Filmmaker Allie Bombach lives a completely mobile life in her 23-foot Airstream trailer. Earlier this year she turned her camera toward people who share her lifestyle: people living in trucks, vans and buses, giving up the comforts of traditional American life to be closer to their outdoor passions. The result is her documentary “23 Feet,” set to be released in spring of 2011.
This week I caught up with Bombach to talk about inspiration, life on the road and living your dreams.
Allie Bombach and her crew: clockwise from bottom, Allie Bombach, sitting, Lisa Montierth, standing, and Greer Glasser, in the door. Photo by Alan Kahler
What was your inspiration for “23 Feet”?
I was living in Durango, CO at the time and knew I wanted to move to Portland, OR in the summer. Realizing that it didn’t make sense for me to rent while I was traveling so much for work, I decided to buy an Airstream. I also decided that I wanted to buy a veggie diesel to pull it. Being a bit too spontaneous, I bought an old 1993 F350 veggie diesel with my savings and hit the road that same day to Boulder, CO where I had found a gutted 1970, 23-foot Airstream on ebay. I spent 5 dollars on gas and drove on veggie oil the rest of the way for a 7-hour drive to Boulder. The truck, (who I named Elvira) had “Wild Beast” written on the side and a “Got Balls” bumper sticker on the back… Needless to say – I got some stares.
I got to Boulder and bought the airstream, hooked it up, and started my way back home to Durango, CO. I was 11 miles out of Boulder when my engine blew up. One scam-artist mechanic and a month and a half later I bought another engine which also failed and was stranded in Boulder with not a dime left to my name.
Cutting my losses, I sold the truck for scraps, towed the airstream to a storage place, and caught a ride with my friend Timmy to the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale, CO where I knew I could then hitch a ride home to Durango.
After a shot of inspiration from all the wonderful films at 5point and then hearing story after story of my friend’s own adventures on the road, I was encouraged by other filmmakers at the festival to document my adventures in the airstream.
So, Elvira the veggie truck ended up wiping out all $8,000 of my savings, but the opportunity to go to 5Point Film Festival and get that inspiration made it worth every penny.
I take it that you live a bit of a “vagabond” lifestyle. How parallel is your life to your subjects?
I feel very connected with the people I interviewed in “23 Feet.” It all comes down to living simply to do what you love. Doing what I love also means I have not been in one place for more then 2 weeks since April, but there is something I love about this too. Currently I am “living” in Portland, OR. I am still in the airstream, but I am traveling a lot without it these days. Although, having the airstream to come “home” to is wonderful. Although, I really don’t want to take Roma (my airstream) out again until I have another truck that runs on veggie oil.
Are there any aspects of the lives of your subjects that you wish your own life was more like? Anything about lifestyle that you would hate?
I am working on being more sustainable like my friend Linus in Moab. He has solar panels on his bus and utilizes wind power. The only part about being off the grid that I don’t like is the separation. Right now, I really love being in a city where I can bike everywhere and connect with other creatives. I feel like to really live off the grid you have to be, well, off the grid! Its a funny balance having an airstream in a city, but it’s working so far.
What resources did you use to track down your off-the-grid subjects?
The great thing about many of the people I connected with is how we got connected. The community of climbers is especially strong in that there is quite the network of friends that are all over the country at any given time. I met people through friends of friends, suggestions of people on the road, and people I already knew were living this life. I love that half of the people we interviewed we met on the road. That really speaks to the strong connections we make while living this lifestyle.
What got you into making documentaries?
I got my first video camera when I was 13 and was hooked. I have been a freelance outdoor videographer for the last 2 or 3 years and found a passion for the powerful stories that surround the outdoor community.
What do you most enjoy about making documentaries?
I think it all comes back to my passion for storytelling. I feel that film is such an amazing tool for storytelling and evoking emotion. Empathizing with others is what connects us and motivates us, and I am thankful to have the opportunity to give others a voice through making these documentaries.
What was the biggest lesson you learned making this film?
Never put the camera down. Even when people are not happy with you or you feel that the production is getting in the way of the story. Its all story.
What was the most important thing you learned from your subjects?
I think an overwhelming unspoken theme was the confidence of our subjects in choosing the lifestyle that they have. Its as if we want to ask them “why live this way?” and “why take these risks?” but it was not as important as their question of “why not?”. The fear of a vagabond lifestyle being a bad choice was never an issue or concern because it was understood that if you do what you love the rest will fall into place. I think I learned to put a lot of trust in that, and so far, it has really changed my life.
What kind of crew did you use?
The two women that traveled with me helped a lot with interviewing the people of “23 Feet.” I took on the roles of finding the people to interview, location scouting, filming and post production.
What was the biggest challenge of filming “23 Feet”?
Filming wasn’t so hard… it was driving in July across the deserts of Nevada pulling a 40-year-old trailer without air conditioning or running water that was pretty rough. It was also challenging backing the airstream uphill through a pin-ball of sequoia trees in Kings Canyon National Park. All the road challenges aside, everything went surprisingly well!
Were all of the scenes shot as they were happening or did you recreate some for effect? I’m thinking of the clip in the trailer of the tow truck carting away the truck and travel trailer. If it was a real moment, how did you happen to be there at the right time?
Nothing was recreated. My truck broke down twice. We had to be towed once, hitch hiked to many locations and we almost ran out of gas numerous times. Being there for the shots was just a matter of putting aside the stress of the situation and busting out the camera. I got some stares from my traveling companions, but in the end, they are powerful parts of the story. I wish I would have had the strength to bring out the camera more often.
Related question: what role does luck play in the making of a documentary?
With a documentary like this, luck is all of it. But bad luck and good luck are all good things to film, so as long as your camera keeps kickin’ it is all apart of the story. One “unlucky” day of the truck breaking down, we had to leave everything behind to hitchhike into Tuolumne Meadows. After all that, our luck turned into chance meeting Ron Kauk who is a climbing legend in the valley. So any luck, bad or good, is luck worth having, as long as something is happening.
“23 Feet” has some corporate sponsors. Is there a trick to working with sponsors? And did you have any problems or tension meeting their needs?
I feel very lucky to work with sponsors who are just as passionate about the story as I am. I think the trick is finding sponsors that believe in what you’re trying to accomplish. Osprey Packs is all about pursuing your passion, and many of the people who work for Osprey have great stories of hitting the road. Alite Designs was also wonderful in that they not only support the creative side of filming, but their mission is getting people to enjoy the great outdoors, which I hope is something that people take away from the film.
How are you planning on releasing the film?
I want to premiere the film in the spring in Portland, OR and I am entering it into adventure based and mountain culture film festivals around the country. We’ll see!
What’s your next film project?
Next year I’ll be taking a project on with another filmmaker telling the stories of people who are the movers and shakers of positive environmental and social change. Excited to take things to the next level with storytelling.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers just starting out?
Don’t quit! You’ll get as much out of it as the time and effort you put in. I think this goes with anything you pursue…and don’t put down the camera.
It seems like you’re living your passion. What are the most difficult parts about pursuing your passions and what are the most rewarding?
The most difficult part is keeping in touch with family and friends. I travel so much that its hard to stay connected. Although, I love making new friends on the road. The most rewarding part of pursing my passion for filmmaking is hearing the stories of people who connect with my projects. I love talking with people who have found me through “23 Feet.” Talking about their own adventures and the excitement that they have makes it all worth while.
What advice would you give others who want to live their passions?
My friend Rachel who I interviewed in “23 Feet” said it best. She said that she realized one day that the only thing standing between her and the life she wanted to lead was…her. I love that. It makes it all so simple.
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Eric is a travel writer, photographer and filmaker with an unhealthy love for all things transportation.