Frankie Fenton: “This is the end of the story for the film”
Having had it’s first screening at the Galway Film Fleadh way back in June of last year, It’s Not Yet Dark has wowed at Sundance and 14 other countries worldwide since from Serbia to Taiwan, Poland to Belgium. On Friday, it’s nationwide release back on home soil will see the documentary screen in cinemas in Cork, Dublin and Galway.
The feature follows the extraordinary story of Simon Fitzmaurice, the filmmaker and author who despite living with Motor Neurone Disease, directed the 2015 independent Irish movie My Name Is Emily. Simon’s memoir, also called It’s Not Yet Dark, was released a year earlier during the production of his Evanna Lynch-led film.
Locals to Ardee may be familiar with Simon’s story. His wife, Ruth O’Neill, grew up in Ardee – a daughter of David and Pat, her father known to many as a local GP in Ardee for many years. Earlier this year, Ruth released her own memoir about life since Simon’s MND diagnosis to much critical acclaim at home and abroad.
What connects the new documentary and Ardee even further however, is the man in the director’s chair. It’s Not Yet Dark is directed by Ardee native Frankie Fenton (pictured above with Ruth O’Neill Fitzmaurice, Kathryn Kennedy and Leslie McKimm) – son of another local GP, Frank. He and Ruth have known eachother for many years. Not that their history had any bearing on Fenton’s involvement in this new project, his directorial debut. That was a happy coincidence.
During the filming of My Name Is Emily, in which Simon assumed full directing duties despite communicating only using an eye gaze computer, producers Leslie McKimm and Kathryn Kennedy wanted to document the remarkable story happening behind the camera, Simon at the helm.
Speaking to ThisIsArdee.ie this week, Frankie told us he was initially brought in to make a film about a man making a film.
“I had recently done a crowdfunding appeal, a successful one. The producers of My Name Is Emily Katherine and Leslie wanted to get some completion finance for their film. They thought crowdfunding would be a good way to get them over the line and they came to me.
“They told me about the story of Simon and about half way through the meeting, it suddenly dawned on me they were talking about Ruth O’Neill’s husband,” he told us. “The O’Neills would have been close family friends growing up. My dad and her dad had a practice together in Ardee for donkeys years.
“Shortly after that, the producers decided they would like to make a documentary to document this world first – a guy with Motor Neurone Disease directing a feature film with his eye. They thought a doc would be a great idea and they knew that I was a doc maker so asked me to create a five min promo to see what I thought it might look like.
“Between the producers, Ruth and Simon they all liked the look of it and asked me to come on board and direct the film. At that time, it was just about making a film about a guy making a film.”
Remarkably, the entire documentary took a turn when Frankie and a couple of cameraman turned up one day for some shooting. The location was Easons and Simon launching his memoir. His what? This was news to the documentary team – but one that would change the direction of the film.
“I’m not sure who knew – but we didn’t,” he recalls of the surprise. Now, there was an entire memoir to add into the mix of this most remarkable story. “We turned up at Easons one day to shoot the book launch. We had a couple of camera guys with us and that was the first time I’d ever heard of it. That was a surprise but reading it, it really was incredible to see what Simon had been going through. He poured his heart out onto those pages.
However, at first at least, Frankie knew that if he he wanted to use the book to inform his documentary it would be a difficult. For all the material the book provided, the team simply didn’t have any images or video to translate it to film. Initially, a plan was formed to film reconstructions.
“If there was anything of the book I was able to use, it was few and far between. We simply didn’t have anything to picture it up,” said Frankie, who previously lived in London for nine years working as a production assistant on some of Britain’s best loved shows such as Britian’s Got Talent and Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.
The story of It’s Not Yet Dark, Frankie says, wasn’t a film it seemed possible to make due to the lack of archive footage of what Simon wrote about in the book. That’s not to say the director didn’t cast his net high and wide to find anything.
“I was phoning people up and e-mailing out and asking anyone and everyone who’d ever met Simon did they have any footage because all we had was 15 seconds of footage of him on his stag do. It was very grainy and on a Nokia. We got loads of photos but zero footage really,” the director tells us.
That was until Christmas 2015 when everything changed. After a lengthy process of trying to cobble together footage of Simon’s life pre-documentary, the main protagonist of book and film provided Frankie with what he needed.
“Simon basically handed over a hard drive with 10 or 11 years of his life,” he explains, “his experience before meeting Ruth, marrying her, having kids, getting MND and everything since. When he produced the hard drive, obviously, we had full footage of scenes from the book like the last time he danced or his wedding day or chasing after his son for the last time – he recorded it all.”
