BAFTA nominee Stephen Fingleton on life as a filmmaker in world-class NI


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.


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.”


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.


  • Zig70

    Going to the cinema is blighted by being ripped of on stale popcorn and other ‘treats’.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I fully agree. The critics get to see them in clean viewing theatres, but I miss the old days where an assembly edit rich in visible edit tape would be tried out on those who had not yet seen a cut, the reels run on steenbecks in scrupiously cleaned edit rooms (dust always aproblem with film)! The new technology is just soooooo boring……

  • It is a changed experience without a doubt.

    I get the impression Stephen Fingleton will shoot on film if and when it is practical in the future, so hopefully we’ll all get to see a movie from an NI director shot on film and projected from film.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I wish them every luck, as james Clarance Mangan says:

    “Yet may [Ulaid’s] bardlings flourish long I
    Me, I tweak no beak among them; hawks
    Must not pounce on hawks…..”

    It’s far less lonely today, with a genuine growth of skills and some really imaginative work here. Back in the 1980s I used to only run into one or two others from the wee six anywhere in the London film world, not enough to make anything of a splash.

    Film requires a very different discipline to digital capture. You must think about every scene shot almost as carefully as an animator who must entirely build every component of a scene through a careful assembly of every actual movement. I’ve done both and the serendipity of live action filming needs greater skills of improvisation to capture something that begins to happen when the camera turns. With digital capture this is now superseded by habits of just shooting and shooting each set up and using the most telling shots, something that brings quite different results, not better, not worse, simply very different. But I miss the tactile feel of the old 35 mm film, and montages created from shots hanging in bins, but then I’m such a traditionalist I was passionate about silents back before Kevin Brownlow started Thames Silents with Abel Gaunce’s unmatchable “Napoleon”……

    But again, every luck to them all, maybe he will let me cut it…….

  • Fascinating as always, thank you.

    It reminds me of the story that the famous line-up scene in The Usual Suspects was, in fact, rescued – even, completely created – from scraps from the cutting room floor after an atrocious and abandoned day’s shooting.

    It might have picked up a little in the telling but it always says something to me about the power of a great editor.

  • ted hagan

    Excellent, intelligent interview, even though I found the Hateful Eight claustrophobic and very annoying.

  • Thank you – Stephen was very generous with his time and expertise.

    This was the first time I didn’t rush to the cinema for a Tarantino movie.

    Will reserve judgement on the new Coen Bros until I see it this weekend, although I enjoy the fact their movies are so varied and can sometimes have that Marmite factor from person to person.

  • whatif1984true

    Stephen has been hugely successful. His comments about NI Screen should be taken with a pinch of salt. You do not know how much money they have given him as a student or more recently as additional support/funding.
    Many local professionals would disagree with him about the support available and the quality/strategy of NI Screen. Ultimately they are an organisation which gives out money.

    He is so right about awards they often bear little if any relation to the quality of the films. Even our own IFTA awards (so I have told) do not know if voters have seen a film, sending dvds etc is no guarantee that a film is viewed.

    Short films can be on the list for an Oscar merely by paying a cinema in LA to screen the film X times in one week, no need to win a nomination from a festival such as Galway or Derry. Stephen did win his nomination through festivals and of course the quality of his work.

  • Stephen spoke very, very highly of NI Screen and of their support – if the interview gives the impression otherwise then that is my fault.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Serious Ted? !

    I found it engrossing from the very first scene.

    And Walton goggins and Kurt Russell were the proverbial cherries on top.

  • Zig70

    Has anyone seen it? It has 6.4 on Imdb not exactly stellar but I’m open to persuasion. Watched 71 recently, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • I have – I thought it was excellent and so did a lot of critics and award juries, but some might have found it too dark and/ or non-mainstream (there’s no score and little dialogue) as well as brutal in places.

    For my money the performances, the immersive quality, the apparently uncompromising approach and the ‘feel’ of the movie are all superb.

    71 is a great bit of story-telling, if you haven’t seen it you might like Captain Phillips.

    Edit: The movie is 6.4 from user reviews on IMDB and 66 from user reviews on Rotten Tomatoes but has a critic score on the same site of 94%, suggesting a large number of critics appreciate the movie but it is a little more divisive with viewers at home (and many of those voters will have been watching at home).

    While there will be those who just didn’t find the movie to their tastes (especially those who dislike movies they find too slow or far from the usual commercial formula), what concerns me is that someone can watch a Torrent download of a movie on a cheap laptop – without hope of seeing or hearing, getting the feel of the movie properly – then adding their weight to the user score.

    Would be interested to see scoring for movies from a cinema-only audience and those who have paid for streaming vs ‘open to anyone’.

  • I liked it – very strong imagery that lasts long after the film finishes.

  • whatif1984true

    It will probably appear on TV in Northern Ireland at some stage especially if it is not on in cinemas. The BBC will screen it, there seems to be some sort of link/mutual back scratching goes on between them or maybe just local content quota filling. It will hopefully let everyone see the film which I would guess would be very important to Stephen. How many will watch would be interesting, especially when it seems that the distributors reckoned it hadn’t enough ‘appeal’ for general audiences. No matter what it is a big step up and forward.

  • Stephen’s thinking was that the decision to also release via VOD was a factor in the decision by some cinemas, as opposed to it being based purely on appeal.

    I’m only a cinema-goer, but if Mark Kermode (with his millions of followers) calls something a Film of the Week and it gets a BAFTA-nomination I suspect the audience wouldn’t have been hard to attract for the cinema, which supports his view that public appeal wasn’t the only issue.

    It is very, very good to see an NI filmmaker do so well in any case, these are great days to be a movie fan in NI.

  • whatif1984true

    I noted the words ‘commercial Sci Fi’ in the interview. That seems to answer the question about cinema release.