Common Tread

Don Quixote on motorcycles: A quixotic attempt to make a film

Nov 21, 2017

Common Tread readers may recognize the name Jeff Buchanan. He was another motocross-obsessed kid in California back in the 1970s and has spent much of the last 15 years or so as a motorcycle journalist – often as a freelancer, but he was tenured on the glossy-but-short-lived moto mag that Robb Report spun off.

What you probably don’t know is that he was basically born into the movie business. His dad, Larry Buchanan, was a self-described “schlockmeister” in the 1960s. He wrote and directed movies like Mars Needs Women — reviled by critics but loved by the sort of fans who’d steal money from their moms’ purses to buy “Fangoria.”

“I edited my first film when I was 12 or so, in my dad’s office,” Jeff told me. “His office was full of Don Quixote paraphernalia, from paintings and caricatures to pipe holders; and of course there was copy of the book there all the time. I tried to read it but at that age, I couldn’t make sense of it.”

Jeff Buchanan
For Jeff Buchanan, motorcycles came early, starting with trail riding and motocross. Photo by Mike Benack.

No kidding. The Penguin Classics edition runs over 1,000 pages. A Spaniard, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, wrote it in two parts, first published in 1605 and 1615. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize it for you…

"The story follows the adventures of a noble named Alonso Quixano who reads so many chivalric romances that he loses his sanity and decides to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world, under the name ‘Don Quixote de la Mancha’. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, who often employs a unique, earthy wit in dealing with Don Quixote's rhetorical orations on antiquated knighthood. Don Quixote, in the first part of the book, does not see the world for what it is and prefers to imagine that he is living out a knightly story."

Since you probably won’t immediately dig into it (and even if you do, you won’t finish until Easter) let me just add this: “Don Quixote” is frequently cited as the first modern novel; it may be the most-popular book ever, after the Bible and it appears on virtually every meaningful list of the greatest works of literature. The word “quixotic” is now used in almost every language to describe the impractical pursuit of rash, lofty, or romantic ideals. The phrase “tilting at windmills” has also entered many languages.

Jeff’s father died in 2004, and soon afterward, he decided to go to Spain and read Don Quixote in his dad’s memory. BMW loaned Jeff a motorcycle and over a couple of weeks he roamed the rural plains of Galicia, which are still dotted with windmills. As he read, he saw similarities between his dad and the title character.

“I thought, ‘Wow this is beautiful, there’s a story here’,” Jeff told me. “So over the next two weeks I made notes. I sent them to Mark Hoyer, as a friend, and he called and said, ‘Dude, we’re going to publish this.’”

Cycle World finally ran “A Man in La Mancha: Retracing the very real route of the fictional Don Quixote” — an extraordinarily “literary” piece by that magazine’s standards — in April, 2008. After it came out, editor Dave Edwards told Buchanan that if he hadn’t read the mail himself, he wouldn’t have believed the response.

The screenplay. Photo by Jeff Buchanan.
Encouraged, Buchanan redoubled his efforts on a screenplay inspired by that epiphany under the windmill. The script tells the story of Paul Mildenhall, a middle-aged accountant whose son is killed in Iraq. Grief-stricken, he takes his son’s BMW on a trip the son had planned, to Spain.

In Spain, Mildenhall christens the GS Rocinante — the name Don Quixote gave his horse. And in the same way that Don Quixote picked up a sidekick, the protagonist hooks up with a foil named Bartome, mounted on a battered 125 cc Derbi.

The screenplay’s by turns charming and whimsical but, be warned: It ain’t some happy-ever-after fable. 400 years ago, Cervantes was dismayed by what he saw as the death of civility in the world; today, Jeff Buchanan feels the same way, and he wants to do something about it.

I read “A Man in La Mancha” a few months ago. I’ve written a few screenplays myself, and recently had the occasion to collaborate with an acclaimed screenwriter. Buchanan did an amazing job. He’s written a film that deserves to be made.

