All Black captain Richie McCaw has lived his dream with characteristic precision and calculated determination. He’s 34 and perhaps the best rugby player out there, but the dream is almost over. He is old by professional sport standards and everyone is asking when he’s going to retire. Before his career ends, Richie McCaw sets his sights on a risk-all attempt to win the Rugby World Cup back to back. No team has ever won the cup two years in a row, also meaning no captain has won it consecutively as well. He will either end his career on an impossibly high note or take a nation’s dreams down with him. ‘Chasing Great’ follows Richie McCaw through his final season as he attempts to captain the All Blacks to the first ever-back-to back World Cup win.
Until now Richie McCaw’s achievements have been well documented, but little is known about the man himself. He has never courted the media and remains intensely private. ‘Chasing Great’ takes the audience inside his world for the first time and what emerges is a very personal insight into high level international sport and a revealing psychological profile of the mind of a champion. Natural strength, hard work, and sacrifice only get him so far. To become the best, he has to master his mind. The mental toughness and self-knowledge that McCaw has honed and worked to attain over the later years of his career has elevated him from a great player into perhaps the greatest.
Through the 2015 rugby season and into the Rugby World Cup, held in the UK, the camera follows McCaw. This is finally his time to reflect on what he has achieved and attempt to explain his point of view on what it’s been like to be the man whose skill on the rugby field elevated him to the status of an icon, and a man who found his personal dreams had become a country’s hope. With unprecedented access to Richie, documentary filmmakers Michelle Walshe and Justin Pemberton followed Richie McCaw for the final season of his captaincy of the New Zealand All Blacks. A remarkable family video archive and candid interviews with those who know him best complete the story of how a shy farm boy went on to be a sporting legend and hero to a nation.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with director Michelle Walshe to discuss her journey as a filmmaker, the challenges of bringing ‘Chasing Great’ to the screen, the lessons learned along the way and what the future may hold for her.
Thanks for taking time to talk to me today, Michelle. I really enjoyed ‘Chasing Great’ and I am excited to learn a little more about it and, more specifically, you as a director!
Well that’s really exciting! It’s so nice to see Americans embracing a rugby story, which is obviously bigger in our hemisphere.
It’s quite a story you have told with the film! I wanted to go back to your beginnings to start. What drew you to the arts early on in life and ultimately led to you pursuing a passion for filmmaking?
That’s an interesting question! I don’t know! I came from a very non-artistic family. I actually grew up, partly, in Toronto, Canada. I remember, during the school holidays, begging to do film courses. I’ve always been so connected to the idea of telling stories. I have a real affinity with real stories and documentaries. I don’t know, it’s always been there. I guess it’s one of those things where you are either born with it or you find it! [laughs] I started off in television in New Zealand. Like you, we have a real mix of reality TV and magazine style shows. I was really lucky, I got an early break as a junior director working on reality TV shows, home-makeover shows and things like that. I really enjoyed connecting with real-life people. My favorite thing to do, rather than doing drama, was working with people who weren’t necessarily comfortable with the camera. I found myself enjoying the huge buzz that you can get when you can make someone feel at ease and they can talk to you really freely. I get so much out of that. I also did a bit of drama and comedy, but there was just something about the buzz that you get from creating real connections with real people! After that, I moved into longer form content and interviewing athletes, which is another thing that is really close to my heart with sports storytelling. That’s not to say that I’m an athlete myself because I am far from it. I just think that all of life’s emotions play out in a sports environment and it’s really easy to see everything from tragedy to triumphant within a sports arena. I became really connected to sports stories from there. In this instance, with ‘Chasing Great,’ I’d been working with athletes for a number of years and had established relationships with The All Black, who are one of the most highly decorated sports teams in the world. I knew that Richie McCaw, who was the captain of The All Black, was going to potentially retire. We didn’t know for sure, but we had an inkling that he might retire after taking everyone back to the World Cup. We thought it could be a phenomenal story and we asked him whether he’d do it and he agreed. That was four years.
Obviously, the story played out very well in your favor as a storyteller and documentary filmmaking! [laughs]
Yes, it did!
