Production Notes

The Norton Empire Rally

Norton Empire Rally posterThis year the International Norton Owners Association and the UK’s Norton Owners Club are joining forces to host the Norton Empire Rally in Catskill, NY. And today I booked tickets for Amira and myself to Boston so we can shoot video of the event. We’ll be arriving on Tuesday and getting to Catskill on Wednesday night.

We’re really looking forward to meeting such a huge group of Norton enthusiasts and getting impressions from both sides of the Atlantic about the Dreer Norton. I hope everyone’s ready to talk to the camera and tell us why each of them thinks Norton is special.

If you’re going to be at the rally, give a shout in the comments and let us know. And please track us down so we can talk to you about your Norton and why you love the marque.


Upcoming Interviews

Wow, have we been busy! I’m hard at work going through all the footage we have so far. Very soon we’ll have a trailer for everyone to see. Once that’s done, we’ll be launching a Kickstarter campaign where you can donate to the project and get rewards for your contribution. It’s going to be awesome — I think we have some really special rewards planned.

Last weekend we had a great interview with Chad Harder, Norton’s (actually, Chad goes back before that, to Vintage Rebuilds & Restoration) first marketing guy. Chad had a lot of insightful things to say about Kenny as a creative force and some great stories to tell, like when shipping damage cost the Norton center stage at one of the Guggenheim motorcycle shows at Rockefeller Center. If you check out the images at that link, you just might spot a familiar bike positioned against the wall to hide a hole in the gas tank.

Next up we’ll be speaking to Jeff Foster, Norton’s first CEO. There were several CEOs to come through Norton with the difficult task of raising investment capital in the mid-2000s. Jeff was the first one to make the attempt.

After that, we have Tom Skogley and Rob LaVigne on board and will schedule dates with them soon. Tom worked with Kenny very early on and participated in the Cycle World test rides that landed the VR 880 on the cover of the September ’99 issue. Rob was the guy responsible for the huge splash Norton made at Laguna Seca at the company’s peak.

We’ve also been in touch with Don Niles, the Minnesota attorney who wrested the Norton trademarks from the Aquilini family and oversaw the acquisition of the Norton name worldwide. The trademark portfolio was a big deal — even the original Norton didn’t hold all the trademarks to the Norton brand.

So what do you think the American Norton story is going to be? A tale of engineering and design vision? A story of American ingenuity and resourcefulness when a small team takes on the biggest names in the motorcycle business? Is it about good old-fashioned entrepreneurship? Or is it about legal skullduggery and nefarious schemes?

It’s looking like it might be all of the above.

Good Times, Great People

On January 27 I attended the Milwaukee Mid-Winter Moto Movie Night. The organizer, Kevin Knuth, had contacted me a couple months earlier asking if they could screen my film The Fowler Formula as an opener for the feature documentary TT. A chance for a crowd of vintage fans to see The Fowler Formula? An excuse to visit my old stomping grounds in Chicago? An opportunity to hang out with some old friends? I deliberated for about 30 seconds before saying yes.

I decided to bring a surprise with me to movie night. I started going through the footage I had — we had only interviewed Joe Seifert and Kenny Dreer at this point — and cutting together a trailer for the MMWMMN. I ended up with a special, one-night only trailer just for them.

It was a great night. Kevin had asked if I wanted to introduce the film and I’d agreed. But wow — this was the largest single group of motorcycle fans to see the film yet, and maybe the largest group of any kind. I started to get a little nervous. And right before we were ready to start, a friend leans over and whispers, “Hey, did you see Peter Egan is sitting right behind us?” What? Egan’s here?! He’s going to watch my film?!

Fortunately, we got started before I had time to panic too much. I stumbled through some opening comments and we showed my short and the American Norton trailer. The crowd response was great, TT was a lot of fun, and I think everyone had a blast.

I want to thank all of you who came up to me after the screening and had such kind words to say about my film. You all help keep me inspired and keep us hard at work on American Norton.

For those of you who are anxious to see what we’ve done so far, I apologize. I’m not trying to be a jerk. As I said, the trailer for MMWMMN was sort of a one-night only cut. I’m still working out what music we can clear for a trailer we post on the Internet. I appreciate everyone’s patience and we’ll get something up as soon as possible.

Until next time, thanks for all the support!

How Did I Get Here?

It’s the day after Christmas. I’m going through boxes and boxes of material about Norton Motorsports and the American Norton. At the same time, I’ve got footage transcoding from one format to another from the DSLR camera. It’s pretty busy for a holiday and probably a good time to reflect on how this all happened.

The Fowler Formula movie poster

At the end of 2009 I directed my first film, a short documentary called The Fowler Formula. I made it in the DIY Documentary Workshop at NW Documentary, a non-profit in Portland that promotes non-fiction filmmaking. (If you’re interested in seeing it, drop me a line with your email address and I’ll send you details on how you can check it out online.) Making it was a blast and a lot of people really seemed to enjoy it. I was hooked. I really wanted to make another film.

