Interview: Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine and Mat Hoffman on ‘The Birth Of Big Air’
BMX legend Mat Hoffman is the subject of the ESPN‘s new 30 for 30 documentary, The Birth Of Big Air. It premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City to a huge crowd, and why not, the film is great!
It’s about the original BMX superstar Hoffman, his rise to cult stardom and how he kept the sport alive during its dog days.
While I was at Tribeca, I sat down and talked with the director Jeff Tremaine, producer Johnny Knoxville and Matt Hoffman himself.
Now, you’re probably thinking. Why is he interviewing people about a documentary? You’re right and I usually don’t do that… but I loved the film, Matt Hoffman deserves his time in the spotlight… and I wanted to meet Johnny Knoxville. So there.
So when did you guys first hear about Mat, and how did he come onto your radar?
Jeff Tremaine: I wanna say Mat first came on my radar when he came onto everyone’s radar, through the magazine Freestylin’. Everyone saw that little picture that rode BMX at the time. I met Mat in 1987 when he did his first tour Skyway. I lived in Rockville, Maryland. And every summer all the bike teams would come through Maryland. Rockville had one of the biggest bike shops on the East Coast. They would do all these big demos and get all the pro teams to come through. And so Mat came through when he was I wanna say 14, maybe 15. To me, it was obvious right from the minute you saw him that he was riding at a different level, at another level than everyone else you saw. And then I followed him ever since.
So how did you guys get involved in this?
Jeff: Mat and I talked in 2005 and we decided let’s make this into a documentary. Mark [Lewman] had written the biography about Mat, and in 2006 we went and interviewed Evil Knievel. Mat made us aware that Evil was really sick and it needed to get done. We got that interview done and that sort of got the ball rolling. We did a bunch of interviews. It was something that was always on the back-burner, but was just limping along until this opportunity to do it for ESPN came along.
Mat, how do you just keep pushing your body like that to the limits? At some point are you just gonna say “I’m done”—you know what I mean?
Mat Hoffman: It depends on medical science really. [LAUGHTER] If it keeps up, then I don’t have to be done, I guess. With all the stem cell research maybe I can grow a new body.
Johnny Knoxville: Like Spike [Jones] said, he looks at his body like bicycle parts, “I’ll just replace them.”
Jeff: One of the things that isn’t in the movie is, Mat actually a few years ago was run over by a Mack truck in his car, he got T-boned.
Mat: Very ironic.
Jeff: And it really destroyed his shoulder, and he hasn’t been able to ride since then. It really kinda ended his career. We didn’t put that in the movie, but now Mat is somehow riding again. He can’t even shake your hand, but he’s riding again.
Johnny: When he shakes your hand he has to hold it with his left. He holds his right forearm with his left hand so you don’t pull it out—basically off. [LAUGHTER]
Jeff: I think he can’t even lift it. He has to lift it with—
Johnny: But he’s got this contraption he rigged that he puts his arm in when he rides so he’s—I don’t even know how it works, the physics of it.
Mat: It’s the miracle of duct tape.
Johnny: Yeah, duct tape and no brakes on his bike and one arm and he’s riding.
Even that part of the movie where you said you taped your hand to the handle bars—
Johnny: That was another good idea.
Mat: Yeah, I had a broken wrist, but I also broke a thumb. It was a bad day, you know. [LAUGHTER] Can it get any worse?
Johnny: Can it get any worse as he’s duct taping his broken hand to his bike. Well, it’s about too!
Mat: Yeah, and it did too. [MORE LAUGHTER]
How does it feel to have a documentary about your life?
Mat: It’s a huge honor to be able to work with all these greats that put this together for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything television-wise that wasn’t translated into “Hey, that dude’s a crazy, ex-whatever.” This was the first time people watched it and walked away with the same inspiration that really inspired what it was. I never thought I’d make anything where they’d walk away with the same thing I think I walk away from it with.
Jeff: Mat’s one of the quietest, humblest guys you’ll meet. His story could easily have been lost, because he’s not the one who’s gonna go out and boast and tell it. We needed to tell it.
