Interview: Johnny Knoxville and Co. on Bringing BMX Power to Tribeca

It's hard to believe that nearly 25 years into his pioneering career as the world's most influential, ambitious and successful BMX athletes, Mat Hoffman didn't have a film made about him until now. Perhaps harder still to believe: That it would take Jackass partners in crime Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine to finally get it done.

And yet here they all are at Tribeca 2010, where an audience gathered this evening for the alfresco premiere of The Birth of Big Air. (It's also available on Tribeca VOD and airs in June on ESPN.) Directed by Tremaine (who also co-produced with Knoxville and Spike Jonze), the film recounts Hoffman's rise from being a bike-trick wunderkind in Oklahoma to the sport's preeminent rule- (and record-) breaker and innovator. Either blessed or cursed with a fearlessness that compelled him to do things no one had ever done before on a bicycle -- while breaking almost every bone in his body and literally coming back from the dead after one particularly savage injury -- Hoffman became a daredevil who'd earn a warm endorsement from no less a legend than Evel Knievel himself.

But Hoffman primarily made his name as an artist whose imagination helped spark the growth of an entire generation of extreme athletes. Through interviews and liberal helpings of Hoffman's own, never-before-seen archival footage, Tremaine tells the brisk, bracing story of the birth -- and rebirth -- of a sport that owes seemingly everything to that imagination. In his and Knoxville's second Tribeca appearance in as many years (following 2009's sincerely insane The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia), the pair joined Hoffman to tell Movieline about recapturing the good old days, the culture of extreme living, and how Jackass 3-D is the logical next step. Well, maybe not "logical,"but you know.

How and when did the three of you decide to team up for The Birth of Big Air?

TREMAINE: We always had it in our minds that we were going to make Mat's documentary. We started working on it in 2005 -- well, we really started filming in 2006. That's when we interviewed Evel Knievel for it. But when ESPN got in touch with us about doing it, that's when it put a ticking clock on it and got us to follow through and finish it.

Had you guys followed Mat's career?

TREMAINE: yeah, I was a BMXer. I actually worked in the industry; I was an art director for Freestyling Magazine. So I've followed Mat's whole career. I met Mat in 1987.

KNOXVILLE: You were working at a bike hop, right?

TREMAINE: Yeah, I'd work summers at a bike shop. I'd work the tours when they came in.

KNOXVILLE: And Mat would come to town, and...

HOFFMAN: The bike shop that Jeff worked at was the biggest bike shop for these tours. In 1987-88, we'd always have these summer tours that we'd go on with our bike team. Rockville BMX was always the greatest, biggest show with the most people. It was pretty cool.

TREMAINE: I was just hired help on the days they did the shows.

HOFFMAN: So Jeff worked at that bike shop, and then went on to be the art director at one of the main magazines that represented and documented our sport.

TREMAINE: Spike [Jonze] was really close to the sport.

HOFFMAN: Yeah, he was the photographer.

big_air_pg2_mid.jpg

I'm interested in the archival footage you compiled. Did it occur to you at the time that you were building a historical record, or was it just intended as evidence of what you were accomplishing?

HOFFMAN: I wanted to see it. When somebody said, "Oh, you got this high," I need to see that and figure out how high I went. So that's basically what I was shooting it for -- to cover that and be able to determine how high I really was going.

KNOXVILLE: And to see what you were doing right or wrong?

HOFFMAN: Well, that too.

TREMAINE: And it's part of the culture, you know? Everybody made videos.

HOFFMAN: That one part when I got hurt on that ramp -- that was because ABC came out to shoot it. But before they came out, I knew that this was a day it could kill me. You never know. When you crash from that high, I don't want someone else to exploit something like that. I had to recognize the dangers and respect that. So then I made a deal where I licensed all the footage back to ABC, but I made a deal where I wouldn't license any of the crash back to them. I didn't want that to be exploited. So I kept that. I never thought there was a reason to show anybody that. I just kept it in my archive, but this was the time.

TREMAINE: That crash has never been seen. Just sifting through that raw footage... You see him knocked out in the movie, but if you watch the footage, that tape was rolling the whole time -- and he was knocked out a lot longer than you see there. It's really blood-chilling.

KNOXVILLE: It was like 10 minutes or something.

TREMAINE: I mean, it's shocking. You think he's dead. And all the panic around it...

KNOXVILLE: It would be the second time he died.

The second?

TREMAINE: Well, he flatlined after the spleen injury.

HOFFMAN: Nothing to be proud of!

KNOXVILLE: I don't even know what to say.

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