30 January 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Jason Branagan discusses his new Irish Bobsleigh doc Breaking Ice
03 Jul 2020 : Nathan Griffin
Breaking Ice
We spoke with director Jason Branagan about his new feature length sports documentary Breaking Ice, which tells the story of Ireland’s first Winter Olympians – the Irish Bobsleigh Team.

In 1986 a London-Irishman by the name of Larry Tracey took it upon himself to form the Irish Bobsleigh and Luge Association. He recruited a group of elite Irish rowers and set his sights on qualifying the team for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Having achieved qualification for the games, the stage was set for an historic Olympic debut. But one thing stood in their way; the Olympic Council of Ireland.

Despite qualifying for the games, the OCI refused to allow them to compete at the games in Calgary, which saw the famous Jamaican bobsleigh team become Olympic heroes. Undeterred, the team evolved and set their sights on the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

Produced by Branagan’s productions company, Liberty Video, in association with Giant Studios and Parpcorp, Breaking Ice is written and directed by Jason Branagan; cinematography by Noel Greene edited John Michael Philips; music by Ken Baker; and animation by Rachel Fitzgerald. Branagan produced the film alongside co-producers Karin Larkin and Kamal Ibrahim.

Join the Fleadh from 1pm on Sunday July 12th for this screening, which is followed by Q + A.

IFTN: This is definitely a story that not many people in Ireland would know about. How did you come across it and what was it that convinced you to document their story?

“I came across this story during the last Winter Games in 2018. I read an article about Ireland’s history at the games and it happened to mention that 2018 should have been the 30th anniversary of our Winter Olympic debut. It said we had qualified for the bobsleigh event in 1988 but had our entry withdrawn at the last minute. I started doing a little research and just found myself completely engrossed in the story. I grew up with a healthy dose of Cool Runnings courtesy of The Big Big Movie on RTE2, so it kind of blew my mind that I didn’t know we had a bobsleigh team.

“When I started telling others about it, it became apparent that almost no one had ever heard the story before. When I realised that, I knew that if I didn’t jump into making the story I’d sit down to watch TV in a couple of years and someone else would have done it and I’d be kicking myself. The more I researched the more the story spoke to me personally too, so I also felt like I was the right person to try and tell the story, and that I could do the story and the athletes justice.”

IFTN: You previously mentioned that your love of indie film is rooted deep in your childhood through your dad’s video library in The Liberties. Was this something that motivated you to make this low-budget project about under-funded and under-appreciated underdogs a reality?

“In a general sense, yes; that love of film is ingrained in me and its part of what motivates me when I approach any project. But when I look at it now, I think a big part of my motivation to make this particular film was the parallels I could draw between myself and the athletes. Without proper backing and support, they found a way to get the job done by taking one step at a time, using what resources they had, and finding ways around anything and everything that stood in their way. I think that’s something that a lot of filmmakers can relate to.

“I wouldn’t even fathom comparing what we’ve done in making this film to what they achieved, but the way that they did really resonated with it because I could empathize with the process and I had found a great affinity with the guys. Because of that connection to the material, it just felt like an important story to tell; personally I really wanted to champion these athletes and what they achieved. That and I just really thought it had legs and could make a great documentary.”

IFTN: Given the circumstances and difficulties that the team faced from the Olympic Council during their time Bobsleighing, it is understandable that the team members were sceptical initially of your interest in making a documentary. How did you convince them that your intentions were good and to come on board the project?

“That was a process of conversations and meetings. The first person I contacted was Larry Tracey. Larry founded the team and started the whole thing. At that stage, I felt that without him, it just wouldn’t work. I spoke with Larry on the phone a handful of times and shared some of my previous work, plus a few trailers and clips from docs I felt might be similar to what I hoped to achieve. Then he happened to be in Dublin and we had a coffee. It’s one of those things where you’re not 100% sure what story you’ll find when you sit down, but I knew I wanted to make something that was a fun watch; so from the get-go, I tried to explain what I was aiming for tonally and that I wanted to champion what they achieved and approach the film from the perspective of legacy.

“My approach was simply to be open and honest with everyone every step of the way and in the end; those reservations were put aside and everyone agreed to sit down for the film. I’ll be forever grateful for that. We held a private screening for the contributors and their families back in February. I think there may have been some nerves about what went in and what didn’t but everyone was very happy with the end product.”

IFTN: The documentary is independently financed and took two years to complete. Can you tell me a little bit about the filming process and how you prepared and strategised on a tight budget?

“The topic itself is so niché that there didn’t seem to be a huge appetite to get the thing made but we had all the athletes committed so we just decided to get after it. Our first job was to get all their interviews done. We knew that once they were in the can we could re-evaluate and at that stage we would begin to see what our narrative was and we could figure out our next steps. February to September 2018 was research and contacting contributors. Then we shot all the interviews between September 2018 and January 2019.

