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Director Colm Quinn discusses documentary Ransom 79
23 May 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Ransom '79
We spoke with director Colm Quinn about his latest documentary, Ransom 79. The documentary releases in Irish cinemas this Friday, May 24th.

Colm Quinn is a documentary filmmaker. His previous work includes his debut feature Mattress Men, and RTÉ Documentary Charlie Bird: Loud and Clear. Mattress Men, which follows mattress salesman Michael Flynn inventing his online persona 'Mattress Mick', received the George Morrison Documentary Award at the IFTAs in 2017, and the award for Best Documentary at the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards.

Ransom ‘79 tells the story of Irish reporter Charlie Bird and his determination to break one final story before his life is cut short by Motor Neurone Disease. Charlie's sources have given him a true crime story, one that had remained secret for decades, the attempt by a criminal gang to extort millions from the Irish government. The disease has already taken Charlie's voice, but through the use of technology means he can still do interviews using a voice app on his iPad. Even as his strength falters, he keeps chasing the story.

The documentary features investigative journalist and playwright Colin Murphy joining Bird in the journey to uncover this story of extortion. John Kelleher and David Power produced Ransom '79, and Break Out Pictures are distributing the film in cinemas.

We sat down with director Colm Quinn to discuss how this project came about, the beginnings of his collaborations with Charlie Bird, and what Quinn hopes audiences will take away from the documentary.

IFTN: We see at the beginning that Charlie and Colin had worked together before, but I was wondering when you became involved in their search to uncover the ransom story?

COLM: “Well, It started with a phone call from John Kelleher, the producer, about three years ago. He had just heard Charlie's podcast, Ransom '79, which he did for the Irish Times. It struck John as something that could potentially be made into a documentary. Charlie was very keen to try and make something as well. That was before Charlie received his diagnosis with motor neuron disease.”

“So we essentially started developing it, myself, Charlie, John, and David Power, the other producer on the project. It was an interesting couple of months, because there was a certain amount of groundwork that Charlie had done on the podcast, and we were trying to figure out how that would translate into a documentary.”

IFTN: Prior to Ransom ‘79, you worked with Charlie on the documentary Charlie Bird: Loud and Clear, how did this project come about?

COLM: “On the Ransom '79 podcast itself, you can actually hear that there's something in Charlie’s voice, something not quite, not quite Charlie. He went and got that checked out, and did a series of tests over several months, and eventually got the news that it was motor neuron disease. At that point we sort of parked the Ransom '79 film.”

“Charlie wanted to explore the diagnosis, and the impact that it was having on him through a documentary, and we ended up making Charlie Bird: Loud and Clear for RTÉ. That's what we ended up focusing on for a couple of months, which took us from around October - November ‘21 through till around June ‘22. We covered Climb With Charlie, and Charlie getting to grips with the voicebank technology, and developing that to allow him to communicate. The voice bank technology was compiled from a series of samples of Charlie’s voice, so in turn, it became an opportunity for Charlie to look back on his career.”

IFTN: Ransom’s structure is split between investigative journalism and Charlie’s experiences with Motor Neuron disease, how did you go about unifying those two story elements?

COLM: “After Loud and Clear, there was a question of getting a handle on the Ransom '79 project, and whether Charlie still wanted to do it or not. He was as keen to do it as he was at the outset. We said okay, and we were figuring out a plan at that stage, which is when Charlie brought in Colin Murphy. Charlie and Colin have this really lovely rapport. I think we could see from the outset that there was just something very genuine between them, and that in documenting the journey they go on, there was something quite powerful in those scenes.”

“It was a challenging project, obviously, because we're dealing with the motor neuron disease piece in the present tense, but we've also got this investigation that's looking back into the past. So trying to balance those two elements was the challenge.”

“I think what was important when we were filming, was that you would capture both of those threads in the one scene. So when you see Charlie and Colin working together on the case and talking about the case, you also see Charlie dealing with the condition that he's dealing with. You have these two different parallel stories, but you’re capturing them both within the same individual scenes. That was how we unified those two story elements within the film, so that they didn't feel separate from each other.”

“It was a long edit. We were editing from around August last year, through till just really a couple of weeks ago. I was working remotely with an editor called Scott Dulson, who's based in Sheffield. We had done one or two pieces together in the past, but this was the first long form thing that we've done together.”

IFTN: What do you hope audiences take away from Ransom '79?

COLM: “What we would hope audiences will take away from Ransom '79 would be that they get a sense of the meaning, purpose and fulfillment that Charlie got from his work, even with the backdrop of this awful disease. That he was still able to keep going. Those moments are all over the film. It was a privilege to be able to capture it.”

Ransom '79 will be released in Irish cinemas from Friday, May 24th.

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