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“Pigeon racers are old school, so they're all on Facebook. I can't even use the thing anymore, it's just literally all pigeons”; Gavin Fitzgerald discusses his fascinating and bizarre documentary, Million Dollar Pigeons
25 Nov 2022 : Nathan Griffin
Million Dollar Pigeons
Irish documentarian Gavin Fitzgerald spoke with IFTN ahead of the release of his new feature documentary Million Dollar Pigeons, to tell us more about the fascinating and bizarrely competitive world of pigeon racing.

Handled by Wildcard Distribution, Million Dollar Pigeons releases in Irish cinemas on Friday, November 25th.

The Irish documentary tracks the passionate and ferociously competitive international pigeon masters, known as fanciers, who will do whatever it takes to win. Big bucks, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights are invested into these feathered athletes, yet on race day all they can do is wait, hope, and pray. 

Fitzgerald’s guide into this competitive racing world is Ireland-based pigeon fancier John O’Brien. A father of two, he has 60 pigeons, including race winner “Big Balls”, that he routinely trains. Citing a vision that appeared to him while hallucinating, which confirmed he was meant to be in the sport, O’Brien has a big dream he wants to achieve.

Flying under the radar are a group of pigeon masters from the US, Thailand, China, and South Africa, competing in one of the most lucrative bird races on the planet. Each event is stranger and more exciting than the last. When scandal taints the crown-jewel event, the community is rocked and the future of the sport is up in the air.

The film had its world premiere at the prestigious Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and had its Irish premiere at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this year. Million Dollar Pigeons was produced by Samantha Corr for Venom Films (His & Hers, Katie). Wildcard Distribution and Vertigo Releasing are working in partnership with Dogwoof, the international sales agent, on the release. 

IFTN Editor Nathan Griffin spoke with Fitzgerald to find out more about the project.

IFTN: The last time we spoke was in 2019 ahead of the release of Liam Gallagher: As It Was. At the time you had this project in development and couldn’t say much about it other than the title. I feel a lot must have changed between now and then given the impact of the pandemic on both the documentary and the sport?

Fitzgerald: “Yeah, it was a funny one. I mean, the idea has been kind of in the ether for a while, and I suppose where it gathered steam was in 2018. It's hard to say it out loud, but in 2018, we went to Sheffield with it, with Venom films. It was there actually, that we made a connection with Dogwoof. They actually came on at an early development stage, which is the first time they've done it for an Irish project. So that encouraging, that the concept would work. And actually what helped it kind of, come together, was some of these pre sales from SVT, DOR, RTS, VORT and NHK. And then we had co-productions with ZAF and RTAY along with NHK in Japan. And then, of course, we had support from our Irish partners Screen Ireland, RTÉ and BAI.”

“Anyway, yeah, the basis of the idea remained the same, which was that we were going to make a documentary film around high stakes pigeon racing. And we're featuring characters from all over the globe. So you have maybe a working class, strong Irish character who's going up against pigeon masters in the US and China and Belgium, and you get very different types of characters, and worlds all competing in the same event. And I would say where the story changed along the way was in relation to the pandemic, events started to fall apart and the project had to adapt.”

“I always see documentaries as needing time, to find your story. So we had a lot of surprises along the way, and some of them will add drama to a story and we tried to just capitalize on that. The key word, like all these projects that were filming during a pandemic, was to adapt. We had to really embrace the remote shooting model, which we've now become experts on, shooting in up to 11 countries remotely. We had teams all over the world just helping us to get bits of footage that we couldn't be there for. And I'd be doing interviews via zoom just like this. And I'd have the crew on the other end and I'd be on the laptop, but it works.

“You know, I think when people see the film, the style is consistent, but a lot of the time I wasn't even in that country. So it was a totally new way of working and it's not something I thoroughly enjoyed, but it does work and I think that in the past, when we are talking about traveling, and production teams tend to sent people away for a one day shoot or a two day shoot, halfway across the world. It takes its toll and it costs, and it has an environmental print as well. And sometimes it's not necessary. Sometimes you just need to get an interview or whatever else. If you have really good connections around the world, you can consider remote shooting. So, it was actually a really great learning process but I will say it takes away a little of the fun and maintains the stress.”

IFTN: I suppose it isn’t ideal to do a large portion of the production via remote shoot, but the feedback I have heard from filmmakers following the pandemic is that it is quite useful to use it for certain sections of a production where you don’t necessarily have to be present. We now know that it can be done due to the fact people were forced to do it, so do you feel it’s useful in terms of saving time or costs?

