23 January 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTN Interviews Filmmaker Joe Lee; Director of documentary ‘Fortune’s Wheel’
09 Jun 2015 : Deirdre Molumby
‘Fortune’s Wheel’ is now showing at the IFI
Joe Lee’s latest documentary ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ follows the extraordinary true story of Bill Stephens, a lion-tamer in Dublin in the 1950s. The film reveals what happened when one of his lionesses escaped into the streets of Fairview in November 1951, as well as the tragedy that followed.

The feature won the Dublin Film Critics Circle Award for Best Irish Documentary at JDIFF this year. We spoke to Joe Lee about the film and his experience of bringing this gripping tale, which has survived by word-of-mouth alone for over sixty years, to the big screen.

IFTN: Starting from the beginning, where did the inspiration for ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ come from?

Joe Lee: ‘As a filmmaker, I’m very interested in stories about place and particularly about places around Dublin. In recent years, I’ve done work in Inchicore, the inner city and other places. Having grown up around Marino, I had always wanted to do something local.’

‘One day, I was at a lecture in the library there about the area and met Bill Whelan. We got to talking afterwards and he told me this story about his childhood fear of being attacked by a lion, which really captured my imagination. Then it turned out that when Bill got a bit older, this fear actually became more of a reality – a local lion tamer’s lioness actually escaped in the area. It was just such a story in itself and had so many elements to it. It happened right behind a cinema, which was central to the children and adults of the area, and it was such a wild, exotic thing to happen in a suburb in Dublin.’

‘I went out and did a series of audio interviews with people, which is usually my approach to projects, to find where the scope of the story was. At the time, our main subject of interest was this lion escape. A lot of the people who were first-hand witnesses of the event were actually in their seventies and eighties, so there was very much this sense that if we didn’t capture the story now, it could be lost. I found that there was really a huge variety of voices and accents in Marino which was really interesting. Then the other really interesting thing about the project was that nobody knew everything that had happened, there was no one flying around in a helicopter watching the event happen. So people saw parts of it, and it was great fun piecing that puzzle together. Then what came out of that was we started to ask questions: Who was the lion tamer? What was his life like before he started training lions? What happened in the aftermath of the lion escape? Then we learned more about the tragedy that surrounded his life.’

The personalities of the locals of Marino really burst through the screen. What was your experience of working with them?

Bill Whelan was a great resource because he knew everyone in Fairview. Another key thing that happened as we were researching was we met Lorraine Kennedy, who it turned out was the niece of Bill Stephens [the lion tamer]. So the three of us developed the story and then I directed and edited the film.’

‘With the locals, they were really just people we went out and talked to about the story and then they would recommend other people who knew other parts to the story. Some of those who we interviewed have passed away since so I’m really glad we were able to capture those stories before they died, and I hope that adds meaning for their families to have that memory. We ended up having some wonderful characters.’

How did your work before the film – in visual art, film and video, and TV documentary – influence the project?

‘When I was studying in NCAD, the phenomenon of urban culture wasn’t really recognised as part of Irish culture, the focus always being on this rural ideal. I was always interested in talking about stories that are more urban-based, so it’s been something I’ve always been interested in over the years. I was also very interested in iconography and photo montage work and you can see those influences as well.’

‘In college, I also became really disillusioned with the idea of the artist as a loner working in a garage somewhere on his masterpieces. I was always more interested in working with people and to make something altogether, sharing in the process. So I really like the collaborative nature of filmmaking and it’s always really fascinated me. I do need to work in my attic a lot of the time on my own as well though.’

What was it like editing as well as directing the film?

‘It took ages! But I had a very clear structure of the film from fairly early on. I like things to be structured. It’s so easy to get lost if you don’t have that focus. I transcribed most of the interviews also, which actually does save time in the long run.’

‘There was a sense of sadness and bitterness over what had happened that was left in Lorraine’s family legacy, and she was wonderful at really bringing a new dimension and perspective to it. Then Bill Whelan was great at bringing this deep knowledge about the local take on events. And I suppose I ended up being a kind of circus master trying to bring those various elements together!’

‘We decided to make the film ourselves and I have a lot of equipment we were able to use. I’ve a great cameraman in Mick Doyle, who was DoP for Knuckle [a 2011 documentary about bare-knuckle fighting in the traveller community], and we’ve worked together for years. That made it possible as well and it gave us the freedom to make the film the way we did.’

You also interviewed members of the circus industry for the film – what was that like?

‘We got a lot of cooperation from the Irish circus community. We filmed a little bit in Courtney Circus and at Duffy’s Circus as well, Tom Duffy being the sort of godfather of that circus and a really nice guy. We also spoke to Herta Fossett of Fossett’s Circus, who really has a star presence in the film. Before Dublin Zoo opened, back in the 1950s, the circus really was spectacular in that it was the only place where you could see wild animals. That community are really quite upset and hurt with the animal rights people who say they are cruel. I found that quite striking. They live in close quarters with their animals and really love them. They also accept that it’s not right to have wild animals in confined spaces. Wild animals aren’t really a part of circuses as they were back then anymore.’

‘The circuses go up and down in popularity but those three businesses going around the country are surviving. They’re run by really lovely people and it was a pleasure to meet them and see a new perspective on the industry.’

The themes of community and family are really at the heart of Fortune’s Wheel. Did you approach the project with this in mind or did they emerge during the process?

‘I’ve worked a lot in the past in community and community development contexts, with public arts projects and in the social economy, so I always very much try to make things with people. I try not to treat them as subjects but as collaborators. You get added depth as a result. It can be the wrong approach with something like investigative journalism where you need to be objective, but I always felt that we were trying to articulate stories that have people at the heart of them.’

‘We do those initial interviews and develop a relationship that is built on trust, because I don’t want them to feel like I’m stealing their stories. I’d always be clear about what we were trying to do. So I feel that way of working with people ended up very much informing the narrative content in the film as well. None of that is accidental. It all comes from that type of work that I’ve done before.’

So what’s next in the pipeline for you?

‘I’m hoping to work on a project up in a place called Richmond Barracks, which has vastly changed over three ages – it was an army barracks for about a hundred years, then the court marshals following the 1916 Rising took place there, and then it was turned into housing. It was eventually reduced to slums and now it is just a field. I’d really like to bring that story of its two hundred year history to the screen.’

‘Fortune’s Wheel’ is showing at the IFI now.

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