Tuesday, August 13, 2013

WHEN ALI CAME TO IRELAND - what happened next?

It’s not much more than six months since WHEN ALI CAME TO IRELAND first previewed in the IFI and then screened on RTE One but so much good stuff has happened since then. This film was such a pleasure to make and the reaction of people to the screenings has been phenomenal. It’s a bit of a cliché but we really do feel lucky to have made it.

First, the reviews were pretty good, which was a huge relief.

“an evocative, informative and wholly engaging documentary, which managed a nicely wry tone before finally becoming genuinely elegiac…”

“Hugely entertaining… a glorious cast of characters.”

“The work to piece the story together is visible in every frame.”

“An excellent documentary… the cast of characters is rich and deep.”

Then the next thing that happened was that we were completely shocked to win an IFTA!

Then the most mind blowing thing happened when we had a small screening of the film in Chicago.

Jamilah Ali, daughter of the great man himself, came along to the film. I was actually really worried that she wouldn’t like it or would feel that there was something in the film that misrepresented her father. After the screening, she took the microphone and paused before saying anything.

“I just want to say…” Pause (Ross is really worried now). “… I loved this film from the beginning to the end.”

She went on to say, “I’ve seen so much footage of my father over the years but the amazing thing about watching this film was that I had seen NONE of the footage of him in Ireland.”

We hadn’t really thought that it would have that impact, so that was pretty fascinating. She then asked if she could have a copy because she would “love to show it to my father.” Hopefully some day we’ll find out that he liked it too.

The next amazing thing to happen was that we had a screening at the Archive Festival in London and having met a member of Ali’s family, we tried to put the word out to Butty Sugrue’s family that there would be a screening happening. When the film ended, two young women came up to us and introduced themselves as Butty’s granddaughters.

They said they really enjoyed the film and told us an amazing thing, which we hadn’t really thought about… It was the first time they had ever hear their grandfather speak! They were really thankful to have heard his voice.

Next up is a repeat screening on RTE One tonight at 22:05 and we hope the film goes down well again. Here’s the trailer in case you’d like to see what’s in store:


And in October, the film will screen for the first time in New York City. We’re really hoping to get to go to that one!!

Friday, April 26, 2013


I was on a panel recently at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (JDIFF) on which we were talking about how to succeed in the world of documentary making.

It was amazingly well attended and when the gathered crowd was asked to raise their hands if they had made a documentary, most people raised their hand. It was great to see so many people were out and about making stuff. The next question was something like, ‘how many of you have been funded to make your documentaries?’ and in response to that I think there was just one hand raised.

I always feel a little bit weird about doing talks and I wouldn’t be surprised if the other serial doc-makers on the panel – James Kelly and Paul Duane – feel the same way. Just because I’ve made a film or two certainly doesn’t make me feel that I’ve made it, or that I’m in any way guaranteed a career in this area. Getting documentaries funded is really tough and while it gets a little easier when you develop a track record and a few connections, it’s still tough. For every commission I’ve received, I’m sure I’ve been turned down at least five times, so I don’t have any magic formula or easy answers.

One thing that I feel that I’ve learned in recent times is the importance of making a good first impression. It might sound obvious – and it is – BUT I still get it wrong regularly and I see others making the same mistake…

The first impression I’m talking about is the first time that you tell potential funders about your project or show them a proposal or play them a bit of footage. Increasingly, showing footage is the done thing and a strong ‘promo’ or ‘sizzle-reel’ (terminology I’m only getting to know myself) can make a lasting impression and increase greatly the odds of getting funding or building a relationship. Conversely, and almost more importantly, a bad promo can be very detrimental to your hopes. If you’re sitting in front of RTE or the Irish Film Board or BBC or Channel 4 you really want to be giving it your best shot and if your project isn’t ready to show then don’t do it!! If they don’t like it the first time why would they watch it again? They are managing large sums of funding and the competition for their time and money is immense, so you have to make every second of every meeting count.

There are two things that I immediately think to add to this.