Fitzgerald: “I think it kind of works out at the same cost roughly because unless you have very good relationship with your teams abroad, it works out as much of a muchness. But I suppose it allows you to be two places at once. There was a few times during the production where we had a live event field. And of course, during COVID, it's through Zoom, so we have to be in 2-3 places at once. So you have to do it remotely, I can only be in one place. So yeah, like it's something to not be afraid of. But I think I learned a lot of what works and what doesn't in remote shooting and the key things I took away from it is like one; have a just super experienced team and then two; is communication.

“Luckily, we did work with great teams around the world, I couldn't have made this film without them. We had a section of the film in Thailand, I don't speak the language, they didn't speak English. So, it's very hard to communicate, and to let the characters have a connection with somebody else, it's clunky, you know, with translations. So, stuff like that might even work better when it's done remotely, but it is definitely more fun being on set, so I hope to work that way moreso in the future!”

IFTN: Due to the fact that there were several film crews in several different countries, did you try to establish a parameter or requirement for the equipment that was used to film for consistency in the footage from each region or did this need to be left open and flexible?

Fitzgerald: “I said at the top of this documentary, oh we're going to shoot on this camera and we're going to keep this DOP and do this. But I think inevitably, when projects span over time, you're going to end up with a mixture of formats, and you really can't get the same camera. In China or Kuwait or wherever it might be, the cost of the camera or the availability of a certain camera is just not the same. So you have to adapt there.

“I think what you can keep consistent, which I found is the key for the visual is the lenses. So we really tried to keep a consistency on lenses, and then just just sharing clips sharing visual documents. Just communications again, just getting the DOP on board for what you're trying to do. And so yeah, it's not always possible to get the same kit, as much as we'd have like to, it just wasn’t possible.”

IFTN: The story to begin with was about people, about the craziness of the contest, and the high stakes involved, but did the introduction of the pandemic completely change the dynamic of the documentary as a whole, due to the fact that there was a reactive effect to something that was happening in tandem, while you were filming?

Fitzgerald: “It was a stressful kind of experience and trying to maintain the kind of basis of what your film is and how it kind of sold and even from the pre-sales, you kind of had to keep that essence of it. But yeah, along the way there was many surprises, and we just tried to embrace them. It opened up new doors, definitely. Initially, the film was called the ‘Million Dollar Pigeon Race’, but as things went along, it wasn't just about that one race,  it was about this industry. It became "Million Dollar Pigeons" because on one hand, you have high stakes, pigeon races around the world, that you have millions in prize money, but at the same time, you have pigeons selling around the world for over a million euro.

“When I started this project, the most expensive pigeon in the world was worth €300,000 euro, and by the time I finished it, it was up to 2 million. There's a shift in the pigeon industry, which I was also documenting. I found out as I went along, that really divides the pigeon community. And because you have some people that think that pigeons selling for more and more money is a good thing, because it brings attention, it brings people more money. It's a good thing for the sport, they think it's necessary for it to grow. But on the other hand, you have a lot of people who feel very strongly that it will be the death of the pigeon industry, that it ultimately excludes the working class. It almost  gentrifiers the sport in a way and you lose a lot of pigeon fanciers because they get priced out and they just can't they just can't compete with the big boys. I see both arguments and we tried to kind of reflect both of these perspectives in the film. So yeah, I think along the way, the story changed, but I hope it's kind of leads to a better film.”

IFTN: I've spoken to you before, whenever you did Conor McGregor: Notorious, a project where there was a whole element of uncertainty of what unfolds; no guarantee anything was going to happen. Then you did the Liam Gallagher documentary, where there were big expectations to deliver under time pressure. Having done projects like that before, did it give you confidence and belief that the story would still be there, to trust the process, and just persevere through what was going on?

Fitzgerald: “I figured doing a film on pigeon racing, there would be less egos, but of course, like, in every world, if you're the king of that world, with that comes a status. So, you know, I was well used to that. I've made a couple of films before, but this was a really, really big learning curve, just working with Venom films, and being given a little more time to make this, than is often the case with celebrity Bios. They rely on the deadline, which can be very, very important to them whereas when you're working with Dogwoof, Screen Ireland, etc. They do give you the time to make the film as strong as it can be. So that was lovely. We we spent a lot of time in the edit, of course, and we could pick up bits of the shoots that we needed. I was working with the editor, Andrew Hearn who I love working with as well. So, a really enjoyable process. A little more space than I'm used to on some of my previous projects. I really enjoyed that.”

