Talent Talks at Galway Film Centre


Galway Film Centre copy

The Galway Film Centre’s Talent Talks series continues this season with a talk with documentary-maker, Ross Whitaker. Ross will discuss the lessons learned from the documentaries that he has made over the last ten years. The session will be hosted by Documentary-maker and GMIT lecturer, Donal Haughey. Having worked across feature-length documentaries, short documentaries, sports films, current affairs and formats, Ross has insights into all aspects of factual filmmaking and will talk about:

  • accessing funding
  • differing approaches to documentary-making
  • interview techniques
  • self-shooting
  • visual storytelling
  • festival strategies
  • choosing the right type of distribution.

Filmmakers will be welcome to ask questions and discuss their own projects. Ross’ past films include Bye Bye Now, Home Turf, Saviours and When Ali Came to Ireland. Ross’s new feature documentary, UNBREAKABLE, is due to be released in October 2014.

Date: 1pm -4pm, Saturday October 11th, 2014.

Cost: €10.


Web: http://www.galwayfilmcentre.ie/training/4319/


Audio Interview: Ross Whitaker, IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival Programmer


In this interview, Donnchadh Tiernan talks to Ross Whitaker, the Festival Programmer of the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival, which takes place September 25th – 28th.

This year’s festival includes the world premiere of Ciarín Scott’s In a House That Ceased to Be as well as premieres for other Irish films, including Blood Fruit, Showrunners and It Came from Connemara!!.

The international programme includes Irish premieres of Steve James’ Life Itself about the film critic Roger Ebert, Kim Longinotto’s  Love is All, Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, Andreas Johnsen’s Ai Weiwei – The Fake Case and Amir Amirani’s We Are Many. 

The festival also welcomes Amir, Kim and Andreas as guests to the festival, along with long-time Werner Herzog producer André Singer, who presents his new film Night Will Fall.

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6 Reasons You Should Go to Sheffield Doc/Fest



Well, a qualification first, the ‘you’ I’m speaking to is a documentary maker who hopes to make funded documentaries for widespread audiences. Sheffield Doc/Fest is coming around again in June and if you’re serious about documentaries it could be time to start planning your trip. Here’s why:


1.     IT’S EASY – it’s cheap and easy to get to from Ireland, with direct flights to Manchester often costing less than 50 euros. And Sheffield, not being a major capital like London or New York, has pretty reasonable accommodation if you book in advance. Like, now!!


2.     INSPIRING WORK – big festivals are the place to see many fantastic films that blow your mind and fill you with motivation to make your films as great as possible. The film programming at Sheffield is second to none and there are more brilliant films there than you’ll ever be able to fit in.


3.     ACCESS – I’ve been to a number of festivals and Sheffield is certainly one of the best in getting you access to the people you want to meet – whether it’s broadcasters, sales agents, distributors or potential collaborators. There are so many commissioning editors there and the atmosphere is more relaxed than some of the more high octane North American fests.


4.     PARTIES – Every night at Sheffield there’s somewhere to go and, again, the atmosphere is really relaxed, which is great for those who are reasonably new to festivals or not blessed (for these kinds of occasions) with a super extrovert personality (maybe most filmmakers aren’t?). You can easily get talking to any number of people just by being in the room. One word of caution, the pub is not the time for the hard sell but it’s a great opportunity to make a good first impression and get to know people.


5.     THE KNOWLEDGE – Alongside the movies are masterclasses, panels and workshops with some of the best and most knowledgable documentary people in the world. Last year there was a phenomenal Q&A with John Battsek, the Oscar-winning producer who seems to be attached to so many of the best documentaries being made these days.

6.     THE PROGRAMMES – Sheffield Doc/Fest is involved in a number of brilliant educational programmes that will increase your skills but also help you to build connections and contacts. The bigger ones are Devise to Deliver, for interactive projects and Fast Track to Features, which does exactly what it says on the tin.


The 21st Sheffield Doc/Fest runs 7-12 June 2014



What’s the Point of Film Festivals?



