4 July 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
Ross Whitaker Talks ‘Katie’ with IFTN
24 Oct 2018 : Nathan Griffin
IFTN caught up with Irish Director Ross Whitaker to talk about his new feature documentary ‘Katie’, which opens in Irish cinemas this Friday, October 26th.

Having picked up the Best Irish Feature Documentary award at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year, ‘Katie’ intimately follows champion boxer Katie Taylor as she attempts to rebuild her career after a year of turmoil threatened to derail her career. With many writing her off, Taylor decided to start again, and the notoriously private champion agreed to let a small crew document her attempt to rescale the heights.

The documentary is produced by Ross Whitaker and Aideen O’Sullivan (‘When Ali Came to Ireland’) for True Films and Venom with Andrew Freedman (‘His & Hers’, ‘Mom and Me’) as Executive Producer. The film received funding from Screen Ireland, RTE, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Wildcard Distribution.

Whitaker won his first Irish Film & Television Award (IFTA) for Best Sports Programme in 2013 with ‘When Ali Came to Ireland’ and has received three other IFTA nominations since 2009. He has also received awards for Best Documentary at the Cork International Film Festival (2009), Irish Screen America (2013) and the Boston Irish Film Festival (2016). His previous credits include ‘Anthony Foley: Munsterman’, ‘Between Land and Sea’, ‘Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story’ and ‘When Ali Came to Ireland’.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Ross Whitaker to find out more about the making of ‘Katie’.

IFTN: Firstly, I just wanted to ask about how the opportunity to document Katie Taylor came about?

Ross: “What happened was after Katie was defeated in Rio, I was talking to a friend of mine whose name is Brian Peters who actually subsequently ended up being Katie's manager. He told me that he was considering becoming her manager. That hadn't happened yet. We're friends anyway. We were discussing it and he said, "What do you think?" I don't think he would have taken what I said into account anyway, but it was just a conversation about it.”

“He said to me, "If I was managing her, would you be interested in making a documentary about her?" and I knew that it would be one of those things where if someone else did it, I would regret it. When you think that way about it, then you realise that it obviously is something you should do. At that point, we haven't discussed it with Katie at all. We had a sit down with Katie and we explained what would be involved. She was actually much more open to it than I would have expected. Particularly, at that point in her career, it's incredibly brave after you've lost in Rio. It's a low point of your career.”

“We'd met before and I think that we had a good rapport. I think that she trusted me enough to at least start the process, and I trusted her enough that she was genuine about wanting to be open about her life and to give access. I suppose we started off and we'd see how it went and then we just kept going from there. I was filming with her for about 18 months in the end.”

IFTN: Can you tell me a little bit more about the actual process of filming? During training camps was it just yourself that travelled to film and was it done sporadically over weeks and months at a time?

Ross: “You find out in the film that she's now based in the States. I wasn't in a position to go and live in the States. Anyway, I don't think that would work for her anyway because after a few days of filming she'd be a little bit tired of you being around because she is a born introvert. We'd go over sporadically, usually, for a few days every month or two. We'd have in mind what we were trying to get from each trip.”

“It was usually me and I had a guy called Kevin Smith who I'd worked with before on the surfing documentary. He’s a really talented young cameraman but also we get on really well and he helps me a lot. Usually, it'd be the two of us going to her training camps. Around her fights, when it came to the access driven stuff like her hotel room, in cars with her, in dress rooms, that would all be me on my own.

Separate to that we did interviews. It's very hard to interview someone and film them at the same time. It was different camera people that did those interviews. There was a lot of time when it was just me and her. I think that she got so used to me being around and the camera being around. There would never be a point where I didn't have the camera. That was important. I would bring the camera to every situation.

There was never a time when the camera suddenly arrives and changes the mood of a situation. It was more that I just try to always have the camera there with us and it would just be as normal to her as having anyone else around.

IFTN: Were there any boundaries or ground rules set by Katie regarding access? And how did you go about ensuring that she could really be comfortable and give you a proper insight?

Ross: “Instead of doing it that way, I explained to her how I would go about it. I said, "Look, I don't want to end with the interview. I really want to witness your comeback. I really want to witness your career unfolding. I just want to be allowed to be there when things are happening and if at any point you feel like it's not suitable for me to be there, let me know." That never ended up happening because she's very comfortable with that approach.

