by Pamela Vetter
In Breaking Away, teen angst abounds for 19-year-old young men living in Bloomington, Indiana, making the transition toward their future. The film understands the unpredictable world for teens yearning to reach adulthood. Most are challenged to settle for less in life, but it’s nearly impossible to consider settling in your last year as a teenager.
In an exclusive interview with The Retro Set, Director of Photographer Matthew P. Leonetti remembered back to Breaking Away’s tight budget and production constraints that made shooting a lot more challenging than the typical “Hollywood” scenario. Even though 50% of the movie takes place “in action” with bicycle races and long stretches of bike riding, “…we didn’t use a camera car because it was too expensive. We had a limited budget for that movie. They were efficient but frugal in their choices where we could spend money. It was pretty simple.”
The main storyline belongs to Tour de France enthusiast Dave (Dennis Christopher), one of four “Cutters,” (local kids descended from stone cutters, used by the college kids as a way to ridicule the blue-collar rooted High School drop-outs). Dave pretends to be an Italian exchange student chasing after an attractive college girl, his bicycling on the country roads takes on a new level of artistry, seemingly elevating his future. Dave’s father (Paul Dooley) has a tough exterior but a soft heart, although every line is dotted with sarcasm. Dave’s amusing mother (Barbara Barrie) authentically shows exhaustion at her son’s obsession with Italian cycling. Her attempt to reignite the fires in her own marriage proves that she shares a similar dream for greatness, if only in her home with her husband. With her own admissions for wanting more, she realizes she needs to support her son’s dreams by advising him to enter a World-Class bicycle race. He practices by first keeping pace with an Italian cycling team only to be derailed and intentionally wrecked. His rebound in cycling and renewed relationship with his father forms the drama for the rest of the film.
DP Leonetti, (Poltergeist, Jagged Edge) captures the excitement of bicycling on the country roads and makes it feel as if the audience is participating in the races. Considering the film was shot in the late 70’s, you would assume cranes and camera cars were used to shoot this film, but that was not the case.
“We happened to have a motorcycle from Mike Weathers, the gaffer on the show… If we were on the back, we would shoot forward on the motorcycle or if we were in the lead, we’d put the camera operator on the back of the motorcycle. That’s how we could weave through the bicycles. We were going to use a dune buggy, but it was too wide and you couldn’t get into the middle of the pack. So I came up with the idea of using the motorcycle. It’s simple. We tried to mount a camera to a bicycle first, but the cameras were too heavy. An Aeroflex, back in those days, didn’t weigh much but it was still 10 or 15 pounds. It was impossible to try to keep balance with that weight pulling to the left or the right.”
Breaking Away is filled with many working actors, who have been visiting the small screen in our living rooms over the last three decades: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie, Paul Dooley, Hart Bochner, and John Ashton. The direction is natural and the acting so sincere you still forget you’re watching actors.
Each of the teen male characters hopes for a chance to break away, stand out, and rise above parental mediocrity. Cyril (Daniel Stern) has a fascination with women awaiting him at college, yet he loses a scholarship and his future is teetering. Mike (Dennis Quaid) is frustrated that he’ll be stuck in the same town, possibly for the rest of his life. Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) cheers on his teammates’ attempts to achieve success at every turn.
The fact that there’s something for everyone in this story was the reason behind its success. Budgeted at $2.3 million, Breaking Away grossed $20 million, and was a double-threat by being a critical darling. It received four Oscar nominations and a win for writer Steve Tesich’s Original Screenplay. In fact, while attending the University of Indiana, Tesich participated in the Little 500 bicycle race, so his script is extremely credible.
Bringing the entire film together is director Peter Yates. His former life as a racecar driver inform the action sequences, and his experience as a helmer deliver on the drama.
Regarding the pivotal tandem bike race all four characters participate in, Leonetti admitted, “We had about five cameras and Peter Yates storyboarded the whole race. He handed out an assignment to each camera operator. ‘You get these shots, you get those shots, to the other guy, you get these shots, etc.’ So that’s how he cut the race in his head before we shot it. They would tell the camera operators what actors to focus on and they’d spread them out around the track. We never saw each other and one camera didn’t photograph another camera. So it was very well planned out. We shot the race for three days. The whole movie took 39 days. It took a lot of pre-planning and people put their heads together to make it work. As I remember, our pre-production was about four weeks.”
Leonetti added with a smile in his voice, “Peter put his heart and soul into the movie. ”
The crew was stacked with talent that went on to achieve great success in the film industry. Yates and Tesich have since passed away, but they are fondly remembered as the film draws new fans every year. Filmed entirely on location, Breaking Away remains a tribute to its location of Bloomington, Indiana, and the craftspeople who were tasked with telling a universal story on a limited budget.