The 2018 Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival is just days away and we are very excited for all of the happenings going on both in Vancouver and North Vancouver.
One of the best climbing films of the festival this year is ‘Dirt Bag: The Legend of Fred Beckey’. It is exciting, it is fun, and it is thought provoking in ways you would not expect, bring into question the mortality of the climber. The film will be playing at Centennial Theatre, Tuesday, Feb 13, 7:30 and tickets are on sale now.
We had a chance to catch up with director Dave O’Leske to ask him a few questions about the making of the film. Here is what he had to say.
Dave spent the past decade filming the mythical Fred Beckey in the mountains of China, North America and in his Pacific Northwest home. Dave founded Through a Child’s Eyes Productions in 1998 as an adventure, cultural and environmental digital video production company whose work has taken him around the world to tell unique stories. Dave’s work has included award-winning feature length documentaries, commercial videos, and published still and fine art photography. His first documentary, Spirit of Snow (2002), won a Special Jury Award at Mountainfilm in Telluride and Best Short Documentary at the Golden Film Festival.
First off, thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions and just fantastic work on the film. What a treat to watch! I guess the best place to start is right at the beginning How did the idea for this film come about and how many years in the making?
Being a climber, I’ve always been intrigued by the mystery surrounding Fred Beckey. There are so many stories floating around every climbing area and campfire, I knew he would be a really interesting subject for a documentary.
Originally, I knew someone who knew Fred and I was given his address so I wrote him a letter pitching the idea and he actually got back to me and we arranged a meeting. The first thing he said when I told him I thought his life story should be told in a documentary film was ‘Why would anyone want to see that?’.
A year later we started filming. I originally pitched the idea to Fred in 2005 then spent a year getting to know him, climbing with him and traveling with him before a camera was ever brought out and the film premiered in 2017!
12 years in the making! Did spending that initial time with Fred allow you to establish enough trust to then introduce the camera?
I believe that it did. I think the time I spent with Fred just climbing or road tripping was integral to the process in terms of Fred trusting me as a climbing partner and friend.
The first thing that strikes me about this film is the amount of research that it must have taken. What was it like tracking everything down and what was like uncovering all these stories from the past?
Luckily, Fred kept almost everything so a large amount of material was in Fred’s possession. He slowly unveiled things to me over the years. For instance, about 7 years into the project he told me he had a box of journals he wrote when he was a kid. The whole project was like this, we kept discovering really cool things up until the end then we would figure out how to get them in the edit. Many people pitched in over the years to donate photos or something special to the film so we are grateful to everyone of them. We couldn’t have done it without them.
Sounds like you were continually sifting through new discoveries. Any stories really stick out from this process?
The two things that come to mind have to do with the Lhotse expedition from 1955. I had heard there was film shot of that trip but I could never find it and no one knew where it was. I traveled to Salzburg to interview Norman Dyhrenfurth for the film and low and behold he had a closet full of old film reels and one was the Lhotse footage so I convinced him to feed the film into his editing table and project it and he let me shoot him doing all this at age 94 and that made it into the film. Similarly, we found the glass plate negatives from that expedition buried under some things in Fred’s office. Those were found late in the edit and were awesome to get into the film.
Was it easy to capture interviews with all of Fred’s past climbers?
Most were pretty easy to get. Everybody wanted to see this film made and they were happy to help. There were a few challenges due to health or personalities but in the end I was lucky and honoured to have captured so many other legends who now have passed on as well.
At some point you must have had to make some hard decision about what to include and what not to include. Was there anything left on the cutting floor that you may have wanted to keep?
A ton of things didn’t make the cut. That is the nature of the beast. There was so much good material but not enough time so we did the best we could to pick the best material to keep the story flowing. I actually went to China with Fred twice and the second time he was 90 years old. We had an entire edit of that trip but we just couldn’t figure out a good way to keep it in the film. So, I spent a month in China with Fred and it didn’t even make the cut but we are figuring out a way to get some of these cool moments in special features on the DVD.
I wanted to talk a little about the process and how to find a storyline amongst a lot of footage. For this project, did the storyline come first or was it born out of the footage captured?
A little bit of both I would say. I never set out to make a climbing film. My goal was to make a film that non-climbers or somebody who had never heard of Fred Beckey would find interesting. Fred is such an eccentric character that I honestly feel he would be interesting no matter what he choose to do. One thing that became apparent the more I filmed with Fred was the challenges of aging and especially for someone who is so independent and so active. This became a major theme in the film that we knew everyone can relate to in some form or another. Fred is the epitome of passion and dedication so of course those are strong components in the film and how being obsessive about something can be both good and bad and isn’t for everyone.
