VIFF 2017 Interview: DIRTBAG: THE LEGEND OF FRED BECKEY director David O'Leske

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/01/17 03:31:25

"Fred Beckey is the original American "Dirtbag" climber whose name has evoked mystery, adulation and vitriol since the 1940s. Beckey's stubborn, singular quest to conquer peaks meant a solitary life on the road, where he left a long trail of scorned climbing partners and lost lovers in his wake. DIRTBAG tells the exceptional life story of this all-time mountaineering icon, who at age 94 looks back for the first time on his groundbreaking accomplishments and rebellious lifestyle that inspired generations. Beckey is a legendary and polarizing figure to climbers and outdoorsmen, but he's also the perfect film character; lovingly cantankerous, obsessed with his passions to a fault, simultaneously relatable and enigmatic–and we believe the film appeals to a larger audience than just the core fans." Director David O'Leske on DIRTBAG which screens at the 2007 VIFF.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

Yes, this is our first time at VIFF and we will be attending the screenings!

How did this movie come together from your perspective?

As a climber, I knew about Fred Beckey and the legend and mystic surrounding him. So, I knew he would be a very interesting character to have as the subject of a documentary and it just happened that I had a contact that knew him, so I sat down and wrote him a handwritten letter. I never expected to hear back, but Fred got in touch and said "Why would anyone want to watch that?" Over the course of the next year I spent a lot of time climbing and road tripping with Fred and never brought out a camera.

Reluctantly, he slowly agreed to be part of the documentary as we became friends and climbing partners. Next thing we knew we were off to China to attempt an unclimbed 19,000 foot peak with Fred when he was 83 years old!

I spent the next 10 years traveling and filming with Fred because it became clear he wasn't going to stop and what he was doing was extraordinary for someone his age. His persistence and dedication, as well as his struggle with his body aging and not being able to keep up with his mind and ambitions, became key themes in the film. Two years ago, I partnered with a talented group of filmmakers from Seattle to collaborate on the post production. I knew I needed to team up to tackle the massive project of assimilating nearly a century of materials and I found a great team with Jason Reid, Andy McDonough, Adam Brown, Darren Lund, Colin Plank and Colin Baxter.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee?

Fred kept me going because he never stopped moving. Many people told me I had to wrap the film up, but I knew I just needed to keep documenting what Fred was doing. It gave us 10 years of watching Fred age from 83 to 93, which showed a profound and significant change as he grew older. In post production, myself and the team needed a lot of coffee to get through the massive wealth of footage and archival materials.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you over-come it?

It is always hard to stay motivated for so long, but deep down I knew this was a great story and it had to be told, so I just needed to stay positive and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just witnessing Fred's life kept me motivated to keep pushing on.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

Spending a lot of time in the mountains with great people and working with an amazing team of people. Everyone I met through this project has been amazing and I have made many great friends during this process.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how you brought that together!

This film has everything from 8mm and 16mm film dating back to the 1930s to HD from the last 10 years. We combined this with thousands of archival still photographs, journals and other archival materials from Fred, so it was a real challenge to creatively tie it all together.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences here at VIFF?

Fred has spent a ton of time in B.C. and it is almost like a second home to him. He has lots of friends here, so we are very excited to share the film with this crowd.

And finally, where is this movie going to show next?

We are off to Mill Valley Film Festival next weekend and will be screening at a slew of festivals this fall, leading up to a 2018 release of the film!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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