Cheese Rolling ‘Let’s Roll’: Chris Thomas

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Episode 1: Podcast with Chris Thomas, the film director of the Cheese Rolling Film ‘Let’s Roll’

In this episode Oli Russell-Cowan chats to Chris Thomas, a UK film director. He is mostly known for his character-focused emotive tales and often sub-culture themes. Chris recently released the Cheese Rolling Film ‘Let’s Roll’. After Chris took part in the Cheese Rolling event in Gloucestershire the idea was born to create the film. The documentary shows a teenager defying her mother by secretly training for her town’s quirky tradition: Cheese Rolling. This dangerous race is held every year on Cooper’s Hill in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, UK.

In their conversation Chris dives deep on his experience rolling down Cooper’s Hill chasing the cheese. After a few bruises the film idea came about. For an outsider the event just simply seems crazy and potentially idiotic but for the locals the roll is an important identity of the town. The winners are heros celebrated across the whole region.

The main takeaway of the chat was the community that surrounds this event. There are many stories still to be told, from the cheese master to the tackling rugby team and of course the local champion that has won the competition multiple times.

“My dad doesn’t mind me doing the cheese roll, but my mom has a real problem with it. And this is the reason I can’t tell her that I’m here.”

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Read the transcript:

Rad Season: It’s Oli from Rad Season and we’re here with Chris Thomas, a film director based over in the UK in London. 

Chris, I was wondering if we could just dive straight into it. Would you’d be able to just tell me what you’re up to at the moment? And how did you get into filming?

Chris: So filmmaking was kind of born from doing skateboard films in my teens. Recreating Jackass and stunts like that.

That’s what got me into filmmaking, picking up the camera. And then I got more into documentaries. I always saw filmmaking as a sort of hobby. I didn’t really see it as a career thing. It wasn’t until I went to college and did a media diploma that I thought, I wouldn’t mind doing directing filmmaking for a living. I started to get more into the narrative and continuing documentaries as well. I feel lucky to be able to do that for a living I guess. 

Oli: Awesome. You just released your latest short film documentary, which is ‘Let’s Roll’ based on the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling event in Gloucestershire. Could you tell me more about that? How did that idea come about? 

Chris: Sure. So in 2016, I participated in the cheese roll. We went there just to check it out and see what it’s all about. Having seen loads of YouTube videos of people just completely bailing and falling down this hill. When I was on the side, sort of watching, there was a bit of an urge just to give it a go and I knew that I wanted to make a film about it. So I was like, well, to get some sort of credit I should probably just give it a go myself and understand what it takes to do it and what it feels like to go down this incredibly steep hill. 

That’s where the idea was born from. I luckily survived to tell the tale. But it wasn’t just the cheese roll that inspired me. It was the atmosphere, the people and the occasion. It became clear to me that for the town of Brockworth, (which is the town close to the hill) it’s very much an identity for the people there. It’s incredibly important and something that they are passionate about. That’s what really drew me in and that’s why we made it.

There’s nothing like it. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. I definitely recommend going. 

Oli: Amazing. How was is it doing the cheese roll? Were you worried you thought you had to do it to get cred before filming?

Chris: Yeah, I think I’ve always just tried and kept an open mind when it comes to this kind of thing. Well, you know, I should probably just give it a go. There’s like an urge really, just seeing people do it. 

I was like, Oh, I could probably do that. It’s sometimes quite hard to capture the steepness of the hill when you’re trying to capture it on camera. When you’re standing at the top of the hill looking down it’s incredibly steep. Like the first bit is very much vertical. It’s like looking down a ramp or something. 

It was actually my own doing. But now that the film has been finished and people are watching it, it’s also something good to talk about. That and certainly for the people because I’m not local to the area. But I think for the locals I’ve earned some credibility there because I’ve done it. 

Oli: It’s been going for a while. When was the first time they held the cheese roll? From what I’ve heard is different rumors. You know, we’re at some saying it’s a couple of 100 years old and others say it’s more recent than that. 

Chris: I can’t remember the exact date, but it’s early 1800s. It just spawned from I think. It was even as simple as it touches down one day and someone chases the cheese for fun. And that became a tradition that they do. Every last bank holiday of May.