“At that point, we started to assemble the doc – it was wall to wall talking heads but we needed to know the narrative would hold in that manner because going in we had no archive, etc. Once we had this bloated assembly we start trawling through Terry’s Hi8 tapes and pulling out what we could use. This went onto the timeline and we began to refine the film from there. Once we had used up the archive video, photos, and paper clippings, it was a case of sitting down and re-watching it with a critical eye and asking ourselves what’s missing. Once we put our finger on those elements we were able to come up with the next steps and timelines for completing. It wasn’t a case of production then post, it was a constantly living and evolving thing up until we picture locked.”

IFTN: For anyone that isn’t aware; Bobsleighing is stupidly dangerous. What was your initial reaction to some of the team’s stories during the interview?

“Going into the interviews I had a notion of the danger associated with the sports, but I didn’t quite grasp the extent of them. The risks of crashing are high; when you’re travelling at 80+ miles per house in a bob a crash can be fatal. There are some of the stories - particularly one that appears in the film about an athlete getting trapped under the bob – that I can vividly remember hearing for the first time because it’s just horrible. I have to say, the sport is a lot safer today than it was 30 years ago, but in listening to some of the crash stories the one thing I did realise though was that they grab you and throw you headfirst into the madness of what these guys have done so I knew exactly where they would sit within the narrative.”

IFTN: There is a lovely mix of animation and archive footage of the team during training and competitions used during the documentary. Editorially, how did you strike that balance and how did you decide to get animator Rachel Fitzgerald involved?

“Going into this project I knew that there was very little coverage of the bob team so we knew we needed a strong narrative thread anchored in the athlete’s interviews. After that, it was going to be a case of building out our visuals based on what we could get our hands-on. Where we got really lucky was that Terry McHugh happened to have a Hi8 camcorder at the time and he shot lots of footage while the guys were at international events and training. Terry was incredibly generous in handing over all his tapes for us to digitise and trawl through.

“Even with this archive, the film just felt like it was missing something – both editorially and quite literally. There were parts of certain stories that we just couldn’t bring to life visually so that’s when we made the decision to include short animated sequences. It was at that point we brought Rachel on. I hadn’t worked with animation before, but Rachel came highly recommended so we met and then started talking about the look and style of what we wanted and what we could realistically achieve. She came on board and delivered outstanding sequences that helped tie the whole thing together and brought important moments to life visually. I think they’re stunning too, and their inclusion gives the film this extra layer of polish.”

IFTN: The documentary is split between three different mediums: the interviews with the team, archive footage, and re-enactments (live-action and animation), which anchors the documentary with narration. Where did the idea to use the news reporter come from?

“Without giving too much away, the news reporter came from necessity really. After we looked at our first assembly we knew we needed something to fill in some of the blanks and move the narrative along. We talked about using title cards or voiceovers, but neither felt right. If we were going to use a narrative device, I wanted it to do more for the film than just tell an audience what they need to know. That’s where the news reporter came in – by using that particular device we could get important narrative information across and make a bit of a statement about the fact this incredible piece of Irish sporting history had been, for the most part, completely ignored.”

IFTN: What was your experience approaching the Olympic Organisation for access to Ireland’s debut at the Winter Olympic games?

“The experience itself was fine. We dealt with OTAB – the Olympic Television Archive Bureau – to try and get access to actual Olympic footage. It was a slow process, which wasn’t surprising, but we did get access to all the bob runs from the Games. The primary problem was the costs. The cost associated with licensing Olympic footage is outrageous. When we realised that we could make another film for the price of the rights to a few minutes of footage it pushed us in other directions – it was one of the deciding factors in choosing to include animations.”

IFTN: There is a special thank you to Prince Albert of Monaco in the credits. What is the reason behind that?

“When the bob team first went to bob school in 1986 they met Prince Albert of Monaco. He was a bob athlete and has actually competed at five Olympic Games. The athletes all had fond memories of Albert and competing against him, but he also advocated for Irish bobsleigh. For the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, the Irish had qualified a four-man bob for the first time; the problem was that they didn’t have a bob to compete in. Prince Albert gave them his reserve four-man sled to compete – and had it not been for that, they would have had to withdraw from the competition.

“Early on, we set about trying to get an interview and after about 9 months of work, we did. We had this incredible experience of flying over to Monaco and interviewing Albert in the Palace. He was great; so generous with his time and spoke so highly of the Irish bob team. Initially, we thought we’d end with the qualification of the four-man sled in 1998, but when we start cutting we realised the natural end of the film was the 1992 games. As a result, all the Albert footage had to go. We tried desperately to work it in, but we were forcing it so it inevitably ended up on the floor. But it was an incredible experience and it wouldn’t be right not to thank him, Nicolas Saussier, and Valerie Dusen-Granon at the Palace, who spent months working with us to organise it.”

Join the Fleadh on Sunday the 12th at 1PM for this screening.

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