“It suddenly became a very different film – and a far richer one I think.” Interestingly, Simon allowed Frankie to embark on an exhaustive and utterly fruitless search for footage from friends, family and elsewhere before parting with his vault of cherished memories. Clearly, it was a decision that required thought. This was his personal archive, memories of times and a life gone by.
“I guess it was a big decision for Simon to give us that footage. Personally, I think it was a brave decision and we all felt very privileged to be granted that access by our chief protagonist,” Frankie says. “That’s why I got the nod in the first place. It was trust. As a documentary maker, all you ever want from the people you’re documenting is trust. That was very important to us.”
A unique situation, Frankie found himself telling the story of a man telling a story as filming of My Name Is Emily continued. Behind the people behind the cameras, the Ardee man’s task was to amass as much bureau footage as possible to use in the documentary. Armed with just a camera and some sound equipment, he went around his business as quietly as possible.
On occasion, Simon would tell Frankie to ditch the camera and go away. That’s directors for you. At first, the fledgling documentary maker was a little hurt by the comments but, he tells us, once Simon’s own archive footage was examined, it turned out Simon had received the very same critique more than once. “He’d been doing it for years!” Fenton laughs.
“No, Simon. Please. Put the camera down,” voices out of shot on various clips could be heard pleading. “That made me feel better!”
Moments, like the point in which Simon provided Frankie with that archive footage, stand out during the making of It’s Not Yet Dark. Another was the moment, Simon and Ruth first were given their own premiere in an editing suite as production neared it’s end.
Jokingly, Frankie recalls points during filming which she had to remind Simon that INYD was Frankie’s projct – not his own but ultimately, the subject of the film had no input in it’s outcome. That made the couples’ first viewing all the more nerve wracking for Frankie and the team.
It was terrifying” he recalls. “It was myself – our editor Dermot Diskin who is actually just finishing up Peaky Blinders, he’s a wonderful editor – and Katherine and Leslie sitting outside the editing suites and literally biting our nails for the 77 minutes.
“We gave them five to 10 minutes afterwards to give them some breathing space to talk things through or make notes but we knocked on the door and came in and they were in floods of tears – we all burst into floors of tears. We didn’t know what the story was. But they seemed to overwhelming approve of what we had done.
“I think Ruth’s words were thanks for creating something for our kids to see. There’s a whole, kind of, section of childhood were you won’t remember what’s happened. So much important stuff has happened to their parents. It’s a good document to have for them.
“It was really important that Simon was happy with how he was portrayed and [that] this [was] true to his words. Yeah, he basically said he wouldn’t change a thing. You can’t think of a nicer thing for your main protagonist to say,” Fenton continues.
Having read the book, actor Colin Farrell was brought on board to narrate, a result of the friendship the star of In Bruges and The Lobster subsequently struck up with Simon. Farrell had originally been asked to star in My Name Is Emily, in the role eventually given to Michael Smiley.
“We put it to Simon about Colin playing the voice and weirdly enough he liked the idea of a Hollywood A-lister being him,” Frankie told us. Ruth, he says, was also keen on the idea of hearing Farrell read several intimate lines written about her by her husband. What woman wouldn’t be?
“As soon as Colin started talking it became clear that it worked quite well. The litmus test was with the final product, Simon’s mother couldn’t really tell she was listening to Colin – she kept thinking she was listening to Simon. We’ve heard that across the board, even from Ruth. If you’re not hearing Colin Farrell, it’s because he’s done his job so well.”
With the film being screened in seven cinemas across Dublin, Cork and Galway from Friday, Frankie is thrilled that the time is finally here for the wider public to see his work and Simon’s story. His pride in finally being able to present his directorial debut – and such as a critically acclaimed one at that – to friends and family from home is evident as he talks.
“The story is from home. It’s by a guy from Ardee about a girl from Ardee. I’ll be very very pleased when folks get to see what all the fuss is about finally,” he says.
“We really did try to make something different and cinematic and that wasn’t about disability or MND. Really it was about Simon’s words, his experiences and most of all it’s a love story – not a romantic one but about the love of family, friends and that support network. That idea that we can achieve anything we want as long as we have the support around us.
“I’d love to take all the credit for making a great film but we had a super team, an all star cast between our cinematographer, our editor and producers but more than that, it’s the story that we’re telling that is the real clincher,” he continues. “This is the end of the story for the film.”
It is hoped that the film will be successful, and early indicators are good, enough to be rolled out to regional cinemas outside the big three cities. With Frankie and Ruth’s local links, he is excited by the prospect of a local screening.
“Fingers crossed we’ll end up in Dundalk or Drogheda. It’s my personal ambition to have a film in Dundalk and Drogheda at some point in my life,” he jokes.
For further information on screening venues and times, click here.