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Martin McCann: 'Making a film is like making soup, you get all the right ingredients and it works'

Belfast actor has chosen to take a low-budget career detour, he tells Maureen Coleman

There's little danger that Belfast actor Martin McCann will ever find himself typecast. Over the last five years the 31-year-old has portrayed a US Marine in Steven Spielberg's Second World War miniseries The Pacific, the eponymous U2 frontman in music flick Killing Bono, an IRA gunman in the Bafta-nominated '71 and a recluse living off the land in upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller The Survivalist.

He's also popped up again in the lead role in Northern Irish short film, Boogaloo and Graham, which was unveiled last week as a contender for an Academy Award.

But McCann likes to stretch himself creatively and recently made his scriptwriting and directorial debut on the feature comic drama Fishbowl City. The low-budget one-hour film was made with the internet in mind and saw him team up with Kevin Treacy, cinematographer on 2013 indie flick Made in Belfast. Fishbowl City, which was produced by Marie McDonald, also stars local actors John Travers, Ryan McParland and Kerri Quinn and centres on two Belfast brothers, the life choices they make and the repercussions of those decisions. A labour of love for the London-based man, he began writing the script a year-and-a -half ago while he had some free time on his hands.

"I wanted to tell a story about some of the issues that face young men growing up in Belfast," he explains. "It doesn't matter if they come from east or west Belfast, they come up against the same problems. Things like criminality and drugs have been done a lot, so I decided to bring some comedy into it. That's why I got Ryan (McParland) involved. He's a brilliant comic actor.

"The general theme is that if you're a young guy and you do the wrong things, wrong things will happen. It's easy to fall into that type of world.

"At first it was going to be a short film, but as I was writing it, it got a bit bigger and I began to think that maybe I could get some funding for it and make it into a feature."

McCann called in a few favours and was able to make the film at a fraction of the normal cost. With little revenue to recoup, it was decided to bypass the usual avenues and put the film immediately online.

"When a film costs £500,000 or £1m to make, it's not feasible to go straight to the internet because you need to get back revenue from cinema, DVD or 'pay on demand'. Then it eventually goes online," he explains. "But because we made this for the minimum amount of money, we can hopefully recoup revenue by going straight to online distribution.

"It's all very new to us, but we're getting good feedback so far. We've had a few people commenting on our Facebook page, asking when it's coming on TV. But there's no second episode, it was a one-off drama.

"It's not The Departed or There Will Be Blood, but for the amount of money it's been shot for, we think it's good and people watching it seem genuinely impressed."

Filming took place 14 months ago, with McCann trying his hand at directing for the first time. Originally he had hoped to hire director Richard Scobie to come to Belfast for the shoot, but in a bid to keep down costs, McCann decided to do it himself.

"I wrote the story, I know it, and I reckon I've been on enough film sets to have an idea of what's going on," he says. "So I got myself a good cinematographer in Kevin and he helped me every step of the way.

"It was a real learning curve for me, but I really enjoyed it. I don't call myself a director, though, I'm an actor. But it was a fun process."

McCann worked so well with Treacy, the pair decided to join forces and set up their own Belfast-based production company, The Imagination Bureau. They are currently developing a comedy series for television with Northern Irish actors Gerard McSorley and Michael Smiley.

The Falls Road man, who first came to prominence in the late Lord (Richard) Attenborough's 2007 wartime romance Closing The Ring, also stars in the aforementioned Michael Lennox short Boogaloo and Graham. The film, featuring Charlene McKenna and youngsters Riley Hamilton and Aaron Lynch, has been nominated for both an Academy Award and a Bafta for Best Live Action Short, a category previously won by Belfast director Terry George for The Shore in 2012 (coincidentally, McCann worked with George on the 2011 comedy Whole Lotta Sole). Written by Ronan Blaney, the film follows two Belfast boys named Jamesy and Malachy whose lives are transformed when their dad presents them with two baby chicks to look after. But as the drama unfolds, it becomes clear that there are more surprises to come.