“I'd only see an approach where you are constantly asking questions or interrupting the flow of what she was doing. There's moments when you can do those interviews or ask those questions but you have to be careful about how you choose them. I suppose from my point of view I said to her, ‘This is how I'm going to go about it. This is what you can expect from me but also this is what I'd like to expect from you, which is that if you're going to do this that you won't at some point decide that you’re having a bad day, or you don't want to film because how can we understand the good days if we haven't filmed you on the bad days?’"

“To my mind it was important to get that across to her at the start, and to explain so that she would know why, and that she would agree. Then at a later stage if that ever did happen, I'd be able to say, "Remember we discussed that, and this is why we want to do it," and so on. Katie is very sharp and she got that from the beginning. She said herself, "If I'm going to do this I want it to be truthful. I want it to be raw, I want it to be the real story of what happened."

“She consumes movies and documentaries and so on. She's competitive; she wanted the documentary to be good. She knew it would only be good if she did it properly. There weren’t really limitations as such, but I suppose I did feel like I understood her personality and I knew where I could push, and when to pull back.”

IFTN: What was the time period that you filmed over?

Ross: From the first filming until the last, it's about 20 months. 18 to 20 months. Towards the end, it was really just a few pickups.

IFTN: Were you very busy with other projects in between? How did you find managing that process?

Ross: “When you're making documentaries, and particularly, sometimes when the funding actually doesn't come at the very beginning because it takes a while for that process to happen, often times the documentary maker will be working on more than one project at a time. That was certainly the case with me, but I always made sure that Katie was a priority because we had a lot of people who had backed us and were relying on us to do a good job.”

“You do find that when you're filming these kind of films sporadically over time, you can schedule them a little bit and you can fit other things around them. During that time, I also made the Anthony Foley documentary about the Munster Rugby coach who died so tragically. You are mostly, as a documentary maker, working on several projects that are at different stages of the process where there's development, or production, or editing.”

“As you go along you're trying to reduce that to as few as possible so that you can make it as good as possible. It's very, very hard to do that in the world of documentary where the budgets are so much lower than drama.”

IFTN: The film chronicles Katie’s childhood and background in boxing through fantastic archive footage. How did you go about doing that research?

Ross:  “The producers I worked with, Aideen O’Sullivan and also we had assistant producer, Suri Grennell who were more involved in day to day in pulling all the archives and then I would watch that. During the development phase, I had gone into the RTÉ archive and done a bit of research. I had an overview of what was there, and then I went back and read a lot of articles about Katie.”

“There are tons of them out there I suppose, even ones where she's not interviewed, just articles about her. There was a book written from her point of view. On a basic level, her story had been documented, but really I suppose you never felt like: Firstly, it never had been put together all in one place. Secondly, it didn't really feel a lot of the time that in those years we got beyond the superficial with Katie. A lot of times you just see people before or after fights and so on, and she had never given access like this. No one had ever filmed her in her dressing room before. No one had been filming her in her hotel room before a fight. We were learning a little bit on the job about her personality and trying to respond to her cues in terms of what worked for her, and what got the best out of her, which was the key thing.”

“The background material was really useful as well, in that it started telling us what the theme of the film was which to my mind is really about overcoming the odds. How someone has constantly had these things stacked against her; whether it was that girl's boxing wasn't allowed in Ireland, whether it was that eventually her sport wasn't in the Olympics, and then ultimately trying again, to change the game as a professional. That theme just keeps coming up, and up, and up in her career. To me, that was the most important theme.”

“I didn't realize that it had actually gone back to when she was a child. She'd faced that all her life. I feel like that theme is repeated throughout her life. The backstory really is there to inform the comeback story, but at the same time, it does give you the sense of who she is before you really get to know her I think.”

IFTN: You mentioned the superficial side, an Olympic Gold Medallist - How did Katie stand up to that public persona when meeting her first and then dealing with her on a regular basis?

Ross: The funny thing about it is, and a lot of people that meet her will say it, is that she has this real aura about her. She has this quiet charisma and a star quality despite the fact that she's so quiet. It's quite unusual. I know other people that have met her for the first time and just come away from it a little bit giddier. She does have that quiet charisma.”

“The first one or two times when I met her, where we were having proper sit-down chats, you realized that you're in the company of someone that's a legend, but also someone that has something quite special about them. After a few meetings then you started to see them as the person that they are. It's incredibly important when you're making a documentary to not be making something that's elegiac and celebratory, and also touches on the hard times, the difficult times.”

“It's just a requirement for criticism of that person that beyond doing this, even though with Katie there probably aren't obvious things to uncover or to criticize about how she's lived her life. Ultimately, you have to, as a documentary maker, separate yourself a little bit. In those first meetings you're taken in a bit by someone that's a very special person.”

