Behind the Scenes: Dennis Christopher Talks “Breaking Away,” Part I

Behind the Scenes: Dennis Christopher Talks “Breaking Away,” Part I

Following the showing of “Breaking Away” for the celebration of Masi’s 90th anniversary, Dennis Christopher was kind enough to entertain questions from the audience. I’ll admit that prior to the Q&A I had hoped to get a few minutes alone with him to do a brief interview, and while he was willing, there wasn’t enough of him to accommodate that and all the people who wanted to thank him prior to the showing. I recorded the Q&A on the off chance that it might reveal a thing or two and it delivered in spades. It gave me the opportunity to ask my biggest question, which appears in part II. I had hoped to include the Q&A in an episode of the Paceline Podcast, but the sound quality wasn’t quite good enough, so I set to transcribing it.

I’ve done my best to accurately transcribe the chat and to include his emphasis and all the laughter and applause that punctuated the session. There were maybe 200 people in the theater and the warmth and regard for both the film and for him was palpable. And this is way more interesting than any five-minute interview I might have gotten; this was an opportunity of a lifetime. His generosity of spirit was a welcome surprise.

Emcee for the evening was James Ayres, inside sales manager for Haro. Masi brand manager James Winchester likes to note that Ayres is referred to in the office as “Other James.”

Other James: We were talking earlier today. One of the things you had said to me was, ‘Find something about the movie, what scene was it that you connected to personally.’  I think for all of us that ride, one of the scenes that everybody seems to talk the most about the drafting scene, right? The scene behind the truck, right? And everybody seems to throw the question out there, ‘Man, you were in your little ring going 60 mph!’ (massive audience laughter)

Dennis Christopher: I like the question when they ask, ‘Where did you buy those calves?’ (audience laughter) They’re really not mine.

OJ: Are you saying you had stunt calves?

DC: (laughs) Yeah. Funnily enough, I had a great teacher and mentor and, um, stunt double, not a stunt double, a double, that we really looked at before we started filming, we looked at the movie as if it was a partnership between the two of us because, this was the seventies and everybody was saying things like, ‘Oh, I trained to be a boxer and I trained to be a skier and I trained to be a [inaudible] and I trained for two months in the gym; that’s not an athlete. That’s not—it takes your whole live to learn something, or a great portion of it in blood, sweat and tears, and I didn’t have the time to put it in. So I figured the only way you can look like that is if you act like that. So he and I hung out together and started picking up each other’s rhythms, especially on the bike you know with your head down when you’re [inaudible], what your face looks like what your breathing looks like and we really got into it, the very minutiae of it. And that’s why it looks like it looks. And it’s funny, no one told us to do that, but it seemed the only way because I had missed the first few weeks of filming and rehearsing because of another job. So it was really the only way to get the truth of the situation was to study it and simulate it rather than have the ego to think I could turn myself into a great cyclist—in two weeks. That is absurd.

They started the first day of training, they started showing me how to put the bike back together. I said, I don’t know how to—I don’t need to know how to fire the gun and how to clean the gun, I just need to know how to shoot it! You know what I mean? I can’t learn everything about a bike, so it was an interesting thing and we really worked as partners to make the guy look real and then when they got the first dailies in they said, ‘We don’t need the double. You seem to be doing all the stuff that it says you need to be doing.’ I might not be going 60 mph, but it looks like I am. A couple of times they stuck Garry’s [Garry Rybar, Christopher’s double] massive calves in there—I couldn’t fake that (audience laughter). And I’m sure they had no other thing to use but the wrong [inaudible] but we didn’t know then as much as y’all know now, because nobody was riding. Really. People didn’t ride to work.

Audience member: Dennis, talk a little bit about the scene where you are on the bike and you’re picking up a notebook and it looks easy and everyone in this room knows that’s not easy (audience laughter).

DC: Well, this is one of the reasons why they wanted a stunt perf—a double. Because they said, ‘There are certain things that you just cannot do.’ And I said, okay … I don’t know, sure. You’re the expert, tell me what I can’t do. And they said, ‘You can’t pick that book up. Nobody can pick up—and it wasn’t a thick book. It was a flat book. He says, you can’t scoop it up. They had wires and they had special effects guys pulling things hidden in the bushes and make it go up in the air … it was rather elaborate, what they were trying to do to make this happening, to make this happen … after they surmised that I could not do it. (audience laughter) Rather than giving me a chance to do it and then, you know—but you have to plan for the worst. You can’t plan for the best. So, um, we spent two or three hours on this damn thing and it never worked. And Gary was on the bike, everybody was giving it a try and nobody could do it. And I kept watching it [inaudible] that book. I didn’t rush in and do it. And I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I said, ‘Lemme try’ and they laughed at me and said, ‘no, you’ll break your leg and fall off.’ I said, ‘Let me do it but make sure you keep the camera rolling … in case it works, so I can exit frame and keep the scene going and stuff. And not have to repeat it—you know what I mean—not to have to repeat the impossible thing (audience laughter). And I tell you on the first time, it happened and they almost ruined the take because all these exhausted people behind the cameras wanted to cheer and applaud, but they couldn’t they would have wrecked the take. And it’s just—we were, we had blessings many times where the impossible smoothed out and this group of people behind the camera and in front of it, um, learned about cycling as we went along. And learned about how to shoot a cycling race and stuff; it was really learn as you go ’cause as you saw, they did not throw a lot of money at this movie (audience laughter). And that’s half the charm of it. ‘Cause it doesn’t push us away, it brings us in as if these people are members of your family or something.