With that said, this could have gone many ways. How did what you might’ve envisioned with this project differ from what it ultimately became?
That’s another really good question. Documentary filmmaking is very difficult because you don’t have a script, so as you said, the story could go any which way. As a filmmaker, you are constantly looking for cues on which way the storyline is going to go but you are also making sure you are capturing enough in case it takes a different turn. It’s really challenging in that respect. I remember when Richie said, “What if we don’t win? What will that ending look like?” I remember also thinking, statistically, it was less likely that he was going to win. His final game could have very well been a loss. We had to be really sure in ourselves that there was a story there regardless. Of course, it was great that he won! I was in the stadium and I had an extra reason for being happy! [laughs] I was very happy for him as well! I thought it was really, really interesting in terms of a character study that somebody, who was arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time, would risk their final game being a loss on such a massive stage. I thought that was fascinating, that he would put all of his chips into that basket. I thought that made it a good enough reason to tell that story and commit to it regardless of the outcome.
You co-directed ‘Chasing Great’ with Justin Pemberton. How did you originally cross paths and what was that experience like for you?
It’s a really interesting question and I’m a massive fan of the process of co-directing. I came across Justin, to answer your first question, from his phenomenal documentary called ‘The Golden Hour.’ It’s a New Zealand story about two of our Olympic athletes winning gold back to back in the 60s in the same hour. Obviously, New Zealand is a very small country, so it was a really big deal. He did a beautiful job of retelling the story cinematically. When this opportunity came up, I really wanted to have someone else on the team who had done something like this in the past. Additionally, with a documentary like this, the sheer scale of it and the amount of footage is breathtaking. I think we had 700 hours of footage. That included not only stuff we had captured but hundreds of hours of archives, so it really felt like a dual job. My producer, Cass Avery, was a big fan of Justin’s work. We thought, “Okay, let’s try this. What’s the best way for it to work?” The really beautiful thing that happened, and something I didn’t anticipate, was I predominately did all of the field directing and Justin did the post-directing. What that means is that he was taking the footage of what we captured on face value. He wasn’t taking into it all the emotion and baggage that you bring with you into the footage that you capture in a documentary and in drama. For example, there was a particular shoot that I remember doing with Richie. Imagine it’s a day or two a final. I remember that particular shot was really difficult because it was a really cold day and it was difficult to find someplace to shoot that was near the hotel. I remember being bitten by some kind of bugs and it was a really uncomfortable interview! [laughs] I think I was carrying a lot of fear about the outcome because I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. When I spoke to Justin afterwards, I remember saying, “I don’t know how well that went. I don’t know what you’re going to find in there.” He said, “Are you kidding me? That was an amazing interview! There are some amazing grabs in there. Did you not notice his mouth was really dry and there was a tension in him that I hadn’t really seen before!” I wasn’t noticing that because I was being bitten by midges or something! [laughs] I think I would’ve brought that into the suite. That was the fantastic part of co-directing, which I would really recommend to anyone in the future, particularly around documentaries, is that you have someone looking at your work who is as passionate about the job as you are. They are looking at every frame with a slightly different lens but still seeing the footage for what it is and without the baggage you bring into it, whether it be good or bad. Equally, I was like, “You are going to love this! You should’ve seen what I captured here!” He was like, “Hmmm. Meh.” [laughs] I was like, “What?!” [laughs] So, sometimes we’d have some really, really intense nights in the suite and it made us really, really question ourselves and what we had. I think that was a fantastic learning processes.
‘Chasing Great’ tells such an amazing story about the journey of Richie McCaw. I imagine it is hard not to be inspired by it, especially when you are documenting it. What did you learn about yourself through the process of bringing this film to life?