McCann doubts he'll have to brush off his tuxedo for either awards ceremony as it's the writer and director who receive invitations, but he's delighted for both men that the film is being recognised on such a grand scale.

And it's not the only movie he's involved with that is in the running for a Bafta gong. He also recently appeared in the critically-acclaimed Troubles-set thriller ' 71, alongside English actor Jack O'Connell and local man Richard Dormer. The movie tells the story of a soldier who becomes separated from his unit during a riot in Belfast, and is up for two Baftas - Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. Former Skins star O'Connell, meanwhile, is a contender for the prestigious EE Rising Star Award, which is voted for by the public.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if Jack wins," says McCann. "I watched him in Unbroken (directed by Angelina Jolie) and he was brilliant. He's a good guy and we worked well together.

"Hopefully I'll get to see him soon in London for a congratulatory pint."

McCann says he never thinks too far ahead about the potential success of a role when he takes it on. If the script appeals to him, he'll give it his all and just hope for the best. "No one sets out to make a bad film," he says. "You never really know what's going to happen, you just hope that everyone knows what they're doing.

"Making a film is like making a bowl of soup. If you get all the right ingredients it works, and it was like that with '71.

"But I'm particularly proud of Boogaloo and Graham. It's a lovely film and a testament to the great shorts that Northern Ireland keeps banging out."

Another local short, Stephen Fingleton's SLR, had been on the Oscar longlist too, narrowly missing out on a nomination. Meanwhile, in a Northern Ireland version of six degrees of separation, McCann plays the lead role in Fingleton's upcoming debut feature The Survivalist. He portrays a man living off a small plot of land in a forest during a time of starvation. When two women seeking food and shelter discover his farm, he finds his existence threatened. The script for The Survivalist topped the Brit List 2013 and featured on Hollywood's Black List for the year's best unmade scripts. Filmed in Northern Ireland last year, it has recently completed post-production and is awaiting cinematic release.

In the meantime, McCann, who won a Best Actor Ifta for the film Swansong: The Story of Occi Byrne, has a few projects in the pipeline and a new production company to keep him busy.

Having attended a Cinemagic masterclass hosted by English actor Paul McGann many years ago - along with his Boogaloo and Graham, Jump and Ripper Street co-star Charlene McKenna - he is a keen supporter of the charity and the work it does, encouraging young people to get involved in all aspects of filmmaking. The charity was one of several under threat due to proposed government cuts to the Northern Ireland Screen budget, but that organisation was granted a reprieve last week, due, in part, to the success of the local film and television industry. McCann says: "Both myself and Michael Lennox came through Cinemagic. If it didn't exist, shorts like Boogaloo and Graham might not have been made. And now it's up for an Oscar."

Not surprisingly, the young actor who impressed Lord Attenborough so much he phoned his good friend Steven Spielberg to talk to him about McCann, who was auditioning for The Pacific, is vehemently opposed to any cuts in the arts budget.

"Cuts to the budget will ultimately lead to a stifling of what is happening in the arts sector and the creative hub that is Northern Ireland," he says. "It's almost like coming in and nipping it in the bud before it gets a proper chance to flourish and that can't be allowed to happen."

  • For details on Fishbowl City, visit www.gum.co/fishbowlcity or Facebook under fishcityfilm. The Oscars will take place on February 22

Big screen successes

  • Good Vibrations (2013) - written by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson and directed by Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn, it was critic Mark Kermode's film of the year. Starring Richard Dormer and Jodie Whittaker, it won both the Galway Film Fleadh Audience Award and the Belfast Film Festival Audience Award, and was nominated for three IFTAs, winning one
  • The Shore (2012) - directed by Belfast's Terry George, it won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. It was Northern Ireland's first Oscar win for a short film
  • The Crush (2011) - directed by Belfast-born Michael Creagh, it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Live Action Short
  • Hunger (2008) - Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham, it premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Camera d'Or. It also won the Sydney Film Prize, Best Picture from the Evening Standard British Film Awards, and it received two BAFTA nominations, winning one
  • Dance Lexie Dance (1998) - directed by Tim Loane, this was also nominated for Best Live Action Short

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