Tristan Loraine

The pilot-turned-filmmaker on making movies without a budget, his Armagh childhood, and getting John Rhys-Davies to shave off his beard. Catch the trailer for 32 North 62 East below

Tristan Loraine had always dreamed of being a pilot. Born in West Sussex, Loraine was educated in England, in France and at the Royal School in Armagh, where he was a boarder from 1975 to 1981. In 1981, at the age of 17, he learned to fly at Aldergrove Airport before becoming an airline captain with British Airways for 25 years. He was retired on grounds of ill health in 2006 following repeated exposure to contaminated air during his career.

After training at the National Film and Television School, Loraine, the son of a filmmaker, set up Fact Not Fiction Films in 2006. Its first production was the 2007 documentary Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines, which told the largely unknown story of contaminated air on aircraft, something Loraine has described as ‘the asbestos of the aviation industry’. Fact Not Fiction, in June crowned the UK’s best small business at the County Times Business Awards, has also made films on subjects as varied as the charity fundraiser Judy Kitching and the classical singer Hayley Westenra.

Currently, Loraine is in pre-production on a £7m feature adaptation of his book Shadows From the Sky, a fictional account of an aeroplane crash in Edinburgh caused by contaminated air in the cockpit. In order to secure funding and to prove his technical ability, he made a low-budget movie in just 10 weeks from first draft of the screenplay to final cut. Shot in the UK and in Jordan for around £250,000, the film 31 North 62 East goes on general release as of September 18.

31 North 62 East: John Rhys-Davies (left) stars as a fictional British Prime MinisterThe film, a psychological political thriller, was produced, directed and co-written by Loraine. He reveals the unique challenges of shooting in the Middle East: ‘When you shoot a film somewhere like Jordan, you literally have to have the camera out and turn over within about two minutes. Otherwise there will be thousands of people come out of the woodwork and it’s just totally unmanageable.’

31 North 62 East tells the story of a British Prime Minister, John Hammond, played by John Rhys-Davies, who gives up the position of an SAS unit in Afghanistan in order to appease a Middle Eastern sheikh with whom he hopes to broker an £80bn arms deal. All soldiers in the SAS unit are thought to have died until one, Captain Jill Mandelson (played by soap actress Heather Peace), is rescued from rebel forces two months after the attack. She returns to the UK to investigate, along with her identical twin sister, the chain of events that led to the slaughter of her comrades.

The film is a winningly old-fashioned piece of conspiracy hokum, enlivened by robust performances from its accomplished cast. As well as Rhys-Davies, 31 North 62 East – the title comes from the map co-ordinates of the SAS unit – features Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Hammond’s loyal spin-doctor, and erstwhile action man Craig Fairbrass (For Queen and Country, Cliffhanger), as an SAS officer.

Loraine says Rhys-Davies, who has held political aspirations, leapt at the chance to play a British Prime Minister – though veteran character actors don’t come cheap. ‘John was such a nice man,’ says Loraine, ‘but he certainly wasn’t free. He was a big percentage of the budget. Towards the end of shooting, I told him I’d mortgaged my house to make the film, and he said: “I’m glad you didn't tell me that beforehand, because I wouldn’t have liked the responsibility!”’ 

31 North 62 EastRhys-Davies even agreed to appear clean-shaven for the first time on film – a strange look for an actor we are more used to seeing as jovial Arabs or hirsute dwarves. ‘He had never shaved his beard off for anybody,’ says Loraine, ‘but he was willing to do it for us.’

Rhys-Davies’ character is the dark heart of the film, blustering and roaring through clandestine meetings, eyes bulging and red tie flapping. Hammond appears to be an extreme amalgam of all the most negative attributes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, with John Prescott’s girth and the temper of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker. It’s an unrestrained turn from the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lord of the Rings star, one that makes 31 North 62 East a movie worth catching during its limited cinema run.

As for the future, Shadows from the Sky is scheduled to start shooting in October 2010. Talia Shire, perhaps best known for playing Sylvester Stallone’s onscreen wife in the Rocky films, has signed to appear alongside a returning Rhys-Davies and Sirtis. Loraine, who has fond memories of his early years in Armagh, says he hopes to shoot part of the production in Northern Ireland – another coup for the province's burgeoning film industry. 

Andrew Johnston

31 North 62 East is in cinemas now. Shadows from the Sky will be released in 2010