Director Ross Whitaker, who recently programmed this year’s IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival, writes about two experiences that reminded him why festivals are so special.


It’s not unusual for filmmakers to question what exactly a film festival can do for them and whether or not they should engage with festivals.


The festival circuit can be tiring and even tiresome and that’s for those who have made successful films (with competition so strong these days, rejection from festivals is the more regular experience). And one often notices producers and directors travelling less with their second and subsequent films than they do when drinking it all in (literally and figuratively) the first time around. Filmmakers can get a little jaded.


But two experiences recently showed me exactly why festivals are great. It was attending film festivals that made me interested in filmmaking in the first place but I maybe needed a little reminding of the good things about the festival experience.


Firstly, I was lucky enough to programme the IFI Stranger Than Fiction Documentary Festival this year and while it was my second time programming it this year, it was the first time under my short watch that I felt that it really came together as a fully fledged festival. Over the course of the weekend, over thirty filmmakers were involved in some capacity with the festival, whether that was by presenting films, hosting Q&As or taking part in panels.


A festival is not just about filmmakers, though, the event is as much about the audience, but funnily enough it seems that the proliferation of guests correlated with audience numbers increasing on the previous year. And having great audiences at the festival certainly put a spring in the step of the filmmakers who felt like their work was being well received. The festival really worked and the audience fed into the filmmakers and vice versa. For both contingents it was clearly an enjoyable experience and filmmakers were learning about their own work while audiences were learning about them. There were brilliant Q&As and at least one standing ovation.


The other positive effect of participation was the little conversations that were happening at the side of the festival. One filmmaker took the opportunity to interview another guest for a future documentary and there were at least two commitments to consider further coproduction opportunities between Irish and international filmmakers. Just by being at the festival, opportunities were presenting themselves.


The Stranger Than Fiction experience really fed into my following weekend when I changed roles and flew to New York as a filmmaker. Kindly supported by Culture Ireland, Aideen O’Sullivan and I went to New York to present our film When Ali Came to Ireland at New York Irish Film. There were great opportunities in travelling to New York as there are so many people working in the industry there but the best moment of the festival came during the Q&A for the film.


We had put the word out about the screening and two people came along who we weren’t really expecting. One was experienced boxing promoter Don Elbaum who had been in Dublin for Ali’s fight in 1972 and the other was Thomas Hauser, Ali’s brilliant biographer. We asked them would they join us on stage for the chat after the film and they required little prompting.


What transpired could only be described as a kind of entertainment show as Don and Tom batted back and forth stories about Muhammad Ali that fully showed what a special and funny man the great boxer had been. The biggest laugh was for Hauser’s story about Muhammad Ali on a plane. When asked by the stewardess to buckle his seatbelt Ali responded, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess gave Ali a look that could kill and responded, “But Superman don’t need no plane. Buckle up honey.” Everyone laughed.

A special event like this could only take place at a film festival and it makes a festival screening a completely different experience to a regular screening at your local multiplex. There is something a little special about film festivals and while it can be easy to forget that, sometimes a little reminder goes a long way.


Irish Documentary ‘Home Turf’ To Tour US


Award-winning short documentary Home Turf is about to take off on tour, screening at a number of cities around the United States.


As part of programmes run by two separate film festivals, the tours will take Irish turf-cutting to the American masses as the film plays over 20 dates across the US.


Both Mountain Film Festival in Colorado and Rural Route Film Festival in New York State choose ‘best of’ selections and a programme of short films then travel to schools and cinemas nationwide.


The turf cutting film will play at venues as diverse as Durango, CO, Watercolor, FL and South Royalton, VT as well as more familiar venues like the Lincoln Center in New York.


“It’s amazing to think that a little film about turf-cutting resonates with audiences internationally. We tried to make the film about more that turf-cutting and touch on themes like the unexpected impacts of progress and how rural life and a certain type of manliness has been negatively changed. That really seems to have touched audiences everywhere. We’re delighted that it will be seen by so many people as part of these tours,” says co-director Ross Whitaker.


