One of six films kicking off the Just So / Sheffield Doc/Fest joint initiative Postcards – in which 12 grants of up to £5,000 will be awarded to support the creation of short form documentary work – Director Jonny Madderson heads to the west coast of Ireland where an infectiously charismatic, and diminutive, 12 year old jockey called Dylan steps up to the challenge of racing against his older, stronger peers at one of the biggest competitive meets on the grassroots horse racing calendar. Madderson takes DN trackside of the production of his independently funded underdog story, Five Stone of Lead.
Young jockeys racing in silks on beaches in the wilds of Ireland felt like something from another age. It’s a very cinematic world and the fact that these are kids striving to become professional jockeys added to the emotional tension. We travelled out to Ireland knowing the ingredients were there, we just needed to find the story. We met Dylan the night before the race. He was this tiny little guy with huge charisma and the presence of a rockstar. Dylan was an underdog, stepping up a level to compete with the older kids. We knew very quickly that he was our story.
Dylan was an underdog, stepping up a level to compete with the older kids. We knew very quickly that he was our story.
Five Stone of Lead was filmed over 4 days on the west coast of Ireland – the race was down the south in County Kerry, and Dylan’s backstory was filmed up around his home in County Donegal. The west coast is an inspiring part of the world and it gets in your blood. It’s wild and rugged and feels like the edge of the earth. The people there are natural storytellers. It’s a great place to make a film.
Dylan’s story is part of a very natural, understated world, and we wanted our approach to reflect that in everything we did – from camerawork right through to the sound design. On the shoot, we had a very small crew – just Eoin McLoughlin the DP, Matt Wilson the production manager and me. This influenced some of our decisions, but even if we’d had an option to use more crew and more elaborate kit and rigs, I don’t think we would have changed much at all about how we actually shot it. Working with Eoin was a very inspiring collaboration. Here’s his perspective of the shoot:
“Looking at the landscape of the west coast of Ireland we both felt that it deserved the widescreen aspect of anamorphics. The race was along an immaculate beach looking west, with the Atlantic behind, it was screaming for a letterbox presentation!”
As Jonny mentioned, a lot of our choices regarding kit were based on practical implications. Sometimes excessive amounts of kit can be a burden to a shoot, especially a doco that requires you to be incredibly mobile and constantly ON. We really had to move fast, the lively tide meant the races happened immediately one after another, and the jockeys certainly weren’t going to wait for us to reload a card! Once we’d chosen the lens format we really only had two camera options – the Red or Alexa. I knew we’d be handheld all day for 4 days straight without an AC so the Red seemed like the right call. We had a set of Kowa Anamorphics – 40mm, 50mm, 75mm & 100mm, and had an old spherical Cooke Cinetal 25-250mm zoom – which we only used during the races when we needed to push in on tights of hooves, etc. I’d used the Kowas before so was very comfortable with them. The 75mm was probably used most often. NDs were the only filters used. All kit came from from Vast Valley in Dublin.
The light is truly remarkable in that part of the world. It’s dramatic, constantly changing, and makes our job very easy! But the story is a raw one. The kids are tough, every race is a proper battle, and we didn’t want to over stylize that. The anamorphics have a strong enough look, so I think to light it and heavily grade it would have slightly removed us from the story. It had to be honest.”
Short docs are on the rise, thanks to the likes of Vimeo, Directors Notes, Short of the Week, and more and more film festivals that recognise the genre. It’s never been a better time to be a documentary filmmaker. Short documentaries are a creative form in their own right, and the storytelling must embrace this. Length, an attention grabbing opening, pacing and so on are all fundamental elements.
Short documentaries are a creative form in their own right, and the storytelling must embrace this.
But above all this, the short time length I think can free you up. There’s an interview with Francois Truffaut where he says of cinema “What is said and not shown is lost on the audience”. A lot of documentaries tell the audience what’s happening rather than show them – everything is explained and it doesn’t make you feel anything. With short-form, there isn’t the time to explain everything, and if you did it would be pretty dry. So we thought it interesting to try and make something more emotive and evocative of what it felt like to be there. We were therefore quite lean and light with the detail of the characters’ backgrounds, the amateur nature of the sport, the context of the race meeting and so on. We just tried to make a simple story about a young lad taking on a big challenge and growing up along the way.
Also, there was a feeling when we made it that there is so much depressing news going on in the world right now, that we wanted to contribute, even in the smallest way, something that was a little more uplifting. We took our lead from charming little Dylan and tried to make the film a crowdpleaser.
Five Stone of Lead is part of a broader independent platform we are launching called Postcards, in association with Sheffield Docfest. Postcards was created to back short-form documentary and explore the limits of this rising genre. We are starting a fund in 2016 and will be awarding commissions of up to £5,000 to the best and boldest submissions from emerging and established filmmakers. More details can be found on the dedicated site.