How much traveling went into this film, with the interviews and even the expeditions?
A ton of traveling went into the film. Many, many road trips with Fred all over North America, two trips to China, traveling to Europe for interviews and all over North America for the interviews. We also went back and climbed a ton of Fred’s classic routes and filmed them and that didn’t make the film either but was a ton of fun! We are still traveling with the film sharing it with the world.
What does it look like to find funding for a film of this quality?
Raising money is never fun but we were very lucky to have an incredible amount of grass roots support for this project by people that just wanted help make it happen. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who pitched either financially or thru donating footage or helping carrying gear we couldn’t have done it without everyone pitching to help make this happen.
I really loved the integration of animation in the storytelling. Was that a technique you were familiar with from the get go or was it more o a vehicle to give a visual to some of the stories surrounding Beckey?
The animations came about because we were lacking a component to tell a particular story. Maybe we had a journal entry or a photograph or just an interview and we wanted to bring it to life. Working with the post production crew in Seattle, I told them early on it was important to me to have animations run throughout the film and almost come up as a reoccurring character throughout the movie. They loved the idea and had worked with Joe Garber, a talented animator, and he got on board and brought in Carl Nelson and they actually created the animations as the film was being edited. Unfortunately, we couldn’t fit two really funny animations into the main film but we found a way to get them in the credits so make sure to watch all the way thru the credits for some good laughs!
The introduction of a camera to any trip experience must change it a little. How did that impact the trips with Fred and did he ever get comfortable with archiving his life in that way?
Fred never wanted a camera pointed at him and would often saying ‘Why are you filming this?’. This made it very challenging to capture moments with Fred and often we would place a camera off to the side and hope the shot was framed or in focus because if we had pointed the camera directly at Fred he would have stopped doing what he was doing. This gives the film a very raw look as virtually no shots in the movie were set up, they were captured as things happened and undoubtedly we missed more than we got.
Yes, I was almost 5 years into this project before I could actually convince Fred to do a formal sit down interview. But, Fred’s off the cuff remarks are priceless, so we tried to capture as many of those as possible. Fred undoubtedly opened up the more we spent time together and he trusted me more and more as time went on.
One of the interesting quotes in the movie was that Fred Beckey was not for sale or in other words, he was not a self promoter. Spending time with Fred, what was your take away on this lack of self promotion at the end of his journey and was this a conscious decision of his from the get go?
The main thing was Fred didn’t want anything to get in the way of his goals in climbing that could be jobs, responsibility, relationships, etc. He wanted to be in control of his time and independence. He was an incredibly humble person and he really didn’t give much thought to what he had done. He was always looking forward to what he was going to do.
What are I really like is that it brings up the issue of todays modern climbing and the demands of promotion. Where does that leave us as a climbing community?
Fred shared his experience with people through his writings or just talking to them. It is a much different world today with the ‘look at me’ mentality. Fred would not approve! He climbed because he loved it and loved being in the mountains it had nothing to do with what other people might think of him. I think there is something to be learned from that.
For me, the end of the film almost has a sadness to it and the passage of time is very present in Fred’s physical deterioration. How did this experience effect your own ideas of mortality and has it made an impact on how you live your own life?
I found Fred very inspiring because he never gave up. He was always planning the next adventure and pushing himself. I think there is a lot to be learned about keeping your mind and your body moving as you age, Fred really embodied that until his body just couldn’t keep up. A few weeks before he passed away, he had reserved an airline ticket to the Garwal District in India for a trip in the Spring of 2018 at the age of 95. He didn’t see any reason why he shouldn’t do that which is awesome in my eyes! Keep moving!
Obviously, Fred’s passing and the premiere of the film last November was not planned. How did you team take the loss and how was the experience of sharing the film with others feel like at the time?
Of course everybody was very sad to lose Fred but at the same time it was hard to watch him become dependent on others and not be able to physically do the things he wanted to so I think he was ready. He was incredibly tough and squeezed as much as possible out of life. All of us who knew Fred and who worked on the film just feel incredibly lucky to have been able to spend time with him over the years and we are grateful that we can share his story and legacy with the world via this film!
Well, the film is certainly an incredible telling of Fred’s story and you can really tell that your team put a lot of work in bringing this story to life. Thanks again for your time and we are really looking forward to seeing this film again later this week.
The film will be playing at Centennial Theatre, Tuesday, Feb 13, 7:30 and tickets are on sale now.