Home Turf is a fascinating visual celebration on the ancient art of cutting turf by hand in Co. Kerry, Ireland. Following a band of turf cutters from North Kerry throughout the cutting season from April to September, the film gives insight into a way of life that will soon be forgotten.


The short film produced and directed by Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker for True Films is part of the Irish Film Board Reality Bites scheme and won awards at the Kerry Film Festival and Lessinia Film Festival in Verona, Italy.





From the Archive: Graham Linehan – Master of Comedy

Graham Linehan Open Interview 15

How does comedy writer extraordinaire Graham Linehan do it? An IFTA ‘In Conversation With…’ interview gave Ross Whitaker the low-down

It’s probably fair to say that despite the mightiness of our craic and the seemingly bottomless pit of successful Irish comedians pulling faces on channels at home and abroad, we probably couldn’t really consider ourselves to be masters of television comedy.

This nagging feeling isn’t helped by the close proximity to us of a country that has produced some of the finest panel, sketch and situation comedy in the history of television. In recent times, what have we produced to rival the likes of Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show, Have I Got News For You, Only Fools and Horses or The Office? We haven’t even come close.

There have been good moments, no doubt. Back in the day, Don’t Feed the Gondolas had its moments and I, for one, was highly impressed by the recent rté sketch show Your Bad Self and was sorry to hear that it won’t be returning. Still, the success stories have been few and far between.

There’s one shining light, of course: a superb sit-com about priests, created by Irish writers and starring Irish actors that proved to be massively successful. Father Ted was no less than a phenomenon. And despite our poor tv comedy record, pretty much the only thing not Irish about Ted was that it was commissioned and broadcast by Channel 4.

By now, everyone in Ireland knows that the brilliant duo of Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan somehow fused their substantial talents to create a work of true genius. Father Ted is up there with the best of them, a complete classic that will no doubt be repeated on the small screen time and time again for many years to come without ever getting tired.

Since then, Linehan has gone on to create the outstanding comedy series Black Books with Dylan Moran and, more recently, The it  Crowd. It would be fair to say, he’s cracked it, so it was with great interest that I attended the recent ifta event, In Conversation with Graham Linehan.

Linehan was in Ireland for the making of a definitive Father Ted documentary to be directed by Adrian McCarthy of Wildfire Films, one he hopes will dispel a lot of myths that have grown up about Ted.

The biggest, he says, is that Father Ted was first offered to and refused by rté. Linehan and Mathews had already been working in London and developing relationships with broadcasters for a while when they came up with the idea of Ted, so pitching it in the uk seemed like the sensible thing to do.

‘We didn’t do it with RTÉ because we were in England and we had a career there, so it would have been strange to go back to Ireland and start from the bottom in  RTÉ, a company that never really made a successful studio sitcom. Because there was no infrastructure in Ireland for those kind of studio sitcoms, it would have been crazy to give it to them.  RTÉ did many great things but studio sitcoms was not one of them.’


Linehan had started out as a music journalist and film critic in London and seized his chance to move into comedy writing when Mathews decided to also move to the UK. They ended up living together for four years and developing a close writing relationship.

‘Me and Arthur had this thing – because Arthur has an incredible sense of humour – and we were able to translate our conversations onto the page and it was just a good mix.’

‘We took turns. Arthur would write two pages and then I’d sit down and read it and I’d laugh and I’d have an idea for fixing something, so I’d edit it and then I’d write on a few pages. We used to have Magic Eye pictures and basically one of us would be writing and the other would be staring at a picture trying to see a rabbit.’

This ability and desire to edit their own work seems to be central to their success as writers. Linehan explains that he and Mathews were always happy to redraft their work if they felt it would make it better and suggests it’s something more writers might embrace.

‘We were very happy to throw out a scene or a plotline if it didn’t work. Writers can sometimes be defensive about notes but we would be happy to take it away and create a new plotline and ten pages that were totally different. I love that.’

‘To me, the first draft is always a horrible, unpleasant grind but the second draft and the third draft I love because you can see the story, the jokes are getting better and bad plotlines are being squeezed out by the good stuff and then you get to a stage where the script is in such good shape that you’re literally just talking about full-stops and commas and that’s a nice place to be and that’s when the really funny one-liners come in.’

