Interview: Danny MacAskill – ‘I Wouldn’t Call Myself A Master at Wheelies’
Danny MacAskill’s latest video ‘Do A Wheelie’ celebrates the humble wheelie and if it didn’t make you want to pop up on your back wheel on your next ride, we’re not sure anything ever will. We caught up with him to find out how he found such a talented cast of wheelie-ing characters, how many days of filming he did for this latest creation, which bikes were the easiest and hardest to wheelie, and whether he ever worries about running out of ideas for videos.
Do you remember the first time you ever popped a wheelie?
Danny MacAskill: I can remember trying to do wheelies on a little Raleigh Burner that I had when I was, must have been six or seven years old, trying to sort of bump/jump the front wheel off this little grass bank and jumping off the back. It took me years and years to learn how to actually properly keep the front wheel up for any length of time. But yeah, I’d say probably six or seven years old.
Nice. So, it took you a little while to figure it out before you mastered it?
Danny MacAskill: Oh yeah, a long time, certainly six years later, I still wasn’t doing wheelies well. I only figured out how to use my back brake at a later time in life. I was doing big, stand-up, classic, kids, kind of wheelies, vertical falling off onto the back on to your ass a lot.
Yeah, that’s how the video starts as well. How many times do you think you fallen straight back like that?
Danny MacAskill: Oh I don’t know, I mean hundreds of times. When I was young, I used to use toe straps on my bike, because I was too small to be able to really do bunny hops. The falling backwards with toe straps where you couldn’t get your feet out wasn’t much fun with no back brake. So yeah lots. Still do.
I certainly have not mastered wheelies. I thought it was going to be a fun concept to play with for sure, and I thought with my trials skills I could add something to the wheelie game, but I wouldn’t call myself a master at it.
Danny MacAskill says he still wouldn’t consider himself a wheelie expert.
Oh really? So what are you still working on parts of wheelies?
Danny MacAskill: Yeah, I took my wheelie-ing for granted a little bit I think. I think I underestimated how hard it was going to be to wheelie in and out of shot for every shot of this film. It’s kind of easy to start with two wheels, do a wheelie on something, and then drop your front wheel again. But yeah it’s a lot of fun to work on my wheelies and I think I improved a little bit throughout the filming.
Talking about how to get better at wheelies, what did you kind of learn through the process of this film?
Danny MacAskill: I would say one thing that I learned through making the film is adjusting the seat angle. It’s something I hadn’t really thought about doing before and I think it’s something that would really help a lot of people improve their wheelies.
It seems like a really sort of trivial thing and I’m sure many people have done it before in the past, but I met a bunch of riders from London who – I don’t really know what exactly you’d call their scene, but it’s the kind of urban wheelie, many folk in cities are doing wheelies on the streets – and they did them on all sorts of different types of bikes. But one thing that they do do is really point the noses of the seat down and that really improves the wheelie position on the bike. Especially on a mountain bike, you’re not having to kind of hold onto the bars so tightly and you find yourself being able to just sort of sit in the right position. So I highly recommend it, if you’re out trying to do wheelies. It’s a little bit of a dedicated move to really learn how to do wheelies, but I kind of feel if you want to do wheelies properly you kind of have to dedicate some real time to them at some point.
Did you adjust the saddles on every single one of the bikes that you rode in the video?
Danny MacAskill: I did on a few yeah. I mean it makes them pretty uncomfortable to ride when the front wheel’s on the ground, but as soon as that front wheel comes up then you can almost take your hands off since the front end’s so light and just cruise about. It’s pretty good.
Which bike is your favorite of the ones you had in the video to wheelie on?
Danny MacAskill: I’d say the Santa Cruz Chameleon hardtail was a very cool bike to use. It’s not the kind of bike that I’ve ridden that often over the years, but it was just cool to work with. I think that was my favorite. It was the main workhorse for the film and I certainly got to grips with it by the end.
Ali Clarkson rode the cargo bike in the video. Did you try that bike at all?
