Even on frigid December mornings, there are few more beautiful places on Earth than Glenarm. With the blue expanse of the North Channel on one side, and the Antrim Glens on the other, the tiny village is one of many jewels on a spectacular coastal route between Belfast and Derry~Londonderry.
Against this backdrop, bathed in the light of a low winter sun, a small but bustling film set sits next to the quaint, whitewashed marina. After promoting the craft for so long, Cinemagic has finally taken the plunge.
This is its first foray into the tumultuous world of filmmaking and with little over a day left on a three week shoot, A Christmas Star is beginning to take shape. It represents a project in keeping with Cinemagic’s 25-year quest to teach, to engage. As the organisation’s first feature film, however, this feels like uncharted territory, a fresh direction; it is a mix of the old and the very new.
Its lineup includes The Fall’s Bronagh Waugh – a product of the Cinemagic system alongside potential Oscar nominee Michael Lennox – stand-up Kevin McAleer and comedy performer Alan McKee.
Directing from a screenplay by Maire Campbell, helmer Richard Elson will look to bring to the screen a sweetly simple story of childhood adventure, as a gang of crusading youngsters fights to save the quaint old pottery in their home village from the clutches of a greedy American property developer, Pat (Downton Abbey’s Rob James-Collier).
James-Collier will, no doubt, wield the same sneering menace that made his scheming Thomas Barrow so watchable in the hit ITV series, but, sitting on a minibus, away from the bone-deep chill outside, he seems an infinitely nicer person than that iconic, dastardly under butler.
Aside from having developed a recent taste for the local Guinness, he has, more broadly, been pleased by the experience of his first professional stint in Northern Ireland. ‘We’ve been having a great time, fantastic. It’s been a great laugh, there’s good camaraderie on set. It’s been a cracking job.’ This is, he says, ‘a lovely little Christmas movie'.
In addition, given the fact that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes works tirelessly as a patron of Cinemagic, the link between the two entities runs fairly deep. ‘Julian’s involved in this and he’s very passionate about it,’ says James-Collier, whose presence here is, in fact, nothing to do with the venerable screenwriter.
Having found a route into his current profession via a business studies degree and some cheap acting classes in Manchester, James-Collier – who first appeared in Down to Earth on BBC One – understands the importance of that initial foot in the proverbial door, something being offered to the youths appearing on camera and the trainees purposely sprinkled throughout the crew.
‘I like the idea of the kids getting their first credit. That’s the hardest part of this game. If we can help them, it makes it easier for them, if they want to go into the industry. It’s a fantastic leg up for them all.’
Raised in Salford, James-Collier is no stranger to the region. He recalls childhood trips to his mother’s native Donegal by way of the Liverpool-Belfast ferry, and remarks on the capital’s transformation from a conflict-scarred landscape of soldiers and road blocks into the bustling, modern city of today.
‘It’s come on massively, hasn’t it? It has completely changed. It’s great to see that there is a huge industry here too, it’s not a hopeless thing we’re doing.’
The situation is anything but hopeless. Yet, in a month when major film bodies in Northern Ireland have been told to prepare for massive public sector budget cuts, the continuing success of the sector seems somewhat moot.
For Cinemagic CEO Joan Burney Keatings – overseeing her rural production base only days before those reductions were announced – organisations such as hers almost need to go above and beyond the usual requirements in order to justify their existence, an existence ever fearful of being dangerously underappreciated by government funders.
‘Cinemagic’s ethos is to educate, inspire and motivate young people. Every year we do a lot of outreach activity and we make a lot of short films,’ says Burney Keatings, who serves here as a producer on something she acknowledges to be a truly significant undertaking: the first children’s Christmas feature made anywhere in Ireland, north or south. ‘It has been an amazing journey,’ she adds.
A Christmas Star, Burney Keatings contends, is ‘very educational. It’s a huge training opportunity but, also, we want to provide a film that we think is going to be entertaining and have a legacy for years to come. There are so many layers with this project, which makes it so bespoke, so unusual.’
The gang of 12 at the centre of the tale comprises a disparate group of kids, aged nine to 13. They have come from as far away as Killybegs, County Donegal and as near as Newtownards. Some have acting experience; some possess none.
Eleven-year-old Sean Ronan lives in Celbridge, County Kildare and has appeared in minor roles on television, and in short films, thus following in the footsteps of his acclaimed cousin, Saoirse. Others, such as the polite but bubbly Patrick Roe from Dromintee, outside Newry, hope that this debut leads them to a great deal more. John Moan, a resident of Warrenpoint, but born in Iowa, feels lucky that an American accent helped him grab the role of Junior, Pat’s spoiled son.
Furthermore, 29 trainees (aged 18 to 24) are assisting across all disciplines, be it location and costume, or production and sound. They enjoy real-world, do-it-yourself experience at the coalface, witnessing the process in all its complex, intricate and time-consuming forms. ‘From this,’ says Burney Keatings, ‘we hope to open doors for them.’
There is a comforting sense of solidarity running throughout the set, a feeling of comradeship. It is especially evident in the faces of the younger elements, custodians of the promise in a new generation. ‘In terms of what the project has done overall,’ says Burney Keatings, 'it’s really brought together young people from various communities throughout the country and given them an opportunity to learn, first hand, from professionals.’
Cinemagic has not aimed for modest goals either. A key scene for the picture’s finale was filmed in front of 12,000 people at Belfast City Hall, the switching on of the festive lights doubling up as a chance for 12-year-old Zena Donnelly to sing the closing song, ‘We Can Shine'.
The finished article will be simulcast on BBC and UTV during Christmas 2015, but it will see international exposure also, most notably in the competitive US market, where any success is as much a reward as it is a test of the organisation’s efforts in laying down roots in Los Angeles and New York.
Tellingly, with cutbacks coming down the line, Burney Keatings reports that A Christmas Star has been delivered at a tenth of its estimated cost thanks to invaluable grassroots support and involvement. If Cinemagic is to endure, the ability to stretch pennies may be needed more than ever.
A Christmas Star is supported by OFMDFM, Creative Skillset, Tourism Ireland, Aer Lingus, BBC NI, UTV, Department for Social Development, George Best Belfast City Airport, Panavision, Subway and Arts & Business Northern Ireland. It will be broadcast throughout the UK and Ireland during Christmas 2015.
By Matthew Coyle