Friday, April 17, 2009


Waveriders is out in the cinema. It's made by Margo Harkin and Joel Conroy and tells the story of Irish big wave surfing.

I did a little interview with Joel for Film Ireland magazine:

'Riding The Wave'
Interview with Joel Conroy, director of Waveriders

Joel Conroy is running on empty. When we meet for coffee in Filmbase it soon becomes clear that he really needs one. He is slap bang in the middle of one of the busiest weeks in the life of his new movie Waveriders.

He has just returned from the US Premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in California where thousands of punters came to view his film at its three sell-out screenings. From there, he jetted back to Dublin just in time to pick up the IFTA for Best Feature Documentary and after this interview he was getting ready to jump back on a plane to present the film at another American festival.

Conroy is responsible for what Donald Clarke of the Irish Times described as an ‘overpowering picture’ after its first screening at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival last year, where Waveriders proved a real crowd pleaser and picked up the audience award.

The documentary is a visually stunning piece of cinema that combines breathtaking surfing footage with imaginatively presented archive and tells the previously untold story of the unlikely Irish roots of the worldwide surfing phenomenon and today’s pioneers of Irish big wave surfing.

In 2003, Conroy, a surfer himself, made his first surf doc, Eye Of The Storm, which proved the perfect training ground for a film of greater magnitude. He had aspirations to make a more ambitious surf film and when he came across an Irish connection to the rebirth of surfing in Hawaii, he found a story that would help him do that.

“I was reading the sports section of 'The Times' and there was a question to the editor which caught my attention: 'Is it true it was an Irishman who invented surfing?' The answer was: 'You are partly correct. It was an Irishman who re-invented the sport of surfing - his name was Freeth'. From that moment I was captivated. My imagination went into overdrive. I needed to know more about this Irish character called Freeth.”

Freeth’s story became the foundation on which Conroy could build his narrative.
Traditionally surfing films have been a heady mix of pretty pictures and banging tunes with not much more than a nod to narrative cinema. Then along came Stacy Peralta’s brilliant 2004 documentary, Riding Giants, and changed all that. It set a new standard for surfing documentaries, combining the best qualities of earlier surf films with a strong narrative arc.

Like Peralta, Conroy aims to infuse a solid storyline into an exhilarating surf odyssey and does so by linking the pioneering spirit of Hawaiian-Irishman George Freeth - who was responsible for the rebirth of surfing in Hawaii in the early twentieth century - with a host of contemporary pioneers who are seeking out and riding massive waves off the coast of Ireland.

“Story is king,” says Conroy. “You can shoot lots of beautiful visuals and I had lots of ideas about how to do that with film but it would be nothing without a story. So, I read the George Freeth story and then I started identifying the contemporary elements that I could use and finding the characters who would be part of the story.”

But making a film like of this scale is a huge enterprise and requires big money. Conroy teamed up with the highly respected, award-winning documentary producer Margo Harkin and they have forged a strong bond.

“I got stuck on the financing and Margo injected a new energy into the project. She brought so much creativity and expertise to the production. There were so many elements for us to consider - extreme characters participating in an extreme sport, extreme locations, extreme logistics, extreme health and safety risks of both cliff and ocean filming and extreme weather dependency… we were doing something very niche.”
Conroy put together an expert crew and filmed Waveriders in four blocks for ten weeks in total. They shot on super-16mm rather than digital and he was happy with the results.

“When I saw the first set of rushes coming back, I thought it was totally justified. The footage was really beautiful.”

The edit took place in Screen Scene with Nathan Nugent cutting but after the first block of editing, Conroy wasn’t sure that he had quite nailed the film that he wanted.

“We had shot the last scene in April and started cutting in May and by October we had a rough cut and I started thinking, ‘is this it?’ I just felt it was lacking the killer punch to really move the audience before they left the cinema. I was playing for time but then I was told that December 1st was to be the absolute final date to complete the edit.”

Then 72 hours before his deadline, Conroy noticed the stirring of some promising weather patterns off the west coast of Ireland. And on December 1st he found himself dug into the side of a cliff filming the biggest waves ever surfed in Ireland. A bit of divine intervention had given him the ending he wanted.

“There were a lot of weird things going on and a lot of things just seemed to come together miraculously. It was perfect. It couldn’t have been more perfect. It rocked the world, and when the still photos went out, people in Hawaii were freaking out because they never rate the waves anywhere else in the world.”

Waveriders will be released by Element Pictures in April and despite the dismal performance of many Irish films at the box office in recent times, Conroy is hopeful that his film will find an audience.

“I have high hopes for it. It’s a recession, the odds are stacked against us but you have to have faith. We made a surf film in Ireland! If we didn’t have faith, we would have stopped ages ago and got a real job somewhere.”

1 comment:

  1. You would have thought he'd use Rory's "Crest of a Wave" instead of "In Your Town". Hopefully the movie will be released in the US.