‘Dust’ tails racers blasting down Baja

Times Staff Writer

Flying grit’s more daunting than water, says Dana Brown, who bagged cameras with plastic while filming the Tecate Score Baja 1000 last November.

The second-generation Southern California director follows his 2003 crossover surf documentary “Step Into Liquid” with “Dust to Glory,” a film that blasts from one end of the Baja Peninsula to the other. It’s due out in April.

Monster waves and silky beaches, Brown says, are tame compared to filming off-road vehicles careening up to 100 mph through washboard terrain.

When he brought his cameras to Baja, Brown figured he would make “a little character piece” on the racers. Instead, “It’s this war movie,” he says.


It took a production crew of 90 to shoot the 32-hour race from Ensenada to La Paz.

“Every plant has spikes on it; the light is harsher, the rocks sharper, the air drier -- it’s like hyper-reality,” Brown says.

In filming “Liquid,” the challenge was waiting for hours on the ocean. When a swell finally hit, the filmmaker would deploy at most six cameras to trail a surfer. If the shot didn’t pan out, the crew would wait for the next wave.

To create “Dust,” the crew trained more than 50 cameras on 265 competing vehicles. Cameras in cars and in helicopters as well as hand-held lenses scanning the crowds recorded action that’s impossible to re-shoot.

“It’s gonna happen, that’s it. It’s not coming back,” Brown says. “So if you missed it, you missed it. What are you gonna do, hire a bunch of cars to go by and re-create Baja?”

Brown first thought about filming the 1000 during the press junket for “Liquid” after desert racer and buddy Mike “Mouse” McCoy pestered him to do it. He resisted the idea at first because it would mean tracing his dad’s path.

Bruce Brown followed his seminal surf documentary, 1966’s “Endless Summer,” with the motorcycle-racing flick “On Any Sunday” in 1971.

The younger Brown, 44, grew up in Dana Point where he dirt-biked, surfed and shot home movies (including what the “Dust to Glory” media kit calls “an attempt at Claymation that was so awful it may be his finest work”). He worked as a writer and editor on his dad’s 1994 “The Endless Summer II” and won critical praise for “Liquid” last year.


Dave Kehr of the New York Times wrote in a review of the film that Brown “assumes the entire process, which includes writing, editing and delivering the casual, conversational narration that the senior Mr. Brown made a trademark of his films.”

Brown also fretted that a film about the Baja 1000 might come off as “ugly Americans ripping up someone’s Third World country.”

But after checking out the Baja 500 in June 2003, he recognized the hair-raising drama of bulked-up trucks, motorcycles and even Volkswagens gunning through mountains and deserts amid yahooing crowds. His worries about offending the locals subsided when he witnessed their zeal for the race.

“This is a big deal and they love it,” he says.


After the fatiguing shoot, Brown stared at 250 hours of footage from which he would craft the race’s story lines. Sifting through the characters, he settled on his friend McCoy -- who finished, but came in far from first -- to drive the narrative.

“Mouse staggering around heroically to the finish with snot coming out of his nose -- I don’t know why that strikes me as super-fantastic, but it is,” Brown says. “Twelfth place for us was better than first; there was something about his journey.”

“Dust” isolates other 1000 moments: father-and-son speed freaks and women racers and a who’s who of speed demons: Robby Gordon and Malcolm Smith.

For Brown, his experience in Baja is summed up by the words of racer Jimmy Vasser. “It took me three months to figure it out,” Vasser says in the film, “but I had a great time.”


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