When Northern Ireland-based filmmaker Stephen Fingleton, the multi-award winning writer and director of acclaimed feature The Survivalist, talks about working as a film professional in Northern Ireland he describes a life of stark contrasts: from enjoying praise from the likes of Time Out, Mark Kermode and The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw to working from an office in Enniskillen; from sitting alongside Quentin Tarantino at a premiere to dealing personally with poor support from cinemas, and; from observing how the societal divides seen, at times, in Northern Ireland are broken down by the practical realities of making a film here.
Stephen also discussed the valuable work of NI Screen, the potential and barriers for filmmaking in Northern Ireland, the identity of Northern Ireland films, the health of cinema-going locally and his thoughts on the awards season.
Sitting in the Europa Hotel bar, just a few seats from where West Belfast’s Martin McCann was offered his role in The Survivalist, the Derry-born Enniskillen native reflected on the roller coaster preceding weeks which saw the cinematic release of The Survivalist, his first feature, screened in cinemas including Belfast’s QFT just one month ago.
The BAFTA nominated film – an outstanding, tactile, immersive and at times brutal, unflinching tale of survival after the world’s oil resources are depleted – was shot on a private estate in Ballymoney and Ness Country Park in Derry. The film’s poster lists a string of critical praise and followed a Tribeca Film Festival premiere, a prize-winning screening at Sitges Film Festival and as a string of awards and jury mentions across a number of festivals. It also won the prestigious Douglas Hickox prize at the British Independent Film Awards.
However, while prominent critic Mark Kermode – who has publicly complained about a lack of screenings for some great films – was lauding the movie to millions of listeners on Radio Five Live, Stephen was frustrated by the limited support the film received from cinema exhibitors in the UK.
“We opened on 27 screens across the UK and Ireland. We had a great maverick distributor called Bulldog who put together a great trailer and poster and had an experienced cinema booker and PR team. But 80% of our screenings in England were a single daily matinee screening – and this is for a hard 18 movie during school half term. Likewise, Picturehouse apparently declined my offer to do Q&As for any of their screenings, which is a decision that seems to make no sense to me as screenings with the filmmaker always take more money. Perhaps because the film was also released on demand (on platforms like iTunes) it may have led to a strategic decision to limit cinema support for the film, in case it became a positive example of that releasing strategy.”
The film was shown in Northern Ireland by QFT and IMC in Northern Ireland while on demand rentals for the film have been strong, although Stephen added: “I’m not concerned about my career as how a film does isn’t related to the offers that being made to me. I’m more concerned about how filmmakers can find a commercial route for their work to an audience in order to get their work funded based on risk and return. We can’t keep spending money on films that have limited access to the market”
The Survivalist originally found its way onto the screen after Stephen’s screenplay for the film was voted onto Hollywood’s ‘Black List’ and was included in the UK’s ‘Brit List’ of best unproduced scripts in 2013. At that time Stephen was named a Star of Tomorrow by Screen Daily and won a place on a British Film Institute funding scheme, leading to British Film Institute support for his Oscar-shortlisted short SLR, which boasted Liam Cunningham among the cast and has attracted 400,000 online views.
NORTHERN IRELAND – THE IDENTITY AND LOCATION
Not only was Stephen’s feature shot in Northern Ireland, but his short film SLR and Magpie made use of Colin Glen Forest Park as a location. Other locations used in The Survivalist include Ballymoney and an abandoned airbase at Bishopscourt.
The movie, in which the director draws parallels with life today through the appearance of “southern migrants” from Monaghan and raiders who recall the likes of Jihadi John, is very much a Northern Ireland movie. Before being praised by Mark Kermode’s film review show on BBC News 24 it was noted that its release continues a trend of excellent films shot in Northern Ireland (such as the Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa-directed Kermode Film of the Year Good Vibrations and Michael’s Lennox’s Oscar-nominated short Boogaloo and Graham and Stephen’s short SLR).
Stephen’s own Driver Films website clearly identifies the University College London graduate as a filmmaker from Northern Ireland in the very first line of his biog, an identity he is keen to maintain, actively working to keep a distinct demarcation between this identity and being described solely as a British or Irish professional: “I’m pleased, for example, that at the Tribeca Film Festival I was billed as a filmmaker from Northern Ireland as it can be a challenge to be seen that way. I prefer the novelty and ambiguity of being a Northern Ireland filmmaker.
“And the economic realities of making a movie in Northern Ireland cut across sectarian lines, meaning there’s a specific identity in the films we make here. For example, Boogaloo and Graham invites us to see the story in the context of the stereotypes of the troubles, then subverts the audience’s expectation. It couldn’t have been made anywhere else.”
The use of Northern Ireland as a location by Stephen has been greatly boosted by the regional film and television body Northern Ireland Screen, an organisation he is keen to praise for their work as an “economic asset” to Northern Ireland. NI Screen helped Stephen develop the script and it was only when his producers made a production agreement with them was the decision made to shoot in Northern Ireland.
Stephen said they proved themselves to be an asset not just to the production but to Northern Ireland as a whole: “NI Screen helped to get The Survivalist out. I could trust them as they are very committed to supporting and promoting local filmmakers, they were strong advocates and wanted to see that the film was made.”
