States of independence... | Dave Gorman on his odyssey around America © C4

States of independence...

Dave Gorman on his odyssey around America

Dave Gorman does the things the rest of us only talk about. If most people are sitting in the pub talking about a daft idea, they’ll laugh about it, and move on. Not Dave. Dave will travel the world until his daft idea has reached its conclusion. What’s more, he makes a living out of it.

For his latest adventure, he decided to try to cross America without any contact with soulless corporate chains; staying only in small hotels, eating in family-run restaurants, and filling up at independent gas stations.

His odyssey was charted in a documentary, which won the audience award at the Austin Film Festival in October, and will be aired on More 4 on Tuesday this week (Feb 5). A DVD will be out next Monday – and skip to the end of the interview for your chance to win a copy.

Here, Dave discusses his latest challenge with Benjie Goodhart...

You’ve pioneered the comedy documentary over the years. Why is that a medium you’re so drawn to?

I don’t know. And, honestly, this is much different to things I’ve done in the past. This is more documentary. I think what I’m drawn to is telling the truth - the medium changes, whether it’s stage, book or screen, but what is at the core of it all is that I’m telling you a true story. Sometimes people will say to me ‘It’s all a bit egotistical, David. It’s all about you, isn’t it? You’re always talking about what you’ve done.’ And I always think ‘Well, I’m not sure that is egotistical. Surely it’s far more egotistical to expect an audience to be interested in what you think of George Bush. We’ve all got a theory about him, why is yours more important?’ Instead, here’s some stuff I’ve done - at least I’ve done something, rather than just assuming I’m inherently interesting.

I’m sure you are inherently interesting, Dave.

Well, thank you for that! I think everybody is, really. But if you worked in an office, and on the Monday morning you come in, and you’re making a cup of tea in the kitchen, and two guys come in, and one says ‘I had an amazing weekend, I heard this brilliant joke,’ and the other says ‘I had this amazing weekend, I went to China,’ who are you more likely to talk to? And that’s the kind of thing I do. I’m the guy who went to China for the weekend.

The inspiration for the film came to you while you were on tour in America. What happened?

Basically, touring is a relatively unpleasant thing to do. Touring in Britain is one thing, because Britain is quite small, and you get home quite a lot.

But touring in foreign countries is harder, because you don’t get to see your friends or family. So I toured America for four months, doing a one-man show, doing eight shows a week. A third of year is a long time to go without a social life, without having a night off, or going out and seeing your friends and loved ones. But to my mind, the compensation for that was the excitement of seeing a foreign country - what a privilege to be able to do that. How exciting!

I sense a ‘but’ coming…

Yeah. When it happened, it was horrible. The bit that should have been the compensation didn’t exist. All that happened was I flew from small airport to small airport, I stayed in chain hotels, and saw breakfast radio stations and theatres. There wasn’t a sense that I was seeing America at all. The hotel in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was exactly like the hotel in Aurora, Illinois, which was exactly like the hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It’s not even proper travelling. I’m not even experiencing anything of a foreign country. I’m seeing the same fucking place week after week after week. It was just horribly oppressive. So this journey was a way of returning to the States and searching for the other side of America - which was not represented by those chain hotels and the high streets of the towns that I was in, with the endless repetition of place after place. I wanted to fix my relationship with America.

The task you set yourself was to drive across America and not use a single chain for food, accommodation, or gas, is that right?

That’s correct.

And you bought a second-hand Ford Torino in which to do it. Was that a wise purchase?

Umm… yes and no. At the time, probably not, but in the final analysis I’m really glad that we did, because it’s a real character in the film, in its way. Obviously we couldn’t rent a car, because that would have meant dealing with a chain. We were always going to have to buy a second hand car from a guy on his driveway, and there was no point in doing it in a three-year-old Toyota. That hardly ties in with the nostalgia of the idea, does it?

We were looking for an old-fashioned America where people could do what they wanted, set up their own business, be their own boss. So, as a rule of thumb, I decided I wanted a car that was older than me. And we ended up with a car that was one year older than me - a 1970 Ford Torino. It’s a classic piece of Americana - it’s got the Timber panel down the side of the station-wagon.

So it looked the part. But don’t old cars…

… Tend to break down? Within half-an-hour of owning it, we were having to get new exhausts. It broke down four or five times, sometimes very seriously. It was a challenge of a car. Certainly at the time I wished it had behaved better.

But nobody wants to watch a film of you having too good a time.

No, that’s true. And the trials are what make it. And all the stress of trying to avoid chain petrol was such a difficult thing. It changes motoring completely. Normally, when you’re driving along, you don’t spend every moment of every journey thinking ‘Where are we going to get petrol’. When you’re doing it this way, you do. It was the first thought every morning when we got up. Then you’d have about half an hour of feeling relaxed when you’d left a gas station with a full tank, before you’d start to worry again.

How do you go about finding independent gas stations?

You drive the kind of road you expect them to be on - so not the Interstate, basically. You stop and investigate every small rural town that you get to. Independent gas stations do still exist in the States, if you know where to look. And we’d get recommendations and directions from motel owners and things.

Were there any times you didn’t make it, and ran out of gas?

There is one moment when we run out of gas, and are stuck on the side of the highway. It’s all in there, we’re very honest about it - there’s no telly cover-up going on. And that happened because we did a stint on the Interstate.

How did you go about choosing your coast-to-coast route?

