Vicki Neill meets the company making devilishly good movies
It seems like cinema has always portrayed Northern Ireland as a war-torn wasteland of hatred and revenge. That’s what the movies would have us believe - blockbusters such as The Devil's Own and Resurrection Man do little to help the tragic image of Northern Ireland that the world has come to know.
In reality, the ceasefire has been in place for almost a decade, and people here are searching for more from cinema.
Slowly but surely, something different has emerged. In 2002, a group of little-known filmmakers were brought to my attention. Deep in Co Armagh there lies a hive of activity centred around Midnight Pictures.
Smiling out from the pages of The Portadown Times were the faces of Andrew Harrison, Darryl Sloan and Glenn Poole. They were searching for actors for their horror feature Saul's Pupils.
These guys are a breath of fresh air. Their films are written, acted and produced in the province using local talent. At no point are the Troubles mentioned.
Nevertheless, I dubiously attended auditions for Saul’s Pupils, suspicious of the mysterious guys who were gaining momentum as filmmakers. It turns out that they are normal guys with a passion and enthusiasm for film.
They operate with little or no budget and manage to film at weekends, around work and family commitments. Caught up in their excitement and approach, I readily agreed to play the part of ‘victim number three’ in Saul's Pupils.
The scene was filmed on a foggy April morning in Portadown, alongside the River Bann which served to complement the spooky atmosphere. It wasn’t long though before laughter carried across the meadow as a memorable day commenced.
The Midnight Pictures team have no airs or graces. Although their past films were generally produced for fun, they operate with precision and efficiency that bigger production teams would be hard pushed to achieve.
No time was wasted and we got straight to filming. Everyone had been briefed as to what was required from the scene and the climbing gear needed for my hanging scene was carefully selected and tested beforehand.
To date, Midnight Pictures have produced six films, and are gaining credibility in cinematic circles. Harrison claims that Irish audiences have become more open, especially in the last five years.
‘There’s not many people doing what we have attempted. Fifteen years ago independent NI films were virtually unheard of. Now we're releasing our work on DVD. I think it shows the lack of pretension that Belfast and our society is famed for.
'There is no pretence evident in any of our productions and we feel that this is a reflection on our people as a whole.’
True to form, latest production Don’t Look in The Attic is warm and funny, all the while holding the audience in agonising suspense, right down to the final scene.
‘People want to see what a horror film in Ireland looks like,' says Harrison. 'It’s refreshing that something coming out of Northern Ireland isn’t about the Troubles. There is no point to be made any more and people have moved away from that era.’
Sloan agrees but fears that there is a danger of portraying our society in the other extreme, as 'happy go lucky'. In other words, as eejits. Waking Ned springs to mind.
‘We need an in-between,' he says, 'and we feel that our films go a long way to achieving that.’
Harrison would encourage young filmmakers to simply roll up their sleeves and have a go.
‘Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enthusiasm goes a long way and what you want to do is make films that are accessible. Rules are made to be broken. Young people today are too afraid of what other people think.'
'When I was young it was even harder to start out in filmmaking. Now all you need is a PC, a camera, and motivation to see the thing out. Even if you produce something that’s not art, it's still entertainment and that’s what counts.’
He agrees that big names, such as Neil Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto), are coming back to Northern Ireland and that confidence is being restored.
‘We enjoy setting our films here,’ says Harrison. ‘We like the fact that local places are recognisable and we are able to promote the area in a positive light. At no point do any of our actors attempt to hide their distinctive accents.’
Dabbling in filmmaking since the late 80’s, Midnight Pictures show no sign of losing momentum. They have high hopes for their latest zombie production, Shadow of the Dead.
‘Zombies have become cool again,’ says Sloan.
‘Just look at Samantha Mumba in Boy Eats Girl.'
'This time, we would like to have a full crew and get more young people involved. All I can think about is making Shadow of the Dead into the best possible film we can. In ten years I’d like to see the film achieving worldwide DVD distribution and becoming a cult classic.’