In the late fall of 2012, I was approached by Michael Dweck with the idea of making a film about stock car racing. Michael had been shooting still photography at the Riverhead Raceway on Long Island, not far from a shuttered track that he frequented as a child. Over the previous five years, Michael had spent the summer race season capturing the sculptural forms of the cars through large format photography and sculpture.Through his process as a fine artist and his summer residences at the track, he discovered images and a narrative that was beyond what still photography alone could capture. He came to me with the challenge of filming the unfolding story at the track in a way that would push the boundaries of conventional documentary storytelling, express the intensity of the racing experience, show the strange beauty of life at the track, and document the culture of blue-collar American racing in previously unseen ways. Through this challenge, we embarked on the journey of creating THE LAST RACE.
Through the fall and winter leading up to the summer race season, we began viewing a wide variety of films that would eventually serve as our inspiration and guide. Errol Morris’s early work such as GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON, FLORIDA provided inspiration for capturing candid interviews with idiosyncratic characters and the distinct personality of a region. Louis Malle and René Vautier’s film, A HUMAN CONDITION, was screened for the way it captured a location that was simultaneously intimate and alienating. KOYAANISQATSI was a model for capturing movement and the symphonic merging of music and images. Classic racing films like GRAND PRIX, LE MANS, DAYS OF THUNDER, as well as contemporary NASCAR broadcasts were also viewed as a context for how auto racing has been mythologized in popular culture and provided insight into how that mythology was reflected in the culture of the racetrack.
In the months leading up to production, the urgency of telling the story around the track became more apparent. Long Island was the birthplace of stock car racing, and since its inception during the prohibition era, there had been over 40 different auto racing tracks covering the island. Every one of those tracks except the Riverhead Raceway had closed, and an explosion of development around the track seemed to signal that Riverhead was headed in the same direction. Forests surrounding the track were cleared overnight, and backhoes were breaking ground for big box stores. As we started talking to real estate developers in the area, we realized how much pressure was on the owners to sell. The value of the land far exceeded the earning potential of the race track, and its octogenarian owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, were facing health problems that made overseeing the operations of the track increasingly difficult. Although Barbara and Jim assured us that they planned to keep the track open, we continually heard rumors from developers about the increasingly outrageous sums that were enticing Barbara and Jim into a well-deserved retirement.
At the start of the summer race season, we realized that this could be our last chance to film racing on Long Island before the bulldozers wiped it off the map forever. Over the course of a long summer race season, we spent every weekend filming, and through the process, we became participants in the track’s culture. We were assigned a parking space in the pits where we set up our gear and managed our media. Our work soon became folded into the rhythms and rituals of the track. Being accepted into the family of the track came with all the complexity of being brought into any family relationship. Entering into their lives meant we got access to some of the racers’ highest highs but also meant we were fair game as recipients for their angry explosions when they lost a race, or when we caught them on a bad day.
Our continual presence at the track eventually enabled us to get beyond the performative personas that many of the drivers put on at the start of our filming process. Furthermore, for our non-interview footage, we attempted to film in wide frames, or with telephoto lenses that allowed us to maintain distance between us and our subjects. This, combined with a continually rolling camera inured our subjects to the filmmaking process. Likewise, the constant presence of our cameras in the cars during the races enabled us to capture some of the most emotionally raw footage of the film, such as the explosive anger of a fight brewing after a race, the unabashed thrill of a driver winning the championship, and the intimate rituals of preparation before the start of a race. During the summer weekdays when the racetrack was closed, we followed the drivers through their daily lives. The mundane drudgery of their work was often a sharp contrast to the chaos and excitement we filmed at the racetrack. However, as we filmed with the drivers off the track, we came to discover how the unique character of their lives on Long Island reflected their passion for racing.
The editing of the film was completed in Copenhagen, with Charlotte Munch Bengtsen. She was chosen to edit the film because of her background in unconventionally structured narratives, such as her work with Joshua Oppenheimer on THE ACT OF KILLING, but also because we were looking for someone who could bring an outsider's perspective to the subject matter. For her, entering into the uniquely American race culture of the Riverhead Raceway was both exotic and mysterious. Her perspective brought a new analysis of the material that unearthed new images and ideas that may have been taken for granted through our cultural familiarity.
The process of structuring the story merged techniques of photography editing with film editing. Screengrabs of every shot recorded during production were printed as still images and laid out for viewing. These images could then be pulled and ordered to create a visual narrative that supported the underlying story. This process led to the evolution of a narrative based on unexpected visual connections and contrasts. Unlike many conventional documentaries, the images are not mearly used a visual facade to cover a structure built on information and narrative conveyed through audio; rather, images occupy a deliberate position and work as building blocks of the story itself.
From the beginning of the filming process, we knew we wanted to capture the intensity of the car racing in a way that people had not seen or experienced before. To do this, we employed an array of small lightweight and inexpensive cameras that allowed us to frame shots in extremely vulnerable positions and explore new perspectives to capture the race. We experimented with a variety of mounting fixtures, including asking the drivers to weld mounts onto their cars. Eventually, we found that commercially available lightweight grip gear gave us the most options for camera placement and could provide robust, sturdy mounting points even in our extreme, high-impact filming conditions. Remarkably, not one camera was lost or even damaged throughout the entire filming process. For every race, cameras were placed around the track and on a variety of angles on the cars. One car could have as many as five different cameras capturing different perspectives in a single race. Through reviewing nearly a hundred hours of footage captured during the races we discovered unexpected moments of beauty and sometimes disaster.
The process of recording audio was equally expansive and experimental. During the production process, we built an audio library of the different sounds on the track. Certain sounds, such as the voice of the track announcer, were captured from numerous different recording possitions to reflect the many perspectives that the audio could be perceived from locations in and around the track. Racing sounds and a variety of different car sounds were also recorded from various perspectives to provide the sound designer with a broad palette of sounds to pull from for the racing sequences. The intention was for every car and every race sequence in the film to have a unique personality expressed through the audio.
The audio we collected during production was used in the sound edit to achieve an impressionistic rendering of the subjective feeling of the race track, rather than a literal one. This allowed us to take the chains off of structure and format to create a blur of music and crowds, and transition the sound design from scene to scene in a dreamlike way, with sonic elements slipping and sliding in layers. We used perspective shifts, audio pre-laps, extended transitions, abstract sound design, and both diegetic and non-diegetic sound, and non-diegetic music, often all in the same sequences, throughout the film.
– Cinematographer & Producer Gregory Kershaw