Belfast Telegraph

Producer who brought film world to Northern Ireland dies at 63

Tributes paid to the vision and passion of Jo Gilbert

By Allan Preston

One year after the Good Friday Agreement, Belfast's famous Paint Hall lay unused and empty.

Few could have imagined at the time it would become the headquarters of Game Of Thrones, one of the most watched television shows in the world.

It was the "staggeringly energetic" Leicester-born film producer Jo Gilbert who first saw the potential and helped open Northern Ireland's doors to the international film industry.

Tragically, she passed away last Saturday in Newtownards aged 63, after battling a brain tumour.

Her funeral was held yesterday at Roselawn Crematorium. Ms Gilbert's films included the Spike Milligan story of Puckoon (2002), which was the first ever movie to be made in the Paint Hall.

Although the short-term lease on the budding film hub didn't last, she moved on to produce Closing The Ring (2006).

Securing screen legend Richard Attenborough to direct, she also convinced Belfast City Council to let her use the empty Maysfield Leisure Centre as a studio.

NI Screen credits this as the beginning of leading figures from the international screen industry coming to work here.

Close friend Randall Shannon from Holywood worked with Ms Gilbert on a number of film projects.

"I had a call from my accountant saying he had met 'this strange woman' with a dream of setting up a film studio in Northern Ireland," he said.

"He had no idea how to translate her ideas into numbers and asked if I would help.

"I worked in theatre production and opera, so I ended up writing the business plan."

Ms Gilbert recommended the Paint Hall again to a colleague for his new project, City Of Ember (2008), starring Bill Murray and Saoirse Ronan.

"They were looking all around the world to find a space big enough to literally build a city and produce this film in," said Mr Shannon.

"Jo took her colleague round to see the Paint Hall and got in touch with NI Screen, so City Of Ember was made in Belfast."

"That led on to Game Of Thrones, and in the last 10 years Northern Ireland has taken off as a film production centre.

"The big point is that it was Jo's imagination and energy that actually got the idea to use the Paint Hall started.

"When she first brought it up, people were sceptical about it to say the least, but you needed someone like Jo to come along and say: 'Yes, we can do it'."

Regarding the massive success enjoyed by Game Of Thrones, Mr Shannon said: "I would be lying if I didn't say she didn't have a strong 'if only' feeling about it all.

"She was trying to make it all happen, but there just wasn't the activity to support the idea at the time. Even when she became seriously ill her attitude was 'I'll get over this', that was her attitude to everything. She never gave up."

Ms Gilbert is survived by her children Bridey and Hal.

NI Screen said: "Jo flew a staggeringly energetic flag for the potential of the film industry for Northern Ireland long before anyone else would take it seriously."

Belfast Telegraph

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