That’s another fantastic question. Richie has a line in the film where he’s in the car and has just arrived in the UK to go into this incredible World Cup situation. He says, “When I’m in these kind of pressure situations, I like to think of the big wave surfers. They chose to be on those waves. They want to be there. They want to test themselves.” I found that really powerful myself because during this process, particularly when it launched or right beforehand, there was a lot of press in New Zealand about this film. It was the highest grossing documentary of all-time because of his profile. At times, it felt like there was a huge wave coming, whether that be expectation, scrutiny on the film or the press afterwards. I really got out of it that idea of “You want to be on this wave. You want to challenge yourself.” I’ve carried that through into subsequent projects. Whenever the pressure feels big or I get a bit scared, which I think is a good emotion to have when you are filmmaking, I think, “Okay, I want to be here. I want to test myself.” It really gives you some power back, as opposed to thinking, “Ahhhhh! What’s going to happen next?” Instead, I think, “Bring it!”
How do you feel you’ve most evolved as a filmmaker over the years?
I think there is probably a confidence that comes with experience, which is a really lovely thing as a director. You follow your gut instinct a lot more. I also listen more. In the early days, particularly in documentary, you have a list of questions which you are focused on. Particularly when you are interviewing prominent people, there are a lot of nerves and thoughts of “Am I going to ask them that question? Do I have good questions? Have I researched them enough?” You get quite transfixed with your list of questions. I think how I have evolved as a filmmaker is having questions, being really prepared but just listening and accepting that a question of mine might go on an entirely different tangent than what I was expecting, and it will be better for it! Listening and asking why is very important, not listening or thinking you’re listening and then going to the next question without digging into the answers people are giving you. I wish someone had told me that a long time ago!
To dig further into that answer… [laughs] Are there any other techniques you are using for your interviews that have allowed you to get unique perspectives or stories from your interview subjects?
What I like to do know is have people take me back to a situation. I will give you an example. There will be sometimes in an interview where I might say, “Okay, tell me about the time you played in the World Cup. That must’ve been a really difficult situation.” You start by putting emotions out there that you think they might relate to. When you speak to people who get interviewed a lot, particularly athletes or politicians who are very media trained, they can come out with very succinct answers where you don’t often get a lot of depth. In situations like this, I think a really powerful tool is to say, “Take me back to being on the field. Tell me what you can hear? Tell me what you can see? What can you smell?” Get them to go through a whole lot of their senses that they’re not used to tapping into. It’s interesting when you do that and ask something like, “What does it sound like? What could you hear?” They might say, “Oh, my gosh! I couldn’t hear anything. All I could hear was my heart beating…” It’s interesting because it taps into a more human or deeper connection to the story they are about to tell you. To answer your question, for people who are very well versed in being interviewed, that’s a really good tool — take them back there in a different way.
Where do you see yourself headed in the future when it comes to filmmaking? Are there any other stories you are anxious to tell?
It’s interesting that you say that. I think I’m moving to New York in about 3 months. The reason I’m doing that is that is because while still have a big connection to New Zealand, there are some very exciting stories I’ve encountered on the other side of the world. We’ve also been able to gain some really interesting access that we’ve been able to gain through doing things like Richie McCaw story. My intention is to carry on in this field, particularly in documentaries, and bring stories to people which inspire or connect in a way that maybe they haven’t before. In the sports base, I think there is room for a different type of storytelling from a different perspective, so I’m really excited about that!
What is the best lesson we can take from your journey as a filmmaker?
I think I’m getting better and better at testing myself when it comes to the question of “What is good work and what is great work?” That can define all parts of life. I think if you hunt down the difference between good and great, it can only be beneficial and make your work, whatever the field might be, much better. I look for that in other people’s filmmaking by asking, “what makes this great?” Obviously, the difference between good and great is so hard! I challenge to do the same in their own work. I feel it’s been really enriching for me to test myself. I can say, “Oh, I think that’s good enough.” or somebody else can say, “That’s great.” But, if I know that there is a margin of something left, then that’s not good enough. That’s something I also feel is a very powerful tool!
That is another interesting perspective! Thanks for sharing a few of these tools today. I know they are something I will certainly take into account moving forward! I can’t wait to see where the next leg of your journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate your interest in the film and my work! Take care!
‘Chasing Great’ hits select theaters and VOD on March 2nd, 2018! Visit the official website for the film at www.chasinggreat.film. Connect with the filmmakers on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichieMcCawFilm.