How in the hell did I get here?

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I have asked myself that very question so many times because as a boy growing up in London watching tons of American TV shows: The A-Team, Knight Rider, Streethawk, Airwolf, M.A.S.H etc. I never dreamed I’d be living here, certainly not that I’d be an American citizen myself and if I’d have told that young chap that I’d be pursuing the dream of becoming a documentary film-maker in my 40’s? I’d have probably taken the remote control away & asked my mum to call a good therapist. So how did this all come about? Well, it’s a very long and winding story that weaves its way throughout my entire life, and really I do need to save some stuff for if anyone ever asks me to write an autobiography, so I think a good place to start is probably at the end, of my last marriage.

Route 1 near Half Moon Bay, California circa 2006 one of the places I surfed poorly for 3yrs or so.

After it blew up in my face quite spectacularly in the middle of 2009 I found myself on the day of discovering it was over driving north up the 280 Freeway from San Jose towards San Francisco wiping tears from my eyes and feeling utterly empty, but as I drove something else happened: A little voice in my head said “well at least you can do what you want now…” and it whispered promises of adventures & derring-do I’d dreamed of as a child: I gave me the urge to do something…I don’t know what exactly, but just something crazy. Something I wouldn’t normally do or wasn’t supposed to because I was a ‘grown up’ and for some inexplicable reason that something was to climb mount Everest.

On top of Mt. Olympia, CA pretending I can be a mountain climber…

It was an odd decision, one that made me wonder if I hadn’t completely lost my marbles because I’ve never been what you’d call a fan of heights. However, that didn’t deter me and I spent weeks pouring over how one went about it with the deadly serious intent to do it, until I found out how much it cost and how long it would take to even be capable of doing it. At the same time the economy was in free-fall after the housing collapse the year before and the company I’d founded with my business partner was in dire straights and so I forgot the daft idea and knuckled down to try and fix the business, however the voice in the back of my mind & the urge to do something bonkers that I could call my own never left me, it just lay dormant in the background lurking in my subconscious waiting for the perfect time.

Tienanmen Square, Beijing 2011 – a tour of the city with some of the PhD students I lectured at the Chinese Academy of Sciences: Institute of Microelectronics.

Four years later, despite every effort to save the business from the effects of social media and web publishing, our company failed in the summer of 2013 almost ten years to the day since I’d landed in the US. But all was not yet lost: I’d been studying science media for some time and developed a new web based content exchange site that could fill the niches being left by the collapse of the old publishing world…I thought it was a really good idea, sadly those with the funds to make it a reality didn’t share my enthusiasm and so after 18 months it too closed down and I was back to square one without anything to show for two decades of hard work. It was the bitterest of pills to swallow. 

Climbing the Great Wall on the Beijing Tour 2011.

It’s an odd thing indeed to wake up one day at the more unfashionable end of your thirties without a pot to piss in, an extinct career, or any idea what to do with the rest of your life: I was the publishing equivalent of a Detroit auto worker, obsolete, but in the midst of my malaise I got a phone call that would set me on an entirely different trajectory. A old industry friend was an investor in a neuromorphic chip start up that needed someone capable of building a crowdfunding campaign. If it worked out, I’d be employee No. 1 at the company, I’d have a healthy pile of shares and a career in a new industry segment, with nothing else on the horizon, I was all in. The website and copy for the campaign I could pretty much do in my sleep with a little help from my new colleagues, however, every successful campaign also needed a video and so I’d have to learn how to  create one – from scratch.

I’ve been a storyteller since I can remember, it was how I survived my time sales and it was a talent I’d honed whilst a publisher, where I’d ghost written many articles and knew the basics of how to communicate it. What I didn’t know was how to work a camera, or how to use the editing software or how to render it into a video. I battered YouTube watching every tutorial I could find, called a friend I knew was in the film business who was gracious enough to help me by filming the interviews I needed (thanks Ben) and I set to work, not for a minute suspecting I was about to unlock the answer to a question that had pissed me off for over 30 years:

What did I want to be when I grow up?

I’d actually given up hope of ever knowing that and it did seem like a moot point really as I have been fully grown for quite some time now, but the question still bothered me from time to time, it was like I was missing something really important right in front of me. As soon as the filming was over and the edit began I started working around the clock to get it all done as soon as possible. I think it was a day or two of working until the early morning hours before it dawned on me that editing didn’t feel like ‘work’ – come to think of it I’d loved every minute of the filming too…and the light bulb went off: THIS is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life! Then reality dawned on me; how in the hell do you break into one of the most closed industries on the planet without any money for school, contacts or famous friends? All I had going for me is the ability to learn very quickly and all the nervous energy from an impending mid-life crisis…

The set I built from scrap for Monster Gardens after building out the “TESTLAB” grow light rig.

Of course the crowdfunding campaign didn’t do anywhere near well enough to create the company or the job I’d been promised so at the start of 2015 after creating a slew of product demo vids I was out of work again, but as luck would have it one of the contractors at the company that was also working on the project knew a company called Monster Gardens that needed an editor.