Stephen explained that, while NI Screen work hard “to support script development right the way through to production in such a genuine way”, the success of Northern Ireland in attracting major productions such as Game of Thrones can cause challenges for local filmmakers due to a “limited crew base” locally and prohibitive potential cost of bringing in those with technical expertise. For example, crew from the shooting of Stephen’s The Survivalist were lost to the current release High Rise towards the end of his time shooting the movie.
He pointed out that, with a new studio due to be built in Belfast and a proposed studio in Derry, the local film industry is going to continue expand the scale and number of productions shooting here. He explained that he would like to see more flexibility added to where a film can be shot, the crew used and the link to Northern Ireland while still qualifying for local funding: “For me, where I feel the Northern Ireland industry can do more is to broaden the base of technical crew.
“That will have to involve some migration, be it from across the border, in the UK or elsewhere. For example, if an assistant director in London decides to move to Belfast to work, NI Screen will make sure they genuinely meet criteria; but this should be applied as loosely as possible to expand the workforce.
“There needs to be enough crew to satisfy the needs of a production if they want to come here, particularly as production expands in the future. We should encourage filmmakers from across Europe to move here to compliment the existing workforce. It’s one of the best places in the world right now to work on film and TV.”
NORTHERN IRELAND – FOR FILM FANS
The experience for cinema-goers in Northern Ireland is obviously of importance to Stephen, who observed that the standard of cinema offering locally is – with our blend of film clubs, multiplex cinemas and the work of QFT and The Strand – broadly as good as we could expect for our size of population.
He was concerned, however, that while young people “can get what they want on Torrent” (an illegal downloading method – at one point The Survivalist was a 12th most popular download in the world on illegal sites) and on YouTube, some members of another generation have stopped going to the cinema almost completely: “People I am close to don’t go to the cinema any more. They are part of a group of people who used to go, say, once a year but now that has turned into once every two or three years. Meanwhile theatres remain popular, so how do we get them to go back to the cinema? Perhaps cinema screens in local theatres would help as that’s the sort of repertory space we should target”
Stephen also praised the work of local film clubs and – while he understood the business remit of local cinemas – explained that if they were to commit some screen-time to support local film clubs and filmmakers “it would be no threat to their business, so perhaps it is something NI Screen could intercede in as a type of audience development”.
Stephen spoke up for film clubs who pay a high local licensing fee to screen movies, explaining that – for example – in Fermanagh a club would pay the same fee as their local multiplex, a cost he said was higher than in areas, a “disgraceful abuse of power”.
Thankfully, through the work of the likes of QFT and Strand, Northern Ireland has retained the ability to occasionally show movies from film (“as Christopher Nolan says it takes a certain level of technical expertise to see if a film is working”) as opposed to using digital projection.
Stephen pointed out that, while it hadn’t been possible to shoot The Survivalist using film instead of digital cameras this time around, the use of film remains “very special”.
“I went to the European premiere of The Hateful Eight – actually, Quentin Tarantino was sitting behind me – and the film was projected from 70mm. Film is clearly very special, however many directors don’t like to work with it as they don’t have the balls to shoot something they won’t see for two days as its away getting developed or to fight to be able to shoot using film.”
When asked how The Survivalist had been given an earthy, tactile feel which felt, to my untrained eye, close to 35mm, Stephen explained that his cinematographer underexposed much of the footage and the “fantastic colourist” John Dowdell recreated the colour frequencies of film in post production.
He did note, however, that cinemas in Northern Ireland tend to play the sound for movies too quietly to allow for the louder adverts before the feature begins: “Picture quality should be fine due to digital projection, however films should be sown at Dolby Level 7 – or 85db – however cinemas send to play them at 4.5 – 5.5, about 70db, where they have to struggle against the sound of air conditioning”.
Like many movie fans, Stephen followed the awards season with great interest, not least due to his own ‘Outstanding British Debut’ BAFTA nomination and his being named as a ‘Breakthrough Brit’ and ‘Brit to Watch’ by BAFTA.
While he is “always happy to get an award” the director “doesn’t look at it as a measure of how good a film is, but it is a useful metric for the success of the film”. Stephen noted the wins by some stand-out movies this year, including The Big Short (“it has an original narrative approach”) in which Brad Pitt quotes the documentary Collapse which Stephen used also as a basis for The Survivalist.
He described Spotlight as “generally well told, except for the scene where Mark Ruffalo loses his temper…he doesn’t need to lose his temper” and explained that the visually beautiful movie Carol, shot on Super 16mm film, used the same colourist he had used for The Survivalist.
While he is “content” that people have compared the awards-feted Revenant to The Survivalist, he singled out The Hateful Eight for praise as a “great movie” and one which deserved its cinematography Oscar nod, not least because it was shot on film as opposed to digital cameras.
Stephen’s own future is now concentrated on writing a commercial sci-fi script, working from an office in Enniskillen chosen as “it is somewhere to set my laptop, with a view to distract me”.
Local movie fans who have bristled with pride to hear Northern Ireland filmmaking and local talent again singled out for critical praise – thanks to creatives like Stephen, Martin McCann and more – will be first in the queue to celebrate the arrival of his latest project on our screens.
* The Survivalist – a Mark Kermode Film of the Week – can be seen via a number of streaming services and, it has just been announced, will be screened by Portrush Film Theatre on Monday 14th March. The DVD and Blu-ray editions will be released on April 18th but are available for pre-order from Amazon. Stephen’s short films (including the BAFTA-nominated SLR) can be seen on the Driver Films website.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net