ROAD – Behind the Scenes

We caught up with the directors of ROAD; the documentary that explores the world of road motorbike racing…

ROAD is released in Irish cinemas this week, narrated by Liam Neeson, the film explores the multi generational legacy of Northern Ireland’s Dunlop Brothers -Robert and Joey – and the dangerous thrill ride that is road motorbike racing. We caught up with directors Diarmuid Lavery and Michael Hewitt to find out more about ROAD…

It has been said that road motorbike racing has a unique place in Northern Irish culture – especially with four of the world’s most famous racers coming from there – would you agree with that?
Diarmuid Lavery: I do think it has a unique place. Whatever that place is, we don’t know; it’s hard to put your finger on it, it’s hard to separate out the identity of the sport and the identity of the racers themselves. Road racing is popular north and south, but it is probably fair to say that the more successful road racers from Ireland have come from the northeast. The Dunlops as a family have dominated road racing for so long; as a family they have a certain personality and a certain character, a certain way that is associated with the people who live in north Antrim where they come from. It’s not very scientific, but there is something there [laughs]
Michael Hewitt: it’s not scientific, but I can remember even as a young lad going to the races… You buy your programme and it would list the riders, the machine they were riding and where they came from. I was always struck by how many of them were country fellas; you rarely saw Belfast racers. It’s wildly speculative, but it does seem deeply engrained in parts of the country. The Dunlops are a manifestation of that because it’s generational [in that family].

Where did the idea to make a documentary about the Dunlop Brothers come from?
DL: Well we both have interest in the sport, and have done since we were children. I had an uncle who brought me to road races and Mike here had attended a lot of races as a young fella with his father. We made a short film in the early 90s on Robert Dunlop, for the BBC, so we maintained our interest over the years. We attended the event in 2008 where Michael Dunlop won; we were among the gobsmacked crowd that day, who could not believe what we were seeing. Not long after that, we decided this was a story that had to be told.

Your background is in documentaries, but were you ever tempted to make ROAD as a narrative feature, ratherth an a documentary?
DL: When we saw the scale and epic nature – it’s almost a Greek tragedy in terms of scale – of the story it hadn’t passed us by that this could be a film, but we had the view that it’s very hard to recreate these racing worlds in drama. I think the essence of racing is almost impossible to recreate in dramatic terms; it always looks false… To me, anyway. We think this form is the best way to tell this story. I certainly don’t think it would be wise to make a feature film version of this story.
MH: I would agree. I think it would be a real challenge to recreate the intensity of the experience as opposed to the real thing, which we had access to, as well as to the real people. We have William and Michael tell their own story, as well as other people who have lived it; to try and dramatise that would have been an imitation and I think it would have ended up being a pale imitation.
DL: That’s not to say it won’t be done! If you are going to make a sporting drama, maybe someone will come along and make this… With Ewan McGregor playing Joey Dunlop!

How did you go about gathering the footage for the film?
MH: The archive came from various sources, but the key thing for us was we had made a short film in 1982, and Robert Dunlop was one of the riders featured in the film. That was one of the most important sources of archive for us. There is a shot where Robert is at home and he lifts his young fella onto his knee – that’s Michael Dunlop 22 years ago – and for us that was priceless archive. To be able to go from that moment, as we do, to 22 years later, and you see Robert and Michael walking through the same grid that leads onto the grid at the Northwest 200, and stepping onto their bikes in the same way, and rip up the same piece of tarmac… It’s was just extraordinary to be able to do that. Our own footage was a valuable archive for Robert and beyond that, UTV, BBC Northern Ireland and a lot of individuals had been following these guys for years, so there was no shortage of material. Sifting through it was the challenge.

Obviously when you approached the Dunlop family about making this film, you had a relationship with them from the work you had done with them in the past. Did that help?
DL: Oh it did yeah, it helped a lot. They are a shy, retiring family, despite the exposure they have had over the years as a racing family. They are still modest, lovely, small town folk. We were approaching them to make a major documentary on the relationship between their two lost brothers. We spent a long time getting their confidence and making sure they knew that what we were setting out to do was something worth doing and hopefully, something they were going to be happy with.

Did you strive to make the film accessible for both newcomers and fans of the sport alike?
MH: That was an absolute priority for us because while we wanted bikers and bike fans to come to the movie and enjoy it, we knew they would but as filmmakers who wanted to tell a story, we wanted it to reach a broad audience and engage people on every level. We were very careful to make sure there was no what we used to refer to in the cutting room as ‘bikey talk’; it doesn’t get into the specifics of Joey and Robert’s victories. We don’t really labour those, you just need to know that they were at the top of the tree in what they did. The real detail of the races didn’t really come into it for us.
DL: We knew that this was a human story; a story of brothers and sons and husbands. It had a universal quality that should be carried beyond Northern Ireland or Ireland. Road racing is a slightly more esoteric member of the motor racing family; it’s a bit like extreme mountain climbing, but it’s the human drama that’s universal and that’s the kind of story that travels around the globe.

Liam Neeson narrates the film, how did he get involved?
DL: Who is there that comes from our place, that works out in that world? … In fact, who only comes from about 4 or 5 miles down the road from the country roads these guys used to race their bikes on, but Liam Neeson?! We had a friend who worked in feature films and had worked with Liam Neeson in the past. We went him for advice and support; he suggested that we should write a handwritten letter to Liam, explaining why there was only one person to do the film. Off the letter went and about three months later, we got a reply, and that was it. We went out and recorded with him in New York.

Were you nervous about showing the finished film to the Dunlop family?
DL: Oh yeah! We showed it to them before we finished editing. We showed it to them in different groupings and had a screening just for Michael and William on their own. You and I can’t imagine what it’s like for the family to see the story. For them it wasn’t a movie, for them it was a wee bit of trauma.
MH: You can imagine it was a huge relief and a great source of satisfaction for us to know that the film’s going out there with the family backing it, supporting it and having expressed their appreciation of what we’ve done, without exception. Just to know they feel that we handled what’s obviously a very difficult and sensitive story for them, they felt we handled it appropriately.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
DL: It’s a cautionary tale, it’s certainly not a Boy’s Own tale. While inspirational, it’s a story that doesn’t pull its punches. A story that we hope, addresses the reality of this sport, while at the same time, offers something up that can only be awe inspiring. I suppose we have conflicting analyses of what the story is, but all we hope to do is be true to it. If we have told the truth about it and told a good tale, we’ve succeeded.

What’s next?
MH: We have a range of projects. We are doing some stuff for Channel Four and the BBC at the moment, but we are just in the process of finalising the rights to an American book that we plan to be our next feature documentary. I can’t say too much, but it’s very different; it’s a story about Jazz.

ROAD is released in Irish cinemas on June 13th 2014

Words: Brogen Hayes