AM: The scene where you crash—

DC: Oh yes! The Italians.

AM: I noticed that there were two different bikes right there. Was that bike one of the ones that you use?

DC: The bike out there is my bike. That’s, you know, if ever they were going to clone anything they just take that seat right off of there because I sat on that thing for four months and sweated and died and failed and succeeded and everything. That’s my bike and that’s the bike you see me on. Now they’re not gonna, you know, throw it off of a speeding truck, um, because we have to keep working, so there was a stunt bike for that. They bought two or three of them. One of them was not really completely put together. It was raggedy looking. And there were two pristine ones. One that I used and so we had to protect it kinda thing.

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AM: Can you share with us a little bit about the character in the director and the writer’s mind and what the character became when you arrived on the scene.

DC: They had a different thing in mind. It was very literal; it’s called ‘Bambino.’ He rode a folding bike? How crucified we would have been (audience laughter) for riding a folding bike in a movie like this. You wouldn’t be here, for sure (massive laughter). You would have had to go straight to video to find that clunker, you know? He was on a folding bike, getting in the back of vans, smoking marijuana with people as he hitchhiked with his bike. And I went, ‘You know, I’ve done that (laughter), but that’s not what a cyclist does I gotta tell you.’ I mean, I’m an actor, not a cyclist, a-and they listened. I don’t, kind of, know why. I think it was because I was three weeks late. I missed two weeks of rehearsal and blocking. They had everything blocked. And done. And decisions made, where you’re gonna stand and they just stuck somebody in there where I was gonna stand and I arrive on the set and they say ‘stand over there,’ and I go ‘okay,’ nothing organic kind of involved and I arrived at I think 11 o’clock at night; they put me in hair and makeup until 3 in the morning and I got up at 6 and started filming. And I said—and they made me unrecognizable; they dyed my hair dark brown and made it into a kind of pompadour, darkened my skin, I had a tight banlon shirt on—it was unbuttoned practically down to my navel with chains and gold things hanging on them, skintight pants and long-toed Beatle boots—I loved the boots actually but you wouldn’t find them in Indiana anywhere (laughter) that was their idea of someone who wanted to be Italian. And it profoundly confused me because I thought because I thought he wanted to be Italian more for the emotionally resonant feelings and because of his idolization of these Italian athletes, not some guy who saw “Saturday Night Fever” one too many times (audience laughter). He wasn’t trying to pretend to be Italian to get … I don’t know how to say this …

AM: We know what you mean.

DC: Yeah. (audience laughter) Lucky! I said if it comes off at all like that, this guy’s a sleaze! You know what I mean? Really.

We shot a whole day with that character, all that stuff in the gym with the fight with the girl with the cigarette with the ‘you shouldn’t smoke,’ all that stuff and I’m dressed up like this cartoon Halloween character and she is a beautiful, real girl trying to be real. And I thought, ‘I’m in a nightmare. I finally have the lead in a great movie and I’m in a nightmare.’ And I worked that whole day they filmed the whole, uh—they never reshoot for anybody, especially an unknown person. They don’t listen to unknown people unless you have—your movies have made some dough. You know what I mean?

So, um, I got out of the car the next day and I saw the director and I just, I ran over to him—and he’s English and very reserved—and we hugged, really hard, and I broke out crying and I said, ‘Why the hell would you hire me? Don’t you care about your movie? I mean, really. I’m not me. Look at me; I’m in a costume. These boys would never be my friends. There’s no truth in this and we get a little fanciful, so you have to keep it truthful. And … God bless him and the writer [Peter Yates and Steve Tesich], they said, ‘You’re sleep deprived.’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ (audience laughter) ‘Go home, go back to the hotel and sleep, and we’re going to come over this afternoon.’

They closed down shooting, they came to my room and they said, what do you want to do? Why is this guy Italian? And I said, ‘He’s not in it to get laid. He’s in it to make a family; he’s in it to feel love, which he doesn’t feel in this house. And they went, ‘Okay,’ because, you know, you can’t argue with that. And we started moving in that direction. And it just went more and more. They sent somebody to—I was living in California at the time, I live in New York—they sent somebody to California to take all the clothes out of my closet and bring it to Indiana, because they had all these inappropriate clothes. So they just took my wardrobe and I’m just wearing my clothes when I’m not in racing togs in this thing. So it really evolved to the point where they, where it was something I could play and could understand. And the work that I had done before I got there could be fit into this story, instead of starting from scratch, trying to make up a cartoon guy that shaves his legs and has a big, black pompadour. You know what I mean? It’s crazy.

So, I’m sort of proud of that work because I—even though I was crying, I stood my ground. You know what I mean? Even though I went ‘waaaah’ I was saying, ‘I can’t do it, I won’t do it.’ So, they listened, God bless them. I mean, I was kid. (Clapping)

I was listening—aside from being a racing term, which it’s grown in usage since this movie—I was listening to an album by Art Garfunkel, a solo album called “Breakaway.” All the time. People would always say, ‘Who’s that?’ because, you know, you don’t recognize him without Paul Simon. And people were loving this cassette, because that’s what it was, and they thought it was a really great title. And Steve said, ‘Yeah, when you finally get away from the pack, it’s called breaking away.’ And everybody stopped and it wasn’t called ‘Bambino’ ever again. This stuff, the signs on the trucks, the crew trucks started appearing to be ‘Breaking Away’ instead of ‘Bambino,’ which is a nice word and maybe for another movie.


End Part I

For Part II, click here.

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