'Simon made his legacy - I just got to colour it up a little' - director of It's Not Yet Dark documentary about Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice who has MND
Directing a documentary about the life of a fellow director is a daunting prospect, perhaps even more so when that director and his wife are close family friends.
Irish director Frankie Fenton grew up with Ruth Fitzmaurice, a woman familiar to many for her compelling memoir I Found My Tribe, about her life with her talented filmmaker husband Simon Fitzmaurice who has Motor Neurone Disease.
Simon was diagnosed in 2008 at the age of 34 and despite what seem like insurmountable odds – the inability to speak, breathe independently, or move – he has gone on to write and direct a feature film, My Name is Emily, and write his memoir, It’s Not Yet Dark.
That memoir forms the backbone of the documentary of the same name, directed by Frankie, which releases on Friday.
Already it has received rave reviews everywhere from its debut at the Galway Film Fleadh to Sundance and across the rest of the world.
“I’d like to take all the credit but really it’s the actual story that hits people’s hearts,” says Frankie.
At the heart of it is the compelling love story between Simon and Ruth. Their strength and tenacity in the face of adversity is remarkable and the doc charts their lives from their courtship, through their wedding, the arrival of five children, Simon’s burgeoning writing and film career and that terrible diagnosis when he was just 34, and life since, all illustrated through interviews with Ruth and Simon’s family and old home video footage Simon and Ruth shared with Frankie.
Initially Frankie was supposed to shadow the making of My Name is Emily, but the project evolved into something more wide reaching.
“Simon’s book, It’s Not Yet Dark, released during filming of the documentary and it was his entire story and although I thought that that would make an incredibly good arc we didn’t have any sort of coverage for it,” he says. “We ended up having to come up with different devices to picture up Simon’s thoughts and recreate some of the instances that happened in his life up until that point.
“But on the first week of the edit he asked us to come around to his house and he handed us a hard drive and when we got it home we were blown away. There was 10 years of footage - his entire life.
“It was an incredibly brave move to give it to us I think. I don’t know if I’d give my mobile phone videos and photos from the last ten years over to some guy! But he did and I’m really glad he did because not only have we been able to see his past but we’ve also been able to hit on some of the stories he wrote about in his book like climbing a mountain, dancing for the last time, or his wedding day.”
As a family friend Frankie was entrusted with the project and he felt the weight of that responsibility.
“Honestly I think if I stopped and thought about it for too long I’d get pretty scared but honestly I think Simon and Ruth were so kind about letting me into their space and were so encouraging about my creativity I guess that kind of helped to dispel any fears,” he says.
Frankie continued to shadow Simon as he directed My Name is Emily, an endeavour he describes as “insane”. Simon is confined to a wheelchair and communicates via a computer which uses ‘eye-gaze’ technology and a computerised voice to relay his message.
“I think it was insane because of how Simon was directing. Simon was in a tent in gale force winds with rain coming in sideways and plug boards all over the place, working 12 hour days when he was really only meant to be working four or five hours,” he says.
“To see the tenacity and the bare faced stubbornness of him was something to behold. Very quickly he became a hero and an inspiration for me as a filmmaker. I was thinking if he can do what he could do with his impairment there’s absolutely no excuse for me.”
Despite the fact that Simon and Frankie share skills as directors, Frankie says that Simon left him to it when it came to the documentary.
“I think I maybe have Ruth to thank for that. She’d say, ‘Now Simon, Frankie is the director here!” he laughs.
“I have to admit he was very very kind about allowing me that creative freedom and I think he kind of respected that directorial mantra. To Simon being a director and having control is everything so I think he respected that part of this project.”
The voiceover on It’s Not Yet Dark is composed of Simon’s own words from his book and they’re hugely poetic. Helping to bring them to life is the voice of Colin Farrell.
“Colin was a fan of Simon’s work and they had a friendship,” reveals Frankie. “We were originally going to use Simon’s computer voice but then we put it to Simon that maybe we’d ask Colin Farrell to put his voice to it and weirdly Simon liked that idea of a Hollywood A-lister playing him!
“We’ve had an awful lot of fun with Colin Farrell saying all these beautifully gorgeous things about Ruth, about his body being ‘on fire for her’ and stuff!” he laughs.
“Colin has been an absolutely amazing support and it really wouldn’t be the film it is without him. He actually doesn’t sound very unlike Simon in the sense that his mother and family and friends often find it difficult to dissociate the fact that it’s Colin Farrell speaking. Colin has obviously done an incredible job of getting the emphasis of Simon’s feelings on to the screen.”
The most important review of the doc would, of course, come from Ruth and Simon themselves, and Frankie admits that screening their story for them for the first time was hugely was “nerve-wracking”.
“Myself and Dermot Diskin, the editor, and the two producers Lesley [McKimm] and Kathryn [Kennedy] were sitting outside the editing suite while Simon and Ruth watched their story on screen.,” he reveals.
“They hadn’t seen anything until that point. We waited about five or ten minutes after the film had ended before we entered the room and the two guys were in floods of tears and I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing.
“As it turned out Ruth thanked me for making something for her children to see to show their father’s story. I wanted to hear what Simon had to say and he told me he wouldn’t have changed a thing and you can’t think of a better thing to hear from your protagonist as a documentary maker.”
It’s Not Yet Dark releases on October 13. Cert PG, 81 mins.