TV producer Jonathon Ulrich, who was working on The Today Show in RTÉ Cork with Maura Derrane and Daithí Ó Sé for several months until it wrapped up for the summer recently, is a risk taker who always seems to land on his feet.
The 37-year-old American, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, studied broadcasting and new media in a small college in North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles. He worked there for a while before getting his big break in New Zealand, where he worked for a company that was bought by Warner Brothers.
“When I arrived in New Zealand, I got a job as a production co-ordinator,” says Jonathon. “It was early on in my career. The second week I was there, the company sent me off on a recce in Indonesia. It took me three days to get into the middle of absolutely nowhere.
“I had a guide with me. We lived with a remote tribe for three weeks. I documented it on film and was trying to figure out if it would be possible for us to bring a crew of 40 people there for a TV show. I went back to work, handing over my photos and notes. Then three months later, I brought 40 people and 960kgs of equipment to a remote location in West Sumatra. It was the first big job on a global scale that I did.
“It was a documentary/reality TV series called Ticket To The Tribes. Families thought they were going on a five star luxury vacation. It turned out that they had to live with remote tribes, as remote as you could get.”
Jonathon describes the experience as “amazing and life-changing.” But he admits that moving to New Zealand wasn’t easy.
“I initially went there for six months. When you have an end date in mind, it makes things easier. But I got great opportunities there, one after the other. I learned so much, developing my craft and finding out about different cultures. From there, I was able to travel to China, South America and throughout Asia. It opened my eyes to other ways of storytelling on TV. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me in terms of my career.”
Jonathon went on to freelance in New Zealand. He kept extending his stay until he got permanent residency. It took living in New Zealand for Jonathon to meet the Cork woman that is now his wife.
Joy Buckle, an actress, had lived in Wellington for a year. After returning to Ireland for a while, she went to Auckland. Her best friend from Ballincollig was dating a New Zealand actor.
Jonathon recalls: “He happened to be one of my best friends. He picked up Joy at the airport and said to her to ‘watch out for this American guy. You won’t want to have anything to do with him’. He was joking.
“There were sparks between myself and Joy. That was in 2011. We got married in 2016 and lived all that time in New Zealand.”
The couple have two children, Rocco, aged four, and Emme, aged two. When the children were very young, their parents stood back and said it was hard going, looking after them, with no support from their families.
“My family lives on the east coast of American and Joy’s family live in Ballincollig. We made the decision to go to Cork. The tough part is that I’m a shareholder of two businesses in New Zealand. My business partner is one of the biggest producers of television in New Zealand. I’m still a minority shareholder but I’ve stepped away from the company. There are a lot of opportunities in TV in New Zealand. It was a very difficult decision to leave.”
The family settled in Ballincollig in April, 2017, having sold most of their belongings and with just four bags carrying their worldly goods. Since making the move, Jonathon has been networking assiduously. This included going to Cannes for a television conference and getting in touch with the Irish Film Board who suggested that Jonathan contact Film in Cork. That has been beneficial.
“When I moved to Cork, I didn’t know one person (apart from his wife) and I spent the first six months going to Dublin every week, setting up meetings. It was difficult at the beginning but things began to work out.
“My wife’s aunt said I should meet CCCahoots (the Cork-based TV and film production company.) I met with Tadgh Hickey who directed The School (a comedy series screened on RTÉ in 2017). I was the director of photography for that. We have high hopes that it will travel.
“I was very lucky to work on The School. It was my first project in Ireland. I was an unknown entity in this country at the time.”
Being in the right place at the right time was how Jonathon got the gig on The Today Show. The programme “was down a producer,” he recalls. “I had met Colm Crowley from RTÉ Cork and he suggested I meet executive producer Janet Frawley. We talked about all the stuff I had done and she asked me if I was doing anything the next day. I was, but I was free the following day. So I started writing the script and producing an episode. I pretty much worked on the programme for the remainder of 2017 and into this year before it ended for the summer. There’s a good chance I’ll be back in RTÉ but nothing is confirmed yet.”
Moving from New Zealand to Cork with two young children and no work was scary. “But I have been very fortunate. I think it comes down to my having put myself out there. There’s a lot of talent in Ireland which could stack up to Hollywood or the UK.”
Jonathon was very impressed with the TV series, The Young Offenders.
“I know Peter Foott (the writer and director of the show and the original film). He’s brilliant. Joy had a small part in the series as an RTÉ reporter.”
Jonathon says he loves Cork and really wants to stay here “and bring more work to the area. I’d like to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Peter Foott.
“What he has done for the city is amazing. In the next two to three years, I hope to have a few productions happening.”
The artistic scene in Cork “is the best in the country. It’s a shame that more doesn’t happen in Cork. It doesn’t have a creative hub like Dublin and Galway.”
Jonathon has had a number of meetings with Rossa Mullin of Film in Cork, an organisation that promotes the region as a good place to make films.
“I’d love to work in conjunction with Rossa,” he says.
As a freelancer with a production company, Jonathon is keen to create opportunities.
He lives in Ballincollig with Joy and their children. What is the biggest culture shock that he experienced since moving to Cork?
“It’s a bit cliched but I’ve never had so many potatoes — from sweet potatoes to mashed and boiled potatoes, chips and crisps — all at one sitting, as I’ve had here.”