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Charley Boorman "Long Way Up!"

Actor Ewan McGregor and his friend, Charley Boorman, travel 13,000 miles around Central and South America on electric Harley Davidson motorcycles.

By Phil CartwrightPublished 2 years ago 5 min read

When Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman set out on a long range motorbike trip through South and Central America late last year, they couldn’t have known what they’d create: content that could, potentially, uplift and soothe an audience going stir-crazy from a pandemic lockdown and various political crises. For McGregor and Boorman, it was just another adventure—their third, in fact, to be filmed for TV audiences.

Watching these old friends traverse a huge section of the globe is, for some, a 16-year-old tradition that started with Long Way Round through Europe and Asia, then Long Way Down through Africa. The series is a cheeky blend of Top Gearand Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, shot through with the easy charm of Boorman and McGregor’s friendship. And now the duo is taking the Long Way Up, starting in Ushuaia—the southern tip of Argentina—and landing back in McGregor’s home in Los Angeles.

A pair of devastating crashes for Boorman had the duo reassessing their friendship, and served as the impetus for this latest journey. Despite that dark inspiration, though, the new installment is an uncannily perfect answer for the hard times their audience is currently facing. Equal parts escapist and engaged with environmental and social concerns, Long Way Up presents the ideal opportunity to tune in without tuning out. Boorman spoke with Vanity Fair over the phone about how this latest, and most technologically innovative season, came together. It all started with one ambitious idea: electric motorbikes.

When McGregor heard his old friend had smashed up his legs in a crash, he flew back to the U.K. and wound up staying for a month. Inevitably, Boorman and McGregor’s frequent collaborators—producers David Alexanian and Russ Malkin, who will be familiar to longtime fans of the franchise—got roped into an idea of joining them on another adventure, but the crew was wary of doing the same old thing yet again. It was Malkin, Boorman said, who floated the idea of going electric. Nobody had ever done it before—at least not at that distance. And with a new producing partner in Apple TV+, the sky was the limit when it came to technology.

This lends the new series an air of social and environmental responsibility, not to mention the ongoing tension of where and how the guys will get their next charge. That race-against-the-clock momentum is further complicated by the fact that Alexanian, Malkin, McGregor, and Boorman found themselves kicking off the ride in an unusually bitter cold winter down in Argentina. It turns out the e-bikes and electric trucks for the crew—made especially for the production by Harley-Davidson and Rivian—have trouble holding a charge in the cold.

“We really had no idea what we were doing,” Boorman laughingly admitted. “We’d never actually really charged the bikes or really ridden them. I remember saying to Ewan, ‘God, does this feel familiar?’ Many years later, we’ve learned nothing in between the experiences of the last two units.”

That uncertainty, captured in unflinching detail by helmet-mounted cameras and intimate, late-night video diaries, makes for incredible TV. So too do the physical challenges of charging the bikes. The Long Way series has always been largely about the people McGregor and Boorman meet along the way—but Boorman has pointed out, they had to rely even more on the kindness of strangers as each charge required the riders to wheedle their way inside people’s houses, cafes, and hotels in search of a plug.

“We were very worried about, you know, asking and saying, ‘Would you mind?’” Boorman said. Their way was certainly greased, to a certain extent, by a production crew unafraid to spend money, and the star power of Boorman’s traveling buddy. “We we always paid our way, but no one said no. We plunged houses and restaurants and all sorts of stuff into darkness. Sometimes you’d plug in and all the power would go down. They wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, go away.’ They would then go try and plug it in somewhere else and turn ovens off so that it wasn’t drawing power. They were so lovely.”

The sight of Boorman and McGregor, oozing goodwill and charm, chatting up—and sometimes hugging!—strangers is downright thrilling in a pandemic-stricken world.

The optics of friendly Southern and Central Americans throwing their doors open to strangers is not lost on Boorman. Long Way Up is hardly a political show, and yet, he said, “If they were terrible, bad countries that some people make them out to be, they just wouldn’t be like that, would they? There’s just certain people over your side, one person in particular, who’s very judgmental and dismissive of other people. Who is he to decide whether they’re right or wrong?”

An added obstacle for McGregor and Boorman in their travels through these countries is their complete lack of Spanish. But a lot has changed since the guys first hit the road. Armed with several translation apps—featured, naturally, on their Apple devices—the duo were able to translate signs with a snap of their cameras, and long stories from locals with a tap of their phone mics. “Yeah, great when you have 3G,” Boorman pointed out. “When you didn’t have it, you just sit there and just think, I wish I’d concentrated more in school.”

Apple TV+ was eager for the show to get ambitious with state of the art camera technology as well. In previous seasons, Boorman said, if Long Way biker/cameraman Claudio von Planta wanted to get an arial shot of McGregor and Boorman, he had to ride ahead, get in a helicopter, and circle back. With the advent of drones, Von Planta was able to capture jaw-dropping vistas that open up the borders of the series, and provide especially tantalizing visuals for viewers who maybe haven’t seen much of the world outside their own four walls in months.

The episodes of Long Way Up are available to stream on Apple TV+ The above copy is by Joanna Robinson from the October 2020 issue of VanityFair https://www.vanityfair.com

The audio interview below was recorded in 2020 when Charley was back home in the UK. I hope you catch the whole TV series. It is well worth the watch.


About the Creator

Phil Cartwright

I was brought up on the banks of the River Mersey. Opposite Liverpool in aplace called the Wirral. A peninsular between Liverpool and North Wales in the UK. I worked in Theatre and Opera before moving into Film and Television.

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