| 18.5°C Belfast

Northern Ireland filmmaker Gavin Irvine's story is like something from the movies

Belfast's Gavin Irvine on the harrowing physical and mental toll of his near-death experience and his delight at winning a major film award, writes Lee Henry

Close

And action: filmmaker Gavin Irvine at the Ulster Museum in Belfast

And action: filmmaker Gavin Irvine at the Ulster Museum in Belfast

Double delight: Gavin Irvine with his awards for Best Short Film and Best Director at the Portugal International Film Festival

Double delight: Gavin Irvine with his awards for Best Short Film and Best Director at the Portugal International Film Festival

Stills from new film 2.40 to London

Stills from new film 2.40 to London

Stills from new film 2.40 to London

Stills from new film 2.40 to London

Gavin Irvine

Gavin Irvine

Fim maker Gavin Irvine pictured at the Ulster Museum in Belfast

Fim maker Gavin Irvine pictured at the Ulster Museum in Belfast

And action: filmmaker Gavin Irvine at the Ulster Museum in Belfast

Talking to filmmaker Gavin Irvine, one cannot help but be impressed with his infectiously positive outlook on life, undiminished despite a series of unfortunate events that may have all but broken a lesser human being.

In recent weeks, Irvine - who hails from Belfast but currently lives in Camden, in northwest London - has experienced the highs of winning Best Short Film and Best Director at the Portugal International Film Festival for his hilariously observed film 2:40 to London.

Only a month prior, however, Irvine was finally able to come off crutches having almost lost his life in a road accident in London in 2014. And a decade before that, as a student in Cardiff, he was attacked by an axe-wielding thief who escaped with his bicycle in broad daylight.

"Yes, I've had a pretty tough time of it," says Irvine, with obvious understatement. "But I'm naturally optimistic. I realise that there are a lot of people in the world who have been through a lot worse more than me. At I can say I'm still alive!"

Born in Belfast, Irvine moved to Saintfield with his family at the age of seven and left Northern Ireland for the first time in 1987 to study for a degree in Fine Art at the University of Portsmouth. "It was all blue skies, sun and sand, no more bombs and bullets," he recalls. "It was like a dream."

A career as a visual artist saw Irvine exhibit in the Tom Caldwell Gallery in Craigavon, as well as other venues in Oslo, Norway and New York, but a change of heart drew him to filmmaking, and in 2000 he enrolled at the International Film School in Cardiff.

"Like many filmmakers, including the likes of David Lynch and Woody Allen, who I love, I view myself as an artist who works in various mediums. But film is something that comes naturally to me.

"And going back to university for a second time was a godsend. It was one of the best things I've ever done. It reinvigorated me mentally and physically and I enjoyed every second of my studies there."

Irvine was enthused and excited to begin a new chapter in his life when, on an otherwise uneventful day in 2005, his life changed forever. Preparing to return home to screen his comedy short Sebastian at the Belfast Film Festival, Irvine parked his bicycle at Cardiff Library and entered the coach station across the street.

"And as I left the ticket booth, I noticed a guy across riding my bike on the pavement. It was rammed with office workers and I instinctively crossed the street to confront him. I put my hand on the handlebars and told him that the was my bike and asked him to get off it. I wasn't going budge."

Cornered, the thief took a metal hatchet from his backpack and attempted to attack Irvine, who somehow managed to remain "pretty calm" as he held his ground. "He told me that he was going to kill me and we had a Mexican standoff situation. It seemed like an eternity, like a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western."

Thankfully, witnesses in the vicinity had, by that stage, already informed the authorities, and with police sirens incoming, the thief made off with his haul. Irvine was uninjured during the incident, and eventually managed to retrieve his bicycle. But it was, he says, a lucky escape in the face of potential disaster.

"I was shaken up, yes, but not physically hurt, and in that sense I was very, very lucky. I wrote a play about what happened, My Red Giant, and hopefully someday I'll get it produced. From something rotten something good could happen."

With Sebastian having received warm reviews, Irvine set about establishing himself as a professional filmmaker. Relocating to London, he enjoyed a series of producer roles and continued to write and direct.

In 2013, he was the recipient of the Northern Ireland Writers Development Award from Northern Ireland Screen for his debut comedy feature screenplay, Spinners, and the following year he entered pre-production on the film.

In December, however, just days before Christmas and a likely trip back home to Belfast to see family and friends, Irvine was the victim of a "horrific" road accident that left him physically and mentally scared.

A keen sportsman, having played a variety of sports at school and spent most Sundays playing with friends in later life, Irvine had just left a physiotherapy class at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, where he was undergoing rehabilitation on an injured knee.

"I was cycling up a one-way street through stationary traffic and started to overtake a lorry. It gave no warning and suddenly veered left, hitting my front wheel. The bike was being eaten up and crumpled like a piece of paper right before my eyes and I was being sucked down towards the wheel.

"I managed to push myself off and landed on the road, but my bike was trapped between the lorry's wheel and mudguard and was being forced down onto my leg. I was dragged along the road for about a metre and half as the lorry continued to turn into the service road to the hospital.

"I shouted for the driver to stop, thankfully he did, and I disentangled my leg and crawled away. I lay face down for what seemed like an eternity. The ambulance and police turned up and I was told that it was a miracle I was alive. The driver admitted liability."

Irvine subsequently lay in a hospital bed for days, numb with pain. "I didn't know whether I was coming or going and after that I could barely leave the house." His mental health began to take a dip, and he admits to feeling suicidal at the time.

"I suffered horrendous flashbacks and I couldn't sleep a wink. It was like I was a living zombie. I didn't really talk to anyone about it and for months after, I lost all sense of my creativity. I've always been a creative person, so that was one of the scariest things for me. I felt brain dead, as if I'd had a frontal lobotomy."

In 2015, Irvine underwent additional surgery on his knee, and has since experienced "many setbacks. I've spent more time in hospitals and doctor's surgeries than at any other time of my life. Some people hate heights, some people hate spiders. I hate hospitals."

Since the accident, Irvine has understandably had to contend with post-traumatic distress disorder and has thus far been unable to participate in sports. "Football was a very large part of my social life," he says, "and a way of coping with stress, but that has all gone now and it's been very difficult to deal with.

"The accident has impacted on every level of my life and well-being, but counselling has helped. I would encourage anyone who has been through something similar to seek out as much external help as they can possibly get."

Today, Irvine is characteristically upbeat about his situation, even joking that "a third life-threatening episode is surely just around the corner, all things coming in threes", but in recent weeks has found solace in the reception that his film 2:40 to London has received around the world.

"It's a surreal comedy that partly parodies The Ipcress File, which featured Michael Caine, and the murky world of espionage. It features spies, lumberjack shirts and chilli and we shot the film in St Pancras Train Station in London. I enjoy writing comedy and am very proud of this film. It was fantastic to win two awards at the Portugal International Film Festival."

2:40 to London will screen in the Black Box this Monday as part of the Belfast Comedy Festival, alongside a selection of other shorts by Northern Irish filmmakers, and has also been officially accepted into the Brazilian International Film Festival, the Canadian Independent Film Festival and the Pentedattilo Film Festival in Italy.

Irvine's diary in the months ahead is filling up fast, and the singleton is "over the moon" to have finally put his travails behind him to see his creative endeavours paying off. He admits to "having had the wind taken out of my sails a bit, with the accident in particular", but is adamant that he will not succumb to negativity as he anticipates the future with a smile on his face.

"I've always been pretty much a happy bunny," Irvine concludes. "A life and soul of the party type of guy, and I'm moving forward with my life. I think what I have been through would have had similar effects on other people - the suicidal thoughts, the depression - but seeing my films doing so well has given me a great boost.

"I feel like I'm getting back on track. It's like that old adage, if a shark stops swimming, it will die, and I'm determined not to stand still. That said, it's highly unlikely you will ever see attempt a Jaws remake."

2.40 to London is part of the Film Devour event at the Black Box, Belfast, Monday, 8pm

Belfast Telegraph