IFTN: You can't be a fanboy.

Ross: No, you can't. You can't be a fanboy. That's for sure! You have to be professional, even if you are a fanboy.”

IFTN: With interviewees in the movie, I was interested to know, did you get an opportunity to talk to everyone you wanted? Is there anyone that didn't engage? Obviously, in documentaries, you don't always get absolutely everyone that you're looking for.

Ross: Yes. We had some people in mind. We were thinking about interviewing Clare Balding the BBC television host. That would have been in Rio, but who would also have been a really articulate speaker on women sports. We didn't ultimately end up interviewing her. It just didn't work out schedule-wise. I'm not sure if she didn't want to do it or we couldn't get the schedule.”

“In the end, I think we had the right balance of interviewees. As much as I wanted as few as possible but who could still tell us her story. Her brother who is a year in age gap from her, Peter, he can almost articulate Katie's story better than she can herself. The story is really the comeback story, and I really wanted to dwell on the past as little as possible. At the same time, we need to know why she is coming back. What is the comeback from?”

“You have to cover that ground. In a way, you're trying to get through it as quickly as you can while still telling it in an interesting way, or still telling it in a comprehensive way. It was tricky from that point of view. As you know, Pete, her dad, is not interviewed in the film. That's something that we grappled with quite a lot in the making of the film because we wondered if he was required as someone to take part in that backstory. When we did a cut of the film and showed it to people, it was not something that they responded with. People didn't say that they felt like that was something that was missing from the film.”

“As he's absent from Katie's life, it makes sense to me that he should be absent from the story rather than commenting on the story. Once we showed it to people and they felt the same way, we continued on that road. Up until then, we weren't really sure what the right thing was to do.”

IFTN: On the topic of editing, I'd imagine there was a significant amount of footage to go through from those 20 months. Was it an approach where you regularly worked on the edit following each trip or did you save the footage until the end of filming?

Ross: “Yes. I usually just save it all to the end or towards the end because you have a better sense of where the story is going. You don't want to unnecessarily edit things that you later don't use. You want to get it underway because you don't want it to take forever, but I like starting as close to the end as possible because I can say to the editor, "I think this is the arc of the film."

“Some of the parts of the story were relatively quick and I know those were very hard to crack. Like doing, as I mentioned, the backstory, to do it in a comprehensive way but in a way that doesn't drag, was the hardest part. Getting that balance right and still wonder if we have what people seem to respond well to. At some point when you're editing film, you just have to stop. You may not feel like you're finished, but you have to allow people to see it and move on.”

IFTN: What advice would you have for aspiring documentarians? 

Ross: One of the most important things is to pick up a skill. In my case, it's camera. I've seen other people do it with sound. It's really important to have that because a lot of times with documentaries the budgets are small and if you can fulfil one of those other roles, you can make your money go further and certainly it's helped me. The other reason for that is when you're doing observational work, in particular, if you can keep your crew as small as possible, it also makes life easier and sometimes even having to fit in a car and things like that.”

“That would be the first thing. The second thing is different people feel differently. I try to be prolific because I feel when I'm making films I'm learning. I feel that if I continue to make work that's good then people will notice that and they'll hopefully get on board. Another way of looking at it is make less films but make them brilliant. If it takes you three years to make a 10-minute film that's really astonishing, then that can catapult you into people's consciousness as a filmmaker and lead to opportunities.”

“I'd be more likely to make six films in six years than one film in six years, you know what I mean? Certainly, I think the doing of it is important if you want to be a director and direct. Learn about directing and even more situations, then you learn from those situations, and you can bring that forward in your work. That's the second thing.”

“The third thing I would say which I think is really important is spend time in development. If you have an idea and you think it's really strong, spend time on development. Do interviews, but always do everything as well as it can be done. Never feel like, "This is only development therefore I'll film it badly or whatever it might be." One of the things I've found in terms of raising funding for documentaries is a great promo will do a ton of work for the film, more than words written on a page.”

“I've got funding for documentaries without writing anything on a page just by showing the promo. Becoming good at making those three or four-minute promos in the development to my mind is a massive part of raising funding for your films. That's something that sometimes people think is almost an annoyance. "We have to do a promo. The commissioning editors want to see this or that or the other," but to me it's the opposite. That promo could be worth hundreds of thousands of euro if you get it right and if people are excited by it. That to me would be the third piece of advice.”

‘Katie’ is being distributed by Wildcard Distribution and opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday, October 26th.

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