Firstly, be ambitious with your promo. Find ways of making it look great and really sing. Keep it short and leave the viewer wanting more. Load the top of it with wonderful things. If your key moment is 20-minutes into your promo then the chances are it will never be seen. I know that you probably have little or no funding at the promo stage of your production, and the funders probably understand that too, but it’s hard for them to make the leap to imagining the HD, cinematic, gripping film that your project could become if your promo looks ropey.

Secondly, something that is important to consider from the start is insurance. Many insurers won’t cover you if you’ve commence filming already and funders require insurance, so it’s an easy way to shoot yourself in the foot at the beginning. It’s often not too expensive and it’s better to have from the start.

All of the above leads me to another point. Try to build up a small development budget for yourself. If possible put some money aside to help you pay for insurance or to hire a good cinematographer and camera for that key day of shooting. If it’s an interview-based film and you’ve five key interviewees for your promo, could you rent a nice space for a day too and make everything look amazing? It could be an outlay of a grand but it might help you to get 100 grand down the line. It’s something worth thinking about. I worked a three-day week in a travel agent while I was making my first two films and it meant I could survive and do what I wanted to do at the same time.

Final point in this, that I think is related, is completion funding. If you haven’t got funding at the beginning of your project but you’ve decided to go ahead with it anyway then this is something to consider. (Completion funding has been a big part of my career as it helped me to make SAVIOURS and BLIND MAN WALKING). You might feel you have something really special in the can. You might not have got funding at the outset but hopefully you made a good impression with your promo and you shouldn’t be afraid to go back to funders before your edit. Acquisitions of completed films are probably in the region of 5k generally so better to try to get 20-40k to help you finish the film and do a good job in the edit. At this point you’re going to need a rough cut. Again, my advice is to be ambitious. Get together a few quid and a few favours to cut a brilliant 20-minute version of the film. At this stage, you’re most likely exhausted, you’re sick of working for peanuts BUT this could be the way to get some real money to finish your film to the highest possible level. And if you do a great job, it might line you up to get your next project funded from the start. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Making 'THE GAMBLER' Documentary

The documentary THE GAMBLER that I directed for Motive Television and was funded by BAI will be screened this tonight on Setanta Ireland (Freeview) at 10pm!!

I can’t wait.

I really enjoyed making this one – we followed a great character John O’Shea who gave us total access to his life and thoughts as he punted thousands of euros on sports events and played poker at the Irish Open, European Final in Monte Carlo and World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Here’s a blurb and trailer:


There were a couple of things I learned from making this one.

After one day of filming I realised there was a problem! It’s extremely hard to film poker with one camera when the game is in play. For hours, nothing might happen to your protagonist and then, suddenly, there would be a huge hand where he would win or lose loads of his chips. To capture these moments you need a lot of patience and more than one camera. In some of the poker documentaries I had seen, they simply hadn’t bothered but I thought it was important drama and I wanted to capture it.

To film it properly you have to have an idea of what your protagonist is up to, what his opponent is doing and then also be able to see what the dealer is doing. It’s pretty complex.

Believing, as I do, that an important part of documentary storytelling is capturing key moments of drama, I wanted to capture these big hands that John was playing. It meant having two cameras beside the table, sometimes standing for hours on end but poised to quickly start filming if John got involved in a hand. We would then film him and his opponent and try to get a sense of what the dealer was doing too.

To add to this we tried to build even more around the key hands by filming additional elements later. So, having taken note of the cards that were played, we reshot close ups of players looking at their hands and of the cards hitting the table as if dealt by the dealer. And of the players revealing their hands to decide who won. These were extreme close-ups so that they would be different enough from the footage and would, therefore (hopefully) cut well with the footage as a result. I think it worked, mostly thanks to having a really good editor who found a stylistic approach that suited.

