George Clarke, The Last Bastion of Bad Taste
Northern Ireland's most reviled film-maker stands up to the critics as he releases feature number four
Can it really be only four years since George Clarke’s Yellow Fever Productions burst onto the Northern Irish film scene like a troubled appendix?
If there is a film-maker working in Belfast today who epitomises 'Auteur theory', it is surely Clarke (with Kenny Branagh running a distant second). He writes, he directs, he acts, he produces and he choreographs all of his own fights: he’s a quintuple threat!
Clarke’s first feature film was The Battle of the Bone, a high-concept, low budget piece wherein warring sectarian factions in Belfast are bound together fighting a greater evil – kung fu zombies. It divided critics. Some of them hated it, but most of them despised it.
What nobody could deny was that the film had been made, and for the trifling sum of £6,000. The dialogue is mostly inaudible, and when it isn’t, you’ll wish it was. The plot is a series of moribund set-pieces. You could story-board the film using knots in a piece of string. But while the satire might stumble around the place as if it’s wearing asphalt-spreader's boots, it is, at least, attempting to say something, even if its diction is none too crisp.
The film has an unpaid cast of hundreds and was instrumental in the formation of Clarke’s disparate band of free-runners and stuntmen, Team Bacteria as Clarke refers to them, who have been a staple of all of his features since.
Yellow Fever’s second feature, The Knackery, followed on thematically from The Battle of the Bone. Either that or Clarke saw the five second clip from the end of Shaun of the Dead – where zombies have been press-ganged into a game-show in front of a giggling Keith Chegwin – and thought, 'That’s our movie!'
This film was made for a princely £100, but there’s no real drop-off in terms of production quality. If anything The Knackery is the better film, the script tighter, the performances more 'actorly' (facing the cameras and everything!) and the stunts energetic and imaginative. Clarke is genuinely proud of how far he can stretch his meagre resources.
'The Last Light [his most recent film] was made for £200,' says Clarke. 'A hundred was spent on fuel and the other hundred spent on props, a bit of food and a lot of matches. Everybody who works behind the camera works in front of the camera. The way we make movies is that they’re just a slightly more expensive family video. It’s easy.'
And his approach to production too is refreshingly direct. 'For me there are three main ingredients to making a film. Find out what locations are available. Find out what teams are available to you, both behind and in front of the camera. Then put your hand in your pocket to see how much money you’ve got. Then you write your script.'
The Last Light, which premiered at Clarke’s own Yellow Fever Film Festival at the Strand cinema on the Holywood road in Belfast, is Yellow Fever’s most assured work to date. It’s an old-dark-house shocker, with scary faces looming out at you from the shadows and finger-nails scraping across distressed floorboards; a haunted house thriller with grungy, Grudge'y overtones.
It is far and away the best thing Clarke has produced, marrying an enjoyably creepy location (Cairndhu House, near Larne) with effective direction and an impressive chiaroscuro. The zombies are kept to a bare minimum. The production values are once again, necessarily, spare, the technical work has come on in leaps and bounds. However, this change in direction is not something Clarke wants to pursue.
'To be honest editing The Last Light bored the hell out of me,' he admits. 'The Hong Kong movies, I’ve watched them since I was five and a half years old. That’s my thing. I’ve now been asked by an LA producer to write and direct a movie for Jackie Chan next year.'
It’s an odd mix, Kung Fu and the Antrim coast.
'Yeah, but why not?' Clarke asks. 'I have visions of a Crouching Tiger-style thing in the middle of Bedford Street, you know? Northern Ireland is known around the world for the Troubles. I want to create a new Northern Irish cinema, invent a style, stamp it with an identity.'
No matter what anyone thinks of Clarke – and everyone working within the Northern Ireland film industry has an opinion of his work – Yellow Fever is a powerhouse of industry. They’ve made four features in as many years and at least 100 shorts.
And Clarke has gone viral! His discovery of a woman apparently talking on a mobile phone in the back-ground of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus has achieved nearly six million hits on YouTube, and Clarke and his logo are front and centre.
He’s getting out there. Yellow Fever is the little production company that could, much to the annoyance of other Northern Irish film makers. Does Clarke have any idea what other Northern Irish film-makers think of his, relatively, astronomical success thus far?
'I would say we’re the most hated film-makers in Belfast, without a doubt. There’s a lot of Queen’s and other film students that despise us for being successful, for not having that film education and because they don’t have the balls to take that risk and get up and do something.'
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Be afraid, be very afraid. Through boundless esprit de corps and sheer tonnage of output, the future of Northern Irish film-making could look very much like George Clarke.