The money wasn’t great, but it was a job doing what I loved to do and it was where I cut my teeth. I began just editing, then I took over filming, lighting, directing. Inside a year I’d learned to create shows, train presenters & write scripts. I re-learnt audio correction, learned lighting, colour correction and almost everything else I’d need to make my own documentaries to a decent if basic level…but I still didn’t have an idea of what I’d do for my first work. I picked up other clients, mainly small businesses that wanted video but didn’t know how to go about it, and learned more with every one…but it was while working for Monster that I stumbled into an old TV show that would show me the way. I (re)discovered it after finishing a rush job for a trade show that meant 3 nights of limited sleep and the resulting jet-lag like crash afterwards that caused me to be wide awake at 3am… and what does one do at a time like this when not wanting to wake the entire household?

Building out sets & learning how to soundproof them while showing off a Movember to raise cash for cancer.

The NETFLIX binge.

After browsing around for a while I couldn’t find anything that caught my attention, so I scrolled down to the ‘you might like’ window and saw something familiar: The “Long Way Round” (LWR), a 2004 travel documentary series about actors Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman riding two big BMW bikes from London (where I’m from) to New York (in the country I now call home) the long way ’round.  I had a flashback to the first year I was in the US, otherwise known as my ‘Billy-no-mates’ period, where I had no US friends. What sustained me through this time was the TV, indeed as it had during rainy days in my youth, but in-particular two shows: Jackass (because they’re basically me aged 10) and American Chopper which was where the memory had sprung from. In the last episode of LWR the team dropped in on the American Chopper crew, and I’d watched the episode of American Chopped taking a mental note to watch out for the show when it came on BBC America, the channel here in the US I assumed it’d play on. This is how I came to be completely ignorant of LWR for more then a decade, because of course it didn’t play there…it aired on Bravo, a channel I didn’t frequent much, in fact it was something I only found out later by reading the book that accompanied the series.

Overjoyed at finding something to watch I hit play and sat back, not once suspecting that my life was about to be radically changed forever. I watched all nine episodes in one hit, then I watched the sequel they made in 2007 the “Long Way Down” followed by every two wheeled documentary or series I could find on all the streaming services…I was hooked. I loved their show SO MUCH I was gutted there wasn’t more to watch and just like that, I had found the project idea I’d been looking for and the little voice in my head that had been pestering me to do something bonkers fixated on the idea of carrying on in the same vein: I wanted to see how the route they took had changed in the last decade by riding it in reverse and perhaps find some answers to my own identity crisis as an Englishman living in America – my friends back in the UK called me a ‘Yank’ and my friends here all called me the ‘Brit’ – so WHAT the hell was I?

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Me and ‘Tippy’ on top of Mt Tam – my 2001 BMW R1150GS – aka the trusty steed I rode for the whole of VETSGROW.

The only trouble was that despite always having loved bikes, the circumstances of my life had always denied me the opportunity to own one (which is a story for another time). I did have experience of scooters & mopeds on holidays, but nothing that gave me confidence that I could ride 20,000 miles around the planet, film it all and stay in one piece, let alone how the hell to fund it all after being nearly bankrupted. I needed something smaller, still a challenge, but closer to home and emergency services. At the time this all happened, I was also considering taking US Citizenship as I’d been living in California for 13 years at that point, but despite all this time stateside, I’d only visited 8 states as I’d invested so much time into work…how about getting to know America first? It was on my doorstep, relatively safe and I’d always wanted to road-trip across the country, perhaps I’d find some answers to my own identity crisis whilst out there.

Two years later I thought I had everything in place. I’d spent the winter fixing up an old BMW K75T – lovingly known as Katie – that a really good friend had donated to the project and all I needed was to earn a little extra cash to boost the savings I’d managed to scrape together and I could hit the road, but as Katie was born in 1990 I’d spent all winter fixing the issues the old bike had. Battery bulb, oil, lights…everything seemed to run OK, but I just thought I’d have one last shake-down ride with a chase car to test everything out and boy I’m glad I did. Not 2 miles up the freeway, which was my first time riding a freeway on a bike,  she let go a cylinder gasket and I was forced back home with my tail between my legs and sick to my stomach – she needed a strip down and rebuild, the identity ride which had come to be known as “RiDENTITY” was over before it had begun.

Valentino Balboni in a Lambo – a rare sight unless you hang out with him…then you see him all the time.

It wasn’t all doom & gloom though, another good friend (thanks Benoit) called me up with the opportunity of a lifetime: a 4 day tour with his silicon valley exotic car club 100OCT. Not only that, but one of my childhood heroes was coming along – the one and only Valentino Balboni, the legendary Lamborghini test driver. 

What followed was what became “The RIDEALONG” which was a truly amazing experience and was almost my first completed documentary project…

…except that in the middle of producing the 4 episode series another project I’d been investigating got the green light and I had to drop everything and start pre-production on VETSGROW, a docu-series about my investigation into veteran PTSD, suicide and medical cannabis set to the backdrop of teaching a Vietnam veteran called Al to grow his own at home legally and since that day veterans have dominated my life and work – but that’s a story better told elsewhere or simply by watching the series itself…

…and so my new friend, this is how I came to be where I am today – after completing VETSGROW I had an idea for a sequel to take the program across the whole USA called “Take the high road” and I’ve been working to trying to make it happen for the whole of 2019 and failing miserably, but it’s not like I haven’t had shit fall apart before and so I’m just going to keep knocking on doors until one of them opens…

If you want to help in my quest – reach out to me at 

thedocumattarian@gmail.com

Thanks – Matt G.