One of the people who liked The Fowler Formula was Dave Friesen. Dave was a member of the Portland Vintage Motorcyclists mailing list that I run. We’d met in person a few times and he’d helped with some repair work on my BMW R100GS PD. So motorcycle friends at the very least and someone whose opinion I’d come to trust. And early this year, Dave me a Facebook message that said, “I know what your next film should be.”

I waited. And waited. “And what is that, ” I messaged back.

“The Norton story. The Portland one.”

I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was twelve years old. I’ve always loved all kinds of motorcycles but I’ve only owned Japanese and German. The most exotic thing I’ve ridden is probably an old Laverda loaned to me by Rick Lefauve. (And with its swapped foot controls, I suspected that was just an attempt to kill me.) I knew some Norton history as a fan of old motorcycles — it’s Norton, after all — but that was it. I was peripherally aware of various attempts to revive the brand over the years but didn’t know anything about a Portland connection.

“Portland? A Portland Norton?” Dave sent me some links and I started reading. This was a pretty good story. And I read some more and thought, no, this is a great story. One of the oldest, best known brands in the world. A painful history of false starts to bring it back from the dead. Some beautiful, artistic restoration work that begat a high-end, heavily-modified rebuilt line of Norton motorcycles that captured the attention of the industry. And finally, a small team of dedicated motorcyclists trying to realize a dream of an all-new Norton that lives up to its legacy.

It’s an awesome story.

So how do we get ahold of Kenny Dreer? We started talking to people about getting an introduction to Kenny but didn’t have much luck. Then I mentioned the project to one of the guys I interviewed for The Fowler Formula and he looked at me kind of funny. “You know Paul, Semo and Patrick all worked for Norton, right?”

No, actually, I didn’t know that. So it was kismet. Fate. Destiny. Simon-Pierre “Semo” Smith sent an email introducing me to Kenny and within a few days we had a phone call to talk about the project. He agreed to meet with Dave and me.

If I wasn’t sure before that meeting, I was after I met Kenny. I knew I had to tell this story. Kenny’s a wonderful storyteller, full of energy and frank, candid moments. He regaled us with tales of his early days in Pennsylvania, the Vintage Rebuilds days and Norton. Of people around the world who got behind the new Norton. Of customers turned dear friends.

Most of all, Kenny Dreer is incredibly likable. Sitting next to his drag bike in his workshop, listening to his stories, already knowing how it all ended, I found myself rooting for him and his new Norton Commando. I think you will, too.

“If we build this new Norton, ‘they will come.'”

The interview chairThe first two interviews with Kenny Dreer are done. In the can, as they say.

Both days were long and tiring. We shot Kenny against the backdrop of his workshop. The hum of the heater was picked up by our audio equipment so we could only turn it on during breaks. As soon as we starting recording the temperature would drop fast. Kenny’s breath didn’t fog as he spoke (luckily!) but I think we were getting awfully close.

Kenny was great throughout the ordeal. I’m really happy with how our shot looked but the shop layout forced us to have our key light more in front of him than normal. From his perspective I’m sure it felt very much like being in an interrogation room. He put up with it all and waited patiently while we dealt with camera issues or off-loaded video to our computer.

By the end we were all pretty tired and some of the interview started to feel rushed at the end. We’ll have to come back to Kenny and revisit some of the things we talked about, but we’re going to hold off until we’ve interviewed other participants in the Norton Motorsports saga.

Kenny chats with director Tom Parker

Despite the challenges, we got great stuff, including the title quote for this post from Kenny’s description of the moment he knew that he had to move beyond the VR 880 and create a completely new motorcycle to carry on the Norton name. If you’ve met Kenny you know that he has a lot of energy and that he’s a very good storyteller. I think he’s going to translate well to the big screen.

Our two days with Kenny, as well as our earlier interview with Joe Seifert of Norton Motors GmbH, started to answer a lot of questions I had about the Dreer Norton story. I still have a lot more, though. What about you? What questions do you want to see answered in the film? Let us know in the comments and we’ll see if we can cover them.

So it begins

Today we put up the American Norton website and launched the Facebook fan page. It’s taken a long time to get to this point. I’ll post about all that history in the near future.

But the ball’s rolling and that’s what matters. Dave, who teased the Access Norton forum with hints about this project back in September (where he took some heat for the long subsequent delay), has finally been able to make his big announcement to his fellow Norton enthusiasts.

For my part, I’m a bit overwhelmed with a combination of excitement and trepidation. I’ve got some pretty big knots in my stomach as I write this and start telling random strangers that I’m going to make a feature film.

This will be the place to keep up with the production. Our notes here will provide some early peeks for the motorcycle fans and the trials and tribulations of production for all my filmmaking friends. Please check in often. It’s going to be a great ride.