Very abstractly! The initial idea was to go from LA to New York. We ended up buying the car in San Diego, so we left from there, so we were already off route. Then, the guy who sold us the car mentioned a town called Independence, 150 miles off our route. So we decided to go there - we didn’t really have an itinerary anyway. I didn’t want to make one of those travel shows where wherever you turn up it happens to be the cheese-dipping festival, or drain-painting day, when a researcher has planned it all out for you. The whole point was to buy a car and just go where we wanted, with no plan. So we decided to go to Independence and see what was there.

And what was there?

Nothing. We drove through it in 30 seconds, there was nothing there. So we just drove on. Then we discovered there was another Independence, in Oregon - 800 miles north. Only, because we weren’t going on the straight road, we were looking for gas, it was actually a 1,200 mile diversion.

And then the director’s back gave in, so the director changed. I was left without a director for a week, wondering if we’d find a replacement, or whether the project would finish. And we were starting to fall seriously behind schedule.

The whole thing was meant to be over in four weeks, and when the next director came out, we were already four weeks in, and not even half way across America. The journey was meant to be 2,800 miles, and by this stage we’d already done 3,000 miles. And the new director was Andy, the producer, who’d had to cancel his daughter’s christening to fly out and join me. And we had to be home in time for Christmas, so there was no way he was going to let me take another four weeks.

So how many towns called Independence did you visit?

We ended up going to four. The one in Oregon was named after one in Missouri, where the wagon trails left to head west on the Oregon trail. And Andy was quite happy to visit that one, because it meant we were heading east. Except that when we got there it was absolutely horrible - quite a big city, and very commercial, just the kind of place we wanted to avoid.

So we went south to an Independence in Kansas instead. Which was just as well - had we stayed in Independence Missouri, we would have been trapped there for a week by an ice storm. So, with all the storms, we had to change our route and go further south. It was late November, and getting up to New York just wasn’t an option. We were just staying ahead of the ice storm, by doing 350 miles a day. Wherever we got to, we were just ahead of the ice storm. So we ended up hitting the coast in Savannah, Georgia.

Did you find any evidence of the real Mom and Pop independent business that you had dreamt of finding?

We found the real thing - in Independence, Oregon. It was a place called Taylor’s Soda fountain, which was beautiful and was also, very sadly, on its very last day. They were closing up that day after 52 years of trading. And there was one couple in there who had had their first date there, on the first day that it had opened. And they’d got married two years later, stayed together all that time, and now they were having another date on the day that it was closing.

That’s almost unbearably poignant.

It is. And you can see in the footage, I’m genuinely tearful. I actually get tearful when I talk about it, it’s a really intense memory. This place really meant something to the town. There was a memory book people were signing, and one guy had come in and written a message saying that Tailor’s was the first place he went to when he came back from Vietnam. He went there before he went to his mum’s, because when he was serving in Vietnam, he was thinking about their milkshakes. And there were so many couples who had met there. I’m sure the town’s population was entirely down to people coupling up at Taylor’s. One woman’s waters broke on a stool in there. It was a real landmark in the town.

Was that the high point of the whole trip?

Taylor’s was definitely one of the high points, yeah. There was real conflict for me there, though. It was exactly the sort of thing I imagined before I went - just what we were looking for. But it’s got this whole spoonful of sadness stirred in, because it’s closing. But then you also have this little part of you that’s the storyteller thinking ‘Brilliant, it’s closing’, which is perfect for what we’re doing. And then you feel horribly guilty, because you don’t want to celebrate that at all.

What were other highlights?

An amazing highlight would be turning a corner and seeing a ramrod straight road going through a desert all the way to the horizon, with no other cars, just me and America. That’s just unbelievably exciting. It delivered that so often, and I just loved that sensation. It sounds all hippy, but you really discover something about yourself when you’re in that environment. You discover what it’s like when it’s just you.

And, dare I ask, the low points?

The low points are all car-related, really. No, there was a horrible motel in a town called Green River, which was just hell beyond belief. Which was to be expected in some places. It isn’t that I think all independent places are inherently better. It’s that I think it’s better to live a life where things are good or bad, rather than just agreeably acceptable and predictable.

Oh, and there was one motel in Nevada where we counted 76 dead flies on my window sill. And a motel in Utah where the bath was sinking into the floor, which was rotten; there was no curtain, only nets; the sheets were thin and transparent; you’d actually come out of the shower there dirtier.

But the lowest of the low was breaking down on the highway - one or two days from the end. The water pump failed - and that was serious. We actually thought it might be over, we might have a film about nearly getting from coast to coast. But even then, we had a miraculous outcome. How ridiculous is it that a garage has, sitting on a shelf, a water pump for a 1970 Ford Torino? That’s what we found - these mechanics said they must have ordered it in 1970-something and not used it.

Could you have done this in Britain? Is it a cautionary tale about the UK?

I don’t think you could do it in the UK. I think it’s probably worse here. I don’t think you could get from Land’s End to John O’Groats without using a chain gas station. I don’t think that’s possible. We’re just more built-up, there are less backwaters where these businesses exist. Wherever you are, you’re only 15 miles from a bigger place here. In America there’s so much space, and towns that are so remote that the chains aren’t interested in them.

What conclusions did you end up drawing? Is there still an independent America out there?

There is, definitely - and there’s more than I thought there would be. But it is dying, diminishing year-on-year. It was great to have seen it. I loved it.

  • To win a copy of the documentary on DVD, just tell us which of these is a previous Dave Gorman show by February 18, when we will pick the winners from all correct answers received:

    Your name:

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    And, to flummox the automated spammers, what is your favourite rodent:

Published: 4 Feb 2008

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