The life and times of world champion motorcyclist Wayne Gardner is the focus of a documentary airing this week. Glen Humphries talks to the film's director Jeremy Sims.
At first glance, Jeremy Sims might not seem the best choice to direct a documentary about Wollongong motorcycling legend Wayne Gardner.
After all, Sims' total time spent riding motorcycles is likely shorter than the length of his feature-length film Wayne.
"I had a Suzuki 250 fifth-hand that I got from my flatmate for free when I was at drama school," Sims says.
"The third time [I rode it] I came off it in the rain at a roundabout - was the last time I've ever ridden a motorbike. I got terrified as I slid past a lamp pole at about 40km/h.
"I've never been interested in driving them in the city. I'm quite envious of those people who go cruising around in the country on their motorbikes - that looks great to me. But it doesn't look like too much fun in the city - too many idiots."
That limited knowledge turned out to be a blessing, because it allowed Sims to focus on the story of this kid who wanted to ride motorcycles after seeing the 1971 film On Any Sunday, who bought his first bike for $5 from a junk yard, and whose drive and tenacity eventually led to him winning the motorcycling world championship in 1987.
The result is a movie with a much broader appeal than just for motorcycling fans.
"I think making a film for general consumption about someone like Wayne Gardner, it's probably a help to not be a nut," he says.
"I had to teach myself the difference between four-stroke and two-stroke bikes and I had to get into it from a novice point of view. I think that helps in terms of making a movie and explaining things to an audience."
From Sims' perspective, the motorcycle is almost an incidental part of the story. Gardner could have been any sort of sportsman and the narrative would be the same.
"He is a working-class guy from Wollongong who had a dream to do the thing he loved doing when he was a kid - the story's of determination, really, and bloody-mindedness."
He might not have known that much about motorcycles, but Sims knew about Gardner. In 1987, he and a bunch of friends stayed up until 3am to watch Gardner win the World Championship. For Sims, it felt like a coming of age for Australia, a moment where the country stepped out into the spotlight on the world stage.
"I think the reason the story is so interesting is the curve of it absolutely coincides with the internationalisation of Australia, the opening up of Australia to the world," Sims says.
"I know it sounds kinda cliched but it's exactly what happened, for anyone who was alive in the '80s.
"Probably the seeds were sown in the Whitlam era but it really wasn't until Keating and Hawke floated the dollar, we got more channels on television.
"We got Greg Norman and all those other icons of the '80s - Kylie Minogue, INXS all of these people who were succeeding on the world stage as Australians, as opposed to pretending to be English."
Gardner was a willing participant in the documentary and sat down with Sims for six hours of interviews before the cameras started rolling. It was a trick, Sims says, that meant he learned all Gardner's good stories.
"He is a fascinating character, at times seems naive or almost childish, and at other times he is incredibly determined and mature," Sims says.
"He can be sort of serious and responsible, but he also can be argumentative and funny. He is a tough guy to pin down."
While the documentary title only features one name, the story is really about two people. The other one is Gardner's ex-wife Donna Kahlbetzer. The couple are now divorced, but remain good friends.
For Sims, she is integral to the story, Kahlbetzer was there with Gardner before the fame, she understood him and backed him all the way to the top.
"She was right there in the thick of it.
"She wasn't just sitting around on the edges waiting to find out what was going on. She was right in the thick of it from the very beginning. They were living in England on £2 a day for a couple of years before he started making serious money and she backed him from the beginning to the end.
"The respect they have for one another now and the genuine friendship they have for one another now is really touching."
Sims realised getting Kahlbetzer on side would be just as important to the documentary as having Gardner's co-operation. And once those two were on board it was easier to get others to agree to sit in front of the camera and be interviewed.
"Donna is really the co-star of the movie - without the Wayne and Donna story it would have been a pretty dry biopic," Sims says.
"She's such a fascinating character. Having Wayne and Donna on side early on meant everybody said yes."
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Both Gardner and Kahlbetzer were willing to talk about most things - but there were some parts of the story they glossed over.
"The bits that they didn't go into detail about, it was pretty clear what the major issue was early on," Sims says.
"Wayne, when he was younger, was an inveterate chaser of skirt and the motorcycle Grand Prix world in those days was a very, very macho world.
"It was tough for Donna; she was there and present far more with Wayne than most of the other riders' partners."
Sims says the spine of the movie was based on the Gardner biography published in 1989 by Nick Hartgerink, a journalist with Wollongong's hometown paper the Illawarra Mercury. These days, journalists having close ties to a major sporting figure isn't unusual, but that was something very new in the 1980s.
"Nick kind of pioneered that idea of being connected to a sportsman as his go-to journalist," Sims says.
"So they had a symbiotic relationship through the '80s, where, after every race Wayne would call Nick and say this happened, that happened. So Nick would often have the scoop on stories - particularly any stories to do with Wayne Gardner."
Wayne airs on the ABC on Tuesday, November 24 at 8.30pm.
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