23 September 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Hector Ó hEochagáin talks traveling Ó Chósta go Cósta in Hector USA
14 Nov 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Hector Ó hEochagáin in Hector USA – Ó Chósta go Cósta
IFTN caught up with Irish language travel enthusiast Hector Ó hEochagáin to discuss going off the beaten track in rural America, meeting childhood hero Carl Lewis and the art of impromptu interviews.

Hector USA: Ó Chósta go Cósta continues this Thursday at 9:30 pm on TG4. Viewers can also catch up with all the episodes on the TG4 Player.

The show sees the usual suspect’s road trip from Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona before finishing up on the Pacific seaboard in California. Covering 8 states and more than 5000 miles on the road, it is pegged to be one helluvan awesome adventure with Hector taking us to a world only he can access.

Produced by Domhan Media, Hector USA is directed and produced by Evan Chamberlain with Ross O'Callaghan as director of photography. The show is presented by Hector Ó hEochagáin and edited by Cóilín Ó Cearbhaill and Shane Callan. Aimie Gavin and Ciara Ní hÉ feature as assistant producers and researchers.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Hector ahead of the show airing to find out a bit more about what is involved in making a travel show of this scale.

IFTN: This show is described as opening viewers' eyes to ‘your America’. Is this trip something you have wanted to do for a while, and how does it differ from previous journeys?

Hector: “I suppose when you mentioned America, people always have some relation; a cousin, brother, sister, parent, neighbor or some connection with the place. Geographically, America is to one side of us. There has been such a historical tie with the country, so we know so much about it. We have such a strong hand over there. We have so many of our families, and ancestors have gone to that country, but yet, do we really know it. It's a continent; it’s so big. I don't think people can get a grip on how big it was. Last year we traveled to Siberia, which is 50 million square kilometers, that's actually bigger than America, but in the back of our mind, we wanted to go off the beaten path and not do Route 66 and not go anywhere the people know.

“Maybe, go to places that Irish people have never been before. When you talk about rural Mississippi and rural Alabama and into New Mexico and the deserts and all these places, I don't think Irish audiences would have seen stuff on the screen, stuff that we are going to put up because traditionally, it's the strong powerhouses of Boston and New York and Chicago and LA that attract Irish people. That's been the way it has been historically, so for us to take it as you were on an eight-week journey and over eight hours. I hope they will respond to it, react to it, and get a different slice of America.”

IFTN: I know what you mean, the big cities in America are incredible, but it’s often the places in-betweens that are most interesting.

Hector: “Definitely, in-between, that's exactly where we wanted to be. We wanted to be off the interstate. We wanted to be away from the cities because cities morph off into each other after a while. When you're 300 or 400 kilometers away from the main city in Mississippi, and you're in the middle of the countryside, and you've got a real feel for the people. When you stop the jeep and wander around the little small towns. That's the sort of stuff that we'd like to do on the hoof. We like to take the camera out there, and we’d like to go walkabout. We like to see how we are and see where people are, and start talking to locals. Sometimes you get better stuff off locals spontaneously. When we stop the jeep and hop out with the camera and capture footage that wasn’t from the story that we spent six months trying to set up via e-mail. That’s the nature of our show.”

IFTN: The timing of the show is incredibly interesting, with everything going on in the US. Was that fortuitous or was it by design?

Hector: No, no, no, no, no. That was planned; you've got a guy in charge of America who's providing most of the news, not only in Ireland but all over the world. Apart from Boris Johnson, Donald Trump is the biggest producer of news in the world. He has been for the last three or four years. Unfortunately, with the massacres in supermarkets like Walmart and schools the gun massacres are continuing in America. The atrocities are still happening over there, just like the terrorism, that has been happening on our doorstep in Europe.

We live in a world of extremes. We've got extreme politicians, extreme violence, extreme use of guns, extreme use of terrorism, extreme immigration, extreme displays of the people and America has every one of those things going on at the moment.”

IFTN: You have touched on it already, obviously we have a great Irish diaspora in America, but this show seems to be very much about American people, and it looks like you have an incredible list with Carl Lewis, Blind Boys of Alabama, Buddy Stephens from Last Chance U, to name but a few. How exactly did you get access to such an eclectic mix of people?

Hector: “I'm very lucky that I have a producer like Evan Chamberlain, producing the show for 20 years, and Rosco, who is one of the best cameramen in the country, filming. They know exactly what I like to do. Evan knows exactly the stories I want to do. I'm a massive sports fan. I'm massively into music and culture. They know what floats my boat. I don't think he was big into Last Chance U until I told him about this amazing series that's on Netflix, Rosco didn't know about it either, but I said if we're in Mississippi, this is one story we're doing because this is one of the biggest shows I've seen on Netflix.

“So when we knew we were going to go to Mississippi that was on my hit list six months before. When we knew we were going to Boston, look-it Carl Lewis - he's the greatest. Possibly the greatest American athlete ever produced; possibly the greatest American sportsman ever in the United States of America. To be traveling to the University of Houston that morning and knowing that I'm going to spend the day with Carl Lewis: I was like a child walking into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory going ‘Oh, my God’!

“I had images in my head of 1984 when he smashed all the record, and he won the long jump, 100m, 200m, 4x100m at the Olympic Games. This guy put athletics on the map way, way, way before Usain Bolt ever did. Carl Lewis is an icon. It's really exciting when you're leaving the motel that morning, and you know you've going filming with these guys. That's what we want to do. That's why I'm really proud that it's on TG4 and that's the channel we make it for.”

