Storyteller Sit-down: Jonathan O’Beirne

Bit by bit, piece by piece, we continue our content-building quest with the 11th installment in Storyteller Sit-downs. Onward!

This is Jonathan O’Beirne (more commonly referred to as “ Jon O” around the office)— born and raised in Frederick, Maryland, a beautiful and rural colonial area bursting with history (and farm animals), his work as a short form documentary filmmaker is a combination of two childhood passions: science and theatre. Growing up, Jon O’s Dad, a scientist, used their garage to let the kids do experiments for fun. But, in 8th grade he discovered theatre production and pretty soon he was hooked. Somehow working on documentary-style pieces feels like a nice mixture of those two influences. This is Jon O’s Great Big Story.

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Best ‘on location’ experience

JonO: One of my earliest shoots at Great Big Story remains one of my favorite trips. I was traveling with my colleague, Farhod Family. We filmed in Baltimore with fruit merchants called “Arabbers.” They stick out because they use a horse and cart to sell their product. Their headquarters is a stable with chickens, goats and pigs, tucked inside a gritty, urban neighborhood. Very surreal! At one point, we were driving in downtown Baltimore alongside one of the Arraber fruit carts as it was being pulled by a horse. In order to capture a sweeping tracking shot of the cart in motion, I sat with my camera in the back of an SUV with the back door fully open. It was definitely a spectacle for unwitting bystanders, but the end shot was totally worth it. The next day, I found myself filming African elephants, up close, at the Baltimore Zoo. Only at Great Big Story.

Favorite piece produced and why

JonO: My favorite piece was also my first at Great Big Story. I flew to Dublin with my wife and traveled North to Donegal, where we took a ferry to Tory Island through the choppiest seas I’ve ever seen. Tory, which is sparsely populated with a few hundred residents, is remarkable because it’s home to Ireland’s only king. We spent the next several days on the island profiling the King, Patsy Dan Rodgers. He is straight out of central casting — a wonderful man and storyteller who carries a lot of responsibility for the people of Tory Island.

^One we were happy to see you produce!

Biggest self-criticism of a piece you worked on

JonO: A mentor once told me, “the P in Producer is for paranoia.” He couldn’t have been more right. While making each and every piece, I always pick up on the little voice inside my head asking, “did we get enough? Are we covered? Did we get the best possible stuff?” When you’re working in pairs and the hours are long and physical, it takes discipline to stay focused and creative with your filming.

The other part of that is being creative and bold. I did a piece about a Shaolin Monk who runs a school in NYC. He’s fascinating in his own right but he also teaches RZA from Wu-Tang. I really hoped to get RZA to talk about him for the piece. But, I never quite managed it. I feel like it would have made the piece. I wish I managed to get there.

Ok, JonO. You’re the second producer to mention the ‘P’ stands for paranoia. Who do we have to beg for office puppy therapy sessions? No.More.Paranoia!

A strange, nightmarish, or weird-mazing tale from the road

JonO: On the King of Tory shoot I mentioned in my first answer, we got trapped while trying to leave the island. The North Atlantic was squalling so bad we were “stormbound” in our small apartment for two extra days. Our window of escape opened when we learned that the law required the mail ferry must depart every Thursday, no matter what. The King made it clear to us that that was the only way we were getting off of the island, but it meant we had to venture into seas that had swells rolling 30 feet high. After some deliberation, we decided to risk it. My wife gets a little seasick and this was about be a serious white-knuckler of a ride. The King’s Son-in-law, Daniel, also went with us (he is a former fisherman) and said, “this is not bad at all” and proceeded to take a nap. We felt like serious landlubbers.

Seems like royal treatment to me, (except the part about braving the 30-foot high swells)!

A callout to your favorite GBS social media supporter (or favorite comment)

JonO: My biggest supporter on social media is my father-in-law, Robert Lauterbach, My father-in-law always calls attention to my work on his social feeds and he never misses a story because he forces me to maintain a private Google document for him so he could stay current on what I have done.

That’s going above and beyond the job description! You want to help with tracking our press pickup?

Most difficult part about being a storyteller

JonO: Missing my family — From the time when I was little, my Dad would have guests from Europe and Africa come to our house for dinner and it was fascinating. It made me desperate to see more of the world. I’m getting to do that which is wonderful, but I have a wife and three sons at home, so I miss them a lot. They love the stories that Great Big Story tells, though (and think it’s very cool I work here). We also make little movies together (including two pieces for Great Big Story) so perhaps it’s a family business!

Wait, your entire family is in the film production business? O’Beirne family summer interns? Have I seen these Great Big Stories? So. Many. Questions.

Great Big Story is a global media company devoted to cinematic storytelling.

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