Love Yourself Today – Interview with director Ross Killeen

‘Love Yourself Today’ centres around the music of Irish singer songwriter Damien Dempsey but also turns the lens onto his fans. The film is an emotive celebration of modern spirituality and the power of music to heal.

Why did you decide to make the documentary?
I’m a massive music fan, and I love going to see live music. Growing up, I wasn’t really into introspective, so I wasn’t a huge Damien Dempsey fan. His music didn’t really resonate with me, but I was going through a bit of a rough time; my mum was very sick. Someone said I should go and see Damien Dempsey, that he does these Christmas shows every year and that people really got something from them. My wife was pregnant at the time, so we went along to the show and sat in Vicar Street. I was mildly curious; I wasn’t going along as a superfan. It was amazing. I spent most of the gig watching the crowd and how they sang every single song back to him. People were in tears. There was joy, there was so much emotion. I was emotional. At the end, everyone walked out of there feeling amazing. People were singing along after Damo left the stage. It was just incredible. We were speechless at the end. I had never really seen anything like it. The audience believed every word from him, but he got as much out of it as the fans. I honestly felt like I had been spiritually cleansed or something. Ross McDonnell is a photographer and an old friend. We met for a pint and got talking about the gig. He had been to one the year before, and he had an idea about making a documentary around the gig, the fans, and the connection. The minute he said it, I was in. I thought Ross would direct, but he was living in New York. We went back and forth on potential directors when Ross suggested I do it. I made a short documentary a few years ago called 99 Problems which did quite well. I wanted to do a feature documentary. I wrote out a treatment for how I’d like to do it and, through a mutual friend, managed to get it to Damien. I met Damien in a cafe and told him the idea, showed him the treatment, and showed him some of my previous work. Damo is a quiet person; he is hard to read. In the end, he looked at me and he said, this is great, we should make a film that helps people. From the beginning, there were three key rules. The first was to capture what happens in the room at the shows authentically. The second rule was to go deep with the characters, to understand what is in this music that resonates so deeply with people and makes them emotional and connects them with Damo as an artist. The third was can this film help people to get through whatever they’re going through. Everyone’s feeling something. Some people have been through the depths of life, and then other people, like me, might have problems that aren’t as big, but everyone’s dealing with something. Everyone feels a connection and a sense of community. It is a safe space for everyone to let go, there’s a lovely sense of warmth in the room, and it’s all emanating from Damo onstage.

Damien and his music are the focus, but the documentary follows the story of three fans, each with a difficult past. Was it hard to find people who were willing to open up and appear on camera?
I asked Damo if he knew any good candidates. I wanted people at various stages on their journey. I wanted someone who is looking back. Damo put me in touch with Jonathan and said he’d be a good man for this. I met Jonathan and explained to him what I wanted to do with the film. I wanted it to be the equivalent of going to the gig; you go in excited, then you go deep, you lay it all out, and then you come back up at the end, and you feel good. I wanted the narrative arc of the film to mirror the narrative arc of the gig. The cast’s motivation for getting involved was to help people by telling their stories and sharing what had gone on with them. Jonathan is an incredible character, and he shares some amazing wisdom in terms of what he’s been through in his life and how he’s coped. Afterwards, he told me that the film had brought closure for him; he said it feels good to put his past to bed once and for all. Some people carry the pain with them forever, they never really identify what it is. They never really let it go, they hold on to it. It just slowly eats away at them, and for Jonathan, he just needed to get that off his chest. Damo also put me in touch with Packy. He has mental health issues and struggles a lot. Packy is looking to the future, which is relatively uncertain. He has a great line in the film about how he’s got this fire in him, which can be channelled positively or negatively, and he is trying to channel his fire into something positive. We found Nadia ourselves. We wanted to document someone going through something in December to be a window into people’s lives during a short period. We went to Ashley House and talked to them. We met a few women there, and Nadia’s story resonated. She was leaving and going back to her life just before Christmas, so the timeframe worked perfectly. Nadia spent her life being told to keep quiet about her past. Everything in her past was brushed under the carpet, which resulted in addiction as an adult. This was an opportunity for her to tell her story. If her story can resonate with someone and set them on a better path, then that’s fantastic. Addicts get tarnished with a brush. We don’t see how someone becomes an addict, but there are lots of reasons behind how it happens.

Why did you decide to shoot the documentary in black and white?
Black and white made it timeless. I love the idea that maybe people are watching it in years to come, even though I have put the date on it to give it some context. COVID has taken over everyone’s lives, and this was shot pre-COVID. Remember when we used to go to gigs and sweat all over each other? Looking at the film now, I think will we ever go back to that? Does the film still make sense in a COVID world now? It made me think, but I have decided that I feel like the timing is perfect, and I’m excited for people to come out and see it. I think it’s a film that people need to see together in a cinema. The socially distanced screenings we’ve had so far at festivals have been brilliant and very emotional. The premiere was in Galway. We had an outdoor screening with 200 people, and it was like a silent disco; everyone had the headphones on. It was a beautiful summer’s evening, and it was amazing to watch it with people finally. If you are a fan of Damo, you will get so much from this, but if you aren’t, you’ll get to see what he’s all about and what he’s doing.

On a technical level, how did you approach shooting the concert?
I went to Vicar Street to see lots of gigs before filming to look at where we could shoot from and what angles we could capture. I saw Damo play in the Iveagh Gardens in the summer before Vicar Street, and we shot at that, which was really useful in terms of knowing which songs we should capture. We wanted to really capture the emotion in the crowd authentically, we didn’t want people looking at the camera, mindful of that, but people were in the zone; they didn’t notice us at all. Narayan Van Maele is the director of photography. He is a genius; he captures stuff like a ninja. He picked up some unbelievable footage. Narayan used a cable cam which is an overhead camera. We caught some unusual shots with that. We didn’t have many cameras; we were very careful about which songs we were shooting, capturing our cast, and ensuring we got good coverage on the songs we were hoping to feature.

What do you hope audiences will take from the film?
I would encourage people who aren’t Damo fans to see it. It’s not a film that you need to be diehard to enjoy. It’s a very human story. I hope people see something that can help them and whatever they are going through, no matter how big or small.

Words – Cara O’Doherty

LOVE YOURSELF TODAY is at Irish cinemas from Nov 5th