ARTS AND FEATURES — 06 January 2014

Liam plays a complex character in SLR. Picture: Aidan Monaghan

By David Hennessy

Northern Irish film-makers Cathy Brady and Stephen Fingleton were both named in Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow shortlist in 2013. The prestigious list has an impressive track record of selecting future stars from both sides of the camera and has tipped Irish actors like Ruth Negga, Martin McCann, Aisling Loftus and Antonia Campbell-Hughes for success as well as successfully spotting the potential of Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Blunt, Hayley Atwell, Andrea Riseborough, Gemma Arterton, Carey Mulligan and Tom Hiddleston. Now that 2014 has arrived, The Irish World spoke to Cathy and Stephen and asked them to look ahead to a potentially exciting year for both of them.

Stephen Fingleton From Enniskillen directs Liam Cunningham in his latest short film SLR where the Game of Thrones star plays a voyeuristic photographer who gets his kicks by taking photos of females who are unaware of his activities, pictures that he then shares online. However, Cunningham’s character Elliot is sparked into action when pictures of his daughter come up on the sites he uses, prompting him to look at those he spies on as someone else’s daughter also. The cast also includes Amy Wren and Richard Dormer and the film recently won Best Irish Short at the Foyle Film Festival, which makes the film eligible for consideration from the Academy Awards.

“Liam was my first and only choice. He’s an actor who immediately demands the trust and respect of an audience and the role needed an actor who could take them on a very challenging journey. Liam is able to play a loving father really well but also a man on the edge of frenzy. He is doing a lot of that behind his eyes. He’s doing a lot of that without being very overt about it and I think that makes the audience buy into his character a lot more, because he makes them do the work. Great acting is about characters trying to hide how they’re feeling and Liam’s phenomenal with that.”

Asked what inspired this story, the director laughs: “That’s a question I get asked a lot. I read an article about a journalist who found out pictures of her had been put online but what I was intrigued by was how she found out and I thought it was just a great way to look into the separation between people’s online selves and their personal selves and when those two worlds collide.

“Those websites completely exist and they are of quasi-legality as far as I can tell. Occasionally you’ll hear of someone getting prosecuted for that kind of voyeurism, but what people aren’t necessarily aware of is that there’s an online community sharing this material. The other question I bring up is that this voyeurism is actually quite prolific in our culture generally, not just in terms of the front pages of tabloids and voyeurism on celebrities but also our online selves and how much we allow others to spy on us.

Stephen behind the camera on SLR. Picture: Aidan Monaghan

“I think people are upset by how involved they get with the main character’s story. He is framed as a user of pornography but by the end of the film, he is a hero to most of our audience. I think people are disturbed by how much they empathise with him.”

Stephen is currently developing his first feature film, The Survivalist which begins shooting in May 2014. The Survivalist topped the UK Brit List of best unproduced screenplays last year and is a dystopian sci-fi tale about a man surviving by guile and ruthlessness in a time of starvation.

The lauded script brought Stephen to the attention of Ridley Scott’s production company and now Stephen is also developing a science fiction feature “Fog” with Scott Free UK for their Ridley Scott Presents Slate. He is also writing a film noir piece he describes as a “London Chinatown”. As if all that wasn’t enough, this month he is shooting a short film set to be a prequel to The Survivalist: “I’m working with good people so it’s busy in the best possible way.”

Academy Award-nominated director Ridley Scott is presenting six films to be shot in Northern Ireland over the next few years. Talking about his Ridley project Fog, Stephen says: “The producers really liked the script to The Survivalist, and we found a concept we were all excited about working on. It’s kind of a take on the ‘infected human’ genre, which plays with the rules and brings up bigger questions about our society. It’s about a family who travel to London for an operation on their daughter when the city comes under attack from a strange phenomenon. The film is about how they struggle to adapt and survive in war-like conditions as the city falls apart. I like to describe as how Jimmy McGovern would make a science-fiction film – very human characters that you care about making desperate decisions, not just genre aficionados.

Liam Cunningham’s character needs silent camera equipment for stalking his prey and goes to Richard Dormer’s camera equipment shop. Picture: Aidan Monaghan

Stephen was the recipient of Northern Ireland Screen’s Bill Miskelly award, and his short films have won several awards and have screened at over sixty international festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival. Born in Derry, he studied English Literature at University College London which is where he made his first short films using the same camera Christopher Nolan made his early films on.

Stephen’s pervious short film Shirin dealt with the subject of honour-killings, a subject that was very much in the news: “Shirin was a story I was kind of waiting for people to tell in a way audiences could relate to but no film-makers seemed to be approaching it. When I came with the idea for the story, I felt I had to tell it even though I wasn’t from one of the communities in which these stories occur but I felt it was very important to tell. We had a very mixed reaction to the film, some people were angry it was made whereas other people, particularly in the Asian community in London were very supportive.

“I was told by one festival programmer that they couldn’t show it on the basis that I wasn’t Asian and I had made the story which I thought was extraordinary. I understand why they’re doing that which is there are so many bad news stories about immigrants that they want to curate an environment where positive stories are told but I didn’t see this as a story about immigrants. I saw this as the story of a father and his daughter.” (The film can be seen online at shirinfilm.com)

Is the move from making short films to features a daunting leap? “The main challenge in terms of getting into features is earning the trust of people to back you because it’s a huge investment of time and money. You have to be able to convince them not only will you manage it really well but you’ll connect with an audience and it’s the second bit that is intangible, instinctive. From my point of view, it’s just storytelling on a different scale and so long as I know that there’s an audience out there for the film, I’m happy making it. When I’m onset, I’m imagining an audience member watching the film in a cinema and that’s the kind of perspective you have to have.

“I was very flattered (to be named in Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow) because I was on a list with many people whose work I really admire so to be considered alongside them is an honour. But I’d sayin terms of where I draw my energy from, it is really from the audience. It’s not from anything in the industry or critics or plaudits or anything like that, it’s about the audience and them experiencing something. There’s a very intimate and silent connection you have with them when the lights go down and the film’s playing and they’re right in the palm of your hand.”

SLR is launched at Lighthouse in Brighton on January 30. For more information, go to: http://www.lighthouse.org.uk. The film will then be launched online at www.thefilmSLR.com. It will also screen as part of the International Competition 3 at Glasgow Film Festival on February 14 & 15. For more information on Stephen and his films, you can go to: http://www.driverfilms.com/.

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