Jeff Buchanan in GS Trophy
Buchanan was an embedded journalist with the U.S. team in the 2010 GS Trophy. BMW photo.

Jeff’s first choice for Mildenhall was Jeremy Irons. They corresponded on it, and when a writing assignment took Buchanan to England, he found himself in London’s West End theater district, staring at a marquee with Irons’ name on it.

“I went and saw a matinee,” Jeff recalled. “As I was leaving I thought, What the hell – I went to the stage door and asked them to tell Jeremy Irons that Jeff Buchanan was there to see him. They told me I had five minutes, but I went upstairs and Jeremy and I sat in his dressing room and talked for an hour. After a while I asked him, ‘Shouldn’t I be getting out of here?’ He said, ‘Oh, what else am I going to do? I’m just waiting to go on again this evening.’”

Jeremy Irons, smoking, in his dressing gown, asked Jeff, “Do you think Hollywood will really make this movie?”

Eventually that iron cooled. Buchanan got an old friend in the business to look at the film. Now, a decade has gone by since he began the script. Hollywood is the land of the slow "no."

Over the years, Jeff’s written and re-written his script, and shopped it to producers who said they liked it and then named a 20-something actor as a possible star. Jeff would point out that an actor in his 20s couldn’t possibly have lost his son in Iraq, and producers would say, "Oh, we’ll leave that part out."

Ten years is actually about the average length of time it takes to get a movie set up, but knowing that doesn’t make those dead-end meetings any less frustrating. Jeff considered giving up on his film and adapting it as a novel. He put it down for years at a time, but a few months ago he picked it up again and realized, “This is something I’ve gotta do.”

Long after abandoning hope of getting Jeremy Irons on board, Buchanan traded emails with veteran character actor Peter Coyote, who said he was about to retire, and wasn’t taking on any more film projects.

“Why don’t you play the character yourself?” Coyote suggested.

Jeff Buchanan
Jeff Buchanan in Andorra in 2017. Over the years, he's aged into the lead character in his screenplay. BMW photo.
Buchanan bounced that idea off a few friends in the film business, who all agreed that in the decade Jeff’s been trying to get this film made — for better or worse — he’s basically become the character anyway. Jeff hacked into his budget like the axe-wielding villain in one of his dad’s B-movies. He had been pitching it as a $2-$3 million “indy” film, but he put together a $376,000 version.

“At that price, I’m the only actor I can afford,” he admits ruefully. “But at least I won’t argue with myself as director.” He’s just launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising that amount, to shoot his movie in 2018.

Full disclosure: Jeff’s a friend of mine, as well as a colleague in motorcycle journalism. But I can assure you that he’s every bit as disillusioned with the state of the world as his Paul Mildenhall character. For that matter he’s as disillusioned as Don Quixote. Maybe my friend’s tilting at windmills with his Kickstarter campaign. But in his screenplay, Mildenhall attacks a modern windmill and actually knocks it down.

“This isn’t a typical motorcycle movie,” Jeff told me, “where the motorcycle is a prop or an excuse for a chase. Rocinante, his BMW, becomes a real character in the film — it’s a metaphor that transports us — the same sort of role the bikes played in ‘Easy Rider’.”

Buchanan’s dream is Quixotic with a capital Q in the sense that it’s about Don Quixote. His Kickstarter campaign may prove quixotic, too; 376 grand is peanuts for a feature film, but it’s 50 times the average successful crowdfunding pitch.

That said — and in spite of my own frustrating efforts to get movies set up — ever since reading his screenplay I’ve thought, “This one’s gonna’ get made.”

If Jeff succeeds, it may be because he’s well known in the GS/Adventure bike world — and that’s a well-heeled subset of motorcyclists. Even if you’re not a rich GS rider, go check out his Kickstarter page. Christmas is coming, and if you want to give the motorcyclist on your list a really unique gift, support Jeff’s Kickstarter campaign at a level that earns you a copy of the script.

If that’s all you get, I promise you that it’s a great read. And you just might help make a very unique and worthwhile movie.