IFTN: From a production and logistical perspective. How did you manage to fit everybody into the schedule?

Hector: “Seventy-nine days shooting over a three-block period. The longest we went for was about four and a half weeks, and then we have to go back. I have to go back because my young lads were playing in Féile and other things, Roscoe had to go back to see the family. Years ago, we used to go for 90 days at a time in South America, Australia… back when we were young and free, and we had no family. Everything has changed dynamically like that, so it's very difficult. We've got a great team at home now and we have partners who are very understanding. I suppose they were with us 20 years ago when we started and they are still with us. They are the ones holding the fort so we can go away and do that. It's only because of them that we can do it.

“Logistically, it was the hardest one we have done yet because we left a lot up to ourselves. Normally with Siberia, Mongolia, Africa, Australia, South America. We got drivers. We'd have a fixer. We decided to drive and fix it ourselves, which was a completely different dynamic when you know you have to load in at eight o'clock in the morning and load-out at twelve o'clock that night when you're 700 kilometers down the road.

“For example, in Texas, it took us five to six hours to get to each story. You can nearly drive the length and breadth of Ireland in five to six hours. That was only for us to get to one story. Texas is 10 times bigger than Ireland, so I think with the use of maps, we will show people how tired we were, how logistically hard it was to do it, and that it's not a cakewalk either when you have the equipment. They are long days. Again, people think: ‘the glamorous world of television’. Maybe it is when you're a guest on Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC and you're ferried here or ferried there, or maybe Simon Cowell live in a fantasy world of Botox on his face and sitting there judging people, but for the normal people that make T.V., it's bloody hard!

IFTN: That's certainly one thing I do recall about doing that sort of trip. The length between places is just mind-boggling. Especially coming from Ireland where you can travel from Malin Head to Mizen Head in the space of seven hours.

Hector: “Yes, we drove one piece in Texas that was 888 kilometers to El Paso. That was the drive we undertook to get to the end of our story in Texas, 888 kilometers! If we had to go from Dublin, and there was a motorway bringing you right into Europe from Dublin, 888 kilometers, you'd be somewhere like, I don't know, you'd be nearly over the French border to Switzerland.”

“It's amazing, vast, and beautiful. The sunsets were incredible. The pine forest at the interstates of Alabama, Georgia, the magnificent Mississippi river was with me for so many weeks as I was traveling. Then we get to Texas, and then we get to red deserts of New Mexico, and open blue skies, and the giant green cactus, and I feel like around every corner I can see the boys in Breaking Bad, and I can feel the retro feel of it, and I can feel a place full of hippies and full of ex-military Americans who wanted to get off the grid, and I can feel psychedelica, I can feel that sixties vibe, I can smell the marijuana. You know, New Mexico was just incredible, one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life.”

IFTN: What was the highlight for you?

Hector: “To get the Breaking Bad tour in Albuquerque; to be in the town where they filmed that series, one of my favorite T.V. series.

“To meet the Mexican-Americans, to meet some of the millions and millions of Mexican-Americans that live all along the border areas that have been happily employed, legally employed, calling America their home, still loving the country where they found life and freedom and a better life for their family and their grandkids and everything. To meet these people, and to realize what Donald Trump tells us is lies, and that not every single one of those people coming across the border, because they're seeking a better life, are drug dealers, are criminals, and are gang members. To meet the people of the southern states near the Mexican border was just the highlight for me, and to try and tell some of the truths that are happening in 2019 in America.”

IFTN: As you said, there's an element of impromptu-ness of jumping out and trying to catch stuff on camera, just off the cuff whenever it comes to your travels around the place. Were there any good stories that happened that you didn't get a chance to catch on camera?

Hector: “I'll tell you. When you walk into a Harley-Davidson shop with 7,000 members of the Hell Riders, all bikers who have given up the bad habits and have found Jesus at the Harley-Davidson's, and you spend a day with these boys. They all believe in Jesus, Donald Trump, and Harley-Davidson. That was incredible. That's on the show. There are so many bits that never made it. You try and get a good blend of the best stuff.

“I'll never forget standing with two African-American lads about 50 miles outside New Orleans, and we're standing out there and they're fishing on a little jetty in the middle of the countryside. We stopped the jeep at eleven o'clock in the morning, and I walk over and I go, ‘How’re ye guys? Any fish?’, and I spent the next two hours laughing and joking and meeting and talking to these two black Louisianan southern guys, and it was just some of the funniest stuff, funniest interviews, we've ever done. They were absolutely brilliant. You wait to see these characters just fishing there all day, 'gon fishin' down the south. Southern Boys and they were absolutely brilliant. It was a pleasure just to hop out of the jeep and meet two people, and they let us spend the day fishing in the Louisiana sun. It was magnificent.”

IFTN: It must be incredible just meeting such a varying range of characters out there?

Hector: “Yes. We are just delighted that the series has lasted. Last year was a sort of an Acid test at making hour-long documentaries. Can we make 400 minutes of TV through the winter in Siberia, Mongolia, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and I know there's an appetite for this out there. I know that at the moment people are consuming so much stuff on their mobiles and it's very difficult to catch people. There are so many other platforms out there. I just hope that people will sit down tonight, will just turn off that mobile and just enjoy this television documentary series for what it is, its travel docs, and just brings them to another place for an hour before they set their alarms again on their phones and get ready for the day ahead.”

Hector USA: Ó Chósta go Cósta continues this Thursday at 9:30 pm on TG4. Viewers can also catch up with all the episodes on the TG4 Player.

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