Here, the film's directors, Dominick Russo and Jason Plough, along with their star, reveal how they planned and shot such a spectacular project.
Sam Sunderland: Yalla
As The MotoCo production house, California-based pair Russo and Plough have earned a stellar reputation for their motorcycle action films. Who better, then, to capture Sam racing over desert, resort locations, a golf course and the Dubai Mall on his way to a finish line 830 meters up in the sky?
Step 1: A plan is hatched
In February 2021, the pair flew from LA to Dubai to check out possible locations. Working with the on-site production company Prime Productions, they set about a whistle-stop six-day tour of all the potential places to shoot around the city.
How are we going to shoot it? What kind of equipment do we need?
“They [Prime Productions] had everything planned for us to go to each location,” explains Dominick. “We just packed everything we could into each day. We had to sort out the technical side, scoping out what Sam could do in each place. How are we going to shoot it? What kind of equipment do we need? We took a bunch of pictures so that when we got back home, we could start to lay it all out from there. There was so much information!”
Upon their return to the States, Jason and Dominick set about threading together the storyline of the film, taking in all the various sites they’d scouted, which was no small feat.
The Burj Khalifa, a desert road, the Hatta Dam, Al Naseem Beach, Emirates Hills Golf Club, Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountains and Al Qudra Love Lakes were just some of the spots they’d checked out and which were to feature in the shoot.
Step 2: Fitting everything in to one short trip
A combination of Sam’s racing commitments, pandemic travel restrictions, and other factors meant that the shoot eventually took place in Dubai in late October. After months of detailed planning, the project was all set for an intense, action-packed eight-day rip around town.
Sam found riding the desert road a real challenge, as it demanded an awkward transition between braking and accelerating.
"Going from concrete to sand was quite technical.
"I was braking on the concrete, but then hitting the throttle because I needed to be accelerating when I took off in the sand, otherwise I'd go over the handlebars. You need the power on to pull you up and take off through the sand.
"It was the same when I had to land again. Timing was critical because if I went too long, I'd flat-land onto the concrete, which would be horrible. And if I came up too short, I'd land into the face of the other dune.”
Capturing it wasn't an easy job, either: “It's crazy when you're working with all these locations and crews, and shooting on such small, tight timeframes,” says Dominick. While he and Jason had been working on the technical aspects of planning Stateside in the previous months, Prime Productions had been securing all the necessary permits and logistical necessities to ensure a smooth ride for Sam on arrival.
“The logistical side of it was a lot,” continues Jason. “We had multiple cameras going at once, and there was a lot to be on top of.
The shopping mall was literally like riding on ice
“For example, on the day we shot inside Dubai Mall, Sam was riding a pretty long stretch and there were lots of entry points for random people to go through, so we needed to [control] every exit. On top of that, you have to direct all the extras, so there was a lot to juggle. And then a lot of times we didn't have a whole lot of time to actually get the shots.
“It was a big challenge but it was really enjoyable.”
Sam also struggled with the mall shoot, which provided another stern test of his technical ability.
“The shopping mall was literally like riding on ice," he says. "When we did the recce I already more or less knew. I was thinking: 'What am I going to do on an off-road bike with marble flooring?!'
“We were just trying to keep the bike upright. There were also loads of people in there, extras obviously, and I'm like, I don't want to hit anybody. I know they're part of the shoot and they're paid, but they still want to go home with their ankles in one piece!"
Step 3: Helping a sick rider to perform
On top of the various demanding production elements that Jason and Dominick had to manage, there were also the considerations around what Sam could do.
Sam had just completed the Morocco Rally, contracted food poisoning on the penultimate day which forced his withdrawal, flew home and had one day’s rest before flying out to Dubai. That meant that the crew had a task on their hands to find the delicate balance between health, safety and getting the required footage each day.
“It’s not like Sam came into the shoot fresh,” recounts Jason. “He had a race a week or so before getting there. We got straight into filming and doing 13-14 hour days as soon as he arrived, but Sam’s an awesome guy. He didn’t get hurt, which is always a fear with someone who goes so fast, but it all worked out. We loved every minute of working with him.”
It's next-level to have a guy standing at the pinnacle [of the Burj Khalifa], in full motocross gear with the Red Bull helmet on.
“A big part of it was trying to keep Sam’s best interests in mind,” adds Dominick. “I think it was kind of up to us to watch out for him in that sense, and read his energy levels each day. At the end of the day it's dangerous, some of the stuff we're doing, especially when dehydration comes into play.”
Step 4: Reflecting on the ultimate high
The film is packed full of moments that are striking in their visual impact, but what stands out the most for the pair?
“The Burj Khalifa is definitely the most iconic thing in the edit, amongst all the other things that we did, including Sam riding on a golf course,” says Jason, who explains how they managed to get Sam to the very top of the world’s tallest structure.
“The Burj is ever-present in the film, you can kind of always see it in the background. The shots from up there with Sam are unbelievable.
“We went to the top during the recce and were like: 'He obviously needs to use this as an ending'. Marta and Alan, who own Prime Productions, made it happen. Alan's helped rig Tom Cruise to the top of that thing before!
“It's next-level to have a guy standing at the pinnacle, in full motocross gear with the Red Bull helmet on. It's out of this world.”
“The whole project is a high point in so many aspects,” adds Dominick. “The size of the production, having a huge crew and access to pretty much any toy or location that you want… All of that combined, let alone being able to film somebody at the top of the Burj out of a helicopter, so much of it was a dream come true. It was truly amazing.”