Ryan Cleek met Cameron Zink when he was 17 in LA at a freestyle photo-shoot staged by fellow photographer and filmer Neil Sanders. Cleek was a photo-journalist at popular mountain bike magazine at the time and was tipped by Sanders that Zink was on the verge of something big. The chance meeting became a life-long friendship, which eventually inspired Cleek to document the untold story of the challenging road that Cameron Zink traveled on his way to become one of the sport's most successful and progressive big-mountain slopestyle athletes.
"Reach for the Sky" is Ryan Cleek's second feature-length film - an emotional roller coaster ride that digs deeply into the roots of Zink's ambition and then launches full speed into a well-paced and edited drama that follows Cam from boy to man, through competitions, into the hospital, on the road, and at home. The story of a career that spans the birth and rise to glory of professional mountain bike freeride competition is told first-hand, by friends and family, and by Cleek, who filmed Zink for a number of years leading up to his most recent exploits at the Red Bull Rampage and culminating with his attempt at a world-record back flip. Viewers will recognize some of the footage, but most of "Reach for the Sky" is fresh or yet to be published archival material. "Reach for the Sky" is a must see for Cam Zink fans - and for anyone who loves mountain bikes. It's one hell of a story. - RC
INTERVIEW: Ryan Cleek
Where did the "Reach for the Sky" concept come from?
People understand Zink is gnarly guy on the bike, but knowing his injury filled backstory, and what he went through to get there, I thought this would be an engaging project for both fans of the sport and the casual viewer. If someone’s been into mountain biking for the last five or six years, they aren’t aware of his physical and sponsorship struggles early in his career. The movie was my concept, but I had a lot of great people helping me shoot it, primarily Dathan Graham, Taylor Sage, and Kent Johnson, and so many people were generous with archival footage. It really shows how badly people wanted to see this story be told.
Documentaries are tough to produce. Where did you begin?
The movie features both fly-on-the-wall-style coverage of two Rampages and his record-breaking Mammoth flip, but in between events, it goes into who Cam is and what has made him into the person he is today. In the middle of the movie, there’s a ton of footage from him growing up that almost no one has ever seen, which really shows his dedication to riding from a young age. After sorting through those tapes for about a year, if Hell were real, I’m convinced there’s a room there where souls are forced to watch teenagers’ home movies for eternity.
Ryan Cleek pretty much created and financed the entire film. Jake Orness photo
If a movie was being made today about John Tomac, Tony Hawk, or Ricky Carmichael, it would feature almost entirely archival footage. Well, Zink is obviously still on the forefront of freeride, so we captured a year in his life, bookended by Rampages, plus also dive into the archive stuff in between events. During the Mammoth flip coverage, I don’t use a single second of footage from ESPN. I feature what we shot, not only during that event, but also months before in preparation. Cam was so prepared and he executed it so perfectly, the risk, emotional weight, and severe consequences of the actual situation, in my opinion, were mostly lost in the live broadcast.
So, you are the writer, producer, filmer, editor...
I was working for Specialized when I had the idea for the Zink project and for 14 months, I spent my weekends and vacation days shooting, so it wouldn’t interfere with my work responsibilities. During this time my mom became extremely sick, and the situation didn’t have much hope, so I wanted to spend a time with my family in the fall and winter of 2014. Specialized was very good to me, and could not have been more supportive. They allowed me to take as much time away from work as I needed. However, her health situation, combined with all of the work and the looming responsibility for the Zink movie really left me with only one option. So, I left my job and put all of my time into making this project the best I could. I kept it under the radar for about two years, because I was literally making this movie on a table in my kitchen - editing day and night for over a year. I had already put enough pressure on myself with this project as it was, I didn’t need additional distractions. The 12 Terabyte drive full of footage wasn’t going to sort itself.
It’s been a few years since my last movie, but I’ve been a similar situation before and knew what was ahead of me. It’s like having a potter's wheel, or a chunk of granite and chisel sitting in the corner of a room staring at you - 24 hours a day. It doesn’t look like anything for a very, very long time (other than
When Zink asked officials if they would construct a kicker on the Oakley Drop, there was no question that he was going to flip it. Dathan Graham photo
what you imagine is inside of it), but as you chip away at it starts to reveal itself. I had a strong treatment (movie outline of concept), and that determined what I shot and when, but in a documentary, you never really know what you have until you analyze every second of footage.
Telling a story with this process is like having a dump truck drop a mountain of other peoples’ comments into your yard and having someone say: “Now go write a novel with those sentences.” It’s definitely a challenging puzzle. My kitchen wall looks like something from “A Beautiful Mind” - dozens of story notes, outlines of the three acts, markers to key themes and statements, and all with post-its in between linking it all together, detailing how I can connect the sections without narration.
Back in 2005 you made a feature length mountain bike movie. Why the delay between projects?
My first movie, “Downhill Speed,” followed Eric Carter, Johnny Waddell, and Orlando Martinez through the 2003 season of National and World Cup Downhill racing. The idea basically being each of these guys were at different stages in their careers and had very different personalities - they would’ve never been in the same room together if it weren’t for bike racing. “Downhill Speed” is certainly dated now, but I’m still proud of it - especially starting it at 25 year old with zero budget, and utilizing whatever random equipment we could borrow. Those who saw it liked it, and it was even chosen for film festivals. I believe if that movie had a million-dollar budget, it would have had better picture and sound quality, but I truly can’t see the story changing much by throwing money at it.
However, that experience left an awful taste in my mouth on the filmmaking process. It’s water under the bridge now, but here’s the gist of what happened. My partners Brian Read, Derek Hoffman, and Veronica Blum had shot 90% of the movie over a year. I mistakenly hired someone on a handshake to help me with post production duties. Fast forward to 12 months later and the movie was nearly done and ready for distribution, that person sued me for several hundred thousand dollars and demanded every major credit. Which, obviously was f*cking bullshit.