Danny MacAskill: I did. We had an electric cargo bike for one day which we stacked with a bunch of empty boxes on the front which made it really hard to wheelie. Turns out you have to be able to see where you’re going to be able to wheelie properly. I think that’s another part of a how-to, make sure you can see where you’re going.
It was actually really hard to do especially with the motor on it made it even more difficult, It was harder to kind of modulate the power, so Ali actually ended up doing the wheelie on the bike with the motor off. I mean really, hats off to him. I gave it a few goes myself and I could just about kind of get it up, but it took a fair bit of skills to really maintain it for any length of time so.
How did the idea overall come to you to do a whole video based around wheelies, which by the sounds of it, you wouldn’t even really consider yourself an expert at?
Danny MacAskill: Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with different sort of concepts for the different films, rather than try to one up myself or what other people have done. It’s easier to kind of find your own little niche to go down, and that really was a really obvious sort of concept to work around. I felt like I could use my trials skills to try and up the level of the wheelie and then I thought it’d be a really cool thing to get some different characters involved along the way. It was really just that, a film that celebrates the wheelie. That was what it was meant to be. As I say, I thought it was going to be a little bit easier than it was. Weather played a big part in it. Any slight side or cross wind really affected filming on any of the sort of more technical stuff, but we got there in the end.
How long do you think it took from beginning of filming until the end kind of with those weather delays, and getting all the people together?
Danny MacAskill: I actually don’t know how many days we filmed altogether. There were so many different locations, so many different characters. It was probably too many days in the end. I think there were probably 30 filming days altogether. It was really quite a luxurious thing to be able to do, to work with my friends at Cut Media and work on something like this for so long, it was cool. Things were obviously restricted travel wise so we were working in Scotland again. It was cool to go around some of the same spots I’d been looking for years with a different sort of mindset, looking at what I could wheelie along.
A couple of the many locations filmed for ‘Do A Wheelie’.
For some of those parts in there, have they been in other films that you’ve done?
Danny MacAskill: I’m trying to actually think about it now, you’ve put me on the spot. I’m in so many locations in the film. I was close to other locations that I’ve used in the past and I’ve scouted a lot of the same locations again and again. I put a lot of time into the scouting on this one and it was quite hard to find somewhere you could actually film in a linear way. We were really looking to be able to constantly move from different frame to different frame. So a lot of the spots that I had in my mind, thought that might work, didn’t work because you couldn’t get the camera to be in the right place.
Did you have a list of all these places that you were going to film before you went out and filmed or were some of them a little impromptu?
Danny MacAskill: I would say, the film’s going to get made in quite an organic fashion, especially when I’m involved. I think if Cut Media had their way, and Adidas, then it’d be a little bit more planned. But because I’m the one that’s doing the scouting and coming up with the riding, then it tends to be a little bit looser and I’m always waiting for the next location to jump out at me and find the next coolest thing so. It was quite an organic shoot and we jumped around different spots. We actually ended up with tons and tons of footage in the edit, we just kept on adding different things as we came up with new ideas.
In the outtakes at the end, there are a couple scenes that didn’t even feature at all in the film right?
Danny MacAskill: Yeah, I think it was quite a difficult edit for Cut Media to work on. There wasn’t a specific storyboard as such. We just had lots of different lines and wheelies and scenes with different riders and that was probably one of the hardest parts of the film was trying to decide which order it was all going to go in and stuff so.
Are you involved in that editing process?
Danny MacAskill: I am a little bit. They try to keep me out of the cutting room – I don’t want to be too much of a backseat driver. Some films are quite obvious in the way that the riding kind of goes in order, especially if it’s location based, then you tend to kind of move around the location in a certain way. This one could probably have been edited hundreds of different ways in the end, but I’m happy with how it turned out.
How did you find all the different people who kind of featured alongside you in the video?
Danny MacAskill: There was a lot of scouting on Instagram for different people. We actually did a wee competition as well to get some of the riders along, we asked them to send in their best wheelies and we got some really amazing entries on that. Some folk are doing a wheelie with their front wheel in their hand and then one of them I think they pull up doing a wheelie and then the front wheel comes off and then the wheel sort of bounces and goes into somebody else’s forks who are wheelie-ing as well so. I think that was Send It Brad that did that. But there were some really cool entries from kids as well which I was well impressed with and really nice to have some of them in the film as well.
