They had lots of hope, lots of hair, lots of Australian curiosity about America and lots of miles to pedal.
“We didn’t set out to create this film. We just thought it would be an awesome trip,” said journalist, literature lover and newly minted feature filmmaker Charlie Turnbull.
Turnbull can add long-distance cyclist to that list of credentials — his celebrated new film is proof — but the suggestion just made him laugh during a recent telephone interview with The Columbian.
Turnbull will introduce the film, “The Bikes of Wrath,” in person for its single screening 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver.
“It shows just how naive we were,” he said. “It was really rough. What I learned about long-distance cycling is you should train. The first few days were just a joke, we were carrying so much stuff.”
But not as much as the original “Okies” who hauled everything they owned when fleeing the 1930s Dust Bowl, a perfect storm of drought, wind, unsustainable farming practices and worldwide economic depression.
It’s estimated that a quarter-million Oklahomans moved to California between 1935 and 1940 seeking a promised land of beautiful weather and plentiful employment. In all, 2.5 million Americans fled Dust Bowl states during the 1930s, making this the largest migration in American history.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck dramatized that situation through the story of one fictional family, the Joads, in his best-known book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” which was translated into a 1940 movie classic starring Henry Fonda. Turnbull, 28, said he read the novel a few years ago, fell in love with it and recommended it to some of his best friends.
Somehow or other, he said, they cooked up the idea to explore the American Dream by retracing, on bike, the Joads’ “Grapes of Wrath” journey along iconic Route 66 from Sallisaw, Okla., to Bakersfield, Calif.
“I was working for a newspaper in Australia at the time, and I’d made a few short documentaries, but this was my first foray into feature films,” Turnbull said. Key to the effort was including his friend Cameron Ford, a successful freelance filmmaker who joined the journey and became co-producer and co-director of the 100-minute final product.
“We had no idea what we were going to capture,” Turnbull said. “We thought we might make a 10-minute, short film. We didn’t set out to meet anyone in particular. We just wanted to do an honest depiction of our ride. It was when we got into the editing room that we saw these major storylines we wanted to tell.”
Those storylines center on just plain folks encountered in 2015 during a monthlong, 1,600-mile pedal through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to California. The windup to the presidential election of 2016 was the perfect time to cross the country and meet people considering history and the future, Turnbull said.
“Trump had just announced his bid for the presidency, but all of us and most of the country considered that a bit of a joke,” he said.
The band of scruffy, hippie-haired cyclists from Down Under might have seemed an even bigger joke to rural conservatives. But if there’s one overall takeaway from his experience, Turnbull said, it’s the generosity and authenticity of ordinary people.
“We were never treated with suspicion or hesitance,” he said. “People would cross the road to come talk to us. We just met a lot of genuinely kind, caring people.”
The cyclists intentionally limited their funding at launch to $420, the modern cash equivalent to the $18 Steinbeck’s Joads had to start with in the 1930s. The film witnesses the many donations and prayers, meals and accommodations, good times and serious discussions strangers provided the cyclists along the way.
“These places and these people, we often write them off or stereotype them,” Turnbull said. “They are a lot more complex than we might imagine. For me it was really eye-opening to see why they make certain decisions and how common certain values around the U.S. really are.”
The film also explores real Dust Bowl history via revealing photographs and descendant interviews. Local, discovered stars read passages from Steinbeck’s masterpiece and consider what’s changed and what hasn’t since the 1930s.
Published in 1939, “The Grapes of Wrath” is “a really prescient book about the United States,” Turnbull said. “I just thought it was startlingly relevant to what’s happening in America today.”
Released in 2018, “The Bikes of Wrath” has proven a surprise hit already, winning several audience-choice and best-of awards at independent film festivals — including Canada’s BANFF Mountain Film Festival, which usually focuses on athletic adventures amidst amazing scenery. Cinema giant Regal Cinemas has even featured the film in limited release on 200 screens to mark the novel’s 80th anniversary, Turnbull said.
“We have been incredibly lucky, everything about this film has gone so well,” Turnbull said.
What inspired this bunch of young Australians to explore the American dream anyway?
“Everything that happens here has a ripple effect across the world,” said Turnbull, who now lives in Austin, Texas. “Headline news in Australia usually begins with what’s happening over here.”
Also, he added, “The diversity of the U.S. is incredibly interesting.”
But Turnbull noted that true American diversity isn’t a big part of “The Bikes of Wrath,” which mostly features five white adventurers meeting other white people during their trek. That in mind, Turnbull and Ford have already filmed their next reality-based, literature-inspired documentary.
Set for release next year, “Floating with Huck” recreates the Mississippi River journey undertaken by Huckleberry Finn and Jim, an escaped slave, in another of the truly great American novels — Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Bikes of Wrath” screening.
Featuring: Personal appearance by director (and cyclist) Charlie Turnbull to speak about the film.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.
On the web: www.kigginstheatre.com