They’ve pretty much done it every single year. I think there was one year, I think was 2010 that the cheese roll was canceled, but people did it anyway. So a cheese has been rolled down that hill since like 1824, or something like this. 

Oli: Unfortunately, they can’t run it this year because of COVID-19 but I’m presuming you know that they’re going to be back again next year or whenever they can. 

Chris: Yeah, exactly I think I spoke to the organizer a few weeks ago. They’re deeply saddened that they can’t do this year but next year they will be back to what it is. 

There’s a gentleman who is the cheese roller. He is still going to roll the cheese down the hill but there’ll be no spectators this year. 

It’s amazing really from what started off as. Something incredibly local now attracts so many people from around the world. When you go there, there are people from all over the world. They have just gone to the cheese roll to check it out. It is very much a unique experience. There’s nothing like it. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. I definitely recommend going. 

Oli: When you start doing research on the event and on the town and community what sort of thoughts and insight were you getting from the locals? How do they feel about the event? Is it something that they’re all backing or some of them feel you know got too big?

Chris: The majority of the locals are incredibly passionate about it, they love it. There is a bit of a mixed opinion about how global it got. Perhaps, some people really sort of latch on to it being our local thing. It should just be for us, but I would say the majority of people who live there, see it as a great thing. It’s really put the place, the hill and the area on the map. It brings in a lot of attention and I think that’s great.

Oli: The documentary is based on Antonia who is the younger sister of a past champion. I don’t want to ruin it for anybody but is there any kind of schedule or lead up from the original film that you’ve made?

Chris: Yeah, you mean like an expansion from the original? There have been conversations about it. If you watch the short, there’s like an air, like a teaser feel about it. It’s kind of like a long short I guess.

But, yeah, there was some conversation about doing an expanded feature version at some point.

Of course, you can only take this by pinch of salt but myself and the writer Alan McLeod’s, who’s a good friend of mine, and like a collaborator, I think initially had like a load of ideas down on the table about what this shot could be. And I think even once we put the shot together, we’re like, we have enough there to make like a feature film that’s engaged in. 

There’s a lot more to say about the cheese roll as well. There’s a lot that we really wanted to cram in there, but we just couldn’t. And, you know, even stuff that we’ve touched on now about the history and like when it was canceled, and why it was canceled, and like, the passion that really rises up in the village. So there’s probably more from that world of cheese that I would love to dig deep and make a film about. 

Oli: Would that maybe include going into different characters within the community? I notice they’ve got the whole of the local rugby team tackling people when they get to the bottom of the hill.

Chris: Yeah, I forgot about those guys. I kind of made it pretty much to the bottom but then I just got dumped tackled at the end that was the most painful bit about it.

There are other characters like the main cheese guy, he wears his white gown. Who is he? 

If you watch the film, you ask who was the brother. What’s he doing? When is he gonna come back? There’s just so much more there. I would love to expand on the main character and why she really feels that cheese rolling is the way to go. 

I guess when you’re in an area like that, that’s such a landmark of like your local place. Of course that feels like an opportunity there to do something and to become somebody. 

The actual character of Antonia was based on a girl that we spoke to when we were there. And the thing that I remember she said was:

“My dad doesn’t mind me doing the cheese roll, but my mom has a real problem with it. And this is the reason I can’t tell her that I’m here.”

That really stuck with me. I liked the idea about this sort of counter relationship between the parents and their opinions of the cheese roll. The dad being like, yeah, this is fine, but the Mum, not so much. I think that was something that was quite interesting. 

Oli: Who is else was involved with the production?

Chris: I do quite a few commercials in between making films. A lot of them are friends of mine and people who I work with often. I approached them with the script and the idea and said, look, I want to make this film. We shot it for four days. And they were like, yeah, let’s just do it. Let’s just climb this hill every single day. Is was pretty painful.

My brother is the director and photographer. So I was lucky to have him around as well, just to work about how we could tackle this film. The film is just a passion project. So we didn’t have a lot of money behind it. We had to find ways of trying to make it work, give it production value and to keep the vision there as much as we could. That was a bit tricky. So to answer your question, quite a few friends who were very polite to help out.

