To make a film about young people who hop trains, Daniel Skaggs had to hop one himself.
“Freeload,” a 65-minute documentary, is making its Montana premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Friday. The film is boiled down from approximately 200 hours of footage the first-time filmmaker shot over the course of 18 months riding the rails with his subjects.
“Basically, I approached filmmaking for ‘Freeload’ just like a journalist – on the front lines with these guys just trying to document their story and let it unfold on camera,” Skaggs said.
The film sketches out portraits of a series of young train riders who exist hand-to-mouth while traveling across country. Taylor, aka Ponyboy, and his girlfriend Rachel forge a fledgling relationship on the road. Blackbird, an
18-year-old, says he’s never going to leave the lifestyle behind. Skrappe and his brother Xmas reunite and ride the rails together for a spell.
All give candid interviews about their backgrounds, choices and problems, and whether or not they want to continue riding trains. The film carefully documents the hard-scrabble details as well – Dumpster diving for food and supplies, patching up crusted clothing, hard drinking, drug use and the all-around danger inherent in their lives.
The filmmakers wanted to zero in on individuals versus a broader movie about train-riding culture, or a “how-to” guide to jumping trains. They also wanted an unbiased film that didn’t romanticize their characters.
“We’re fans of films that allow people to tell their story, versus an issue-based or cause-based film,” said Ryan Seitz, who’s credited as editor, co-producer and with the story.
The film has been years in the making. Skaggs met Seitz, a University of Montana Media Arts student, in 2010. Skaggs, a Kentucky transplant and organic farmer, had been mulling over the idea of a documentary on train riders for several years.
He’d hopped rides on trains before, and both Seitz and fellow Media Arts student Mather McKallor were looking for a project to jump on immediately after graduation.
The production team, dubbed Highway Goat, also includes UM journalism master’s graduate Neil LaRubbio as producer. McKallor worked as editor, co-producer and with the story.
They raised about $7,000 through online fundraising site IndieGogo, and bought the necessary camera equipment.
Initially, Skaggs set out with another camera operator. Seitz and McKallor followed along in a car. After three months, it became clear that having two cameramen wasn’t going to work, nor would tailing Skaggs in a vehicle when his subjects lead a nomadic life filled with unplanned detours.
Skaggs continued on alone, but had no experience with documentary work. He, Seitz and McKallor would mail memory cards and hard drives back and forth. They stayed in touch every other day or so, and the two Media Arts grads would give Skaggs “a crash course” in filmmaking.
He was geared up like his fellow travelers, just with more electronics. He brought four cameras including two GoPros, audio equipment, batteries, memory cards, a small hard drive, a change of clothes, a sleeping bag, rain gear, gloves, a head lamp, rope and more.
Finding subjects – and the conception for the film – consumed those first three months.
“A lot of these guys are very hesitant of being on camera, talking to any media or anything like that,” Skaggs said.
After meeting Dice, a character who bookends the film, Skaggs began to find other subjects. From there, in a train yard outside of Sacramento, Calif., Skaggs met Blackbird, then just 18, and began to build further connections.
“From then on, it became an underground network amongst train riders,” Skaggs said. The travelers got excited about the film, and would tell their friends.
Skaggs said he had to show that he was “one of them” and the project was serious.
“After I gained that trust, they all opened up. They became very candid (and) charismatic on camera. As you can see, a lot of things I captured wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t truly opened up,” Skaggs said.
While living, eating and crashing together, they developed an intimacy.
“It was very professional. I was a filmmaker, they were the subjects, but it was also like, ‘We got each other’s back.’ That’s when the level of respect took off,” Skaggs said.
There are two interludes when they visit Blackbird’s grandmother and Ponyboy’s father. The relatives speak openly about the worries they have, though they appear generally supportive of the alternative lifestyle.
Those are the scenes that Seitz is most proud of.
“It does have this humanistic, family element to it that allows people to relate to these characters more,” he said.
He doesn’t expect people to like the characters, particularly at the beginning, but as the film progresses he says they become more relatable.
Adding to the mood of the film is a score by Bryan Ramirez, who wrote some original music and also culled work from his groups Ex-Cocaine, Poor School and Atrocity Singers. It can shift from melancholy guitar plucking to droning rock with mournful saxophone. The soundtrack is available in a first-run pressing of vinyl. For more information, go to Ear Candy Music or the "Freeload" Facebook page.
The lifestyle takes its toll – a young man who makes a brief cameo in the film has since been run over and killed by a train. Dice, the character who starts and ends “Freeload,” was run over in a separate incident and lost an arm and a leg after the movie was completed.
Skaggs himself had a terrifying ordeal in Toledo, Ohio. He was running to catch a train when he fell through a hole in a bridge, plummeting 25 feet or so into the Maumee River.
“I almost drowned. All of my equipment was on my back. I sank to the bottom of the river, (and) had to fight to get back to the top,” he said.
Everything was “flashing in front of his eyes” about how serious the lifestyle could be, he said.
Skrappe carried his pack up, and Skaggs climbed the steep bank with the help of a rope. They had to dodge the drawbridge operator and railyard security, and
15 minutes later were on a mail train to Chicago.
He had to borrow a sleeping bag to avoid hypothermia.
Other stretches of Skaggs’ reporting were marked by extreme boredom. Some days, he’d wait six hours while his subjects panhandled. Afterward, they’d want to buy a half-gallon of whiskey and a 30-pack of beer.
“I’m like, ‘We just wasted an entire day.’ I got to the point where there wasn’t even anything for me to film,” he said.
He said there were times he struggled to finish the film, because of the drag of the 24/7 immersion in their world.
“It takes somebody with some serious mental and physical integrity to do what Daniel’s doing,” Seitz said.
If he was stuck in a Kansas cornfield, Seitz said, Skaggs just had to tough it out.
“On top of that, it’s not like he was just yahooing around with these guys. He had a job. He was cameraman and sound guy all at once. That’s a lot of work,” he said.
After filming was complete, Skaggs said his view of the subjects had changed.
“They’re just trying to survive, but their struggles are a lot more intense than mine and yours,” Skaggs said.
“I realized how down-to-earth and how human these guys are. I would consider them to be lost. They’re searching for something that may not even be out there, but they think that it is,” Skaggs said.
“Freeload” makes its Montana premiere at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Wilma The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival continues through Sunday, Feb. 23. For complete listings, go to bigskyfilmfest.org.