‘Hostile Environments’ is a new two part series commissioned by RTÉ and conceptualised by producer Tony Deegan which airs on RTÉ One at 9.35pm on Monday 9th January. It sees host Irish actor Liam Cunningham (The Guard, Hunger) travelling to West Africa in search of diamond dealers in episode one, followed by a visit to the Seychelles to follow Irish private security contractors abroad, in episode two.
IFTN sat down with Tony Deegan (Naked Camera, Coulter and Company) to discuss his inspiration for the series, how award winning actor Liam Cunningham got involved, the dangers with a shoot like this and to find out what exactly is HEAT training? Read on for more…
IFTN - How did you get interested in the topic of private security contractors as an idea for a series? What inspired you?
Tony Deegan - I suppose the initial idea came about when I came across some security contractors who were in Jamaica, around 2008, at the time I was doing a job in Jamaica and I basically came across some Irish guys over there. Another friend of mine had come across some Irish guys who were working also in Port au Prince in Haiti. When I came back to Ireland I tried getting an ‘in’ into this covert world.
IFTN - So where do you begin when you want to contact someone who is a private security contractor?
Tony Deegan – Initially, what I tried to do was to contact the company that was hiring these guys directly - but they decided they weren’t really interested. Obviously the problem is, I suppose, the whole security issues and sensitivity involved in these operations.
So I used a contact of mine who I knew in Jamaica who put me in touch with someone who said ‘ring this guy’. That is how it came about and I met an ex member of the Army Ranger Unit Wing and he, after numerous meetings, believed that I was legit and what I wanted to do was a good story without any bias. That it would represent what these guys honestly and that I had no real have an axe to bear. I wasn’t interested in sensational masonry or guns for hire. I basically wanted to see how Irish guys had become involved in the fastest growing industry in the world.
IFTN - What did you find when you did eventually gain access?
Tony Deegan - What became apparent really was that the Irish, especially the ex Special Forces guys had a unique advantage over a lot of other ex Special Forces guys that were working internationally – that is primarily because Ireland is a neutral country. For lots of different reasons, that allowed them to work in environments that are a lot more politically tricky. They don’t have colonial baggage.
For obvious reasons ex UK Special Forces guys couldn’t work in various territories primarily because of that colonial baggage that was there, especially soldiers in uniform were seen with resentment. The Irish had what they called ‘The Green Card’ and it allowed them under the banner of their neutrality they could operate in places, with less controversy. That is really how it came about. As well the defence forces guys are very well trained and because of the neutrality it gives them the opportunity to train with lots of different Special Forces companies and countries, that again, because of political bias they wouldn’t be allowed to do.
IFTN- How did Liam Cunningham get involved? Was he involved with the development?
Tony Deegan - No. When I originated the idea, and through my initial contact with the ex Ranger, I went out to Nice in July 2010 and I met Paul Butler. I shot an interview with him. It was only about two or three minutes. I knew instantly that he was an interesting character and a great guy to start the series. So when I came back I pitched the idea to RTÉ, there were a couple of runners and riders but I had always had in my head that Liam would be the best guy to get but initially people were saying there is no way he’s going to do it. RTÉ were saying if you can get him, great, but they didn’t hold out much hope.
So I got a number for Liam and rang him, kept it very brief, sent him an outline and he rang me the next day and said lets meet for a coffee. So I met him for coffee and he had a very good interest in the area of private security and the fact that he got into acting a bit late, when he was like 29, but he had worked with the ESB abroad and had been in a few hostile environments. He was basically there during the transition from Rhodesia into Nairobi. So he had come across private security contractors. Just purely by chance the real origins of private security originated in Rhodesia, there was a company called Executive Outcomes and they were seen as the first real private security company and Liam had known about them because of his time in Rhodesia. Even in what he was doing he was given a side arm because the area he was working in was so hostile, even though these guys were only repairing cable and electricity posts, they would have to be armed against what he called ‘insurgents’.
What exactly was your pitch to RTÉ? Did much of it change during development with RTÉ?
IFTN - I had basically pitched the whole idea to them. I had always foreseen this as a series. In the back of my mind was Ross Kemp but I wanted to do something different to what he was doing and get the balance between factual and entertainment. What happened originally was I went to the RTÉ open day and door stepped Steve Carson (Director of Television) and said I have this idea about private security contractors operating in hostile environments across the world and immediately he said that was very interesting and introduced me to Niamh O Connor.
