Thursday, August 19, 2010


Well, first things first: if you want to make money, go into sales. If you put your head down and push yourself you can really make a good living.

You’ll probably even get a free car if you’re on the road and each year a few weeks paid holidays.

If you want to make documentaries, you probably won’t have any of those things. Not for the first few years anyway.

When I started out, I tried hard to get a project commissioned. I submitted scripts to all of the normal funding rounds and documentary proposals through established production companies to broadcasters. It seemed to be one rejection after another.

Before long, I couldn’t hold myself back any longer. I got a loan, bought a camera and started filming. The idea was to make films and sell the finished work to broadcasters afterwards. The revenue from selling the first film would fund the next and so on. It was a great plan. But then I learned nobody wanted my early work and even if you could sell the films it wouldn’t be for much.

A few years on and things have changed. A little. With a few documentaries in the bag, it’s slightly easier to get an audience with commissioning editors but that doesn’t mean they’ll fund you.

Still, when Mark Pollock asked me if I’d be interested in making a documentary about him, I knew we had a task on our hands. I always felt that Mark’s story was fascinating. He lost his sight at the age of 22 but refused to let it ruin his life.

He created a niche for himself doing adventure challenges and giving motivational talks to businesses. Then on the tenth anniversary of losing his sight, he came up with an adventure challenge far beyond anything he’d done before.

He wanted to prepare for and take on one of the hardest races on earth. Like Scott and Amundsen almost 100 years earlier, he was racing to the South Pole.

From my point of view it would be a challenge too. To do it right, filming should take place for nine months before departure and for close to two months in Antarctica. Anyone I asked suggested that I’d need a huge support crew in Antarctica and the race organisers told me that it would cost EUR50k per person traveling – and that’s before you paid the crew!

Then I got sick. Without getting into the details, it soon became clear that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for me to travel. And the EUR300k budget wasn’t exactly prompting commissioning editors to reach for their chequebooks.

So we created a Plan B. Rather than spending my time searching for funding, I spent it filming the preparations. I contacted the race organisers and a Norwegian crew that would be following the race and they agreed to help me out with footage. Mark’s teammates would film as much as they could during the race and we’d figure out a way of putting it all together when they got back. It would still be a great story, even if this wasn’t the ideal way of telling it.

When they returned from Antarctica I was almost afraid to look at the footage. And when I did, I found a mixed bag. There was some ropey stuff but, thankfully, there was some amazing stuff too. The video diary feel to the footage captured in the tent felt really immediate and powerful. There was definitely something there.

A few months later, I had a meeting with Mairead NiNuadhain in RTE Diversity about the possibility of completion funding and she agreed to try to help. A little while later, I got a call from a nice man in RTE’s finance division, who wanted to go through my budget, line by line. “Does this,” I asked him, “mean the project is financed?”

It did.

So, after filming for nine months in Ireland, making agreements with other film crews, putting a camera in the hands of adventure athletes with little idea what would happen, praying that funding would come through and numerous weeks editing, we have a completed documentary about the first blind man to race to the South Pole. It’s an epic, of sorts, and it cost just EUR25k.

Now, where can I get a job in sales?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Documentary Longinotto Style

Ross Whitaker took a trip to Guth Gafa film festival to talk to an extraordinary documentary maker, Kim Longinotto. The director tells us about her unique approach and the difficult decisions she’s made whilst making her films.

Guth Gafa is fast becoming one of Ireland’s most enjoyable festivals. Locked away in the north west corner of the country, it is delightfully small yet perfectly formed and screens some of the world’s most exciting documentary films, always with the filmmaker in attendance.

One of this year’s undoubted highlights was two screenings and a masterclass with Kim Longinotto, whose marvellous films have been gracing festivals around the world for over thirty years…

Kim Longinotto refuses to be unequivocal. She has done these masterclasses before and as she begins to speak to the group, she is just a little careful about what she says. ‘I promised myself I’d never do one of these things again,’ she says with a smile.

But everyone here is glad she didn’t stick to that promise.

Longinotto has a way that she likes to make films and it has served her well. For many years her films have been greeted by critical and audience acclaim and she was given an Outstanding Achievement Award at this year’s Hot Docs. Major awards at festivals like Cannes and Sundance and a European Film Award prove the world likes the way she makes films too.

Generally speaking, Longinotto doesn’t use interviews in her films, uses little music and rarely uses any kind of voiceover. She never wants to ask her subjects to repeat anything or act in any particular way and she doesn’t shoot cutaways. But she doesn’t want people to think that she is against these things, she just doesn’t want them in her films. She is at pains not to generalise about how films should be made.

‘What we all do is make films that reflect who we are,’ she says. ‘What you make shows so much of what kind of person you are and how you see the world and you just have to go with it really.’
Longinotto’s personality seems reflected in the films that she makes. She seems unassuming, quiet but confident and very open. You can see how the subjects of her films might warm to her.
In her films, she doesn’t tell the audience what to think but instead creates a narrative with complex, human characters. She does all her own cinematography but she is not a fly on the wall, rather she’s another person in the room. The audience becomes a witness in the world she portrays rather than a passive observer.