We also did interviews with John to recap what happened in the hands and encouraged him to speak in a sort of past continuous style. We wanted him to tell us the story of each hand gradually, just giving us the facts of the hand as they unfolded. It meant we could build the story of the hand without getting ahead of ourselves. As the final card was turned we would cut back to the live action to see John’s real reaction and that would jolt us back into the present. In many cases he was losing big money, so there was drama in that.

It definitely cemented in me the idea that it’s important to work really hard and long sometimes to just capture little moments. They’re worth it!

Overall we wanted to make a non-judgmental film in which John told his own story. We followed the action and tried to capture the real drama of winning and losing major sums of money. One thing that was important was to always capture the beginning of a bet so that we would later be able to have the pay-off. Sometimes small moments lead to much bigger moments.

As John progressed through his year of gambling we followed him and by piling each scene on top of the last we built a sense of a poker player’s career unraveling. There was no need for VO or a third party voice. Seeing it happen was enough to tell the story.

In the end, I feel it made a pretty compelling documentary. I hope people enjoy it!

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Just off the back of a very interesting 36-hours in Chicago. Looking out at snow on the runway of O’Hare Airport as I write this. Really hope this plane is going to take off.

While here in Chicago, I had the great experience of dropping into KarTemQuin films, one of the most lauded documentary film production companies in the world, having made Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, The New Americans and many more amazing projects.

KTQ is located about 5-miles from central Chicago in a large house with many many rooms. There seems to be numerous edits ongoing at one time and Tim, who gave me a tour of the place, told me that at some stage in the next few months the company will have nine edits ongoing at the same time. Wow.

What really struck me about their approach is their reverance for the edit stage of the filmmaking progress. The film is found in the edit through hard work, time and inspiration. They really put the time in and try to make every film as good as it can be.

One thing that I think a lot of us filmmakers could learn from is the collective approach that they seem to employ. I got the impression that during the editing process they will show the film to many of the other folks who happen to be in the building at the time. The film will be watched several times over the course of the edit by many people and will be honed with the help of their colleagues. Even after the festival premiere of a film, they’ll chip away at it.

They also offer the opportuity for filmmakers to come in and show rough cuts once a month. They’ll project the film in their basement and sit back and watch it and offer their advice. They just seem to love the rough cut stage.

Many of us are exhausted by the time we get to a rough cut and just want to polish off the film and get on to the next thing but at KTQ they recognise what a crucial point that is. They’re dedicated to honing the film and energised by the prospect of making it better through watching and rewatching it. They definitely benefit from the sheer quantity of filmmakers that are hanging out and working in the building. It really made me think to show my cuts to more people, get more advice and really try to make the edit count.

And hopefully someday I’ll be lucky enough to get some edit notes from the very friendly folk from KTQ.

(photo courtesy of Fionnuala Ni Chiobhain)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Digital Biscuit Review

There are two distinct elements to the digital revoluton. The first is in the the creation of content and the second is in distribution. The first has been a huge enabler, making it cheaper and easier than previously to make quality films. But the second is one of the biggest threats the industry has ever seen.

There are more films being made each year than ever before. Supply and demand suggests that the value of those films will be decreased by the wealth of content available to distributors (and audiences) and the fact that it is so easy now to pirate that material has left the film community in a seemingly constant state of worry in recent times. Movies are in trouble.

Enter Digital Biscuit, a timely annual event presented by the Screen Director’s Guild of Ireland featuring equipment workshops, panel discussions and inspiring talks with creators like Chris Nee (Angela Anaconda, Blues Clues, Deadliest Catch), David Yates (Harry Potter), Jim Sheridan (In The Name of The Father) and Richard Baneham (Avator). Alongside the seminars was a Kinoplay area, a room that allowed attendees to get hands-on with the latest digital equipment.

Sometimes these kinds of events can descend into so-called experts lazily telling the audience things they already know and generally despairing for a doomed industry while uncovincingly arguing that there will always be a market for content. Thankfully, Digital Biscuit, by contrast, was refreshingly energetic and all of the speakers had at least a couple of relevant nuggets that those in attendance could take away from it.

