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'We have been making films since we were 11, that was the start of our obsession'

As their first feature film is released tomorrow, identical twin brothers Andy and Ryan Tohill, from Derriaghy, tell Linda Stewart about achieving their long-held directing dream and how they were mistaken for each other on set

On set: Ryan Tohill (left) with brother Anthony
On set: Ryan Tohill (left) with brother Anthony

By Linda Stewart

It's not all spotlights and glamour when you're shooting a film - and Andy and Ryan Tohill are living proof of that. The film-directing twins from Derriaghy on the edge of Belfast are just releasing their first full-length feature film - the product of an exceptionally tight 18 days of filming in a freezing bog near Ballymena. In November.

So it's no surprise that the conditions when they were filming The Dig - starring Moe Dunford from The Vikings and Ballykissangel star Lorcan Cranitch - in 2017 were "horrendous", according to Ryan.

"Thankfully, we had four really dedicated actors who helped us at every step of the way and were willing to cross through the mud every day for 18 days to make the film as good as it could be," he says.

The tight schedule meant the film had to be completed by the end of the year, which meant filming in the wind and rain in November in bogland close to Broughshane.

The lack of daylight hours proved difficult and many daytime scenes had to be switched to night-time.

But one of the biggest problems was the sheer difficulty of moving around.

"Moving 40ft took about 30 minutes - the amount of moisture in the ground was insane. The script would read DAY. BOG. But the sheer amount of will it took at the time to complete a day was enormous," says Ryan.

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"Welly boots were lost, wind came in sideways, holes filled with water which had to be manually removed with buckets and anyone who was free to grab one. However, we soon realised the more grim it was to film in, the better it looked on camera.

"It's all about what appears in that little rectangle, that's what we'd keep saying to ourselves."

But it was the actors who had the hardest time, particularly Moe and Lorcan.

Digging deep: a scene from The Dig featuring Lorcan Cranitch and Emily Taaffee
Digging deep: a scene from The Dig featuring Lorcan Cranitch and Emily Taaffee

"We'd stand around with North Face jackets, hats and waterproofs... they would be covered in mud with the same clothes they'd worn for a month. So fair play to the lads, they played a blinder," explains Ryan.

What stood the two directors in good stead were their many years of experience.

Andy and Ryan have been writing, directing and editing short films for 15 years and Ryan had worked on Game of Thrones since it started filming in Northern Ireland in 2009.

But the 36-year-old identical twins say they have been obsessed with film for much longer than that and have wanted to be filmmakers ever since the age of 11 when they were growing up in Derriaghy.

"We've been making films since then - that was the start of our obsession," Andy says.

"We were watching a lot of movies, we were copying them and we were making our own movies on a camcorder.

The brothers filming in their younger days
The brothers filming in their younger days

"That never went away - as we grew older, our experience grew and our ambition grew.

"To achieve a feature film now is a bit of a dream come true and it was always our endgame."

Andy says the boys started out by making their own action franchises based on the action movies of the Eighties.

"We made horror films, like slasher movies, based on films like Halloween and Scream. And after Pulp Fiction came out, we made lots of Tarantino knock-offs.

"But the thrillers were always our preferred choice and it seems inevitable that we would end up making a thriller as our first feature."

Even though Northern Ireland was something of a desert for film-making at the time, they never gave up their dream. Ryan studied visual arts at the Art College in Belfast, while Andy studied film at Queen's University Belfast.

The brothers on set of their first full-length film
The brothers on set of their first full-length film

"But it was still a pipe dream because there was no film industry here. In the end it was the result of really good timing, because the industry boomed just as we were moving into it," Andy says.

These days, Andy is married to Nicole and they have three girls - twin three-year-olds and a one-year-old. He's an editor, working for post-production company Yellow Door in Holywood, Co Down.

Ryan, who is single, works independently as an art director on productions such as The Fall, Line of Duty, Game of Thrones and the Frankenstein Chronicles.

