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The Long Way Less Travelled: Interview with Russ Malkin

by Ash Bhardwaj

Upon meeting Russ Malkin, you are immediately aware of why he is such a successful producer of television documentaries: he asks you questions and really listens to the answers; he asks how you come to be here, what led you here and where you are going; you can see him building the narrative in his mind and constructing a story; he absorbs the information and understands how it fits together.

Many will know Russ from A Long Way Down, A Long Way Round and By Any Means Necessary.  As he prepares to release his new book, 101 Amazing Adventures of the World, I caught up with him at his workshop/office in West London.

He surrounds himself with objects, information and trinkets that inspire him and make him who he is in the field of adventure documentaries – his offices are filled with maps and memorabilia of his travels, witty jokes adorn toilet walls and the large workshop is filled with bikes and tool kits last seen on the screens of BBC television.

Whilst television is what Russ is most famous for now, he could have taken a different path in life.  “I used to race motorbikes,” he explains, “I was 17, racing at Brands Hatch, on the Grand Prix circuit.

That weekend, someone had been killed at one of the race meetings.  I was going along at 120mph and asked myself, “What am I doing this for?  I could kill myself.”

“So instead I took up 4-wheeled kart racing and photography.  I was quite successful and went onto TV to talk about it.  That opened up opportunities and it snowballed from there.”

Russ’s first taste of adventure came on a trip around the coastal roads of Britain in a London Cab bought with a friend.  After serendipity (and a kindly truck driver) saved them from being stuck in John O’Groats, he returned from a “bit of stupidity, having an absolute laugh, with some crazy photos,” and ended up making his first documented adventure, The Orient Express Challenge.

Russ has never waited for people to open the door for him.  If he wants to do something he finds a way to do it.

He strongly believes in learning by experience.  “My attitude has always been to learn on the job and just do it straight away.  If you’ve got enough confidence you’ll figure it out.  I picked up a stills camera and said, this is my job from day one.”

He started out making feature films, but found the process of “spending five years trying to get something off the ground very frustrating.  And at the end it’s a fairy tale, it’s not even real.”

To get his film itch out of the way, he made the fastest feature film in history, taking only 13 days to go from title to screening.  Along the way, he developed the process of immediate, on-line, video editing – something which is an industry standard now.

It was serendipity that led him to television production, when he was sent out to do a motoring show as a presenter/producer and this learning-on-the-job experience gave him his education in television.  It gave him a chance to see every aspect of the television production process, making it possible for him to oversee entire projects.  “The more I understand, the less the wool is going to be pulled over my eyes.  And things can be made quicker, on a smaller budget.  I continue to experiment on how a production can be more cost-effective, but high quality.”

The Long Way series were a ground-breaker in the way travel programmes are made.  Early on in the production, Russ realised that the organisation and planning stage made television as compelling as the trip itself.  “We didn’t want to fix something and pretend it had gone right for the sake of the film.  And we didn’t want to have something go wrong, miss filming it, and then have Charlie or Ewan explain what had happened once the cameras were on.  It was much more compelling to film it as it actually happened.  That meant to we had the cameras rolling the entire time.”  This led to a real honesty in the programme from the very beginning.

Russ supports the continuing growth of user-interaction, and this is exemplified in the Big Earth website, which encourages the uploading of users’ videos and the sharing of stories.

He believes that, “new technology will make a big difference, from a programme-making point of view.  It did with Long Way Down when we had people follow us and blog about the journey for the BBC website and our website.”

Throughout that journey, the website was fed with constant updates of where the crew were and what they were doing, although Russ initially came across resistance to the idea.  “The head of online commissioning believed it could go two ways,” he explains, “Either the people who follow it online would know how the story ends and won’t watch the programme.  Or it acts like a taster, a starter, to the main course of the programme.”

As it happened, over 3.5 million people followed the journey online.  And the viewing figures for Long Way Round were far better than expected.

Russ’s faith in social media for television turned out to be very well founded and, 5 years later, the online tracking of a journey during production is standard fare in the broadcasting world.

Russ sees more potential with the immediate uploading of videos to the web.  “You can capture a real event, as it happens.  It’s much more compelling than someone doing a piece-to-camera 2 hours after it happened.  That’s when the content becomes more important than the quality.  It’s great for current information about an expedition.  Then, 2 or 3 months later, you get the main course of the finished programme.  It’s a question of funding, which I think will change.”