Johnny: We do his braggin’ for him.
Jeff: It’s an important story and piece of history that could easily get lost. Mat’s whole career happened before there was really a TV opportunity for the sport. Luckily, it was documented on video so we were able to—like the archives are ridiculous how much footage there is. Yeah, Mat’s story just needs to be told.
Mat: The heart of that story had to be told through people who live life with that same heart. And that’s why this opportunity came that we could all do this together. And it’s obvious that’s why it became what it is. I grew up with these guys and they all kind of inspired the world in their own ways. It’s so awesome that we can tell a story of mine together.
Jeff: Tell him the Roger Allen Wade quote.
Johnny: I showed my cousin the documentary and he was just blown away. He loves Mat, and he wrote that this film is about so much more than an Oklahoma boy on a bicycle. It’s about Icarus flipping off the sun. That’s what it is.
How huge do you think Mat would be if he was born a couple of years later in the era of the X-Games?
Johnny: I dunno. Mat is huge to me.
Jeff: He would be a household name, for sure. Mat evolved the sport to where it became so TV—friendly, you know?
I don’t think the X-Games would be there without Mat.
Jeff: Definitely the center piece—Mat is hugely responsible for that.
Johnny: Is BMX gonna be in the Olympics?
Mat: Not in 2012 but 2016.
Johnny: Mat you represent BMX; what is your—
Mat: Yeah, they made me the guy that’s president of international freestyle federation, I think is the official name. It’s basically the people that keep hold of the reigns with the Olympics being interested in it wanting to be in there just to make sure that it’s represented and translated purely.
Jeff: Another thing; Mat is almost solely responsible for keeping his sport alive. It could have easily died. I always bring up the example of rollerblading. Rollerblading was a huge sport, a big X-Game sport, but it died. And I think it died because it didn’t have a strong advocate to keep it even in the low time of the sport.
Johnny: Plus they were rollerblading. [LAUGHTER]
Jeff: But I don’t know, I think a strong personality could’ve kept it going.
Johnny: Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re saying.
Jeff: Mat put the whole thing on his shoulders. He drove it—not just by the riding he was doing, but by putting on the contests.
Mat: I’m really honored that I was able to contribute to that. But to be honest, I was doing it all for myself. [LAUGHTER] I just loved what I did. And I just wanted to have contests. I wanted play. I wanted to play with my friends. I loved the people that BMX attracted, and the greatest influences of my life came from this community. I just wanted to keep the community together, and keep it together for the values that we all loved it for. Not really for an industry. In retrospect, I think, “Wow, it’s so cool that I influenced a lot,” but man I was just doing it to keep stoked. [LAUGHTER]
Johnny: But you love it soooo much. And that’s really inspiring that you love something so much. And you were doing for yourself, and for your friends in Oklahoma City no one knew what you were up to. You weren’t having lots of—there wasn’t any fanfare, it was just you going for it alone, with your friends. He wasn’t doing it to get on TV. That’s kind of the opposite, if someone ever filmed you it threw you off. He’s doing it because he loves it. It’s pretty amazing.
Mat, if BMX didn’t catch on what do you think you would end up doing?
Mat: BMX. My ramp is the same in the backyard. It doesn’t change, whether other people do it or not. You know, that’s the thing, nothing changes my perspective if I’m the only one who ever does this. I’m just doing it because I like to do it. It’s something I can do on my own terms.
What do you guys think about the digital distribution that Tribeca is doing now?
Jeff: I think it’s awesome. If you’re a film buff and you aren’t able to make it, to be able to be a part of the film festival without being there, it’s amazing.
Johnny: It’s great for a film maker too. You get all this press around your film, as we were lucky enough to have it premiere at Tribeca tonight. You get all that press and you can go on video-on-demand and it’s ready to download. It’s just better for the film maker too.
What’s coming up for you guys?
Jeff: We’re in the middle of shooting Jack Ass III in 3-D. [LAUGHTER]
Mat: Be scared. Be very afraid.
Are you shooting that—
Johnny: In 3-D. In stereo is what we call it in the industry. I don’t know what that means. [LAUGHTER]