Tuesday 21 November 2017

From a boarding school projector to filming the Temple of Luxor

Stephen Rooke's Tile Films has produced more than 200 film and TV documentaries, including 'Saving the Titanic' and 'Sacred Sites', writes Louise McBride

Stephen Rooke, founder and managing director of Tile Films: “Waterways was the big series which launched my career. There were very few documentaries being made at this time.”
Stephen Rooke, founder and managing director of Tile Films: “Waterways was the big series which launched my career. There were very few documentaries being made at this time.”
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

As A young boy, Stephen Rooke projected the movies for the cinema club which took place every Sunday evening in his boarding school in Cork.

"We were never allowed to watch TV when I was at boarding school," says Rooke. "However, on Sunday evenings, we'd have a cineclub in the school. I was the person who projected the movies. At this club, we watched John Wayne movies, World War Two movies, Far from the Madding Crowd and so on. That was my spark and where my whole interest in films came from."

Little did this young boy know that he would go on to set up his own film and documentary production company a few months shy of his 30th birthday. That company, Tile Films, has produced successful documentaries and films which have been shown all over the world. One such film, Saving the Titanic - which tells the story of the self-sacrifice and bravery of the ship's engineers, stokers and firemen - has been watched by about 25 million people, according to Rooke.

"That's a good achievement for a small Irish company operating out of Dun Laoghaire [Co Dublin, where Tile Films is based]," says Rooke. "That feature film was seen across Germany, Austria, France, the US, and China - as well as other countries. It shows you what an Irish company can do if it has a good story."

Rooke set up Tile Films in 1989 - shortly after finishing film school.

His career had taken a very different route until then - though film was still very much in his mind.

When he left school, Rooke worked for the pipe organ designer and maker, Kenneth Jones. That company has built pipe organs for Dublin's Christchurch Cathedral and National Concert Hall.

"I worked with Kenneth Jones from the age of 18 to the age of 29," says Rooke. "We used to travel to the United States a lot, installing new pipe organs. I travelled all over the world with that company. It was while I was working there that I started making films myself on Super 8 [a motion picture film format]. I had my own showreel of films which were largely children's dramas - and this helped me get into film school."

Rooke graduated from that school, Bournemouth Film School, in 1989 - the same year he set up Tile Films and started to work on his first production, Undercurrents. This 30-minute television and film drama starred the actor and comedian, Niall Toibin, and Mary McGuckian - now a film director but an actress back then.

"Film was something I always wanted to do," explains Rooke. "I originally wanted to be a cameraman. I got an interview to be a trainee cameraman in Beaconsfield Film Studios in Britain and they told me that they thought my films were so good that I should be a director. So that's what I did."

It was the Waterways documentary series of the early nineties which gave Rooke his first real break. This series captured the adventures of the naturalist and broadcaster, Dick Warner, as he journeyed through the canals of Ireland in a canal boat.

"Waterways was the big series which launched my career," says Rooke. "There were very few documentaries being made at this time. The 1991 documentary won an award and sparked off two more series of Waterways. So that started me off on documentaries. Ironically, I was brought up on film and not having a TV culture - yet I've ended up getting much more into the factual TV end of things."

Rooke has directed and produced over 200 film and TV productions since he set up Tile Films. These include the award-winning Sacred Sites Ireland - which explored the religious and mythological significance of the ancient sacred sites of Ireland, such as the passage tomb of Newgrange and the stone circles of Beaghmore in Co Tyrone.

Rooke has also produced and directed the Sacred Sites of the World documentary series - which gives new perspectives on sacred sites in different times and settings throughout history. This series started to air on the Smithsonian Channel - which is available in 33 million homes across the United States and Canada - in early September. Some of the sites covered are the ancient Jordanian city of Petra, and the tombs and pyramids of Egypt. Indeed, Rooke was in Egypt last April to film an episode for the series - an experience he describes as "hairy" because of the shadow that terrorism has cast on the country.

"I was in Egypt filming before in 2004 - and April 2016 was my latest visit," says Rooke. "The tourist industry is devastated in Egypt now. Hotels are all boarded up. Boats were all tied up at the side of the river - those boats used to take people on cruises. When we walked into the Temple of Luxor in 2004, the place was so full of tourists, it was hard to film. This time, there wasn't a tourist to be seen. Egyptian tourist police were with the film crew all the time. Every site in Egypt has tourist police with machine guns."

Despite this, he still describes the pyramids as "the most amazing site".

"I remember my first time seeing them in 2004." he says. "I was driving along the motorway and then started to see the tops of them. It was breathtaking seeing the pyramids the first time - and it wasn't any less breathtaking the second time."

Rooke cites Petra as another one of his favourite locations to shoot in.

"I was in Jordan in September 2015 to film Petra," he explains. "It's the most extraordinary experience when you walk up and see The Treasury [one of the most elaborate temples in Petra] for the first time."

Rooke clearly isn't the only one enthralled by such sites - hence the ability of his documentaries to sell, and to be received, so well across the world.

"Art, architecture, religion and culture are big on our agenda," says Rooke. "In the international marketplace, these topics - especially ancient religious sites - are very popular subjects for international channels. International broadcasters are very keen to buy shows like Sacred Sites. These themes have very good international legs - and we are an exporting company. We aim to produce big international series that will work across international territories."

His company's work has been broadcast on over 40 channels internationally including BBC, Channel 4, the Smithsonian Channel, Discovery, National Geographic, France 5 and SBS Australia - as well as RTE, TG4 and UTV.

Along with Sacred Sites of the World, other recent work by Tile Films includes Wrecking the Rising - a time-travel comedy about the 1916 Rising which was broadcast on TG4 last April, Seven Women - which tells the story of the women who were caught up in the Rising, and Paramedics - which gives an insight into the hectic routine of Ireland's frontline emergency medical services.

Last summer, Tile Films started producing A Rough Guide to the Future - a science series set to be aired on TV3 in January, as well as a one-off film called Aerial Ireland - where all the filming is done from the air - for the Smithsonian Channel. Rooke is well aware of the record few years which the Irish film and TV industry has had recently and he believes this will continue - as long as Ireland remains competitive. "There's no reason why we can't keep growing," says Rooke.

"The biggest problem with Ireland is that we've never really had the good film space. The potential for bringing bigger and bigger projects to Ireland is there but every country is trying to get the best movie to come to its country - so tax incentives have to be good here. We have very good and well-trained crews in Ireland - but the rates for crews and actors all have to stay very competitive."

Rooke was born in Castleknock, Co Dublin and moved to Bray in Co Wicklow at the age of one.

He went to boarding school in Midleton College in Cork.

He comes from a very religious family - his father was a Church of Ireland clergy man; his brother is a Church of Ireland bishop. "Religion is at the heart of my family," he says.

Rooke, who has been married for 34 years, lives in Sandycove - not far from his office in Dun Laoghaire.

Although he has a successful career behind him, film production isn't the business to be in to make money, he says.

"No production company is financially successful," says Rooke. "It's not a huge profit-making industry to be in. It's very hard to make substantial profits - it's more about making a contribution to the world and the arts and society in general. You're as good as your last project - it only takes one project to go wrong and your reputation could be damaged."

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