Deftly hosted by celebrated director Dearbhla Walsh, the day benefited from the fact that each presentation was restricted to 30-minutes with each speaker essentially invited to offer the ‘greatest hits’ of their experiences with digital filmmaking and distribution.

The event launched with a Thursday night screeening of Side By Side, a film about the science, art and impact of digital cinema before settling into the main event on Friday morning with a series of short seminars. Over the course of the day I, for one, picked up a lot of new information.

The point was made by Neil Leydon from the International Digital Services Centre that with video content in all its forms moving online, huge new opportunities are created and that Ireland,  much like we did in financial services, can create a similar ecosystem for large companies to deliver media content to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

To do that, it’s important to understand the changing landscape and Phillipe Brodeur of AerTV gave a quite fascinating overview of the digital world. Amongst his most interesting observations was that, despite the overriding feeling that everything is moving online, most people still watch TV when it’s broadcast, so in our rush to panic about the online world we mustn’t forget the large audience still watching on television.

He contends that content makers, pipe owners and screen makers have the greatest opportunity in the digital age. They are all necessary parts of the process and middlemen might well be squeezed out. That perhaps explains Netflix beginning to create their own shows.

Brodeur went on to point out, that 70-85%of data traffic to mobile phones will be video by 2017. Anyone creating video content needs to be thinking about what form that will take. Former Apple worker and all around digital genius Anton Nelson confirmed that we’re going mobile. And to prove his point, he reported that Intel is winding down the division that manufactures motherboards within the next three years.

The Online Distribution Panel, hosted by the dashing Patrick O’Neill of the IFB extolled the future virtues of VOD as a money-making platform and antidote to piracy. But, said the experts, it will only work if you have an audience. A short called Sea Wall by a pair of unknowns did much better online than a Guardian-backed Terry Gilliam short film because the filmmakers engaged their audience. One of the biggest changes we face is that the digital universe is a two way conversation.

For more see www.digitalbiscuit.ie 

Saturday, January 26, 2013


The Wider Influence of Sport...

I'm tongue tied at the best of times, so being faced by the eloquent and intelligent forces that are Ken Early and Declan Lynch is probably not the best forum for me to be at my most articulate - but I gave it my best shot today on the Newstalk Panel hosted by the ever pleasant Ger Gilroy.

The (below) striking short doc - part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series - was the jumping off point for a discussion on the wider influence of sport in society. The film is about how Muhammad Ali came to the rescue of western hostages in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990.

As the most recent person (along with my brilliant colleague Aideen O’Sullivan) to have made a film about Ali (well, until they released the above short film) and certainly the most recent person who also happens to live close to the studio, I was wheeled in to give a few opinions on the subject.

You can listen to it on the Newstalk player as the first hour of Newstalk Sport today (Saturday 26 January).

( The title of our film was When Ali Came to Ireland and it screened on RTE One in Ireland on January 1st. We’re hoping that we’ll have the chance to broadcast it in other countries.

Here’s the trailer:

While I never met the man himself, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who has read about Ali or has seen footage of him that he was a uniquely magnetic human being. Anyone that I’ve spoken to that was lucky enough to spend time with him attests to that but it was more than his magnetism that made him such an important figure.

The place of sport at the forefront of our consciousness is, in my opinion, a given (something that Declan Lynch argued quite strongly on the panel). During the discussion, I remembered that as part of my college studies I read some compelling anthropological papers that convincingly argued that because society has made human beings more individualised, sport has replaced our instinctive need to be part of a tribe.

A football team, like Man Utd for instance, can easily fill that void, providing us with tribal colours, brethren to unite with and a common foe to battle against (Man City - ha). It gives us the opportunity to go to war every weekend and behave in a way that the rest of our lives rarely provides. How often do we get a chance to scream and roar consistently at a screen and for it to be completely acceptable?

Try it at the cinema. 

And the figures bear out the notion that sport is a special obsession for us. Two of the three most watched television shows on Ireland last year covered live sports events (Katie Taylor’s Olympic final and the Ireland soccer team’s opener in the Euros).

