An interview with Selah Hennessey, NFTS graduate and director of “The Pacemaker”

Last month we dropped by the National Film and Television School Graduation Show in Piccadilly Circus to watch some of the documentary films made by recent NFTS graduates. We had the pleasure of watching some extraordinary films and meeting some of directors who will be shaping documentary filmmaking in years to come. One film we were blown away by was The Pacemaker, which follows 95 year-old Charles as he prepares to compete in the 100 meter sprint (for over 95’s) in his first ever World Masters Athletics Championship. We met up with the director of this light-hearted and charming documentary, Selah Hennessy, to discuss her motivations, The Pacemaker, and life after graduating.

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

Tell us how you first got into documentary? Did you always know that you wanted to be a director?

I started out working as a journalist and there were things I loved about it: the travel, the adventure, and the chance to report on important things in the world. But I would often find these amazing situations and people, and then have to scrunch their stories down into a two or three minute news report, and I hated it. I wanted a longer format and also the chance to work with music, sound design, cinematic images, clever editors, and to really be a storyteller. So I decided to give documentary a whack and I went out to Jordan with one of my best friends and we made this little 10-minute doc about a nun who worked in the maternity wing of a tiny hospital. I spent forever editing it; the whole thing was kind of a nightmare but an amazing nightmare and I knew for 100% sure that I’d found what I wanted to do for life.

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Charles from The Pacemaker. Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

How was the documentary course at the NFTS? How did it help you develop your style?

It was awesome. Dick Fontaine runs the department and he’s basically an original hipster in the best sense of the word, Kerouac-style. He drove me to school whenever I couldn’t afford a train ticket – in his red convertible with the top down, whatever the weather. The tutors are really encouraging of every student to develop their own ideas and approach. For me, that meant that I tried out a lot of different stuff while I was there and played around quite a lot, which was useful. No pressure, no stress, no rules. And the best thing about the school is the collaborations with other students; the people I worked with there were so creative, inspiring, supportive, and I’ll probably work with them for life.

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

What first endears you to a subject and do you see any patterns in your work/what interests you?

I think any subject can be interesting but for me what turns a good subject into a potentially great film is the people who are in it; so I guess my answer to all three questions is the same – people, people, people. I’m really interested in how we all impact one another, for better or worse, and I’m always inspired by people who are courageous and heroic in the face of adversity, their own demons included. I can’t really imagine making a film that isn’t, one way or another, ultimately about love.

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

How is life after the NFTS? Did you find it difficult to adapt to life as an independent filmmaker?

I graduated a month ago so I guess the jury’s still out on that one! But we’ve had a really positive response to The Pacemaker so that’s been exciting, and we’re trying to push forward with that, so it’s keeping me busy.

Do you have any practical tips for any filmmakers just starting out in the industry?

Here’s a piece of advice I was given by a producer and it seems like sound advice to me: Have good film ideas, and a lot of them, then people with money may start to pay attention to you.

What is your latest film about?

It’s about a man called Charles Eugster, who at the age of 95 cooked up a pretty wild dream, he decided he wanted to become the fastest man in the world (over the age of 95). He hired a super militant Austrian coach called Sylvia and they trained together five times a week ahead of the World Masters Athletics Championship, which is basically the Olympics for OAPs. Their goal was to win the gold medal in the 100 metre sprint. But when a famous senior sprinter joined the race – a 98 year-old Brazilian called Frederico Fischer – Charles’s chances of winning gold suddenly seemed questionable and things got pretty heated. But I’m not going to say what happened!

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

What was your first impression of your main character in 3 words?

“Very Special Person.” And by special I mean rare, unusual, exceptional. I’d say the film has two main characters, because Charles’s coach, Sylvia, is a major hero. I’d give her “Kickass. Lion Heart.”

You seem to have built a really close relationship with Charles, what made you first want to film him?

I think I was just in awe of him. I mean he’s basically travelling where no man has gone before, in my eyes he might as well be Neil Armstrong. To be 95 and to be pushing your body like he is, lifting weights in the gym for hours five times a week; running everyday on the track, it’s pretty incredible. And what he’s doing, if enough people hear about it, could really change the world and the way we all think about and experience old age. At the same time it’s fascinating, what motivates him to go so far beyond what’s normal? I just wanted to understand what makes him tick, what’s going on inside him that makes him wake up every morning and do these things.

What was the best moment whilst filming? Any funny moments or bloopers?

Well seeing as you asked… I don’t think Charles would mind me telling you that he thinks clothes are a total waste of time. He’s a big fan of bodies in all their glory. So there’s some great shots on the editing room floor of Charles in various modes of undress, which sadly didn’t make the cut. One of the things that makes Charles such a great “character” for a film is that he’s really unpredictable and there were so many moments when he surprised me and made me laugh, and we had to cut around my giggles in the edit quite a bit.

Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy
Image courtesy of Selah Hennessy

Were there any moments that were particularly emotional?

Filming with Sylvia was often quite emotional for me. She’s someone who feels things deeply and really wears her heart on her sleeve, and it’s hard not to feel the intensity of that when you’re with her sometimes. Before the World Championship she was really nervous; she really, really wanted Charles to win, and her passion was pretty contagious and emotional. I felt nervous right along with her, but I was also overwhelmed by seeing how much she loved Charles and wanted him to succeed.

What did Charles think of the film?

I think he liked it. Charles, Sylvia and I all watched it together lying in a gigantic bed in the Langham Hotel. At the end everyone was crying and it was fun, we got to rehash and remember everything that happened, it’s quite amazing when something is recorded on film and you can rewatch that memory for the rest of your life.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

We want to turn The Pacemaker into a longer film for TV so that’s my main goal at the moment. I’m also snooping around another story about a musician with autism I met who really blew me away, so I’m hoping to do something with him.