'We had Game of Thrones fans from America rapping on our door and asking if they could be extras'
A Portstewart producer who worked on the original series of the massive HBO hit has released a stirring homegrown drama. Julie Gardner tells Stephanie Bell why returning from Scotland to raise a young family also paid off for her career — and how only one actor has left her starstruck
When Julie Gardner decided she wanted a career in TV and film 20 years ago, it meant having to leave home in Northern Ireland where opportunity simply didn't exist.
Nowadays, our thriving film industry is the envy of the rest of the UK and the Portstewart producer’s latest project is one which shows just how far we have come.
Julie (41), who now lives in Whitehead with her freelance cameraman husband Andy (45) and their two children — Oscar (16) and Lilly (15), is one of a team of talented locals who have come together to produce a new Storyland drama made and set in Northern Ireland. The drama is part of a series which offers emerging talent the opportunity to make original stories available to a national and global audience on RTE Player. Now in its eighth year, it was set up as a result of a partnership between RTE and Northern Ireland Screen.
Previous commissions have gone on to be shown on RTE TV, developed into a feature film, won numerous international awards and have generated additional opportunities, both within and outside RTE, for everyone involved.
It has been an exciting time for Julie, who knew as a teenager she wanted to pursue a career in TV and film, although she had no idea in what capacity.
Like most people, she started at the bottom as a runner with a TV company in Glasgow and honed her skills working across different departments while trying to decide which area of the business she wanted to specialise in.
“I was runner in every department and decided very quickly that I wanted to produce as I loved everything and loved bringing everything together,” she says.
“We really didn’t have an industry here so I had to go away to get good work and experience. I worked my way up to consultant co-ordinator, then co-ordinator to production manager, then line producer and finally head of production. I then went freelance and I’ve worked and lived in London and France.”
She met her husband Andy, a freelance cameraman who is currently working on the new superman movie Krypton, being shot in Belfast, when they both took the same course held by Northern Ireland Screen.
They both worked as freelancers in the industry in Scotland but decided when their children were young to return home to Northern Ireland.
Julie says: “It is a business with very long hours and which can be all-consuming. We wanted to be close to grannies and family when the kids were little so we came home just as the industry was beginning to grow here.
“I also wanted to set up my own production company as there are so many more opportunities here now.
“It really is amazing how far it has come on and to have such a shift in such a short time. Today it is a massive part of the economic sector here and full credit to Northern Ireland Screen for that.
“We have Krypton being shot here at the minute and a new studio, and we are really lucky that Northern Ireland Screen made the Government see the benefits to Northern Ireland — the Government got behind it and now we have a really thriving industry that other parts of the UK are envious of.
“There are now so many opportunities which previously you had to go away to get.
“I am now teaching interactive media one day a week in North Regional College in Newtownabbey and Jenny, one of the young actresses on the drama, is doing my course — I didn’t realise until I was giving her a lift home one night after filming.”
Julie has worked on lots of major TV shows including the popular Sunday night teatime series Monarch of the Glen and fantasy epic Highlander, as well as being part of the team that produced the pilot for Game of Thrones.
She has worked with many famous actors over the years and confesses to having been starstruck only once in her career.
“Actors might be celebrities but when you’re working in the industry they are just regular colleagues and just part of the team,” she says.
“I always loved Highlander and when I got a chance to work on it I guess meeting Christopher Lambert was the one time I can remember being a bit starstruck.”
Back in the early days, long before Game of Thrones took the world by storm, Julie was part of the team and remembers well how, even before the pilot showed, it was obvious that the series was going to be a hit.
She says: “Of course you could see it was going to be big. HBO is an amazing entity to work with, they really know what they are doing. They are really high quality and top tier in the industry.
“When we opened our office the response from fans of the book was incredible. We had fans coming from America and rapping on our door asking ‘can I please be an extra?’.
“It is phenomenal how it has gone, but not in the least surprising.”
And now Julie is tasting her own sweet success with her company Lacada Entertainment, having just helped to create one of four new dramas for the latest season of Storyland — A Sign of Things, which is one of two set in Northern Ireland.
A Sign of Things looks at life through the eyes of a teenage girl figuring out who she is after her dad loses his factory job and seemingly devotes his life to a church in Carrickfergus.
More generally, the drama is about what it is to call a small town like Carrickfergus your home. In the show, sectarianism is going out of fashion but there’s another huge dividing line, between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
Filming took place in Belfast and Carrickfergus over the summer months. The local cast includes 18-year-old drama student Jenny Walsh from Larne who previously starred with Moone David Rawle in Time and Again, Mary Lindsay from Coleraine who acted in Good Vibrations and Even Gods, Nigel O’Neill from Cookstown from Game of Thrones and Bad Day for the Cut, Ian Beattie, known for Game of Thrones and Alexander, and young talents Benjamin Jacob-Smith and Hayley McQuillan.
It was written by Ewen Glass from Ballymoney, who previously wrote for Channel 4 soap, Hollyoaks.
For Julie, Storyland sums up just how far our TV and film industry has come.
“What is fantastic about Storylands is that it allows new talent to be recognised,” she says.
“They are all short films — which is usually anything under 40 minutes — and we are amazing at short films here in Northern Ireland.
“You’ve just got to look at Boogaloo and Graham winning the Bafta and getting an Oscar nomination.
“With short films you can explore new ideas and new techniques in a way you wouldn’t be able to on a feature film so you can be more experimental with things.
“Storyland offers this chance and supports new talent from the bottom up.
“Individuals can get involved, rather than have wee teams of friends going in and working together, which is how the industry usually works.
“In this case I would never have met Ewen Glass, who wrote the drama, if it hadn’t been for the scheme.
“Ewen got in touch with me and together we submitted our application. You then work together as writer and producer with RTE to develop the story and then bring on board a director that fits.
“RTE asked for four ideas this year and A Sign of Things is one of them and it really is quite different.”
The other Northern Irish drama in this season of Storyland has also been made with a wealth of local talent. Cry Rosa is about a music obsessed mixed-race girl who questions her identity when she becomes the victim of bullying in Eighties Belfast.
Produced by Afro-Mic Productions, it features drama students from Hazelwood Integrated College, Belfast, some in speaking roles and some taking part as extras.
As for Julie, now that A Sign of Things has been launched she has several projects in development, including a couple of feature films, a music documentary series and new short dramas. And she is already setting her sights on next year’s Storyland, which will no doubt be part of the bright future of Northern Ireland filmmaking.
You can catch both dramas on RTE Player: A Sign of Things at youtu.be/msOGLscgkW8 and Cry Rosa at youtu.be/Bij4JqInsVM