"I worked on Game of Thrones for 10 years, from the first the episode to the very end," he says.

"That has been a good spell, racking up thousands of hours of on-set experience - it has been a great experience."

As the hotly anticipated final season of Game of Thrones starts, Ryan isn't giving much away about how it all ends, but he says: "I think most fans will be happy. It did divide some camps, but most people think it finishes well."

Working on Game of Thrones has been a hugely valuable experience for him.

"When I started there I was dropped in at the deep end quite a bit, but over the years you become battle-hardened. I think your skills are finely tuned and you feel you know everything there is to know by the end," he adds.

"You understand how all the departments operate together and that experience has now prepared us to make our own feature film.

The brothers on set of their first full-length film
The brothers on set of their first full-length film

"Due to the time constraints, we had to be all over everything and understand how every cog is moving to make sure our film was finished in good time."

The Dig is a dark thriller starring Moe Dunford, who may be familiar as Aethelwulf in The Vikings.

Ryan says: "He plays a man named Ronan Callahan who returns home after 15 years in prison for a murder he committed in a drunken haze."

When the killer gets back to his derelict house, he discovers that the murdered woman's father, Sean, played by Lorcan Cranitch, has spent years digging hole after hole across Callahan's bog in search of her body.

When Callahan asks the local police officer to remove Sean from his land, he soon realises that the police and community want the killer in their midst gone for good.

With no memory of the murder and no way of stopping Sean, Callahan's only option is to lift a shovel and join in with the dig. Sean's disapproving daughter Roberta watches the uneasy alliance unfold and as they dig closer to the truth, Callahan hopes he will soon find the closure he has been searching for.

The Dig has been well received - it won best Irish film at the Galway Film Fleadh and has been shown at other international festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival.

Andy and Ryan's most recent short film, Insulin, premiered at Bafta and before that, Eye Line was winner of the Best New Coming Directors at the Cornwall Film Festival.

Despite the horrendous conditions on the set of The Dig, Ryan describes the atmosphere as intense, and says there was a great sense of camaraderie.

"All of the crew members are people we have known for 10 years and everyone was willing to go the extra mile for us," he says. Andy adds: "It was kind of like working with your friends."

Intriguingly, the twins have developed their own shorthand code that helps to steer them through the film-making process.

They say their film making is meticulously prepped and they tend to share the identical visual vocabulary when it comes to taste and style, designing the films through discussion long before their go near location, set or camera.

"I think it really ties in with the fact that we are twins, but we've been at each other's side for most of our lives," Ryan says.

"Our thinking patterns are very similar, so we don't need a lot of discussion on set. We have most of the discussion beforehand and when we're looking at a monitor we will both be on the same page about what we need to change.

"Andy and I are always thinking on the same page. It's a good way of dividing the labour."

They says their shorthand code mostly involves moments and beats in films that they love.

"We'd have nicknames for little nuances. For example, if we said 'elevator ping', we'd know the movie reference, the shot size and how quick it lasts on screen," Andy says. "It sounds geeky but it is completely natural to us. That example is from Die Hard, by the way, when McClean hears the elevator just before he knocks off the first bad guy

"We split our efforts too, Ryan would work with the actors and I'd talk to the director of photography - I've a background in editing so spend a lot of time by the monitor studying composition. Then we'd switch it around.

"On The Dig in particular, it was good when dealing with exhaustion too. There were many times my head would be fried and I'd have to step away for the good of the production and Ryan would take the reins. It can be really handy in that respect."

Like any set of twins, there have been moments when people have mixed them up - and that still does happen, Andy admits.

"That is the curse of being an identical twin. It still happens on film sets - an actor will have talked to you and comes back to continue the conversation and he has the wrong one," he says.

"You have to fake it and pretend you are the other guy, just to avoid confusing the actors!"

Ryan says: "It's a really nice tag team; we are singing off the same sheet. But there are two of us and that's always been a bit of an advantage for us."

The Dig is released in cinemas tomorrow

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