The sad part is we became friends during his time helping me, and probably would’ve collaborated on something else down the road. Lesson learned: a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Regardless, it took about another year to make that legal situation go away, but I did retain my movie. After that situation we could only afford to make 2000 DVDS. We sold some copies, but we never made a penny. I paid $273 a month for nine years to pay off the credit cards I used to make that movie. Needless to say, I wasn’t eager for an encore performance. Maybe someday I’ll load “Downhill Speed” on YouTube so it can live on in its standard-definition glory.
In spring of 2012, I was talking over sushi with my girlfriend at the time, Christina, about the urge to do another movie and for some reason it hit me - Zink - and saw the whole thing unfold in my head during that conversation.
Cameron Zink is mobbed by the media after nailing his world record back flip at Mammoth Mountain, California.
Did you and Zink make good partners on the project?
I’m eight years older than Cam, and by the time we started this project, we’d each been around the block a few times in the sport, so it’s probably a good intersection point in our careers. Cam told me he liked my first movie, so he probably thought I was capable of putting a good effort into one about him. But, there is a backstory not many people know, and to explain it I’ll need to rewind a bit.
Bikes were my first passion, and I raced BMX nationally from age of 6 until I was in high school, but gave it up for stick and ball sports, which I played through college. However, by the time I was 22, all I had to show for it were four ACL reconstructions (twice each knee) ultimately with cadaver Achilles tendons bolted inside them as replacements, multiple invasive MCL and meniscus repairs which still hinder me greatly today. Despite working hard in rehab, all of the repetitive damage and procedures left me with 60% range of motion in my right leg. Realizing I’d never be able to even run again, walk without a limp, or really do any activity to my potential was a tough pill to swallow for a 20-year-old. Obviously, there are far more devastating injuries a person can suffer, and far worse life scenarios, so I feel silly even talking about this today. But, we don’t have the luxury of perspective as kids, so it took several years before I came to terms with the situation and wasn’t resentful toward the sports I used to love. I’m still not out of the woods. Since I was a teenager, I’ve been forced to routinely have some kind of knee operation to address lingering damage or pain, once again putting me back at ground zero.
Cam Zink ejects over the Canyon Jump at the 2012 Red Bull Rampage. Miraculously, Zink suffered only badly bruised heels after landing the 80-foot gap on his feet in practice, but his hopes for a win were dashed.
How is that relevant to the movie? Fast forward a few years—I’m in my mid 20s and working for a mountain bike magazine. Zink, now in his late teens and in the first year of his first real pro contract, which was in the inaugural year of the Santa Cruz Syndicate team. We knew of each other from photo shoots in LA, but Cam is based in Reno and we didn’t cross paths much other than a few events a year. I want to say it was a National in Durango in 2004. Regardless I was walking through the pits and the Syndicate team manager, Kathy Sessler, told me Cam had seriously injured his knee and suggested I chat with him about it. I recognized that familiar look of disappointment and uncertainty in his face. We talked about what the recovery process is like and what to expect - how bad it was going to suck, but that he couldn’t give up. We discussed how he’d get bombarded with advice from people who have never gone through it themselves, and if he worked hard with the rehab, he’d be ok and be able to eventually reach his goals.
What we didn’t know was this conversation would precede only the first of four ACL reconstructions he’d go through over the next few years—the same number I’ve endured. The physical damage is tough to handle, but realizing another year of your life will be spent in recovery is the most difficult aspect. From that conversation forward, I took a genuine interest in his career, which his best friends would agree was tough to watch a lot of the time. When I heard he was injured I’d drop him an email of encouragement, or often without him knowing I’d include a photo of him in a magazine story I was working on to hopefully keep him relevant in his sponsors’ eyes, despite being sidelined with issues beyond his control.
So, ultimately I think we make a good partnership on a project like this because he trusts me to do an honest portrayal his story, as I can relate to many of the struggles he’s gone through. There’s a saying by a pioneer of Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius, which goes, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the path becomes the path.” Meaning, turn your adversity into opportunity. Cam and I have talked a lot about this perspective many times and how it applies to different aspects of life. I decided to begin the movie with that quote.
What is the status of the film?
For the most part, the heavy lifting is done, and Cam and I both are proud of it. But, has some costly post production expenses before it reaches the finish line. It’s currently being scored for some original music in places, undergoing colorization, and then it's off to sound mixing. We will have a screening during Interbike at a quaint theater, and there will be tickets available for that event. I still have small refinements to make before it’s released later this fall. Once it’s released it will be available on iTunes and basically, any method of watching a movie digitally, including X Box, and Play Station.
Although it’s been a lean budget (mostly my credit cards), some generous sponsors have come on board: YT Industries, Oakley, Deity, and SRAM. Steve Blick and Oakley believed in this project from the beginning and helped keep it afloat after funding it myself for the first year. To help me cover costly footage and music licensing fees, plus any theatrical showings, I’ve set up a crowd funding campaign
Cam Zink and Ryan Cleek.
where fans of Cam and mountain biking can contribute to help us raise the last funds we need, and in doing so, get some cool gifts specifically created for the movie. If you feel motivated, please visit the site and make a contribution.
So, when do we get to see it?
I'll be screening the premiere here in Las Vegas at a small venue called the Inspire Theater this coming Thursday, September 17 for the crew, and the media. The venue seats 150, so there will be 100 tickets available that can be purchased on line here. It should be quite a party. Should you miss the premiere, we will be screening the movie in select cities after its official release this fall.