Interview: Joey Schusler On The Making Of RJ The Ripper

For every incredible story told, there is a story behind the story. As seen in the recently released “RJ The Ripper”, Rajesh (RJ) Magar has had a unconventional path to becoming a professional mountain biker. Growing up in Katmandu, RJ bought his first bike for $25 after months of saving up. After deeming he was spending too much time on his bike, his mother then sold it for $.90 for scrap metal so he would focus more on school.

To know where you’re going, you need to remember where you came from.

Fast forward 15 years, RJ has his eyes set on the Enduro World Series. We sat down with Joey Schusler, co-director (along with Ben Page) to chat about RJ’s story, the mountain bike scene and greater culture in Katmandu, and the challenges of telling such a unique story. Watch the full film here-Ben Osborne 

Photos :: Joey Schusler

Mountain Life: Hi Joey, Thanks for sitting down with us. First things first— how did such an awesome story come across your proverbial desk?

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Joey Schusler: In terms of film ideas and film stories, it’s definitely a one-off kind of story—something that doesn’t come around very often, so I wanted to go all in when I found out about RJ’s story. Mandel, who RJ works with who runs H&I adventures, he has a great relationship with Yeti and I met him a few years back and he told me about RJ. We were chatting a fair bit about it, then finally we made it happen. Kind of just luck of the draw, and it all ended up working out.

Had you ever been to Katmandu?

No, that was my first time to Nepal, and same with Ben Page who was the other filmmaker on the project.

Tell me about the bike scene in Katmandhu.

Mandel owns a guiding outfit there, and they have clients coming from all over the world. He happened to have a fleet of old Yeti’s, and he brought RJ on as one of the guides and through that RJ started to ride on Yeti.

“I don’t think they are out of touch in doubting that a Nepali kid could make a career out of mountain biking. Even growing up racing myself, my mom would say “Well, you have to stay in school because you cant make a life out of mountain bike racing”—so I think that is a relatively common thing.”

RJ’s goal is to get to the EWS. What were your personal goals for the project? Was the EWS (Enduro World Series) in your sights from the start for him?

At first, we just wanted to get to know RJ and tell his story. That’s why we dedicated a whole month to go over there to have enough time to get to know him and be able to go slowly with the filmmaking process. We wanted to bring his story to life the best we could. It wasn’t until spending so much time with him, getting to know him, and realizing the EWS was in his sights did we realize that we could use the film to help make his goal come to life. We were able to do a fair amount of fundraising—we ended up raising $15,000 USD for him and his family. It’ll be cool to see where he goes with that. Maybe there’s even a follow up film.

Aside from the money, is Katmandu a place that is conducive to become a EWS rider? How will RJ learn the skills needed to ride trails all around the world?

I think in terms of racing EWS, it’s almost the perfect training grounds. They aren’t bike specific trails, but they’re amazing, historic hiking trails that go literally everywhere. The length of the descents, the elevation, and all the raw riding has really made him an amazing biker. The classic EWS blind, fast riding—he’s got that down. The test of a real good rider is being able to ride big, raw, loose biking trails like that.

EWS speed? Only time will tell.

Tell us about the challenges of making the film.

Shooting the urban scene in Katmandu was probably the most hectic and crazy part. We had RJ’s entourage of friends cruising around with us—it was mayhem. We had them blocking off the streets for a quick shot, trying to get people to interact with us—all those little clips took more coordinating than you could imagine. On the flip side, RJ was so psyched on that segment that he almost directed himself—it was a fun collaboration. Shooting up in the Mustang Valley was also a good challenge—but nothing too out of the norm. I think the hardest part of the film wasn’t communicating with RJ—he spoke pretty good English. But we wanted to do all the interviews in Nepali—he’s so much more expressive and able to communicate on a deeper level that way. We probably had 5-6 people helping us just translating all the interviews. In Nepali it takes twice as long to say anything as in English, so trying to get the point across while still have it feel succinct in English was definitely a challenge too.

