Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

When the world ends and you're trying to survive... in Ballymoney

Forest near the Co Antrim town is location for new post-Apocalyptic film

After Armageddon: Martin McCann plays a man desperate to stay alive
After Armageddon: Martin McCann plays a man desperate to stay alive
Apocalypse now: films like The Day After Tomorrow captivated cinemagoers
Apocalypse now: films like The Road captivated cinemagoers

A forest near the Co Antrim town is the location for a terrifying new post-Apocalyptic film set in Northern Ireland. Maureen Coleman joins stars Martin McCann and Mia Goth as they shoot the final scenes.

The ruthlessness of survival in a post-apocalyptic world is the main theme of a new thriller shooting in Northern Ireland. Written and directed by Enniskillen-based 2013 Screen Star of Tomorrow Stephen Fingleton, The Survivalist is a story of one man living alone on a farm in a time of starvation.

His isolation is shattered with the arrival of two visitors, a mother and her teenage daughter, desperate for food. When the mother offers up her daughter, an uneasy arrangement ensues. The farm then comes under attack from outsiders, forcing the trio to work together to survive, developing loyalties which will be tested when food runs short.

The dystopian movie stars Belfast actor Martin McCann (The Pacific, Closing The Ring, Killing Bono) in the title role, with up-and-coming actress Mia Goth, girlfriend of Hollywood hellraiser Shia LaBeouf, playing his love interest, Milja. Award-winning stage actress Olwen Fouere plays her mother, Kathryn.

Filming of The Survivalist began early last month and was expected to wrap this week, with most of the scenes shot in a forest outside Ballymoney.

McCann's character, whose name is never revealed, has set up home in a makeshift cabin in the heart of the woods. He grows food on a small farm – protecting his land from thieves and foragers with man traps and a shotgun. The long years of living alone have taken a toll on him and he starts to lose his grip on reality. As his feelings for Milja grow, her mother schemes to take control of the farm.

It's a hugely different role from any 30-year-old McCann has taken on before. First of all, there are the sex scenes, which McCann has never tackled in the past, but says are almost obligatory for an actor. And he had to change his appearance as well, consulting the same nutritionist Michael Fassbender turned to for help when shedding several stone to play Bobby Sands in Hunger. McCann's weight loss was not as dramatic, but he had to look convincing as a man living off the fruits of the land.

The IFTA-winning actor first came to the attention of writer and director Fingleton when he was cast to play a forager in a short pilot called Magpie, which acted as a precursor to The Survivalist. Fingleton was impressed with McCann's performance and invited him back to play the title role in his first feature film.

McCann explains: "I met Stephen at the Galway Film Festival two years ago and he mentioned the short film, which sets the tone for the feature film. It was never planned that I would do the feature. I did the short and then Stephen offered me the role in The Survivalist.

"I play a stoic character, a good guy. He doesn't want to dig up his past. I can't say his name because it would ruin the plot. Maybe the name would remind him.

"The two women come on to my land and he starts a relationship with the daughter. It gets complicated.

"They are attacked and have to form a bond of trust to survive which is probably prematurely forced before they can fully trust each other. They have to rely on each other, but can I trust these people to help me?"

McCann describes the movie as a "dystopian thriller" in a similar vein to The Road, the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

"I've done a lot of dialogue heavy films, but this one only has dialogue where it's needed," he says. "It strikes a good balance with realism too. Nobody says anything that sounds like it's been written on paper. It's very real."

The Survivalist is set in Northern Ireland so McCann speaks with his own accent.

The women both use Southern Irish brogues, having walked from Monaghan to the north to seek shelter and food.

The film also contains nude scenes, a first for McCann. But as he says: "It wouldn't have worked if it had been me in my boxers. It's supposed to be primal behaviour, after all."

For 19-year-old actress Mia Goth, star of Lars von Trier's controversial Nymphomaniac film, there was no going back once she'd read Fingleton's script. She signed up for Magpie and later, The Survivalist.

"I was completely taken aback by the quality of the script," she says, as she takes a break from filming in a dark and rain-lashed forest. "It was so intense and complicated and had so many layers to it, so I was really intrigued.

"I like the fact that you can read it once and have a take on it, read it again and get a whole other take on it. I think the way it is so embedded with philosophical ideas and raises questions about society and gender roles is very interesting."

Mia was also impressed by the strong qualities of the female characters in the movie. She explains: "Milja is always thinking three steps ahead.

"She doesn't reveal much at all. The real development that takes place is that she begins to show emotion, through the relationships she has had with her mother and the survivalist.

"She is a product of her society. She has had to become this really tough, no-messing-around type of girl to survive.

"It has been a real pleasure to play. She is not a damsel in distress, she's not a weak female. It's a very empowering role."

Goth, who met LaBeouf on the set of Nymphomaniac, was recently pictured enjoying the North Coast with her actor beau. But while she didn't want to discuss her relationship or LaBeouf's recent troubles (the former child star admitted he's been battling alcoholism), she was happy to extol the virtues of Northern Ireland.

"I had never visited Northern Ireland before," she says, "but I was completely won over by it. I have family in Nova Scotia in Canada and I see so many resemblances to nature and the environment. And the people are so lovely too.

"We've been very fortunate with the weather and crew and Martin is such a good actor. It always makes it easier when you have a great actor to work with."

