In for the long haul

Alex and I keep trucking down the road that never ends

Finishing a two-month U.S. road trip and documentary film shoot with Alex Debogorski felt like both an ending and an accomplishment. Instead, it was a beginning; the beginning of a pile of work that still – nearly two years later – isn’t finished.

I hardly knew Alex when we left for the trip. Anything I knew was only by reputation. I knew he’d turned the town upside down with a run for mayor. I knew that if you taught in the Catholic school system during the last 40 years, you’d taught one of his 11 kids. And I knew the reality TV show Ice Road Truckers, which had barely made a ripple in YK, had made him some kind of celebrity in America.

It was that last detail – that Alex is a big deal in the U.S. – that really formed the basis of our relationship. Alex’s son and manager, Curtis, asked me about doing some filming while his dad drove across the states promoting his new book – King of the Road, True Tales from a Legendary Ice Road Trucker. I said, sure I’d film the trip, but we needed a storyline to make the whole thing work as a movie.

Rather than tape an unofficial, less-polished episode of Ice Road Truckers, I pitched a documentary. The idea: to analyze Alex’s life as a television star. Rather than exploit the North’s frozen roads for narrative tension, I’d talk to the god-fearing, conservative Americans who hunker down in front of the TV to spend an hour a week with Alex. Then I’d take their view of Alex and check that against the reality of his life; something like a portrait of a reality TV star from an unlikely insider’s perspective.

After all, Alex is the perfect person to play the role of guide to the weird world that is his new life and job. He’s a charismatic, camera friendly, philosophical guy who sees his role on the planet as cutting through bullshit, at least everybody else’s. And so we set out on the King of the Road Promotional Tour. Twenty four states, 22,400 kilometres. A typical day looked something like this: eat a trucker’s breakfast, drive to an event, shoot a scene for the doc, eat a trucker’s lunch, shoot another scene for the doc, eat a trucker’s dinner, drive overnight through two states to get to the next event, check-in to a roadside motel, sleep a few hours, repeat. Fifty two times. It was a trip worthy of the overused word: epic. Traveling circus also comes to mind.

On the road, we drove, we talked to Americans, we ate, we slept and we drove. And in that daily, repetitious cycle we got to know each other incredibly well. Alex would bristle at the notion, but I’d say we got to care about each other. And so my dilemma is this: how to tell a story about a subject – Alex – who’s larger than life, extremely complicated, and now…a good friend.

For his part, Alex knows a huge part of his fan appeal is that he walks the line. A guy who speaks his mind and man-handles politically correct conventions, Alex will actually refer to himself as “politically erect,” before breaking into his maniacal bear hug of a laugh, “HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH.” All of this is to say Alex wouldn’t want a movie made about him that ignored the shadowy parts of his character. But how far down that rabbit hole to go?

This summer, King of the Road Director of Photography and Editor, Jay Bulckaert, and I got back to work on the project. It’d been shelved for a year and a half since we flew back to Canada from the tour’s end in Wisconsin. Aside from an opportunity to work on the film, this summer was also a time to reconvene with Alex. He picked Jay and me up in his rat-rod Cadillac, which took more than a few turns of the key before it turned over. Once it did, it was a thing of gas-guzzling beauty. And like we did across the U.S., the three of us, Alex, Jay and I, sat across the front seat, looking forward out the window and talking like a family.

Similar to our Cadillac drive around Yellowknife, our time on the road in the States was great, but there were also tough moments. The shadowy side of Alex is real and it’s deep. I’m unqualified to guess where it comes from, but I won’t let that stop me. When Alex was 12, his mom committed suicide. She’d been a member of an aristocratic Polish family that was part of the Polish underground resistance to the Nazi occupation during the war. She’d been educated at Cambridge University in England and when she came to Canada, she must have had no idea what life in the bush of Northern Alberta would be like. They lived in a shack in the woods with no electricity. After she had children, she suffered from postpartum depression and took her own life while in hospital. Alex is fine to talk about it.

One of the things that stands out for Alex about his mother is that he was her favourite. In him she saw the continuation of her aristocratic lineage. Alex would be a doctor or lawyer, a man of science or letters. Either way, he was the one who would go on to be something great, something special. And then she was gone.

In her place was Alex’s father, whose parenting philosophy was forged in the military during World War II. Alex says his father ruled the home with an iron fist, and without his mom to cultivate his role as the prodigal son, Alex was hardened by his father to work and be tough. Alex learned those lessons well, but his father’s tough, tough love didn’t completely quash the seeds his mother had planted in his early years.

This brings us to Alex today: a man of paradoxes. He’s a tough working man, but also literary and contemplative. For me, he personifies the so-called hillbilly philosopher. And all of this is woven into the character he plays on TV; a character remarkably close to who he is in real life. The highs are just as high, but the lows aren’t as low. Not by a few degrees.

There is a place Alex goes when he is dark and low. It’s something I’d try to stave off while we were on the road trip. Rather than have the energy lull and the shadows overwhelm the mood, I’d try to tell a joke or a story. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was in those darker moments that Alex is at his harshest, his most cynical. It’s the hardest on the people around him, whether it’s me or his family, largely because Alex is the centre of things. And when the centre’s suffering, it’s shared.

As natural as Alex’s fame is, there’s also machinery to keep it going. He has an agent, a manager, a PR team. And when Jay and I are around, he has a documentary film crew following him. And so I am a cog in a machine and now, my role with Jay is to turn 80 hours of footage into a documentary film that tells Alex’s fans a story about him they haven’t already heard. I want to be pulling in the same direction as the rest of the machine, but I also see that Alex’s dark side is part of what makes him interesting, and what will make the story work.

The decision about how much light and how much dark to include in this documentary is tricky. It’s laughable to remember that I thought the toughest part of all this was done when we returned from the U.S. road trip in December of 2010. The only thought that’s remained the same since that time is that Alex is my friend; and that makes this story all the more difficult to tell.

Project Update: Nearly two years in, the road to finishing the documentary stretches as far as the eye can see. Fingers crossed, there’ll be a Yellowknife screening this winter. In the meantime you can follow Alex Debogorski and the King of the Road project at iceroadtrucker.ca.

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