Producer and director Russ Malkin has made a living out of adventure motorcycling. He’s the man behind the Long Way Round, Long Way Down and the Race to Dakar, and Bryn Davies caught up with him to see what’s new and what’s next for the Long Way series.
ABR: So, it’s been 13 years since Long Way Round, what’s Russ Malkin been up to since then?
RM: I’ve been busy all the time actually! Charley and I got on particularly well and ended up doing the Race to Dakar through Northern Africa and there was, of course, Long Way Down. Long Way Down was different to Long Way Round though, I think Africa as a continent was more difficult to get through both physically and emotionally as there were so many things we saw.
After Long Way Down, Charley and I sat down with a bottle of red and we decided on doing By Any Means, which ended up being six one hour episodes for the BBC. We did two seasons of By Any Means and then I did a book called Big Earth: 101 Great Adventures; so I took a year off to do that!
ABR: You mentioned that Long Way Down was more difficult than Long Way Round, why is that?
RM: We worked with UNICEF and they showed us about the child soldiers in northern Uganda, which is terrible, and we met some of the children who had managed to escape; they told us stories about what they had to do. We’ve all got kids so it was particularly hard-hitting.
We also went to the border with Ethiopia and Eritrea and looked at the issue with land mines, and then went to Rwanda and learnt about the genocides; I don’t want to be depressing, but you learn things.
And I think that’s the good thing about bikers and biking, we’re an open-minded bunch of people, we’re by nature adventurers because we want to get on our bikes and head into the wilderness, I think having that open-mindedness and ability to raise money for good causes is only a good thing.
I’ve got a motto that I like to live by “enjoy the planet but do some good at the same time” and I think that if everybody did something good on their adventures, and most people do, then with that amount of energy and goodwill out there we can change things. It’s good to give something back to the countries you’ve visited, and if you don’t then why not?
ABR: So after Long Way Down it was By Any Means, where did the idea for that come from?
RM: As I mentioned, me and Charley sat down with a bottle of red wine and he said “so what shall we do next?” and in my pocket I had the boarding pass from the plane we’d got off earlier in the day, so I was just using the back of it as a way of making notes. As I had the boarding pass in front of me I wrote ‘London’ in one corner and ‘Sydney’ in the other. “The most iconic trip in the world would be to go from London to Sydney, it’d be a really iconic trip to do, wouldn’t it?” I said to Charley.
“Yeah, go on..” he said as he poured another glass of red. “Well, what about, as I’m writing this on a boarding ticket, what about we do it without taking planes? We ride to London, take a boat across the channel, y’know, elephants through Nepal”. I thought that’d be good and then I came up with the title ‘By Any Means’. I quite like that about adventures, you can be down the pub, in the bath, in bed and just get an idea, and I think the difference is those people who just do it.
ABR: How did you meet Ewan and Charley and come up with the idea of Long Way Round?
RM: I’d just come back from Japan where I was filming a show called ‘Under Wraps’, it was about every motorcycle manufacturer in the world and how they make their motorbikes. I’d landed early in the morning, and that night there was a party in Chelsea. Normally I would have declined and just gone to bed, but I didn’t and I went down and had a few beers.
At about one in the morning, I bumped into this person and he said “oh you might want to meet this guy, he’s into bikes too!”. The guy turned out to be Charley and, I don’t think he’d mind me telling you this, but he was there because he’d just been doing some painting and decorating and had renovated the flat for this friend.
So we got talking and arguing about bikes, what would be the best bike to go around the world on etc. and he said, “well I might be going around the world with a friend of mine soon, we might want someone to film it!” So I gave him my card and two months later he phoned me up.
“This guy that I’m going to ride around the world with,” he said, “is Ewan McGregor”. So they said that they were going to see two-three production companies but they’d come to me first. I went to the office that day and there were two bikes parked out the front, they were only supposed to stay for 20 minutes but that ended up being more like two hours. Anyway, they phoned me back that night and said that they wanted to do it with me.
ABR: And the rest is history?
RM: Nothing’s easy, I think people see what we do and by definition, it’s finished, it’s glossed up and edited. But the beginning of any project is selling it to other human beings and getting them to buy into what you’re going to do, and it’s hard.
ABR: It was hard work, but has the Long Way series been your pension?
RM: Well I think what’s been good about it, and what I’d recommend to anyone who’s filming their own project, is to film it yourself and own it yourself. It’s more than possible nowadays because if you own the project and it sells, then you can keep receiving money, so if you’re using that word pension; I suppose yes. If the show continues to sell; which it appears to be doing, then we can keep earning money off it to keep doing what we do.
That wasn’t the object of the exercise though, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything purely to make money, I’ve always wanted to make money out of it so I can continue doing it. The object has been ‘that sounds like fun’, but the more money you can raise against it, the longer you can do it for.
ABR: Was Long Way Round more successful than Long Way Down?
RM: Yes I would say so. I don’t actually know is the answer though, as I’ve never compared any of our projects. I don’t analyse stuff myself, which is either a strength or a weakness, I don’t know which. Long Way Round was fresh, it was new, we went with open eyes and brave feet and going through those countries, there was something about the countries that you went through where it was all new, the concept was new. It was very well received and while we never publicised it massively it grew and grew organically. It surprised us, to be honest.
I think sometimes people make a film or a programme because it’s their job and they want it to be successful, of course, we wanted it to be successful but we made it because we believed in it and just put it out there. I think it was more fun to watch for people because the problems we had on Long Way Round were different from Long Way Down.