The popularity of sport gives our athlete heroes the platform to be heard. Muhammad Ali (then called Cassius Clay) took the boxing world by storm and the combination of his fighting skills, looks and persona made the world take notice of him long before he controversially converted to Islam and refused the draft to Vietnam in the mid-60s. It was because he took those actions at the height of his fame and as new World Champion that they held such significance.

Ali was unique but he didn’t operate in a vacuum. The 1960s was a time of protest and he certainly wasn’t the only public figure to make sacrifices in that decade. The 60s seems like it was a culmination of sorts for the black community in fighting for their human rights in the US. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat during the Alabama Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King’s influence was growing, perhaps culminating with his famous ‘Dream’ speech in 1963. All of this was before Ali’s actions in the mid to late 60s.

Even Ali’s famous line, “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong… he never called me nigger” had a strange forerunner.

"Hitler didn't snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram.”

Those are the words of Jesse Owens in 1936.

Both men (Ali and Owens), it seems, we’re rightly more concerned by the problems they faced in their home country. Owens was banned from running soon after his incredible four gold medal haul in the Berlin Olympics for trying to cash in on his success. He would never run in international competition again. While he lived in the same accommodation as his white teammates in Berlin 1936, Owens wasn’t treated so equitably back home. He was forced to use the freight elevator in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel when he was attending a victory reception back in New York. And Owens wasn’t invited to the White House or acknowledged by his own President despite being the star of the Olympic Games.

Ali followed in the footsteps of people like Owens, Parks and King. He was obviously influenced too by Malcolm X. And, you would think, he can only have been encouraged further by the solidarity act of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968 when they raised gloved hands and bowed their heads in what came to be known as the Black Power Salute.

I mention all of this not to take anything away from Ali but more as a lead in to talking about athletes of today. The idea that sport should be kept separate from politics is often stated but when sport is so prevalent how is this possible? Sportspeople ignoring the ills of society and human rights problems are already being political by choosing to stay schtum.

Ali was attacked for the actions for which he is now lauded. Smith and Carlos were derided for the salute that is now so admired. Owens is criticised sometimes for not doing enough for human rights...

Avery Brundage was the head of US Olympic Sport who insisted on America attending the 1936 games where Owens' excelled. Brundage then withdrew two Jewish athletes from the US 100m Relay Team so as not to embarrass Hitler. Brundage always said that sport and politics should be kept separate. 

Brundage was the man who banned Owens in the aftermath of the 1936 games.

Brundage later became head of the IOC and banned Smith and Carlos after their salute in 1968. He was still in the job in Munich in 1972 and was the man who said the games must go on even after Israeli athletes were murdered. 

Sport and politics must be kept separate, said Brundage.

It’s just not possible, I think... sport and politics are intertwined. Sport has a massive impact on society and that can’t be ignored. 

I admire Kevin Prince Boateng for standing up to racists and I think footballers can be leaders in fighting racism and homophobia in society. They will no doubt be criticised by their contemporaries but perhaps some time in the future their actions will be acknowledged for having an impact. Today’s sportspeople might not have as many influential forerunners as Ali did but maybe they can look at the legend of Ali himself and take inspiration.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


We had some good news there a couple of weeks ago:

Home Turf won Best Short Documentary a the Kerry Film Festival!

We were delighted because we made a Kerry film - shot in Kerry, featuring Kerry people and produced by a Kerrywoman.

Our poster pic (above) even features a picture of a Kerryman - Aideen's dad... Mr. O'Sullivan.

We're really happy that the film is connecting. It's a simple film about cutting turf but we feel there are also a few more layers to it.

The juxtaposition of hand turf-cutting and machine methods visually tell the story of progress and we think, too, that the film reveals a certain type of masculinity that deserves celebration but is perhaps often overlooked.

With winter coming, the film really makes me long for a good turf fire. And a nice cup of tea!

More info on the film here: