America Unchained

America Unchained

When I toured the US with the stageshow Googlewhack Adventure it wasn't the happiest of times. I was away from home for four months doing 7 or 8 shows a week while having more than occasional disputes with the American promoters. What really defined it was the homogenous sameness of the places I saw and in particular, the hotels I stayed in. One night in LA, while out taking photos of beautiful old googie motels my thoughts crystalised. The faded glory of the motels I was photographing seemed to represent an America I really liked. It was the be-your-own-boss, do-your-own-thing, get-up-and-go America I'd grown up admiring and not the safe, faceless, corporate America I was staying in.

So when the tour was over and I'd recovered (I lost two stone and developed a nodule on tour, yum) I decided to go back and see if the America I liked still existed. The plan was simple: go to America. Buy a second hand car. Travel from coast to coast. Try not to give any money to The Man™.

In other words, no Holiday Inns, no Best Westerns and no Comfort Suites. No Shells, no Arcos and no BP gas stations. No MacDonalds, no Starbucks and no chains of any kind. Just Mom & Pop business all the way.

Initially I thought it would probably be a good subject for a book and I was preparing to make the trip with that possibility in mind. In order to raise the cash to buy a car in the States I sold my car here in London. But, with a flight to LA already booked, I got asked if I'd be interested in making a film about the journey too.

I didn't want to do it if it involved becoming a "presenter" and being taken from place to place to meet people that have already been researched which seems to be the current vogue for travel-telly. It's not that I really hate that kind of telly, just that I didn't want to be robbed of the experience. I didn't want things to be different because of a film. If you walk into a hotel with a four man camera crew it's not quite the same experience as if you walk in there alone. If you have a camera crew with you, you limit the number of hours you can work and all of a sudden you have appointments you have to make. I just wanted to buy a car and drive and to genuinely find whatever I'd find.

So... on the condition that the film was made by one person who was prepared to come along in the car with me and there wasn't a crew following along in another car I agreed to make a feature documentary about the trip.

The film was selected for the Austin Film Festival in October 2007 where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was broadcast on More 4 on February 5th 2008 delivering more than six times the channel's average viewing figures for the slot.

"For all its playfulness, this turned out to be an important programme with a serious point to make. Avoiding chain hotels, gas stations and diners, he met our real American cousins, who were eccentric, free-range, yeoman individualists living life on their own happy terms. "Why is the society happy with standardisation?" said a man who ran a guesthouse shaped like a beagle." The Telegraph.

The book was published in April 2008 and became a Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller. A new edition is published in February 2009.

The hardest thing about this project has been persuading people that it's not a politically motivated, anti-corporate tome. It's more personal and nostalgic than that. Even someone at my publishers (not my editor, mind you) wanted to add the words "anti-corporate" to the title. They hadn't read it but, hey, anti-corporate sells. Ah, just smell the irony. People recognise their own lives and values as subtle and nuanced but I guess it's so much easier to see everyone else in simple, black and white, binary terms. Man tries to avoid chains for 6 weeks somehow becomes man hates all corporations. Always. Which I don't. Oh well. Can't stop people leaping to conclusions...



America Unchained book cover

The book

The whole story of the non-corporate roadtrip...

... and of the movie about the roadtrip.



Buy the book

America Unchained DVD Cover


The movie. About the roadtrip.

Released in February 08.


Buy the DVD