Film-maker Stephen Fingleton whose apocalyptic vision of the future was shot in the wilds of Co Antrim... and how he thinks The End might come
As his movie The Survivalist opens at Belfast’s QFT tomorrow, BAFTA-nominated NI film-maker Stephen Fingleton tells Ivan Little why Northern Ireland really could be the new Hollywood
From the moment that Londonderry-born Stephen Fingleton caught sight of blockbusters like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he made up his mind to work in the film industry.
“I was obsessed,” says the 32-year-old writer, director and composer who, unlike his youthful friends, wasn’t just captivated by the characters on screen, but also by the people making the films.
Stephen, who has been shortlisted for the outstanding debut BAFTA award, didn’t watch the films in his formative years with the same wide-eyed wonderment of his peers and instead concentrated on what the camera operators were doing.
Stephen recalls: “I used to wear down the video tapes of films like Thundercats and Back to the Future, as well as ET and Close Encounters.
“I was trying to work out where the cameras were and all the angles they were filming. I saw them so many times that I think my knowledge of how to shoot films nowadays comes from that period.”
Stephen, who also lived in Warrenpoint and Enniskillen, where his family are still based, never entertained thoughts of anything other than a movie-making career, though for a time he toyed with the idea of becoming an actor.
However, the opportunities in Enniskillen for aspiring film producers weren’t exactly plentiful and Stephen moved to London to study English at a university which had a film society, where he was able to indulge his passion.
“I got access to the right equipment and started to make films. I also began writing scripts and making short films to improve my craft,” says Stephen, who had to work long and hard before industry insiders sat up and took notice of his talents.
But his patience paid off — and a number of his short films earned him widespread critical acclaim.
One of them called SLR, which was about voyeur pornography and starred Liam Cunningham and South Armagh actor Ryan McParland, was in the running for an Oscar for a Live Action Short Film in 2013, the same year Stephen was selected by Screen International as a Star of Tomorrow.
The Irish Independent also named him as one of the 14 names to watch in 2014 and Stephen proved them right with The Survivalist.
“I wanted to make a film that I could fund myself,” he points out. “My plan was to write a story that was small enough for me to know that I could achieve it.”
The end result was the script for The Survivalist, which was heavily promoted by Northern Ireland Screen and got him recognition in Hollywood and in Britain, enabling him to raise a budget to turn his dream into a reality.
The Survivalist was well received at its world premiere at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where one reviewer from an industry magazine called Stephen a major discovery.
Similar rave reviews followed at a series of festivals around the world for the film which has been billed as a post-Apocalyptic thriller, telling the story of one unnamed man who lives alone, struggling to stay alive in a small piece of land hidden away in the depths of a forest after the collapse of civilisation.
His sanctuary is threatened, however, when two women, a mother and daughter, find his farm and seek food and shelter, offering him sex in return.
The lead role is played by award-winning west Belfast actor Martin McCann, who was in Closing the Ring, Killing Bono and The Pacific, and the women are portrayed by Mia Goth, star of the movie Nymphomaniac, along with the Irish stage actress Olwen Fouere. The movie was filmed in a private estate just outside Ballymoney last year and for McCann, it marked a series of firsts in that he has sex scenes and also appears naked for parts of the movie.
Another departure is that there’s little dialogue for an actor who’s more used to having a lot to say on screen.
Stephen is a fervent McCann fan and collaborated with him on another short called Magpie, a prequel to The Survivalist.
“Martin wasn’t originally going to be in The Survivalist because I wrote it for an older actor, but I had such a great time working with him on Magpie that I used him on The Survivalist. He really is a special actor.
“Even though he has so little dialogue in the film, you know what he is thinking at every point of time through what he communicates with his eyes. He is also a great leader of a team.”
Stephen prefers to call The Survivalist a “post-event” film than a post-Apocalypse movie, but he acknowledges that the genre is increasingly popular with cinema audiences, who have flocked to see the likes of the Mad Max movies, The Road and 28 Days Later.
Stephen believes the films are exciting and he adds that some of them are almost like westerns especially Mad Max: Fury Road which he compares to the classic John Ford movie Stagecoach, only for a modern audience.
The BAFTA nomination has obviously been a major fillip for Stephen, who says: “I am very pleased. The BAFTAs are among the most prestigious awards in the world and for a film like ours to be up for one of them is great. I see it as recognition of the work of our cast and crew.
“And if it was a bigger film, I have no doubt that it would be nominated in other categories, too.
“My premise in writing was to see if I could make a science fiction film without special effects, and it is based on the idea of population growth and limited world resources.
“Maybe it has something to do with coming from Ireland because we know how important resources are to us, because we had the famine and we’ve been through that.”
Stephen also likens his story to the decline of ancient Rome and ancient Greece where people had to adapt to a new world and new circumstances.
So, is that how he sees the future which lies ahead for the modern world?
“I think there are two bets on the table — that we will continue growing forever. And the other one is that we won’t. Personally I think it’s the latter and The Survivalist is one depiction of how things may happen.
“I think there are tough times ahead, but I don’t know when. Right now we have a global economy which depends on various resources like fresh water, petroleum and even antibiotics. And if any one of those goes into decline and is not able to match the growth of the population, we are going to have a serious conflict.”
Stephen read up extensively into the subject of how societies fail or succeed before finishing his script for The Survivalist and one book, Collapse by Jared Diamond, about the choices that civilisations make, had a significant impact on his thinking.
“The film almost takes an anthropological approach to people,” says Stephen. “It studies them from the outside and invites the audience to study them, too. And that’s what I was interested in — the various strategies that people will deploy to survive and the different things that are revealed about human nature.”
The Survivalist will be released throughout the UK next month, but will have its first showings at the Queen’s Film Theatre from tomorrow where Stephen will be doing a question and answer session after the first three nights.
But that may be as far as he gets into the spotlight because his early ambitions to act have been left behind. For now.
He adds: “I think what I do best is getting performances out of other people. My services are much better deployed behind the scenes, but I do still sometimes think about acting because no one should ever underestimate the power of vanity.”
Stephen’s next project will in America. “It’s a more mainstream, bigger budget film which will be what a proper science fiction production should be — with lots of special effects. It’s very different in tone.”
Stephen will direct the movie and he is currently writing the script for the production which will be shot in the States.
But he is keen to work again in Northern Ireland which has become one of the movie locations for film-makers from around the globe.
“I will always look to reward the loyalty which Northern Ireland Screen has shown me by making productions here,” he says, adding that The Survivalist’s location in Co Antrim was a perfect fit.
“There was an argument that we should have shot it in Wicklow on a mountain top but in Ballymoney we were able to be on set after breakfast in three minutes. So it wasn’t all about travelling for the actors.”
During a series of media interviews to promote The Survivalist Stephen revealed that he might, one day make a film on the subject of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But that’s a long way off he insists. For the moment he’s more concerned about how The Survivalist will go down with audiences in Belfast and across the UK.
That and the small matter of an acceptance speech which he will hopefully have to make at the BAFTAs on Valentine’s Night in London...