On that note, Russ believes that, “apart from people like the BBC, there has to be an opening up to ideas of partnership and sponsorship.

That isn’t selling out,” he insists, “Because without it, you wouldn’t get the funding to get anything made.  Scott of the Antarctic had to get funding and sponsorship for his expedition.

I’m a realist and it’s about doing stuff.  But you should stand by your principles and ethics: you shouldn’t pick the worst motorbike in the world for the most amount of money.  You need to maintain your integrity.”

“Fate deals up ideas and connections that lead onto new expeditions, but I do take time to consider what I want to document.  I am an ideas person and, fundamentally, what I do is take an idea and make things happen.  I’m interested in the world and what it’s about.  I’m always asking questions about culture and religion, looking to learn something about where I go.”

This year the team are planning the final adventure of the series: A Long Way Up will feature the team riding from the foot of South America, all the way up to the tip of North America.

But Russ also has more long-term projects underway: the Big Earth Project and Russ’s book, 101 Amazing Adventures of the World, are all about inspiring people to get outside their comfort zone and go on an adventure.

“I’m in the business of inspiration,” he says, “I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider.  I find something I want to do, and I find a way to do it.  I try to do it fairly quickly, which is why I wasn’t too keen on the feature film business.  It’s not luck, but I’m persistent.  And I want to encourage that in others.”

“Through experience, we change the way we travel,” he says, “People start with packaged tours, well within their comfort zones.  Then they go on more challenging adventures, where they push themselves outside their comfort zone a bit, maybe backpacking with a guidebook.  Eventually, we’ve explored the whole planet and we can start looking beyond this world: the trip to the enormous telescopes in Chile is an adventure in itself and once we are there we can begin to explore space.”

“Adventure is the word that really captures me.  You may not know where you’ll be at the end of it.  I may see a project as an awesome thing to do, but someone else may see it as terrifying.  It’s about being outside your comfort zone.  I firmly believe, by the way, that England is the best place to live in the world and London is the best capital city.  But it’s good to go and see the outside world to enjoy it when you come home.”

But one of Russ’s favourite adventures in the book looks in a very different direction.  “There’s adventures in the book from all over the world, all big outside adventures.  But I took a trip to a yoga ashram in India and there took a really interesting journey inwards.  Maybe once we’ve explored the world outside, that’s the most interesting journey you can take.”

Russ also believes strongly in mentoring and giving people experiences.  “The concept is really, really important.  This is something I think we should make a programme about.  We teach kids maths, physics and science as a curriculum.  You’re already putting them in a box: “discover what we already know and remember it.”  If somebody takes time out earlier, you can discover what you’re really about.  Let’s find out who youare.

It’s really important to say to kids, “Don’t be disheartened.”  Somebody from the outside, a mentor, can help give you a broader picture.”

But that’s not the key legacy Russ wishes to leave: when asked directly, he immediately says, “I want to be a good dad, as simple as that.

Obviously, spending time abroad filming means he is away from home.  As a father, Russ ensures that this is a positive thing in his relationship with his daughter.  “I’ve always had my own business, which gives me the freedom to drop Em off at school and pick her up: that passion to be my own boss gives me the ability to see more of my child.  The second thing is that I always come back mid-way through a trip.  I want Emily to come first.  If doing this career helps me to look after her, then it works.

And, of course, she always comes to the end of trip parties.  It’s added variety to her life: she’s met lots of inspirational people and seen lots of places she otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”

After that I want to be able to say that I’ve enjoyed myself on this amazing planet.  I really believe that, if we’ve been put down here for a reason, it’s to enjoy ourselves and help others enjoy themselves.  There’s no message that says, “You need to be miserable, by the way.””

30 years later, Russ went on a track day with Ewan McGregor at Brands Hatch.  He was on the very same bike that he rode all those years ago and went over that same spot, remembering how he had set out on the path that took him to where he is now.

For further adventures….

Russ’s book, 101 Amazing Adventures comes out on April 14th and his full of ideas from long weekends to expeditions, and how to do it.  You can get the book from Amazon.

You can find out more about Russ and be inspired at The Big Earth Project:http://www.bigearth.co.uk/101amazingadventures.html

Keep an eye out for his final big motorcycle journey with Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor:  A Long Way Up begins pre-production this year.

Russ Malkin is on Twitter: @RussMalkin

Posted on Saturday, March 26th 2011, by I Am Dan Eastmond

Tags Culture TV Ash Bhardwaj Russ Malkin A Long Way Down By Any Means Necessary