Olwen Fouere, an Irish actress best known for her stage roles, was not aware of Fingleton's work when she received a call out of the blue to read for The Survivalist. She watched his two shorts, Magpie and SLR, and immediately said yes, pointing out that it was the film that struck her, not the character she was invited to play.

"I'm much more interested in the overall project than the role," she says. "I think human beings are the virus on the face of the earth and that we will all get our comeuppance, so I was attracted to that idea.

"What I especially loved about it is that it overturned all conventional society structures and norms and how the way we live is prescribed by others to control us. What we are confronted with in The Survivalist means that we have to resort to our own means of survival and our own values system starts to come into play.

"It also overturns the traditional mother/daughter relationship. We are both survivors, we are equals and adversaries at the same time. There is love, but it is primordial in nature. There is no sentimentality. There is a love there, but it's more of an instinct. They are together out of necessity."

Fouere also says that she was drawn to the script by the fact there was no back story and the audience is left to make up its own mind.

"I think that's more interesting because you create that yourself then," she says. "The story is always evolving. The layers get deeper the further we go into it because we are making choices based on what feels right for us.

"I'm not interested in narrative. I think it's more interesting that we're not overladen with a back story."

The Survivalist script was developed through Northern Ireland Screen's New Talent Focus and went on to feature on the 2012 Hollywood Black List as well as topping the 2013 Brit List. The film is being produced by The Fyzz Facility, Northern Ireland Screen and the BFI, in association with Goldcrest Post Production.

For writer and director Fingleton, bringing his 'post-event' story to life on the big screen was a labour of love, which began several years ago after watching a documentary on the decline of fossil fuels and the subsequent collapse of society. The documentary got him thinking about the steps he would take to protect himself in such a situation and so he began to work on his script.

Having previously funded his short SLR, the BFI asked him to direct a pilot set in the world of The Survivalist, prompting Fingleton to shoot Magpie. It was the first time the Northern Irish man had worked with Martin McCann and he was so impressed with his talent, he offered him the lead role in his feature debut.

The Survivalist explores the same themes as Magpie, and Fingleton says he drew inspiration from Margaret Attwood's dystopian novel, The Handmaid's Tale.

"It's more a piece of speculative fiction than science fiction," he says. "It has very specific directions to all the parts. There is no CGI, all costumes avoid Mad Max territory, there is no specific back story to what happened. It invites the audience to be detectives.

"The film is not particularly interested in what happened beforehand. It's interested in what the characters do. The drama just happens to be set in a time of calamity."

Working on his first feature film was, he says, an "absolute pleasure" and an easier challenge than shooting a short.

"We've had such a great cast and essentially I was just there to make sure they were doing their jobs well and had the space to express themselves creatively," he says.

"It's been easier in many ways than making a short because you have so many experts and professionals, lots of preparation, more money and time and a wider canvas to work with."

Summing up his hopes for his new film, he says: "I think The Survivalist will become a keynote film of the Northern Irish film industry and will represent it to international audiences in a way they haven't seen before.

"There are many talented filmmakers including Michael Lennox and Cathy Brady and I'm proud to be representative of that."

Producer Wayne Godfrey of the Fyzz Facility, who is shooting another movie in Northern Ireland, A Patch Of Fog, along with The Usual Suspects producer Robert Jones, first nurtured a relationship with Fingleton in 2008.

He says: "I have known and worked with Stephen since the inception of the The Fyzz six years ago and am delighted to now be working with him, producing his first feature film.

"Featuring on the Blacklist and then the UK Brit List last year was integral to the validity of the film and the wonderful support the project has had from Northern Ireland Screen and more recently from the BFI has only continued to enhance this.

"We have a wonderfully talented cast with Mia Goth, Olwen Fouere, Barry Ward and Martin McCann, the perfect choice to play the title role – fresh faced for audiences but with the pedigree of being cast by Richard Attenborough and Stephen Spielberg in leading roles."

Movies that flash up The End

"You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget" is one of the memorable quotes from Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road.

The bleak, relentless tale is probably the best known and literary-lauded post-apocalyptic stories of our time. Intriguingly, the American writer – who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work – never specifies just what has happened to create such devastation in the world. Instead, he focuses entirely on the relationship between a father and son as they seek shelter and protection from other feral survivors who have turned cannibalistic in order to survive.

Such is the societal disintegration, McCarthy only refers to his two main characters throughout as 'the man', 'the father', 'the son' and 'the boy'.

He later claimed that the book was part-inspired and co-written by his own son John Francis as he used some of their actual conversations in the prose. The novel was adapted into a movie in 2009, starring Viggo Mortensen as the man and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy.

Meanwhile, cult sci-fi and horror author Whitley Strieber co-authored the 1999 book The Coming Global Superstorm, which was the inspiration for the hit 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow, in which America is left reeling from devastating climate change brought on by global warning.

The movie starred Dennis Quaid and a younger Jake Gyllenhaal as father and son, with Gyllenhaal facing freezing cold and catastrophic floods as he awaits rescue by his dad. Post-apocalyptic tales can also, of course, be adapted from the movie to the page.

The British-made movie 28 Days Later and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, led to a graphic novel and a comic book series.

28 Days Later starred two Irish actors – Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson – and memorably begins by showing Murphy awakening from a coma in hospital only to find the city of London completely desolate.

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