Northern Ireland

Gold Standard

by Tim Grierson

In The Lost City Of Z, writer-director James Gray tells the true story of Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who, in the early 1900s, became obsessed with a fabled city of indescribable riches he believed was nestled deep in the Amazon. And the filmmakers uncovered their own goldmine when they chose Northern Ireland to replicate Fawcett’s homeland.

As executive producer Mark Huffam, Oscar nominated for The Martian, explains, the decision was an obvious one. “Shooting in Northern Ireland, we could take advantage of the UK tax credit,” he says. “But also, we could take advantage of funding from Northern Ireland Screen. It’s extremely cost effective.”

The production was also able to find locations that were believable, with minimal logistical challenges. “Belfast doesn’t necessarily have the scale of period London,” Huffam admits. “But with some really creative thinking by James and the production designer [Jean-Vincent Puzos], we took institutional period buildings and turned them into [residential] streets. It’s a friendly environment to close a road for a few days.”

“Part of the challenge was to counterbalance the epic scenery of the Amazonian sequences with equally outstanding and dramatic British backdrops,” adds co-producer Aidan Elliott. “The creative brief was for stunning landscapes with the romanticism of Turner or Constable. The Northern Ireland countryside, particularly its coastline, provided an ethereal, painterly quality. Some of [cinematographer] Darius Khondji’s most stunning photography was shot at Strangford Lough, just 35 minutes from Belfast City Airport.”

The production spent about six weeks filming in Northern Ireland, before moving on to Colombia for the Amazon scenes. To Huffam’s delight, however, the team was able to utilise Northern Ireland for a scene they had assumed would have to be shot in South America, in which Fawcett travels by train to his jungle adventure. “We just happened to have a private railway line here, which had eight period carriages,” says Huffam. The production then tasked Extras NI with finding spot-on extras for the sequence. “Because Game Of Thrones is based here, [Extras NI] has an amazing database of just about every nationality you might want,” Huffam says.

Expert production pool

Elliott also notes the positive effect Thrones has had on Northern Ireland’s burgeoning production industry, and not just in terms of state-of-the-art facilities being built in the area. “The growing expertise is staggering, from a relatively small production pool 10 years ago,” he says. “There’s an industrial, well-humoured work ethic, which I’m not sure exists in many established film centres.” He also credits “the accessibility and open-mindedness in the province” for helping to facilitate The Lost City Of Z’s location-focused shoot. “The variety of locations was impressive, from recreating the Somme on local farmland, to First World War battleships, stately homes, period botanical glasshouses, banqueting halls, city halls and historic railways.”

Both Huffam and Elliot are particularly pleased with The Lost City Of Z’s spectacular deer-hunt opening. “We required a vast space for horsemen and hounds with undulating land and sufficient obstacles — walls, trees — to build excitement,” says Elliott. “Location manager Andrew Wilson took the director to a spectacular National Trust property called Castle Ward, near Downpatrick, and it was quickly settled upon.” The production was then able to splice together the Castle Ward shots of the roaming dogs with footage of deer from a nearby farm so the hounds would not be in proximity to the majestic creatures. The effect is as memorable as it is seamless.

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