‘I do find that a lot of writers still don’t understand how important rewriting is and how your first draft is just notes for the main draft. I see it as a bunch of notes, potentially funny ideas, jokes and situations that might work or might not. The first draft is just there so I have something to work from for the second draft where it really starts coming to life.’

Subsequent to Father Ted, Linehan and Mathews created Big Train, a sometimes surreal sketch show featuring Simon Pegg and Catherine Tate amongst others. While it was different from Ted, Linehan prefers not to use the word experimental. The aim is not to experiment but to make people laugh.

‘My thing is that telling a funny story or joke is already difficult enough, so I’m not really interested in pushing the boat out. I just want to be funny and it’s hard. When you hear an experimental piece of music, I think that’s easy to do; the difficult thing to do is create a song that’s around forever.’

While Linehan has also written for sketch shows like Alas Smith and Jones, The Fast Show and Harry Enfield and Chums in the past, his niche really seems to be the family-friendly sitcom that can be enjoyed by all.

‘I think with media now, everything is becoming atomized. Everyone in the family is in a different room on a different kind of media. I think what I’d like to do is try to bring everybody back into the room.’

‘It’s the stuff I always watched with my dad when I was a kid. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the excitement again of dad finally saying, ‘Ok, you can watch Fawlty Towers.’ I’m not too interested in mission statements but I do want to avoid comedy that drives people out of the room. If you’re watching a comedy show and somebody says something about menstruation and your father goes, “I’ll just go and make a cup of tea…” I want to do stuff that keeps you in the room.

Linehan shows a clip from The it Crowd that perfectly represents what he’s aiming for. An escalating scene where one gag leads to the next, each laugh greater than the last.

‘That’s what I’m always trying to do… You come up with a situation that has to be very believable because if it’s not believable nobody will laugh. But it also needs to be the kind of situation that gives birth to lots of other situations. If the situation is good then you’re almost just transcribing what would actually happen next.’

What’s clear listening to Linehan is just how much hard work he puts into making his shows look easy. The amount of thought and effort that goes into creating high quality comedy is mind-boggling and Linehan is certainly a man that all aspiring writers could learn from.


This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 134 in 2010. 




IFI’s Ireland on Sunday screens ‘When Ali Came to Ireland’

Commissioning editor of Film Ireland Magazine Ross Whitaker’s When Ali Came to Ireland is screening at the IFI this December as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday programme. The film, which Ross co-directed with filmmaker Aideen O’Sullivan, will screen at 1pm on Sunday 16th and will include a post-screening Q&A with the filmmakers.


When Ali Came to Ireland is the story of how Butty Sugrue, a circus strongman from Killorglin, Co. Kerry, pulled off a massive sporting coup in July 1972 when he arranged a fight in Croke Park between ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali and ex-con Alvin ‘Blue’ Lewis.


This documentary, presented during the 40th anniversary of the fight, combines a wealth of archival material with colourful reminiscences of people who came into contact with Ali – Eddie Kerr, the hurler who taught Ali hurling; Cathal O’Shannon, who famously interviewed him; the team from Offaly that built the ring and stayed up for the fight; Rock Brynner, son of Yul who was Ali’s close friend – to tell this unlikely tale which is infused with great warmth and good humour.


Filmmakers Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker will participate in a post-screening Q&A.


For more details and tickets click HERE>


‘Bye Bye Now’ on RTÉ Two tonight


Bye Bye Now screens tonight on RTÉ Two as part of their Shortscreen series.

The short documentary starts at 11:50pm tonight Monday,  24th September

Directed by Aideen O’Sullivan and Ross Whitaker, the Multi-Award-Winning short is an amusing, poignant documentary about the fate of the Irish phone booth, which has gone from the centre of society to the verge of extinction. The film tells the story not just of the rise and fall of these little concrete boxes but also of the deep changes to an entire society and shows what was lost along the way.