CELEBRATING the ordinary is what leading award-winning Irish documentary maker, Ken Wardrop, does with his films, which have documented mothers and their hyper-masculine sons as well as older women’s relationships with men.
That latter documentary, His & Hers, is the highest grossing home-produced documentary at the Irish box office.
Ken will be the guest director at First Cut! Youth Film Festival which takes place in Youghal from March 11 to 14.
He will give a presentation on his uniquely intimate films which have been screened at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals including Cannes and Sundance.
His most recent film, Making the Grade premiered at the South X South West film festival and is currently screening on Amazon.
Ken will share his film-making experience with the young attendees at the Cork festival.
Aged 46, Dublin-based Ken is originally from Portarlington. He lived in London for a while before finding his niche.
“I was enjoying life in London, not having a career focus other than an idea that I was kind of creative. I was working in an architectural firm as the office manager. There were all these architects who were actually enjoying their jobs, being creative. I wanted a bit of that but I wasn’t sure how I was creative.”
Ken had been studying arts at Trinity College Dublin “but abandoned ship”. After his sojourn in London, he returned to Dublin at the age of 26. A student of film moved into the apartment that Ken shared with a friend.
He started to “look over the shoulder” of the film student and became interested in what she was doing.
“I thought that maybe this was something I should do. So I applied for film school, thinking I might be a producer or a production designer. I didn’t really have an aspiration to be a director. When I got into the national film school, spending a few years there, I discovered I had a grá for directing, particularly documentaries.”
Although Ken has only made three documentaries (as well as a plethora of short films) in 15 years, he has made quite an impact on the genre. He says that while it’s difficult to break into film, he has been lucky.
“I couldn’t sustain living on documentary-making alone. There are a few people that manage to do that but ultimately, you have to combine it with something else. I’m involved in a company that makes commercials. I’ve made a complicated life choice.”
Making ads for TV and the big screen is Ken’s bread and butter. Making documentaries is his passion. Ken’s graduation film, a short entitled Undressing My Mother was a huge success.
“I had a really emotional journey making it. I had lost my dad and made this film in which my mother goes naked for the world to see. It was kind of a cathartic experience. In the film, my mother describes her love for my father. I got the idea to tell her love story, which is universal. My mother got lucky because she found the person of her dreams. I charted her love story. She lost my dad when she was in her early sixties.”
That film sparked His & Hers which was cast within a 50-mile radius of Rhode in Co Offaly. It featured women like Ken’s mother.
“I was using my personal story and my mum’s story and broadening it out. I’m a bit infatuated with mother stories. I think I’ve moved on a little bit.”
Making the Grade was inspired by the piano in the house that Ken shares with his partner.
“I had put a bit of insulation into the house and the piano no longer fitted into the alcove. My partner nearly had a seizure when he realised the piano had to go. He was like, ‘it’s more than a piano. It’s an upright Steinway’. I thought there could be a film in all these abandoned pianos. I grew up in a house where the piano was in the good room and no-one ever got to play it.”
Ken ended up making a documentary film about piano teachers. He filmed teachers all over the country.
“They’re amazing characters, including Eileen McCollum in Crosshaven.”
The casting process is vitally important for Ken’s documentaries.
“They’re all human stories. There has never been a huge amount at stake in my films. They’re not issue-driven. I celebrate the ordinary in many respects. My films are very gentle. A lot of documentary makers obviously go after the harder story but I tend to want to celebrate characters, to try to find the drama there.
“To be honest, it’s a more complicated sell when I’m looking for support and financial backers because the potential seems less obvious. I’ve only ever worked with wonderful people who jump off the screen. Audiences love them. Invariably, my film-making comes down to the people I find.”
Ken half-jokingly refers to himself as the ‘black sheep’ of his family.
“My two brothers are farmers and my sister was a teacher. I’m the only one that went into a kind of creative profession.”
Ken came out as gay when he was 21. “I was very lucky because my friends and parents accepted it very early on. I think they guessed it. I didn’t have a difficult story. I wish there was a bit of a story, but there isn’t.”
What is Ken’s advice to young people wanting to break into the film industry?
“There are so many different ways into the industry. I think ultimately you need passion and commitment because it’s a long old road. Unlike a lot of professions where you can see what the horizon holds, it’s more complicated and there are definitely a lot of lows with the highs. You get a lot of setbacks. But once you start producing and you have an integrity and an honesty and hopefully originality, people will begin to understand you and appreciate what you have to say to the world. Finding that is the most important aspect.”
Ken says he is lucky that he’s not totally relying on outside funding.
“I only go to Screen Ireland and they have been remarkably supportive of me over the years. But I’m not prolifically chasing funding as I have the commercials. I’m not knocking on the door looking for funding. When I do need it, I’m normally in a good position.”
MORE ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
First Cut! Youth Film Festival is an annual event dedicated to showcasing new films by young filmmakers. It takes place at the Mall Arts Centre in Youghal and The Regal Cinema, Co. Cork.
It provides young filmmakers between the ages of 12 and 24 with a platform for screening their short films. It is committed to ensuring that these screenings take place in a friendly and vibrant atmosphere where young people can meet and mingle with like-minded peers and share their passion for making films.
Whether working individually or as part of a school or youth group, panel discussions with participating filmmakers allow young audiences to take inspiration from the experiences of their contemporaries.
Prizes awarded during the festival include the Youth Advisory Council prize, Best Film, Best Director, Best Young Adults Film, Best Schools Film, Best Animation, Best Music Video and Best Documentary.
First Cut! also offers workshops and presentations by professional filmmakers at the cutting edge of Irish cinema.
Festival audiences have had the opportunity to listen to and engage with top-tier directors including the Oscar-nominated Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner) and Peter Foott, creator of the successful The Young Offenders film and series. In 2018, Cartoon Saloon’s Mark Mullery, technical director of The Breadwinner, was the festival’s special guest. He gave a presentation on that renowned Kilkenny-based animation studio and a glimpse into the making of The Breadwinner.