Photo by Kevin Smith
Between Land and Sea, which chronicles a year in the life of the big wave surf community in Lahinch, Co. Clare, has been touring Ireland for the last two months. The surprise hit has been critically acclaimed as well as attracting sold out audiences around the country. As it prepares for its last few screenings (at the Mermaid, Bray on May 15th and IFI, Dublin on May 16th) in Ireland and for its international market bow at the Cannes Film Festival next week, Ross reflects on the experience of making a surf film from the perspective of a complete outsider. (Screening info via BetweenLandAndSea.com)
When I was approached to direct Between Land and Sea by the producers at Motive Films, I was excited but very scared. Excited because it was something completely new with a blank page to work from (after about six years working on my previous film!) and because I knew that I would be filming in a spectacular place. And scared because I knew nothing about surfing and because I knew I’d be working from a low budget in a genre where films are rarely less than spectacular. Indeed, hadn’t there already been a brilliant surf film made just a few years ago, Wave Riders? And the director of that film, Joel Conroy, was a surfer himself who knew the world inside out. Still, I figured it was too great an opportunity to dismiss and decided I’d just have to learn how to make the film as I made the film.
Here are some of the things I learned making the film.
1. Know what you do and don’t know – one of the most daunting but ultimately helpful aspects of starting this documentary was realising that I had very much a blank page in front of me. I knew very little about surfing, so I tried to turn that into a positive in two ways. Firstly, by making sure I played to my strengths, chiefly to try to make my characters comfortable enough to be themselves on camera. And secondly, I kept an open mind to everything and everyone in Lahinch, who could educate me about surfing, and tried to use that information to portray the surfing world as they saw it.
2. Find someone who knows the world you’re in – as I started the film, the producers (Anne McLoughlin and Jamie D’Alton) said to me, “it would be great if you could find a local person who could work with you on the ground.” Thankfully, this happened and I was very lucky to meet Kevin Smith, a brilliant young filmmaker living in the area who was happy to collaborate on the film. I had to overcome my instinct to want to make the on-the-ground creative decisions myself and open myself up to the expertise, knowledge and connections of a locally based person. The rewards, in terms of what we were able to capture with a small but dedicated team, were massive.
3. Adapt your style to what’s in front of you – while Between Land and Sea maintains many elements of my previous films (I hope it has a sense of character intimacy and is interested in some of the same themes), I wanted it to also be specific to its environment. After a little time there, it struck me how different and special the light is in the west of Ireland and I wanted to get this across at all times, so I decided that everything should be naturally lit and that we would use no lights in the making of the film. I hope this gives the film a more natural light and reflects to some degree what it feels like to be there. Another thing that struck me in Clare was how it sounds very different to the east coast, so in the edit we tried to bring that to the film too. The pace of the film also tried to reflect the pace of life in the town. While a lot of surf films attempt to be high octane, the day-to-day life of coastal towns really isn’t like that, so that’s another thing we tried to reflect.
4. Explain what you plan to do and then do that – the people who I filmed in Lahinch were hugely generous with their time and energy and increasingly so as filming went on. I came to understand that people in surfing communities are well used to outsiders coming along and filming them but that they have also grown a little tired of this, particularly when people make promises that they don’t keep. So, from quite early on, I tried to be clear about my intentions and how I thought things would pan out. I think as people saw that I was serious about what I was trying to do, that a mutual respect developed and this was key to being able to capture people naturally.
5. Work with an editor who gets it – the editor of the film is Andrew Hearne and I really wanted him to cut the film, not just because he’s a wonderful editor but because he also grew up in a seaside surf town. Andrew grew up in Tramore, a great surf town in Waterford, so when he was cutting the film, he really understood the rhythms of life and the motivations of the characters. He contributed a huge amount to getting the feel of the film right because he had lived in a similar place.
6. Don’t underestimate the potential reach of the film – despite being a low-budget, obscure film and not in position to get distribution (with broadcasts coming soon and without Irish Film Board support, we were not an attractive proposition for distributors!), the film has surprised us in how it has managed to find an audience. I must remind myself in future that audiences do want to see honestly made films about other human beings and throw in some lovely landscapes and surfing and you might be amazed at what a film can achieve. Facebook has been key for us in getting the word out and a good trailer can spread the word fast about a film. Since my last film, Unbreakable, was distributed two years ago the media landscape has shifted and social media has become even more important. In addition, there are more media outlets than ever and if you cater to their needs, a film can get a lot of exposure even without a publicity budget. Finally, I’ve learned that a good local story can have international resonance and we’ve been delighted by the response of international sales agents who really seem to get the universal themes of the film.
The film will screen at the March du Film at Cannes Film Festival and we’ll soon find out just how far this little film might travel!
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