I had never done anything for factual, I had done some multi-cultural stuff for RTÉ and stuff for RTÉ entertainment. I had never worked with Niamh and Sarah [?] and sat them down and told them what the idea was and had two potential characters and where their story might go. When I secured Liam they gave us some development money and said go with Liam and film four days in Nice with Paul. We filmed the four days which you see in the programme. That was originally like a demo. Primarily to see what the level of access was, what Liam was going to be like, was their legs to this story. When RTÉ saw it they saw the potential. I knew in the back of my mind Paul had this other operation that would take us somewhere hot. I knew he had operations whether it was Africa, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. I knew there was potentially something on the cards that was going to make great telly. When we came back from Nice we cut a 10 minute promo and RTÉ said they were very interested. We went to the next level, we went to Cork and got a bit of Paul’s back story and that led into Liberia. Immediately when we finished episode one we showed it to Niamh and straight away they said, do you have any more and I said yes because I had heard about the guys in The Seychelles. There are three or four different operations online if and when RTÉ decide to commission more.
Liam Cunningham in Hostile Environments
IFTN - How do you prepare for going into these hostile environments?
Tony Deegan - As part of the whole thing when I started doing the research and when I learned of the Liberian connection both myself and RTÉ decided that we should do some HEAT training, that is hostile environment awareness training. A lot of private security contractors do that service themselves because they are ex Special Forces. We wanted to we be impartial and keep away. We used a UK company called Remote Trauma. They are one of the most experienced hostile environment awareness training companies and any major UK programmes that are going to hostile environments they train the crew. It’s a five day course and they would gather intelligence specifically about where you are going to go and what potential threats are there. Based on that they would have private security personnel come in to train us to be aware when you are in hostile environment places.
You might be in a city centre environment – what are the warning signs? How do you travel in convoys? Each vehicle has to be in contact with the other and then we had an intensive day of first aid. They also, which was quite funny; they drop you into a hostile environment situation. For us, we ended up driving through a forest and we encountered the security guys manning a road block. They tested us on what we had learned in the five days. Stuff like locking the doors, notifying people by walkie talkie of your location and don’t get out of the car. We all had I.D.s that were laminated that we wore around our neck that said press, our Liberian work visa and our press accreditation that stated we were a TV crew from Ireland.
IFTN - What challenges did you encounter filming?
Tony Deegan- In terms of production wise none. It was entirely funded by RTÉ. There was a lot of insurance risks. I was unaware of this, but you can get ransom cover but you pay a very large fee. All that means that if and when you pay your own ransom that the insurance company will reimburse you the amount you paid but the fact none of us had a million dollars if we did get kidnapped so it seemed pointless. We had different insurance policies for the whole crew. When you get on the ground, that initial buzz of Africa can be very intense. You are on the ground very quickly, trying to get your bearings of what is going on. Once you are there for 24 hours you acclimatise very quickly and primarily our job is to make sure we are getting the programme.
IFTN - Did you experience any moments when you thought you might be in real danger?
Tony Deegan - There was a couple of moments there. At a local bridge it got very intense, which you can see in the programme where a couple of local guys came up to us and said you have no permission to be here, even though we had. It became very apparent that when whenever you leave Monrovia, whatever village you go into, whoever the head man is in the village - he is the one that’s in control.
We were open with them and told them what it was and fifty dollars later they said we will take you the leader. You have to be mindful all the time and primarily my role down there was obviously to get the goods, but also to weigh the ups and downs of certain things we should and shouldn’t do. We were mindful of where we were, we didn’t take any risks. We knew were going and we stuck to that.
IFTN - Do you have plans to do more like this?
Tony Deegan - Ideally. It will depend on the success of the first two. I mean there are a lot of Irish guys working internationally. The programme when it is broadcast will do one of two things, it will make people either run further away or it will make a lot of people interested. All the time I am trying to build relations within the industry which is a very small, select industry and they all know each other so I hope if RTÉ are willing I would like to do more.
‘Hostile Environments’ which is presented by Irish actor Liam Cunningham was shot throughout 2011. It was produced by Tony Deegan with executive producers for RTÉ Niamh O’Connor (Saints and Sinner, Rebellion) and Sarah Ryder (Saturday Night with Miriam, Scannál) of RTÉ and Gerry Hoban (Who Do You Think You Are?).
The sound recordist for the series was John Lowry (Tron, Wolfen). The director of photography was Emmett Harte (Croke Park Live, Anonymous) and it was shot on Sony EX3 in HD on card. It was directed by Ruth Meehan (Lilou, And the Red Man Went Green). The editor was Paul Giles (Atlantic, Don’t Leave Me Hanging) in Parana Bar.
‘Hostile Environments’ will be broadcast on RTÉ One at 9.35pm on Monday 9th January.