ABR: Who did you get on better with, Ewan or Charley?
RM: I got on very well with both of them, but Ewan is just so busy with his filmmaking career. Charley and I have a similar personality although we ding-donged against each other sometimes, though that happens less as we grow older together. You understand each other’s annoyances and I think it’s a natural thing for Charley and I to get on well together.
ABR: Is there anything else we can expect from the Long Way series? Is there going to be a Long Way Up?
RM: Well we’d always said there should be a Long Way Up and to be quite honest, because it’s the last one that we’d do, no one’s in a particular rush to call the shots on it, so if it happens it happens but we’ve just been so busy.
ABR: So there’s nothing set in stone yet?
RM: No, but to me, life is about coming up with new ideas anyway. I like creating new things, we’ve done a couple of those things [Long Way] and they were great, but I want to do the Trans Siberian Express, for instance, so I’m going to try and do that on New Year’s Eve, Charley and I also want to ride motorbikes through the Darien Gap.
We’re researching it and it’s something that we want to do, it’s a tricky one because it’s different and dangerous, and people don’t necessarily understand it and getting TV companies to buy into something is still as difficult as it always was because we’re not in the business of giving people what they want; we do what we want. Life’s difficult when you’ve got a specific vision because there’s people who are like ‘can you do this?’ and we’re like ‘no’.
We haven’t decided which route we’re taking and where we’re going to go, we’re just putting it together at the moment.
ABR: Spending so much time away from home with your job must be taxing on relationships, are you married?
RM: I’m not married, I’ve got a beautiful daughter called Emily though. She’s 22, and she’s definitely got the travel bug.
ABR: Do you ever wish you had a ‘Normal’ job?
RM: Erm, well, I think bizarrely I just like doing what I like doing at that moment. I actually studied Civil Engineering as my degree and the reason I did that is because I used to race motorbikes when I was 16-17 and I didn’t really want to go to uni, I wanted to carry on racing the bike.
It was quite funny as I was racing the bike, I was on the Grand Prix loop at Brands Hatch, and at one point I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to continue with this, I’m going to take up photography as well’. I don’t know why, I just thought I would and bizarrely that choice eventually led me to do what I do now, I can trace it back.
Ewan, Charley and I went for a track day at Brands Hatch, and I took my old bike down; I still had it, literally about 20 years later. I rode the Grand Prix circuit and I rode over the same spot that 20 years ago I thought about taking up photography. You get time to think on that straight and I rode over the same spot that I made the decision, and I thought that closed off a bit of a bizarre loop, it just shows how small decisions in your life can alter the whole direction.
Could I work in an office; probably not.
ABR: Have you got any advice for anyone who wants to make their own adventure bike films?
RM: Study Hypnosis!
ABR: Why’s that?
RM: To make people say yes! That’s a joke. If I had any advice it would be to set a date and stick by that date as most people will go ‘well I’m going to go next summer’, and then next summer becomes the summer after. Set a date, put it in your diary and go!
Secondly, decide whether you actually need to raise any money for your project. If you have to raise money it adds a level of complexity that you don’t really want unless you have to. Find ways to travel on a budget, motorbikes are quite economical, you can sleep cheap, eating’s not that expensive and if you want to film it, nowadays it’s easy to buy inexpensive high-quality cameras. There’s a lovely little camera, the Canon XF 100, it’s a high definition camera, it’s not very big, shoots at night, got good audio and it’s ‘only’ £1,500, I say only £1,500, but it’s TV quality and at that level, you can buy a second hand one, that and one GoPro and you’re good to go!
Pick a bike that works for you, don’t go to big. Consider what terrain you’re going to be riding, there’s a lot of people riding around on GSs and everything, but sometimes it’s not always appropriate because you want to enjoy the trip and sometimes smaller bikes are easier to ride in difficult conditions.
ABR: What do you ride?
RM: Well I have eight or nine bikes; I’ve got a Norton 850 Commando, a Triumph Thunderbird Sport from, I think, 1995, a Ducati 916, a BMW Boxer Cut replica, BMW 650 Dakar, KH250 Kawasaki that I used to ride to college on, my old Suzuki which is based on a TS250, a little Honda trial bike and I think that’s it! I don’t like selling bikes, they all mean something to me! I did sell one bike once though, a Triumph Trident T160, I loved the look of it but it was horrible to ride.
ABR: Where’s the best place you’ve ridden?
RM: My favourite place to ride? Well, there’s been lots of different experiences, one of the most emotional rides I’ve had was riding with my dad, Tony. For his 80th Birthday, I took him to the Isle of Man TT with my brothers Gary and Steve. I love the Isle of Man TT, I couldn’t race it, but I think those guys are legends, there’s something about that circuit that’s so magical and evocative, even if you’re standing on an empty track. And I remember riding around that circuit with my Dad, Gary and Steve and it was fantastic.
I remember riding between Delhi and Agra with Charley on two Bullets, and there were cows on the road, potholes and we came up to a level crossing and everyone pulled up on the same side of the road. People were pushing us under the barrier to go to the other side and it was just bonkers! It just made me smile.
ABR: If you could own any bike what would you have?
RM: I like my Norton!
ABR: If you could share a tent with Ewan or Charley who would you choose?
RM: Neither! I’d want to share with my girlfriend, Vix.