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Director Kieron J. Walsh discusses Irish Tour de France drama The Racer
11 Dec 2020 : Nathan Griffin
We caught up with director Kieron J. Walsh ahead of the release of his new feature film ‘The Racer’ on Friday, 11th December.

Award-winning director Kieron J. Walsh, studied Fine Art before studying film direction at the Royal College of Art in London. Kieron’s first feature film When Brendan Met Trudy written by Roddy Doyle, premiered at TIFF, earning him an IFTA nomination for Best Director, Film. Walsh also co-wrote/directed the feature film Jump starring Nichola Burley, Martin McCann, Richard Dormer and Valene Kane, which had its international premiere at TIFF before winning the Cinema Without Borders award at the Palm Springs Film Festival.  

Walsh has also directed several TV projects working with BBC, Channel 4, ITV and RTÉ. Walsh directed the hit 1998 seriesThe Young Person’s Guide to Becoming A Rockstar (C4) which won the Royal Television Society award for Best Series. His other TV credits include directing Kitchenstarring Eddie Izzard, The Psychopath Next Door for Sky, as well as co-conceiving and directing the popular RTE sketch show The Savage Eye.

Walsh’s latest feature The Racer takes us back to Summer 1998 — the opening stages of Le Tour de France are relocated to Ireland. Belgian rider Dom Chabol (late 30s) has been one of the best “Domestiques” (support riders) on the Tour for the last 20 years. It’s a sacrificial role — setting pace, blocking wind, and providing support to enable the team’s sprinter to victory - winning is not an option. But Dom secretly harbours a desire to wear the yellow jersey — just once before his career is over.

Blinder Films (Love & Friendship) in co-production with Calach Films (Mammal) and Caviar Films (The Rider) produce the film, which stars Louis Talpe (Of Kings and Prophets), Tara Lee (A Date for Mad Mary), Matteo Simoni (Gangsta) Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) and Karel Roden (The Bourne Supremacy) and is directed by Kieron J. Walsh (JumpFinding Joy).

The film was written by Ciaran Cassidy (The Last Days of Peter Bergmann) and Kieron J. Walsh with Blinder Films’ Katie Holly (Vita & Virginia, Love & FriendshipCitadel) and Yvonne Donohoe (Extra Ordinary, Striking Out) producing. Jesus Gonzalez-Elvira of Calach Films co-produces along with Caviar Films’ Robin Kerremans and Dimitri Verbeeck. The film was shot in Ireland and Luxembourg.

The film is supported by Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, Film Fund Luxembourg, Eurimages, Screen Flanders, the BAI Sound & Vision Fund and RTE. Kinepolis Film Distribution (KFD) will release the film in the Benelux territory.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Kieron J. Walsh ahead of the film’s opening weekend release. 

IFTN: Where did this idea to do something centred on the 1998 Tour de France come from and how did the fictional aspect of the films narrative come about? 

“The film is based on an idea by Ciaran Cassidy who is the co-writer and also a documentary maker. Ciaran is a cycling and general sports fanatic and he became interested in the time the Tour de France came to Ireland and the fact that it was thought to be the last Tour de France due to the proliferation of performance enhancing drugs. This culminated in the Festina bust where a team soigneur was caught with a car load of PEDs on his way from Belgium to Ireland.

“In doing research we came across stories of riders jogging up and down hotel corridors in the middle of the night before a stage and reports of bikes on ‘rollers’ in hotel rooms being used late at night. This intrigued us so he imagined what it could have been like behind the scenes during the 1998 Irish stages of the Tour, focusing on an aging ‘Domestique’ or support rider.”

IFTN: Doping features as a huge part of the narrative in the film and is still majorly associated with the sport, can you tell me about the research went into finding out the methods that they used during the late nineties, which are showcased in the film?

“There is a wealth of material written about doping in cycling from the point of view of riders. There is even a book written about the 98 Tour called ‘End of the Road’ by Alasdair Fotheringham. There are also some documentaries and dramas that have been made but a lot of our research was by talking anonymously to ex-riders and medical personnel who indicated how doping may have occurred at the time.”