Who do you think are some of the best “wheelie-ers” out there right now?
Danny MacAskill: I’d say some of the crew from London really impressed me. There’s a real character Lil Spartan on Instagram and there’s another rider called AJ who could do these amazing swerves which is something I’ve only seen in their kind of scene and I think it’s something that would really work well on mountain bikes. It’s kind of almost like a whip, they can kind of pick an obstacle and really carve the back wheel.
I was highly impressed with that stuff and then Viola, the artistic cyclist, was doing some really mind-boggling maneuvers on her bike. It was pretty cool to see that in real life.
Have you ever tried one of those bikes? Did she let you try her bike?
Danny MacAskill: I had a little shot and again you think “Well, I can kind of ride a bicycle”, and I can also ride a unicycle a little bit because it’s a fixed gear. But the bike’s actually a pretty heavy duty piece of kit and it was really odd to try to ride, but I think I could just about do just a basic wheelie on it. That was scary enough because you have to modulate with the pedals and things but watch this space.
It’s just really compact and the head angle’s really steep, you can barely turn a corner on the bike because the front tire it hits your foot if you’ve got your foot on the pedal, but the way Viola rode it she just makes it look effortless.
How did you find out about her? How did she kind of get a part in the video as well?
Danny MacAskill: I’d seen her stuff on Instagram before and she’s had a bunch of videos that went viral of her rounds so I just gave her a shout, see if she fancied doing a part of it.
You kind of talked about this a little bit before, but you really don’t worry about one-upping yourself from your last projects?
Danny MacAskill: Yeah, I’ve just found it easier to go down a totally different avenue for the next film than trying to add an extra 180 or whatever, double something to your repertoire.
Do you have some other ideas for your next project already? Are you kind of ever worried you’re going to run out of ideas?
Danny MacAskill: I’ve got hundreds of ideas, haven’t the time to make them so. I’m off to work on a new film that I started filming back in 2017 for Red Bull, but I got injured second day of filming so I’m going back to get some redemption on that and then I’ve got a bunch of other things that I’m working on for the rest of the year as well so watch this space.
When you’re filming, what kind of mindset are you in? How do you think filming for a video compare to being in a competition?
Danny MacAskill: To be honest, I wouldn’t actually know because I’ve actually never really done any competition in my life. I’ve ridden the Megavalanche which doesn’t really have the same feeling as being in the start gate on a downhill race. I’ve done some trials competitions, but I wasn’t very good at those and I had to just have fun while I was doing those. I’m trying to think what the mindset is, I mean you’re quite focused on trying to bring your idea to life. Quite often, you’ve never even tried this trick that you’re going to try that day until you get to the location, so it’s a bit of “Is it going to work?” I’m only going to really try it if I get the cameras rolling and then maybe after 50 goes, you might get a glimpse of if it’s going to work or not. And then you get that kind of feeling that you’re like, “Oh right this could actually work,” and then it might take you another 300 tries to eventually get to the end. I certainly don’t pretend to be dialed.
I’m pretty good at crashing and I’m quite sort of persistent with things, but I’m lucky I don’t have to do things in an allocated time, otherwise I don’t think I would be performing. And I’m thankful for digital memory cards as well because I think if I was trying to do this kind of stuff and getting it on film, I don’t know if there would be enough tape in the world to capture some of my riding, you know by just rolling the dice and keeping going at that idea. Eventually, I would say 96% of the time, I land the tricks that I say I’m going to do.
It seems like you’re smiling in every shot in this video, did that ever feel forced or were you actually having fun?
Danny MacAskill: I think for this film I was really satisfying my inner eight year old. If my eight year old self could see what I was doing in my mid-30’s, getting to film doing wheelies about the place, with my friends filming, working with old friends and new friends as characters, then what’s not to smile about. It was a lot of fun to make.
Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Danny MacAskill: Hopefully people get a good vibe from it and go out to practice wheelies on the roads!