Eric D. Seals is a Chicago-based director and cinematographer who’s worked on projects from live sports and Netflix documentary series to ads. His directorial debut, Bike Vessel, follows a bike trip he took from St. Louis to Chicago with his father after his dad changed his lifestyle following three quadruple bypass operations. The film is both a funny and touching portrait of a father-son road trip while also commenting on racial health disparities and the systemic racism Black men face.
We chatted with Eric before the World Premiere of Bike Vessel on Sat. Oct. 14.
You’ve worked on an array of non-fiction and commercial content, from an ad for Ben & Jerry’s to reality TV to sports documentaries and even political and historical work. What takeaways from those experiences most impacted your work with Bike Vessel?
As a result of my previous projects, one significant lesson that I have learned is that every project has a unique story to tell. Regardless of whether it is a product that needs to be sold, a non-profit that requires increased awareness, or an untold story that needs to be introduced to new audiences, stories are what we crave as human beings. Presenting information in an engaging and entertaining format aids in its retention. The most critical lesson I’ve learned from previous projects is that the story is everything. The length of the story does not matter; a well-told story can keep us engaged for hours on end.
What made you want to turn inward and tell such a personal story with Bike Vessel, your directorial debut?
When I first embarked on this project, it wasn’t intended to be a documentary. Initially, I was simply recording home videos for my family when my wife decided to challenge my father to a game of tennis. After the match, I showed my father the footage, and he was disappointed because he hadn’t seen himself on camera in a long time and realized how out of shape he was. The very next day, he decided to purchase a bike, which marked this project’s beginning. At first, it was just about capturing moments of my father’s journey, and it had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that this story was also about me. My father kept mentioning how he wished he knew about healthy living and exercise when he was younger. He emphasized the importance of living a healthy life to avoid relying on medication. Whenever he mentioned this, I felt guilty because I knew he was talking to me. He was saying that I needed to change my life. I struggled with how I would tell the story of my father changing his life at the age of 65 while I was still in my early 30s and needed to change my life, too. It was then that I realized this story was just as much about me as it was about him.
Bike Vessel balances your personal story with a powerful social commentary on health disparities in the Black community and systemic racism. How did you strike the balance between hard-hitting analysis with personal moments and your father’s story?
It was crucial to match my father’s health journey story with professionals in the field who could converse with people who might want to change their lives. It is essential to communicate information so that people can receive it, which is why this film is valuable. We have professional doctors and nutritionists providing information on how to change your life, but we also get to see everyday people like my father make a change. He wasn’t an expert in nutrition or a doctor, but he wanted to change his life. When someone watches this, they will be able to see someone who looks like them and say that they can do it too.
The health disparities in the black community are interwoven for many reasons, from slavery to education to stress at work. It’s not just one answer; many answers compiled on top of each other lead us to bad health. To truly get healthy, you must first be aware of what’s causing stress and health issues. Then, you can take the next step to improve your life.
The film is also a technical and logistical feat, filming your bike ride with your dad over hundreds of miles across Illinois. What was the biggest challenge and biggest triumph?
Filming the 350-mile ride from St. Louis to Chicago was challenging. The biggest hurdle was directing the team and riding my bike. Riding 100 miles back to back is mentally and physically exhausting, making it a difficult challenge for any athlete or regular rider. Moreover, it’s monotonous to look at the same landscape for 8 to 10 hours. Directing was also challenging since it involved problem-solving every five seconds, especially in parts of Illinois that the crew wasn’t familiar with. The talent of the team played a huge role in making this possible. They worked tirelessly, often putting in 14 to 16-hour shifts to film the entire ride from start to finish. Their dedication and hard work made this project what it is today.
What does it mean for your film to make its World Premiere at the 59th Chicago International Film Festival – as well as having the opportunity to screen it for free to the public in a Community Cinema event at Hamilton Park?
The opportunity is a dream come true for me as a filmmaker. I remember trying to see Moonlight at the festival almost a decade ago, but it was sold out and I couldn’t get in. The experience was overwhelming, with the lights, people, and energy in the room. I promised myself that one day I would have a film at this festival. Although I was intimidated to submit anything because I wanted it to be good enough to be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, now, almost ten years later, the opportunity to have Bike Vessel screened in front of hundreds of people is amazing.
I am also excited about the chance to hold a community screening at Hamilton Park. The main purpose of this film is to raise awareness among the black community, with a special focus on black men, who have the lowest statistics on every health issue. The film aims to inspire them to change their health through activities such as cycling, pickleball, tennis, basketball, or any other form of exercise. My goal is to get people healthy, and I hope to accomplish this through this film. Screening it at Hamilton Park will enable more people to learn about this and be entertained by the story of a father and son’s journey to good health. My hope is that people will not only be inspired but also learn something that they can apply in their own lives. If the film can change even one person’s life by motivating them to make a change in how they eat, exercise, manage their stress, and take care of their health, then every hour and dollar invested in making this film was worth it.
From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Michael Mann’s Thief, Chicago is known for some signature portrayals on the big screen. What are your favorite Chicago movies?
In no particular order, some of my favorite Chicago movies include Hoop Dreams, Love Jones, The Negotiator, The Barbershop Series, America to Me, City So Real, High Fidelity, and Wayne’s World.
Bike Vessel makes its World Premiere on October 14, and is also screening for free at Hamilton Park on October 20, at the AMC NEWCITY on October 21, and is available to stream through October 22 in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Learn more about Bike Vessel and these screenings…