IFTN: The film feels effortlessly 90s (I particularly enjoyed the use of the aged West County Hotel). Can you tell me a little about the preparation that went into the decisions made around production design and location scouting to give the film a sense of authenticity?

“Dublin has changed a lot since 1998. We had to avoid places that featured things that wouldn’t have existed at the time. The choice of hotels was based on the fact that a lot of the teams stayed in 3 star hotels rather than the more exclusive hotels that we are familiar with in Dublin. I was keen to celebrate the bland ordinariness of their existence as they waited to race. I wanted this to contrast with the glamourous, sophisticated image the Tour de France had at the time. This was their lonely reality.”

“There weren’t many mobile phones so people relied on clumsy payphones to keep in touch. The clothes and hairstyles were also important but also the score which had touches of 80s band Kraftwerk who had an album about cycling called ‘Tour de France Soundtracks’. We also featured the ultimate 90’s band (IMO!) Primal Scream to top and tail the film and of course the ubiquitous Boyzone with their hit of 98 ‘No Matter What’! We hoped all of these things would come together to re-create the atmosphere of 1998.”

IFTN: Turning Merrion Square and the surrounding areas of Dublin city into 1998 Tour de France fanfare makes for some excellent shots. What was that experience like to shot and then seeing it come together in the edit?

“The original ‘Grand Depart’ took place on O’Connell Street but in the years following the Spire was erected, trees were planted and the Luas line was re-routed there so it would have been difficult to shoot there for all sorts of reasons. Instead we decided to stage the event on Merrion square which has thankfully not changed that much. It is also quintessentially Dublin which gives the movie a sense of place. The scene was devised to set the scale for this epic event that is the Tour de France. Like every aspect of this film, it was daunting what we were trying to accomplish with the budget we had - we only had 28 days to shoot the entire film.  Seeing the final versions of the shots we made with drones on Merrion square filled-up with thousands of spectators was thrilling.”

IFTN: The film also features a multi-lingual script. As director, how did you find this and was there any additional preparation needed?

“My idea was to try and have as many European languages in the film as possible. Road cycling as a sport originated in Europe and the Tour de France is a quintessentially European event. The teams were made up of riders from all over the world, but mostly Europe in 1998. The best thing about working with actors from the countries of northern Europe is that they are all multi-lingual. The scenes were written in English and then translated to the various languages but then the actors put their own spin on some of the phrases so it was quite organic. I speak a little French so that helped too. We ended up having English, French, Flemish, Italian, Czech, Luxembourgish, German, Irish and even a little Glaswegian!”

IFTN: The action sequences during the racing scenes are thoroughly enjoyable. What planning went into the dynamic seen on screen between gear changes and crash scenes?

“All of the race sequences were storyboarded and we had decided to use three different camera techniques to shoot the races – the Alexa on a motion rig we designed, onboard Osmo cameras for the bikes and drones above the action. The crashes were also storyboarded except for one which was actually a real crash with real injuries. I’ll let you figure out which one.”

IFTN: There is a great dynamic on screen between the leading cast. What can you tell us about the casting process and did you have anyone in mind for particular roles from the outset?

“We needed to find actors who would look convincing riding a racing bike. Louis Talpe is a well-known actor in Belgium but more importantly someone who is fanatical about cycling and sports in general, so when he came along he was perfect. He kinda became a leader amongst the team in the film starting with the ten day boot camp we ran to get the actors used to cycling in a group so that’s probably where the chemistry came from. 

“Sonny was written as a Scot and we were blessed that Scottish actor Iain Glen fancied playing the part. I really wanted someone Irish to play the part of medical graduate Dr. Lynn Brennan. She was the moral compass of at the heart of the film and in many ways holds the hand of the audience as she guides us through this dark and troublesome world. I also wanted her to be strong-willed and curious, and Tara Lee has both those qualities in spades.”

The Racer releases in Irish cinemas on Friday 11th December.





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