FILMMAKER SPOTLIGHT: Dave O’Leske, Director of DIRTBAG
Dave O’Leske, the director of DIRTBAG: The Legend of Fred Beckey, has a degree in Biology and was on the road to medical school when he changed direction and followed his desire to explore the world and document what he had experienced through still photography and eventually video. He started his company Through a Child’s Eyes Productions in 1998.
O’Leske has directed two other feature length documentaries, SPIRIT OF SNOW and CINEMA VERTICAL. His work has taken him around the world filming for non-profits as well as commercial projects. He feels strongly that filmmaking is a powerful medium which can inspire people to make positive strides in our world.
Salem Film fest program director Jeff Schmidt caught up with O’Leske prior to the SFF screening of DIRTBAG, which will take place at CinemaSalem on Monday, March 26 at 8pm:
JS: How did you meet Fred Beckey and what was your first impression of him?
DO: I was introduced to Fred through a friend, Dick Barrymore, who I had worked with on another project. Dick gave me Fred’s address and I wrote Fred a letter pitching him on the idea of a documentary about his life. Amazingly, he got back to me and we planned to meet in Salt Lake City where he was skiing. I actually saw Fred at Alta Ski Area getting ready to ski and went up to introduce myself and he basically told me to get lost and that he was busy and he’d call me later. I left with my tail between my legs, feeling like all the stories about Fred being a jerk were true. Over a dozen phone messages later that weekend as I was packing up my car to drive home Fred called me back and said, “let’s get a cup of coffee”. We met at a diner and I pitched him on the film idea and his first response was “why would anyone want to watch that!” I was immediately intrigued. That was in 2005. For the entire next year I would meet up with Fred to climb, road trip and hang out. We never discussed the film and I never brought out a camera. That year of getting to know Fred, becoming friends and climbing partners and having him trust me launched the project as we headed to China together in 2006 to attempt an unclimbed 19,000’ peak he had his eye on for years.
JS: Did it take much prodding to convince Fred you should make a film together? How long did it take to complete your film?
DO: Fred was incredibly humble and didn’t want to be in the spotlight so that definitely made things tricky in regards to convincing him of the importance of telling his story. Fred was a very difficult subject because he never wanted a camera pointed at him and he could not understand why I would film anything but him climbing. I don’t know how many times I would hear Fred say, “don’t point the camera at me” or “don’t waste your film”. All of us who filmed Fred over the years would have to be really stealthy to get shots. We would often set a camera off to the side if he was talking and hope he was in frame and in focus because if he knew we were filming him he would shut down. As time went on he slowly, starting letting me look at his archives which were amazing and became an important part of the film. It must have been 5 or 6 years into the project when he told me he had a box of journals he’d written starting at age 5. We felt like we struck gold. Things like that happened over and over all the way into when we were editing the film. We’d find some amazing new piece to the puzzle and have to figure out how to squeeze it in. The entire project was 12 years from the initial pitch to the premiere last year.
JS: In the film, we hear from many people that Fred was a challenge to climb with, how was he to film with?
DO: Fred didn’t like to be filmed so we just had to be very respectful of how he was feeling and over a 10 year period from age 83 to 93 Fred’s ability to do what he wanted to became really limited by the aging process. Fred would get really frustrated at times and those are some of the most powerful moments in the film when he has to struggle with the reality that he physically can’t do what he mentally believes he can. The aging component to the film provided an important theme which transformed the movie from a climbing film to a film that everyone can relate to in some manner. We all have to deal with aging.
JS: Are there any stories that didn’t make it into the film that you can share?
DO: You know we were dealing with someone’s life that lasted 94 years so it is really difficult to narrow that amount of time down to 96 minutes in this case. So, many components could not be included in the final film. All of us who worked on the post production struggled with that daily on what had to be cut. That is the nature of filmmaking or story telling you have to do your best to pick the pieces that you feel tell the most compelling story. For instance, I traveled with Fred to China a second time in 2013 when he was 90 years old. I spent over a month with him filming and ultimately we determined it didn’t work in the final cut for varies reasons. We are working to incorporate a lot of that type of material as extra features in the DVD version.
JS: The theme of our festival this year is “focus,” that seems like Fred’s most defining trait, right?
DO: I strongly believe that Fred Beckey would have been successful at whatever he choose to do in life because of his extraordinary ability to focus. If he would have put the same determination and focus into business, music, mathematics, art or any discipline he would have risen to the top of his field and we still would have known the name Fred Beckey. For whatever reason, the mountains are what inspired him the most.
JS: Fred was climbing all the way into his 90s, how did he do it? And was it a challenge for you to film? Did you have experience climbing before the film?
DO: Fred was one of the toughest people I can imagine. We filmed the last scenes of the film with Fred climbing in Squamish, BC. At that time, Fred could only walk about 10 feet before having to sit down to rest but he was so determined to climb that he literally crawled to the base of the cliffs. It was very difficult to witness but inspiring at the same time. He ended up climbing a handful of routes at age 93 that weekend that anyone would find incredible. Over the years, we came up with a system of how many people we would need to film and climb with Fred. We would keep it to the bare minimum and had everything really dialed in so it was safe, fun and not overwhelming to Fred. It was always a highlight to get Fred out climbing and there was a core group of climbers who helped Fred get outside and climb until the end. I have been climbing for over 25 years and it was my main passion for many years. I was able to travel and climb all over the world in China, Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, Europe and North America. Unlike Fred, my climbing has slowed down and I don’t get out as much as I’d like to but I love being deep in the mountains with a close friend and no one else around. It doesn’t get much better than that. Fred was definitely onto something!
JS: Unfortunately, Fred passed away last year, but he did get to see the completed film and attend some screenings, right? What did he think of the film?
DO: Fred passed away on Oct. 30, 2017 and the film premiered over Memorial Day weekend 2017 at Telluride Mountainfilm. We were so honored to have Fred at the premiere! By that time I had seen the film hundreds of times throughout the edit so I just sat and watched Fred watch the film. He was mesmerized by it, leaning forward the entire time watching his life unfold on screen before him. It was a very proud moment for all of us who had worked so hard on the film for so long. He pulled me aside afterwards and told me we did a great job! We purposefully didn’t show any cut of the film to Fred before that because we knew he wouldn’t show up at the premiere if he’d seen it all ready and we really wanted him to feel the energy and love of the audience. He received an incredible standing ovation at every screening he was able to attend! It was really amazing to witness!
Tickets are on sale now for DIRTBAG and can be purchased at the Salem Film Fest Box Office at the Museum Place Mall or online via the SFF website here: http://salemfilmfest.com/2018/films/dirtbag/