IFTN: How did the world of Pigeon racing first come to your attention - did you just hear about it one day and think, ‘that's insane – there is a documentary in this’?

Fitzgerald: “My dad had the initial idea that I should make a documentary of pigeon racing, because he knew a pigeon fancier. One day, I called him, really just looking for a new subject. You know, one phone call can just suck you into a world and before I knew it I was out at a loft, and then another loft. I felt that there have been some documentaries made before about pigeon racing, and it was all quite local. So it was trying to find something that made it bigger than that. It was when I heard about a race in South Africa called the Million Dollar Pigeon Race. The names is in the title, it was just like, okay, so now we've got an international event based around pigeon racing. It's quirky, it's entertaining, and it opens up characters from all around the world. So, I went out there, I think it was in 2018. I just made the connections, I filmed the race, I got a sense of the world, and it just grew legs from there. The film probably would have been done quicker if it wasn't for the pandemic, so it was a kind of four-year journey, but it was fun.”

IFTN: I'd say you met some very exuberant characters on that tour…

Fitzgerald: “Pigeon racers are old school, so they're all on Facebook. I can't even use the thing anymore, it's just literally all pigeons. They just share pictures of pigeons all day long, I feel like I have no friends anymore, except for pigeon fanciers. They are absolutely obsessed. I don't know how they're going to respond to this film, because they all have such wildly different views of the industry. But I kind of had to take the executive decision and it is a positive film about the sport, well I think it is. It is an ancient art. Like it's an amazing thing that people have utilized for many centuries.”

“The pigeon delivered the first ever message for the Olympic Games. They've saved 100s of 1000s of lives during war. So that there is this historic relationship between man and bird, between pigeon and man. The film it's not so much about the history of pigeons, but I think it's a it's an amazing thing to keep the tradition alive. These people are a dying breed, the money is bringing younger people into the sport, but it tends to be older and it tends to be men as well by the way that it's just a male dominated sport. I wouldn't want to see that tradition fade I think it's different to greyhound racing or horse racing. I'm sure there are sinister aspects to the racing part. Some people who don't keep them well. But in general like these pigeon fanciers love their pigeons, and when they race them, the birds are free, and they come back to the loft. It's a pretty, pretty cool thing, but when you're filming it, it's quite hard to film because it's like a 600 mile race. Pigeons are brought out to a spot, they're released and the first pigeon back wins so you can't put cameras on them, you can't really follow them with drones during the race. So it's all up to the imagination. You know, it's a lot of people waiting around for the pigeons to come home. And there's something simple about that, which I love.”

IFTN: So, hold on a second, they take them how far away?

Fitzgerald: “Yeah, I mean, the race is like 600 miles. So, your first pigeon home will be about eight hours.”

IFTN: It does 600 miles in eight hours?

Fitzgerald: “Yeah, depending on winds they fly 60 kilometers an hour, the good ones do. Some of them take like few days to come home. But the good ones will just belt it back. No, don't they don't stop for water. They don't stop for grain. They just go right home. It's this thing that's bred into them and modern science can't explain how they know their way home. It's a mystery. So that's the kind of fascination of pigeon racing.”

IFTN: That's amazing. Anyone I tell about the project, they don't need to know anything more, bar the name and they are invested. I'm just so intrigued whenever you have something that captivating, how exactly did you pitch it?

Fitzgerald: “Pigeons are inherently funny, even just the way they walk and waddle. When you start talking seriously about pigeons, you just kind of have to pinch yourself and smirk. So I find pitching it really fun. Our international premiere was in Hotdocs and after the screening all the audience just had loads more questions about pigeons. We found out during test screenings of the film that no matter what, if you answer one question about pigeons you're just gonna get another one. 'But how did it do this? But how do they do that?' You have to give enough info that people know what's happening but we need them to roll with it as well. It was fun pitching it, I guess, it was an easy sell for people that were interested in that kind of subject matter, but as I say it wasn't an easy road.”

Million Dollar Pigeons will be released in cinemas across Ireland on November 25th

Bloomsday Film Fest: Director Martin Turk and Line Producer Jeremiah Cullinane discuss Kino Volta
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