Filmmakers Find Online Success With Farr

Four part Belfast-set crime series among the most popular programmes available on RTÉ Player – director Aiden Largey and actor Shaun Blaney on making it through the Storyland commissioning process

RTÉ’s Storyland is competitive, extremely competitive. This successful annual commissioning platform seeks to bring fresh ideas to RTÉ, to identify emerging creative talent for the television and film industries across the island of Ireland. In 2014, almost 200 concepts were pitched. Only five were selected. Of those, one sprang from Northern Ireland. 

The first series to be made by RTÉ north of the border in a decade, Farr is the brainchild of director Aiden Largey and actor Shaun Blaney, both of whom are based in Belfast. They conceived it in concert, envisaging a gritty yet stylish crime drama using their home city as the backdrop, rather than a lurking Troubles-scarred theme. The ensuing four-part online drama, with each episode running for six minutes, displays a leanness demanded by short film-making. 

‘Myself and Aiden were looking for something to work on last year,’ says Blaney, recalling the genesis of Farr from a collection of shorts to the meatier animal it now resembles. ‘We worked on it and worked on it. The more we worked on it, we found what we think is quite a strong story for a television series that we wanted to explore. We just didn’t know exactly how we were going to explore it.’ 

Fortunately, Storyland presented itself. In order to compete, Blaney and Largey recruited a team — including freelance producer, Margaret McGoldrick — to aid them in the application process. Additionally, Belfast production house Stirling Film and Television offered the duo an umbrella under which to work, but, as Blaney stresses, their creative discretion was never compromised. ‘We were just really encouraged by getting through.' 

Blaney, whose notable recent work includes Game of Thrones and the Ridley Scott-produced Halo: Nightfall, plays Michael, a brash young detective investigating the Farr cartel. A discovery that goes to a much deeper, personal place than his sworn duties, however, strains his loyalties almost from the beginning. Over the course of 24 minutes, the show moves from police procedural to family opera, its title serving as both a fittingly cinematic moniker and the name of the narrative’s main protagonists. 

‘It just sort of has a ring to it, really,’ says Largey. ‘The thing that interested me as a writer was trying to find a situation where there is lots of conflict and no easy answers.’

Largey’s own background sits in the area of self-funded shorts, a degree of experience which undoubtedly guided his hand in bringing Farr to its present state. Skills developed in that arena, along with the Irish broadcaster’s weighty backing, proved a crucial creative combination. 

‘When you have a budget, it’s really helpful in giving scale to the piece,’ he says, pointing out that his well-honed abilities contributed mightily to a disciplined, intriguing finished article that conveyed an impactful plot in all of six minutes. ‘It was very helpful for me to structure the whole series. I wanted to make sure that at the end of every episode, there was a twist or event to pull you into watching the next one. It all comes from shorts.’

Taking their inspiration from the visual artistry of Michael Mann’s iconic night-time images and cityscapes – Largey was determined to paint Belfast in coolly cosmopolitan shades – and mightier progenitors such as Martin Scorsese's The Departed, they have conjured a convincing premise. Blaney describes the whole process as a ‘really lovely experience', one which afforded him the somewhat rare opportunity to become deeply familiar with the intimacies of his own second self.  

He feels that this project is especially current. In his view, the format represents an inevitable and viable future of the small screen, a standard already set by a giant of the medium. ‘I think this is a good indicator of where television is going these days. If I’m watching Netflix, I want to watch the whole series. I think online is definitely the way to go. As long the work is produced to the standard that it usually is for television, I think it will have a very strong future.'

The constraints of time meant that the fabric of the tale remains largely unexplored, but Largey expresses confidence in the compelling nature and potential longevity of the original idea. If Farr were to be fully commissioned by the network, there exists scope for much more. ‘We could ask bigger questions. There would be a real story there. We’ve got plenty of room to dig into.’ 

The filmmakers' ambition was to come up with a product that could travel, Largey says. ‘We didn’t want to make something that was only for a Northern Irish audience or a southern audience. We wanted to do a show that people in America could watch and really like.’

Blaney agrees, hinting at layers that simply cannot be peeled back in Farrs abridged guise: ‘We cherry picked moments and elements of the story that would be engaging for the web series, but we didn’t want to tell the whole story in these four episodes. We have an entire universe with other characters and more plot lines. There’s an awful lot more drama that we want to investigate.’

Prospective expansion notwithstanding, Blaney and Largey are pleased with RTÉ’s positive feedback. ‘They’ve told us that the door is open to come down and bring them our ideas, see what they say. We’re very happy with the way this production has gone. Hopefully they’ll be willing to invest in us a bit more so that we may continue it.’ 

Recent developments will not have hurt their chances. For his turn as Michael, Blaney has been nominated for best male performance in a drama at the prestigious Los Angeles-based International Academy of Web Television awards, scheduled for the middle of April 2015. That achievement is considerable and represents appropriate recognition of the graft that went into bringing this vision to life. Largey, too, has seen his own career grow; he is now pulling together a debut feature.

For RTÉ, the success of Farr, which has been amongst the most popular programmes available via the company’s online player, offers a solid return on a decision well made. ‘I think we got more out of the funding than even they thought we would,’ admits Blaney. ‘That’s terribly helpful. It makes them like us a wee bit more.’

Farr is now available on the RTÉ Player.

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