There’s a whole range of quirky events in the UK. There really is. We’re pretty mad, aren’t we? 

Oli: It’s such a unique place and an unusual event. There’s a couple of other I guess, quirky events in the UK. Stuff like Bog Snorkeling, Custard Pie World Championships and a few others around Europe and the rest of the world. Are there any other events that you’ve attended or want to either attend or film? 

Chris: Yeah.

I can’t remember the exact name. But there’s this one, I think where they have like a football and like the whole village comes out and they try and like, they’re trying to hit the football to a certain area. People get beaten up and punched and things. It’s somewhere in the north of England, I can’t remember the exact name, but I saw a glimpse of it on the documentary and I was like, Wow, that looks pretty incredible. 

You touched on some of that like bog snorkeling. That’s something that I looked into at one point for a project. Visually I asked myself how we can tell a story for that. There’s a whole range in the UK. There really is. We’re pretty mad, aren’t we? 

I’d love to go to all of them and do a little documentary just to kind of see where it’s about. Just to see where the passion comes from. 

The past two years I’ve gone storm chasing in Oklahoma and Kansas and Nebraska. 

Oli: Any other projects that you have coming up? 

Chris: I was meant to be shooting this month. I was going to the US to do a storm chasing project because I have a quite big interest in extreme weather. That was the next thing but again, like everything else right now that’s being pushed back. We’ll aim to give that another shot next show hopefully. 

Oli: Whereabouts in the US was that?

Chris: It’s in Tornado Alley. So the past two years I’ve gone storm chasing in Oklahoma and Kansas and Nebraska. I was doing quite a lot of photography on tornadoes. 

It’s gonna be a fictional film. So we’re just trying to work out ways how we can film an actor into the real world of storm chasing. And of course, without it being too dangerous but we’re not intercepting any tornadoes or anything. 

We learn a little bit about what it’s like to be there. That’d be exciting. But again, it’s super early days. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t do this year but of course, there are way more important things right now.

Oli: Are you traveling quite a lot, normally for different projects and filming things all over the world? 

Chris: The great thing about filmmaking is you know, that you do tend to go to different countries. I’ve gone shoot in Portugal and Germany. My last job was in Kazakhstan, which was pretty cool.

You get to meet different film crews and different people and get a sense of some of the way they work. I really enjoy that. I love meeting people and if I get to film there as well, it’s great. 

I’m lucky with that. Some projects come out really well. Some not so much, but I just hide those.

It’s been cool. A lot of the stuff I do here in the UK. But there are a few jobs that take you to different countries and places that you didn’t ever think that you would get to. 

Oli: Would you say it’s a mixture of commercial and passion projects as well? 

Chris: Yeah, I’m generally in a cycle, I do like some commercials, I then might put like a bit of money aside and then I’ll do like a passion project.

The majority of the time passion projects are all the films that I tend to show people. I guess because they tend to be projects that I’ve had an input in terms of writing. There are no extra heads telling you how to how to make stuff and it’s just single-handedly something that’s from the brain. So if it’s really bad then I’ve got myself to blame.

Ultimately, I enjoy the process. Finding and writing the scripts, finding a way to shoot it and get a reaction from it. Hopefully a good one. Sometimes it’ll be bad but the majority is good.

Oli: If anyone’s trying to get in contact with you what’s the best way?

Chris: Yes, my website is Clthomas.co.uk, I’m on Vimeo as well. You can check out all my films there. Please drop me an email if there are any other questions. 

Oli: Thank you Chris. 

Watch the video:

Photo Credit: Chris Thomas

Missed the last episodes? Check them out!

Episode 2: Bog Snorkeling World Champion – Neil Rutter

Episode 3: Spanish Festivals – Wade Gravy

Episode 4: Weird Sports – Sol Neelman

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Oli Russell-Cowan

The concept for Rad Season came about when I was trekking around Latin America. I found it difficult to find cool events and festivals going on that were a bit different and had an element of adventure and general radness to them. I knew that there was always something rad worth going to somewhere in the world, but there was no single platform bringing them together for like-minded people. With over 15 years experience in international business development, spanning multiple industries including action sports, events, media, digital, ICT, travel and tourism, I decided to combine them all with Rad Season.

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