‘It’s a different kind of information that you’re getting. I remember sitting through documentaries that were on before a fiction film and everyone used to talk through them because documentaries were the boring bit where you were told something and it was supposed to be good for you somehow. What I’m trying to do is make a story where you’re being drawn into a world and you’re watching a story unfold and you stop thinking about what type of film it is and just follow the narrative.’
The full article is printed in Film Ireland 133

100 Mornings - COMING SOON!

Conor Horgan is a man in a hurry. He squeezes me in for a chat in a Dublin café the day before he is due to fly to the Slamdance festival in Park City, Utah where his debut feature - One Hundred Mornings - will have its World Premiere.

For his first film to be chosen for Slamdance is a creditable achievement in itself but over the coming days the film makes a substantial impression at the festival, where it receives a Special Jury Mention and is described by Filmmaker Magazine as, "Achingly humane and stringently observed".

One Hundred Mornings was one of three films green-lit by the Catalyst Project to go into production with a €250k budget. The other films were the festival favourite Eamon and the as-yet unreleased Redux but the scheme was also responsible for incubating other fine films like His & Hers and Savage, that weren’t funded by the project itself but were developed to the point that production was almost inevitable, and was ultimately successful.

What comes across so strongly in conversation with Horgan is just how much he enjoyed making this intense, moving film. His eyes light up when he thinks back to the process, holed up in a Wicklow location for four weeks.

“The film is quite bleak, you could say, but the set was the happiest set I’ve ever been on. Perhaps that was a reaction to the material. We were a group of people doing something that we believed in and believing it was something we could do well. There was a strong feeling amongst the cast and crew that we had the potential to make a good film.”

The film imagines a world where society has broken down and the population is struggling to survive with no energy and limited resources. At the centre of the film, two couples form an uneasy alliance, hiding out in a remote lakeside cabin and hoping things will somehow improve.

Time passes. With precious little information from the outside world and an increasing amount of external threats to their survival, tensions rise between the characters, leaving the audience gripped by the action.

To make the film, it was vital that Horgan find a location cut off from the external world, both from the point of view of isolating his characters and also creating a quiet world away from the sounds of daily life.

“Writing the film, I thought I was being very clever because we only needed one location but when I actually broke it down I realised that the location had to provide a very long and specific list of requirements. It took us an awful long time to find it. We were at the top of a hill looking down at Lough Dan and we saw this place. I remember walking down the hill and looking in the windows and thinking, ‘this is it!’”

“It was just in the middle of nowhere but because of the film it needed to be in the middle of nowhere. It needed to have no lights, no noise, not even a road nearby or even livestock. And it had to big enough so that we could shoot four people in it and make it visually interesting.”

The film is definitely that. At times watching it, I was reminded that Horgan has a background in photography; so many of the frames could have been stunning photographs in themselves.

This visual strength allied to the bleak but beautiful location makes this film the best looking of the recent lower budget Irish films, in my opinion at least, and Horgan explains that he had a strong collaborative bond with cinematographer, Suzie Lavelle.

“Suzie was just a really great ally to make the film with. We spent two weeks on the set before filming, looking at everything and storyboarding. She has a document somewhere with photographs for every scene from the film but when it came to filming we just put that in the back pocket and were open to what would happen in front of us. There was a spontaneity and an energy about how things happened on set that gave the film life.”

Horgan has achieved a taut, compelling drama that sucks you in and won’t let go. Central to achieving this outcome is his choice of bravely long takes held in wider shots that drag the viewer into the centre of the unfolding human drama.

“I didn’t want to make a cutty film,” he says. “I started off in commercials where you cut so often. Where possible, I wanted to make the scene work in one take. I wanted to block the scenes and set the frame and create something that held the attention and held the drama without needing to cut to another angle. It just makes the film feel more real.”

Test screenings confirmed that the intensity of film could emotionally engage viewers. Horgan sat delighted amongst the punters while post-screening debates about the film unfolded. People were engaged and passionate about it. The film’s domestic premiere at Galway continued the trend and success at Slamdance suggests it has a bright future.

“It isn’t a film that’s everyone’s cup of tea but then it wasn’t intended to be. I think the people that get it, really get it. I certainly hope that it’s thought-provoking and, so far, it seems to be.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Departures - until Jan 7thWinner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, director Yojiro Takita’s drama conjures an arresting story from unlikely subject matter: the travails of a cash-strapped cellist who takes on a new job preparing corpses for Japanese funeral rites.This fundamentally warm-hearted film finds a balance of humour and sobriety in its touching exploration of both the pain and the catharsis involved in saying our farewells.

YASUJIRO OZU SEASON - until Jan 29thRegarded by many critics as the greatest of Japanese directors, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963) is celebrated in this short season built around the re-release of digitally restored versions of Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Autumn (1960).

SCREENINGS:An Autumn Afternoon (Sanma No Aji) until Jan 7th Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) until Jan 14th Floating Weeds (Ukigusa) Jan 16th & 18th The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-Ke No Aki) Jan 17th & 19th Late Autumn (Akibiyori) from Jan 29th.

Coming soon

Still Walking - Jan 15th - 28thHirokazu Kore-eda’s previous work (After Life, Nobody Knows) has been impressive, but this family drama is so wise and true that it affirms his position at the forefront of Japanese cinema. It revolves around a single family gathering, in which elderly parents host their grown-up son and daughter, their respective partners and children. Ozu is a reference point, obviously, but you might as well say Jean Renoir or Chekhov. It’s that good.