IU alumnus Thomas Miller has been moving closer to the frontlines of Bloomington's Little 500 bike race ever since his first year as a photographer for the Indiana Daily Student.
Miller first watched as a sports fan; then he covered the event with the school paper. And after graduating, he dedicated three months of filming to four teams, marking their every move as they trained for the 2013 and 2014 races. His documentary, One Day in April, sheds a light on Bloomington's beauty, but shows the dark side of the small town's major sporting event.
"We didn't want to make a happy-go-lucky puff piece," Miller said. "While the race often has a Breaking Away-esque, lighthearted vibe, there is a grittier side to it. Riders wreck on their faces, they have bad days, they get into fights with their teammates."
Rather than relying on interviews, Miller watched like a fly on the wall, catching these moments as they unfolded.
One of the most striking scenes in the film finds Delta Tau Delta coach, Courtney Bishop, losing his temper as race officials claim that one of his riders violated a rule (despite video footage that proves otherwise). It's a moment of cinematic power and real-life immediacy.
"If this was a Hollywood movie, you would want a coach character who's like Courtney, who's gruff and sometimes forces his athletes to do stuff they don't want to do," Miller said. "And you would want that moment where he goes to bat for them and they all come together."
Miller had no expectations for the dramatic arc of the film. He was ready for whatever played out in front of the lens.
"In that moment with Courtney, I wasn't thinking, 'This is going to be a great scene in the movie,' I was just thinking, 'Oh my God, what's going on? We have to capture this,'" said Miller. "We don't plan this kind of stuff. We just react to it."
If the film were a typical, scripted sports drama, Miller admits that it would be easy to make Courtney the villain given his aggressive attitude. "But when you spend that much time with somebody — go to his house, see his kids, see that he's a dad who helps his little girl get ready for school in the morning — he can't be a villain," Miller said with a chuckle.
"The idea of a villain in a sports documentary is kinda silly," he added. "But we, as consumers, love to reduce things down in that way, and be like, 'Here's the good team, the underdog team, and here's the bad team,' whatever that means."
One Day in April is the sort of sports film we rarely see — a co-ed one. Miller tried to avoid the sexist leanings of Hollywood and not let too much of the female cycling footage fall on the cutting room floor.
"We really didn't want the film to feel like, 'The guys' race is the real race, and the girls' race is over here in addition,'" Miller said. Every 'character' that you see is on the same playing field — male cyclists, female cyclists, gruff coaches, "soft" coaches, teams that come in first place and the ones that cross the finish line last. The film's attempt to put all of its players on equal footing is what Miller believes will appeal to "core Midwestern values."
Viewers will likely find the film appealing regardless of geography, especially if they want a thrilling big screen experience. With built-in cameras in the cyclists' sunglasses, the film puts you in the middle of the action on the track. You'll practically feel the dirt beneath the riders' tires being kicked up into your face.
"Obviously I love seeing something I've made on the big screen, but this really does look cool," Miller said, rather bashful. "Oh, man, it's awesome."
Although it's a documentary, One Day in April often feels larger than life. It also unequivocally ties down the core of Indy Film Fest this year — showcasing Hoosier artists and their stories.
One Day in April
Showing: July 19, 3:30 p.m. at The Toby Theater; July 24, 4 p.m. at The DeBoest Theater.(both at IMA)
Tickets: $10 at indyfilmfest.org