Director Joel Conroy talks to IFTN prior to the nationwide release of his IFTA Award winning surfing documentary ‘Waveriders’, opening on Friday April 3rd.
‘Waveriders’ links Ireland’s contemporary surfers and the story of the sport’s unlikely Irish roots through the life of George Freeth, the son of an Irishman who was responsible for the rebirth of surfing in Hawaii. The doc explores the international surfing phenomenon and the recognition of Ireland as a prime surfing location.
Shot on locations in Ireland, the UK and the US, the film climaxes when the Irish and international surfers come together on Sligo’s Mullaghmore beach to conquer the biggest wave ever to be surfed off Irish shores. Irish surfers to feature include; Ritchie Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies and Easky Britton, alongside World Champion surfer Kelly Slater and brothers Chris Malloy, Dan Malloy and Keith Malloy.
Co-written by Joel Conroy and Lauren Davies, actor Cillian Murphy (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) narrates the film which picked up the Audience Award at the 2008 Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and the scooped the George Morrison Feature Documentary Award at the 2009 IFTAs, the Award being presented by the legendary documentary maker himself.
With Margo Harkin producing from Besom Productions, the film marks Joel Conroy debut feature length documentary from his portfolio of credits including; ‘The Hunger Strike’ (2006), MTV’s reality series ‘Meet The Barkers’ (2004) and ‘Eye of the Storm’ (2002). Having played to sold out theatres in the US at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in January, Joel discusses with IFTN his motives behind making the documentary, the technical side to filming fifty foot waves and his decision to shoot on film instead of digital.
IFTN: Joel, why did you decide to make a documentary about surfing?
Joel Conroy: I’m a surfer myself and have been surfing since a very early stage in my life. I’ve always been in and around the ocean and seen the development of the sport in Ireland so by combining that with my film making background it was a very enticing and attractive thing for me to do. It wasn’t really until I read about this character George Freth who re-invented surfing in Hawaii, and then introduced it to California, that I realised there was the potential for a strong narrative sub plot story. By using him as the historical element in blending the contemporary characters spread over three or four generations, that was really when the whole project came together for me.
The Waveriders team
IFTN: When did you shoot the film?
JC: Because of the different seasons in Ireland, we filmed in Hawaii and California in our winter time, but most of it was shot in Ireland - about 95% of it. We shot it over an autumn, a winter, a spring, an autumn and a winter so it was spread over two years but into blocks in different parts of Ireland.
IFTN: What format did you shoot on?
JC: We made a decision not to shoot digital and to shoot film for two primary reasons. One was the light in Ireland. Film is much better at capturing definition especially in water. When it’s overcast, the overcast sky reflects of the ocean. You have no horizon line and it basically goes into a bleached out mass, but film shows the definition there and the reflections on the water just works magic.
The second reason was to shoot slow motion high speed because if you look at surfing with the naked eye from the shore, it doesn’t look like anything. If you take the camera into the wave and slow it down for the human eye you get to see the beautiful ballet poetry on the wave. We used these Photo sonic 1VN cameras which were used in the 80s by American and British military to film the reaction of G force on pilots in mid flight, so they were very compact cameras. We got a couple of those customised and broke the gates on them to make them Super 16. We also used Bolexes and an Acon A mm. There was a whole variety of cameras for different stages .When we were shooting the Cliffs of Moher scene there were five cameras running simultaneously; one on the back of the jet ski, one in the boat and three on the cliffs.
IFTN: How did the camera person feel when a monster wave was coming towards them!?
JC: The key thing with the surf camera operator is not only do you need to know about filming but also you have to be a surfer and an extremely strong swimmer. That combination of skills is an extremely rare thing. We had a few different people. There was Chris Kelly who did some of the shots inside the water barrel; Scott Kassenoff shot off the back of a jet ski; and another guy Jason Baffa, a Californian cameraman, came over and shot the big wave.
IFTN: Describe the work that went into creating the soundscape to the film?
I have to say, Niall Brady from Screen Scene did an outstanding job. We obviously did the pure sounds for interviews no problem and recorded some soundscapes - but if you record a wave it’s a bit like white noise - it’s not really directional. Depending on the beach, if it’s sand or stony, it does give different sounds, but when you are out there it’s really about sound reflecting.
So the guys in post actually took some of the raw stuff we used but also built a database of different sounds on top of it, like thunder and volcanoes and different things like that. There was a whole layered effect. Niall got really involved in a very early stage of the post, thought about and built stuff for it. We basically gave him a free reign to go experiment as artistic collaboration was the whole nature of the film. I really tried to encourage people to think outside the box. It paid off seeing as the sound people got nominated for the IFTAs, which was great considering it is a documentary.
IFTN: How did surfer Kelly Slater become involved?
JC: Kelly is a really good friend of Gabe (the lead guy in the film) and he had just won his eighth world title down in France. He’s s like a superstar there, can’t go to restaurants or bars or else he would get mobbed. So with all the hype in France, he bailed out of there and we got him to Donegal. We just hung out and went to music gigs .He adored it, he didn’t want to leave.
IFTN: Tell me about the US premiere of the film in Santa Barbara?
Joel and Margo at IFTA
JC: There was an amazing reaction to it. It sold out in hours of going on sale and we ended up putting it on for another three screenings and they all sold out as well. The first screening was in a two and a half thousand seater auditorium and it was just mind blowing to have such a reaction. I was worried about it because it hadn’t been screened to international audiences, the only big screening we had was in the Dublin Film Festival because we’ve been sitting on the film for its theatrical release. I was anxious but opening to critical reviews and the feedback from the people was incredible.
IFTN: How did it feel to win the George Morrison Feature Documentary Award at the Irish Film and Television Awards?
JC: That was brilliant, especially to win the inaugural one. It was such a competitive field because there were really good quality documentaries made in Ireland last year. It was a total honour.
- ‘Waveriders’ is released nationwide by Element Pictures Distribution on Friday 3rd April in the following cinemas in Dublin: Cineworld, Screen, Lighthouse, Movies @ Dundrum, Movies @ Swords as well as Limerick’s Omniplex; Cork’s Gate Cinema; Galway’s Eye Cinema; Sligo’s Gaiety; Derry’s Omniplex; Belfast’s Moviehouse and in the UK in the Odeon London – Kingston, Odeon London – Greenwich, Printworks Manchester, Vue Plymouth and Odeon Glasgow.