‘One Day in April:’ IU alums, student filming Little 500 documentary

IU alum Peter Stevenson can recall the precise moment he and his fellow filmmakers gained the respect of several of the cyclists they’re following for “One Day in April,” a documentary focused on Indiana University’s iconic Little 500 bicycle races.

“We showed up for a practice ride on Ind. 446 in the snow,” Stevenson said, referring to one of the hilliest stretches of roadway in Monroe County, made more treacherous by inclement weather. “And I could see that, for the riders we were with, they realized at that moment that we were in this for real. That we’re not just going to show up when everything’s great, but that we’re here to really tell their story.”

Stevenson (B.G.S. ’12), Tom Miller (B.A.J. ’12) and current IU student Ryan Black are following four cycling teams — the Cutters, Delta Tau Delta, Delta Gamma and Teter — for the feature-length documentary they hope to release next spring.

And they’ve got the chops: Miller recently spent months working as a videographer for the Obama 2012 campaign and inauguration, while a short film he co-created with Black was shown last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Stevenson, a Washington, D.C.-based photojournalist, has covered politics and domestic news for media outlets including the New York Times as a freelancer since 2010.

It was Miller’s time in the nation’s capital that kick-started the idea for a documentary.

Stevenson and Miller

IU alums Peter Stevenson, left, and Tom Miller are shooting a documentary about IU’s iconic Little 500 bicycle race.

“I was sleeping on Peter’s floor in D.C. in between working on the Obama campaign and the inauguration,” he said with a grin. “We were watching sports documentaries, and looked at each other and said, ‘Why has nobody done one about Little 5?’”

Just like that, the idea was formed. The three have raised about $6,000 to date through a crowd-funded campaign online, but still need a bit more funding to purchase equipment and hire additional help to capture race day from every angle.

But the filmmakers have already logged hours with the teams, pored over other sports documentaries to draw out cinematic tricks and tips, and started getting the word out about their project through both social and traditional media.

And while they might bicker about the inclusion of a particular shot or background music, they’re solidly together when it comes to shaping the core of the film.

“To me, the heart of this film is about delving into why these riders are participating and the character they’re building through this process,” Miller said. “These aren’t athletes who get paid millions or are going on to play professionally. These are kids who this might be their last chance to be a champion at sports, kids who grew up in the Midwest and spent their nights in high school at football or basketball games, track or wrestling matches. They’re signing up for the experience of being on a team and working toward a goal. And they’ve got determination and dedication, which transitions from sports into the rest of your life. All of these values shape who they are down the road, and they’ve given us so much access to sit in and watch that process.”

Nevertheless, the work to create a documentary can be draining — and even a bit death-defying, with the filmmakers sheepishly owning up to capturing some on-the-road footage while hanging out of a hatchback.

“I’m sure the police will be upset with us at some point,” Miller said with a chuckle.

“It’s mentally exhausting, but it’s fun,” Stevenson said of the process. “Cycling is a difficult sport to put to film. And if you miss something, it’s not going to happen again. That’s partly why, on race day, we really have to cover everything from every angle. One of the challenges of telling this story is getting the nuance of what’s really happening, and that can literally be those few seconds that change a race.”

Or, as anyone who’s seen “Breaking Away” can tell you, it only takes “One Day in April” to change a life.

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