It’s not all launches and screening. It’s not always fun (try editing for six weeks in a row). But given documentary-making is a big part of what we do I’ve decided to make this blog part of an on-going conversation about documentary-making in Ireland. We are a bit unusual at Athena Media is that we make documentaries for radio, television, online and hopefully cinema Belmayne: Gorgeous Living is a film feature documentary aimed at documentary festivals screenings).
People often ask where do the ideas come from, where does it all start? It many ways one of the first rules I learnt in print journalism was that anything and anyone can be a story. So ideas come from the people we met, the places we got and the chance encounters in life which inspire us.
We have a new documentary series starting on Setanta Ireland on February 6th ‘Pat Falvey: My Private Everest’, and that three part series represents over one year’s production work but two years planning and pitching to get it off the ground. It started with a chance encounter. I present the WMB (WomenMeanBusiness) Awards & Conference every year and in September 2008 Cork born explorer, Pat Falvey, was a key-note speaker. We sat beside each other over lunch and chatted about his life, adventures and his desire to make more documentary films. I told him I was interested in making a documentary of his life more than following any one expedition and that we should keep in touch. E-mail and skype chats led to a documentary outline which started as a radio documentary and pitched to BBC Radio 4. It was short-listed but didn’t get the green light. I developed it, kept chatting to Pat and worked it into a submission for the BAI Sound & Vision Round as a TV documentary series. First time round it was rejected - but feedback said they wanted to see it again with more details and a better budget breakdown. Second time round it succeeded and got funding as a broadcast series for Setanta Ireland, Setanta Sports. By October 2009 the project was finally off the ground and with our newly acquired Sony EX1 camera in hand we began filming with Pat at his base in Beaufort, Co Kerry.
The appeal for me in stories is always human psychology and motivation. What makes people do what they do? What shapes them? Drives them? In the beginning the key for me in Pat’s life story was to get through the corporate presentations and his often glib answers and find what liaw beneath so that what we eventually filmed and edited shone some light on character and motivation. Pat’s story is dramatic. The self-made millionaire who came from a modest, working-class background in North Cork, made his millions and lost it all by 29. A chance meeting brought him to the Kerry mountains and a journey which led him to Mt Everest and decades of goal-orientated adventure and achievement. Highly driven, extreme in character, Pat is someone who provokes a love/hate relationship with people. Many of the elite in the Irish mountaineering circles openly dislike him and declined to take part in the series. They see Falvey as a self-promoting egotist who does what he does to feed his own self-image rather than anything else. Yet the more time we spent with Pat the more we saw behind that loud, boostful exterior to see the good he does with charities, youth groups and communities. His friends swore life-long love but were often his first critics, and able to see him in a ‘warts and all’ perspective. Pat’s life journey, from the extremes of business to adventure, has brought some self-reflection. In recent years even his close family say he has softened and turned to mend some of the broken relationships in his life. Yet the goals of being first drive him. As our documentary series goes out he will be heading to the North Pole for the final leg of his Three Pole challenge with Clare O’Leary. The will to be first is part of Pat’s character. He does little quietly. All that is true but at the heart is someone personally generous and loyal whose story inspires those who often feel they can not fulfill their dreams or even have the courage to set dreams for themselves.
My niece who is turning fifteen recently said to me, when I asked about her dreams for the future or what she would love to do, ‘what’s the point having dreams? What if they don’t come true, you have to live with the disappointment’. While we are very different people for once I heard Pat Falvey ‘dream, and dream big’. Without dreams, without big ambitions, hopes and dreams in our life we can never grown and become the people we have the potential to be. Falvey journey is far from over.
The documentary ends with his determination to go back to the North Pole after failing last Spring. His has put himself into debt, quite extensive debt, to do that and in a sense it’s a personal goal which must run its course. What does he do when all the goals are over? He says he wants to tell his stories, to have a one-man show, to write more books, to make more films. A man who sleeps less than four hours a night will remain restless, not content with what exists, always seeking the next horizon.
In making the documentary we started with a simple idea, that grew and grew. It had enormous frustrations. The edit proved to be one of the most traumatic we’d ever gone experienced. Everything that could go wrong technically went wrong. Pat’s line, which gives the documentary its name, that ‘everyone has a private Everest’, something they are trying to conquer or achieve, for us came to mean finishing the documentary series itself! Nothing good comes easy.
Everything worth doing takes time, involves mistakes, failures and endurance. Why do we do it? Its never the most profitable business in the world. We’re usually lucky to cover our costs. But the reason for us, the motivation, is the power of story-telling and the impact of stories told well.
That’s what we believe in, that’s what we strive to achieve. It’s the universal stories of humanity, and how we can tell them, which makes all the frustrations and stresses of documentary-making worth the journey.
To help and support the documentary making community in Ireland I’ve created a Facebook Group, a private group, called Documentary Makers Ireland. Join us if you are making documentaries or interested in the art form.