What did the Nepalese folks think about seeing a bunch of mountain bikers and a film crew running around Katmandu?

To be honest, they didn’t really bat an eye. They either completely ignored us, or just thought it was cool. Having RJ made it totally seamless. If it was a film about a bunch of westerners, it could have been awkward. Overall though, everyone was extremely kind and accommodating—but having RJ there took it to another level. In terms of places to travel, it’s got to have some of the nicest people I’ve met anywhere in the world.

RJ’s mom sold his first bike for $.90 after he spent too much time on it. His solution? He went and built a new one himself.

The movie in part highlighted his families skepticism about being a professional mountain biker. What was that like to experience?

I don’t think they are out of touch in doubting that a Nepali kid could make a career out of mountain biking. Even growing up racing myself, my mom would say “Well, you have to stay in school because you cant make a life out of mountain bike racing”—so I think that is a relatively common thing. But, early on his mom had no idea what he was really doing, or what the potential was. The fact that he is now bringing in money and helping out the family just proves that to them—I think they’ve come full circle. RJ’s mom is a total boss.

“I mean, he can probably really appreciate the bike he’s on now—the head tube doesn’t snap off every couple months.”

Is there room for growth in the bike scene in Katmandhu? Could this serve as a jumping off point?

It’s a pretty good scene there, and it definitely has the feel that it is growing. Theres more and more races every year, more and more kids riding. RJ is a great mentor to a bunch of the kids in town. And honestly, it just seems like mountain biking did in North America ten years ago. Every day we would meet new riders, there are bike shops all over town, and there a bunch of guiding outfits. That tourism aspect is a huge part it – it brings a lot of money to the area. I think as mountain biking gets more global and people are travelling to ride, it helps their scene, and vice versa.

That bike he builds is insane. My first bike had a dropper post. Do you think RJ has a greater connection with the sport than other bikers?

I think he set is his mind of biking and really learned how to be an amazing mountain biker by himself. He didn’t have mentors, he just studied peoples riding on YouTube, which is pretty crazy. That’s where he found the inspiration to build the bike—looking up geometry specs online, and really paying attention. I think he can really appreciate the bike hes on now, because he has obviously ridden the full spectrum (of bikes). It was only 4 or 5 years ago he built his own bike and was racing on it—he’s coming a long way really quickly. I mean, he can probably really appreciate the bike he’s on now—the head tube doesn’t snap off every couple months.

RJ riding his mountain bike doing a Matt Hunter handlebar drag
Matt Hunter was among RJ’s many YouTube inspirations.

Speaking of crashes—any big mishaps during the filmmaking?

As the filmmaker, I was really hoping RJ wouldn’t get hurt during the Katmandhu scene. But he has his senses about him and he is pretty dialled on a bike. I don’t think he has ever had any big crashes which is always good.

Theres a huge mountaineering scene in the area. Do you see any connection between the public perception of the two sports?

The mountain biking scene is still small enough to be not fully on the map, whereas the mountaineering brings in tons of tourism dollars. So it’s kind of a love/hate relationship offering so many dangerous yet good paying jobs. Mountain biking is a bit safer and still a good line of work. Once it catches on, I think they might appreciate it a bit more.

Riding in Nepal’s shadow.

At the end of it all, what did you take away from the project? What would you want others to take away?

My favourite part of the project was just getting to make some awesome friends over there. Not just RJ, but all of his buddies—they are an awesome crew of people. It is crazy how parallel it feels to hanging out with friends anywhere in North America, and it’s cool to see that on the other side of the world. In terms of the project overall, it’s been cool to share his story and also see how much people are willing to give back. To be able to use the film to help him realize that dream has been the most rewarding part. It’s been mind blowing to see how many people have contributed and what they pitch it—it’s awesome to see the mountain bike community as a whole come in to that.

 

 

 

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