shorts by that point. I was thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to wrangle this big beast,’ y’know? I couldn’t find the story – I wasn’t sure how it was going to end, because he’d just come back from his drug ban. I’d always kept in touch with him, and then along came this kind of idea of him retiring. I thought, O.K., that could work.
Was he open to the idea of you getting so close to him?
He’s a funny guy, because he loved the idea and he almost kind of owns it himself. He was a massive collaborator. He got us so much access. He was a big part of the film, y’know? And in his way, he sees it as part of his idea. And that was cool, because it meant that he would go with it and embrace it.
Did you suggest filming the trials for the Tour de France?
No, he wanted to do the Tour. This was going to be his swan song – the year of him coming to the end of his career, doing this fantastic race and maybe winning a stage. But things turned out very different. I think he genuinely believed that he could do it. I think he thought that he could almost… muddle through, in a way. And I think it became apparent that he couldn’t do that. Physically, he was in better shape than ever. He was leaner than ever and he looked so good, so strong. But there was some something just not… there. Right from early on.
How did it feel to be making a film like this when the subject was so involved in the process? Were you ever conflicted?
Yeah. I was. But this was of the main reasons I wanted to go with him. He could, I suppose, understand what was interesting about his… ‘decline’, if you want to call it that. Because he was at the end of his career. He’d been through the drug ban, obviously, and the big highs and the big lows. And that’s why an older rider was more interesting to me than these young riders. They would be so worried about how they came across. Now, don’t get me wrong, David is very concerned how he comes across. But he was very hands-off with the editing. He let me do absolutely what I wanted to do. Some things he likes, some things he doesn’t. But he also understands the process: It’s my interpretation.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
Well, the bottom line was just to capture that feeling of being on the bike – the claustrophobia of the race and being in that microcosm. That was the main thing I really wanted to do – to take people on that journey. Otherwise, I think it’s a very human story. It’s about how certain realities become apparent, to us, often against our expectations. Sports people are so controlled, and they come up through such very militaristic training regimes, that it can be hard for them to accept that. And I think that David knew that, just as the race turned out to be out of his control, my film would be too.