Film producer Mark Huffman on shooting horror flicks, learning from Spielberg and promoting the Northern Irish film industry
The Troubles may be a thing of the past but for a new generation of moviemakers Northern Ireland remains a place of violence and bloodshed.
George Clarke’s self-funded Battle Of The Bone, a Yellow Fever production, which tells the story of a zombie invasion on the twelfth, was filmed in Belfast and won the Audience Choice Award at the 2008 Freak Show Horror Film Festival in Orlando, Florida.
Big-budget Hollywood features such as WΔz and Hellboy II: The Golden Army have also taken advantage of Northern Ireland’s spectacular locations and financial incentives to shoot key scenes in the province.
And just across the border, Hammer Film Productions – the legendary ‘studio that dripped blood’ – is making its comeback movie, The Wake Wood, in the village of Pettigo in County Donegal.
Hoping to capitalise on the Irish horror boom is a Belfast-based production company founded by a pair of respected industry figures. Londoner Simon Bosanquet and Ballyclare man Mark Huffam established Generator Entertainment in 2007, with a five-year plan to make 'quality films at a competitive price'.
The award-winning producers, whose IMDb credits read like an A to Z of modern cinema, have just wrapped their third low-budget shocker, Ghost Machine. The supernatural chiller, which stars Rachael Taylor (Transformers) and Luke Ford (The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor), was shot mainly in Belfast’s disused Crumlin Road Gaol.
'It’s a fantastic location for a horror film,' enthuses Huffman. 'We’re making a £1.5 million film and you’ve got a set there that would probably cost £5 million to build. If you’re going to do a scary film it’s pretty scary just as it sits. We were in there all night every night for four weeks. People were a bit edgy at first but by day four it just became a place of work.'
Generator’s previous foray into horror was Freakdog, a USA-set ‘slasher’ flick starring genre stalwarts Arielle Kebbel (The Grudge 2, Reeker) and Sarah Carter (Final Destination 2, Wishmaster 3: Devil Stone). The film was produced entirely on location in Belfast, with Musgrave Park Hospital standing in for the fictitious ‘Fort Haven Teaching Hospital’.
Directed by Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach – whose last movie, Shrooms, was shot in Monaghan and Armagh – Freakdog premiered at the Film4 FrightFest in London in August and was shown as part of Queen’s Film Theatre’s recent 40th anniversary season.
In north America, where Generator has an exclusive distribution deal with Starz Entertainment (a specialist in low-budget genre fare) the film will be released direct to DVD on February 22, 2009.
'There was a conscious decision to start with horror films,' Huffman admits. 'They’re not terribly cultural but there’s a guaranteed market if you make them at the right budget level. They just have to do business to make it a business.'
Also on Generator’s slate for 2009 is the bloody coming-of-age drama Cherrybomb, currently in post-production. Shot on location at the Valley Leisure Centre in Newtownabbey – renamed the ‘Titanic Leisureplex’ for the film – Cherrybomb stars Rupert Grint, aka Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter series, and James Nesbitt.
If Huffman’s Ulster-shot B-movies seem a world away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, there’s a very simple explanation: 'I haven’t spent much time at home in the last 14 or 15 years. It’s a way of being able to work at home and it doesn’t stop me working as an executive producer on the likes of Mamma Mia!'
Huffam, whose father was an antiques dealer in Templepatrick, began his ascent through the Northern Irish film and television industry in the early 1980s. He worked on the ‘Billy’ plays and local election programmes before landing his big break in 1996 as a production manager on Ridley Scott’s White Squall.
'We shot in Saint Vincent, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Bermuda, Charleston, Malta and South Africa,' Huffman recalls. 'To go from the BBC’s drama stage at Balmoral to a film where I was changing countries as often as I was having a hot dinner was a fantastic experience.'
From there, Huffman got the opportunity of a lifetime – to work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan. Ultimately, he would share the 1998 Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement with the veteran auteur.
'It was a complete adrenaline rush from start to finish. Steven is very likeable and amazingly efficient. He shot the first two days of the schedule by five o’clock on day one. That was the way it went. We were ahead all the time.'
Naming Spielberg, Jerry Bruckheimer and Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films as the industry figures he particularly admires, Huffman is hoping to replicate their success and longevity with Generator Entertainment.
When I meet him, the producer is ensconced in the company’s south Belfast headquarters, poring over scripts and fielding calls from American actors keen to work in Ulster.
'It’s a very convenient place to work,' he says. 'If you can find all your locations in less than half an hour then that’s more time to film. People have a very good experience here. The producers on City Of Ember are friends of mine and I know they left here delighted. I wouldn’t want to slag the Isle of Man off, but you find me someone who’s shot on the Isle of Man who’s ever wanted to go back.'
According to Huffman, Generator strives to use new and homegrown talent whenever possible. Ghost Machine was co-written by Malachi Smyth. Freakdog was written by Spencer Wright. Cherrybomb was written by Daragh Carville, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn. All are from Northern Ireland and all, with the exception of Middletown screenwriter Carville, are first-time feature filmmakers.
'I would say for a fairly small area there’s a thriving film industry and a lot of it is local talent. We’re not saying that all the material’s necessarily from Northern Ireland but we’re getting a good strike record.
'It starts with the writers. If you’ve got a good script then that’s as good a start as you can get. Most of our writers started with development funding from the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission through the Lottery Fund. They’ve learnt, they’ve improved and now their films are getting made.'
Around 20% of Generator’s production budget comes from Northern Ireland Screen, an organisation Huffman believes has been 'forward-thinking' in its promotion of the Northern Irish film industry.
'NI Screen, Invest NI and the other government bodies have marketed the province as a centre of excellence for filmmaking: good locations, good crew and – there’s no point in shying away from the most important thing – financial incentives.
'Between 80 to 90% of a typical Generator budget is spent here in the province, which is why the film industry is so important to encourage. It’s good for all the industries that get sucked in – hotels, car hire, crew, flights. On every film we spend £30,000 or £40,000 with our local travel agent. He thinks it’s great.'
There’s also the impact on the tourist trade, something successfully exploited by the Republic of Ireland since the days of Far And Away.
'I see no reason why it can’t be the same here. City Of Ember shot up the Cave Hill; Hellboy shot on the Giant’s Causeway.'
Generator’s fourth film is currently shooting in County Down, with Dundrum doubling for Scotland. The thriller – described by Huffman as 'Lord Of The Flies meets The Warriors' – will be followed in 2009 by Sunrise, a horror-comedy set in the Glens of Antrim. Written by first-timer Ronan Blaney and directed by Freakdog’s Malachi Smyth, Huffman says the project is 'Shane as a vampire movie, basically'.
It’s evident the producer is a film fan, but does he ever get jaded or over-critical?
'No. I always watch a film as a piece of entertainment and if I find I’m analysing it it’s failed. I don’t want to think about models, miniatures or visual effects. I just want to enjoy the film. I haven’t lost my passion for the finished product and I still get as much enjoyment out of the cinema as ever.'
But does he like horror movies?
'I do, but I get scared easily. Was Jeepers Creepers the one with the kids on the bus?' That was Jeepers Creepers II. 'Too scary for me!'
Freakdog, Cherrybomb and Ghost Machine will be in cinemas in 2009.