35mm photos by Dennis Leupen
Three friends get fed up with LA life and decide to train hop all the way to Montana.
That’s the elevator pitch for Samuel Fisher’s new film No Signal, and if it doesn’t pique your interest, you’re probably dull. Armed with some cameras and a knowledge of trainhopping that existed purely in theory, Samuel and co. rolled up their swags and got ready to wash the city slicker off them. Hiding in bushes, thumbing lifts from kind and eccentric strangers, sleeping in hammocks and washing (sometimes) in rivers and lakes, they rode the railway across the great plains of America.
Inspired by drifters documenting their great freighthopping adventures across the heartland of the US, Samuel decided to record his own adventure. Piecing together just 15 minutes from 15 rolls of film, No Signal is the kind of mini-documentary that will genuinely get you psyched to go somewhere you’ve never been before. Complimented by a gravelly narrator—who could’ve been pulled straight out of a 1950s radio ad—and a killer soundtrack, No Signal has just made its way to the internet for you to enjoy, but before you scroll down and hit play, read on for what Samuel had to say about their great American odyssey.
What camera gear did you pack for the trip?
We packed the good ol’ Canon 814 Super 8, a tripod that was way too big, 15 rolls of film and a few different 35mm film cameras.
The narrator was a great choice. How’d you find such a perfect voice, and what made you decide to tell the story this way?
Thank you! Dane Scott is from Wisconsin, where I’m from. He does voiceover work for a living. A lot of online research went into finding the right tone. I wanted to tell the story in a way that’s similar to old PBS educational documentaries. Dane gave the doc that nostalgic, expansive feeling, as opposed to someone with a more modern voice.
Trainhopping looks more difficult than most people would think. What was one of the biggest challenges that you didn’t foresee before starting this trip?
I didn’t realise how little we would sleep. Not knowing when or where trains were gonna roll through proved to be a major challenge. I knew going in we would have to wait for trains, but when you’re staying awake because a train could come at any time, and you don’t know if you’re in the right spot to catch out, a new level of exhaustion becomes the norm.
If anyone wanted to travel across the country this way, what’s some advice you give?
Pack only what you need, and then take out half of that. Be open to anyone you meet who’s willing to share tips and stories, and learn to enjoy hours and hours of waiting.
There’s been a lot of incredible stories told about the great American road trip throughout history. Were you influenced by any films/books/art etc. within this kind of genre?
So many. There’s a really powerful photo book by Mike Brodie called A Period of Juvenile Prosperity. The raw human emotions displayed in this book consume me. There’s a whole world in every Brodie photograph.
Hard not to mention Kerouac’s On The Road, I’ll be opening that up for inspiration forever. I also got big into watching Stobe The Hobo’s YouTube video’s before the trip; he documented America by train so casually and matter of fact. During the end credits of No Signal, there’s a tag on one of the cars saying ‘KFC’ which was Stobe’s tag before he passed away from riding. I didn’t realise it was there until I got the film developed. It was a gift getting the footage back and seeing an old Stobe tag, to me it was his way of blessing our travels and the doc. RIP Stobe.
What made you choose Montana as the endpoint?
We wanted to feel as far from Los Angeles as possible and the wide-open spaces of Montana felt like the right move during Covid.
A lot of people helped you along the way. Who was one of your favourite characters you crossed paths with?
Two oddballs from Idaho pulled over to pick us up and right away, one of them pulled out a handgun from the glove box and set it on his lap. We were pretty sketched out riding with them at first, but soon learned that they were being chased away from their house in the woods by the landowners and had to stay alert. They ended up being super friendly, knew every edible berry and plant, and the pace of their life was beautiful. They were on their way to Portland to find a temp job to buy lumber for another spot in the woods. They were content just getting by, which was a sweet reminder of what’s meaningful in life.
What are you most proud of about No Signal?
I’d say how raw the doc is. There wasn’t really a plan besides getting to Montana and shooting Super 8 along the way. And I think the doc reflects that raw energy we had throughout the trip—shooting when I felt like it and just enjoying the moment.
What have you got your sights set on next?
Right now I’m living in a sailboat in Los Angeles and one of my boat’s neighbours and friends is from the north woods of Minnesota, and me and a friend are looking to make a short doc about his life of buying and flipping old boats. I was struck by his friendly ruggedness; a nice change of pace from the hurried Marina Del Rey. Other than that, full steam ahead with Sunburnt, the vessel for my personal creative endeavours: gear, films, and events.