By Edwin Gilson
In what is effectively a shantytown, dishevelled, terrified children are huddling together in mine-shafts and makeshift tents. The harrowing squawk of vultures can be heard overhead. Broken pots, car seats and bathtubs lie scattered around while the rain hammers down, turning the bothersome mud to hazardous sludge.
If Northern Ireland is the new Hollywood, it sure doesn''t feel like it right now.
Then somebody yells "cut", and the mood changes. Mobile phones are whipped out and the previously desperate youths engage in conversation about school exams and their favourite sweets. Two minutes later, the vivid fear is once again etched upon those faces.
Welcome to Parkgate Quarry in Co Antrim, the post-apocalyptic location of new alien invasion sci-fi film Our Robot Overlords. Every single crew member, including Belfast-born director Jon Wright (who was in charge of the Ireland-set Grabbers last year), is clad in rain mac and Wellington boots in defence against the atrocious conditions. The majority of the cast are cramped up in claustrophobic hideaways, but at least they''re keeping dry.
The bowl-shaped site, which ceased to be a working quarry long ago, has played host to numerous Game Of Thrones episodes in the recent past.
In the middle of the complex lies a lake that will be drained two days after shooting has concluded here to make way for the construction of a castle; if the rumour spread today by location manager Peter Murphy (who has previously worked on the epic fantasy programme) is to believed, the Games of Thrones team are again responsible for this radical transformation.
Murphy''s initial role was to find a suitable spot and create the refugee camp imagery of the set, including the carefully placed bric- a-brac.
His work is effectively completed before the actors even arrive, meaning he doesn''t get a whole lot of recognition from the cast. "If anyone ever needs me during filming," he says, "then I haven''t done my job right." Jagged, foreboding cliffs surround the expanse of water. At the climax of the film, Gandhi star Sir Ben Kingsley will appear at the highest point of the bank, accompanied by a legion of 20 feet tall robots, and enter into a verbal battle with Gillian Anderson, who is taking shelter in the mine-shaft below. Anderson is continuing her apparent professional love affair with Northern Ireland, after recently appearing in BBC2 drama The Fall, set in Belfast.
The American-born actress is grateful for the "generally tremendous" reaction to the thriller, and responds eloquently to those who accused it of containing gratuitous and voyeuristic violence towards women. "Should we not explore or expose any of these things that do actually happen in the world, because we are afraid of them? One of the biggest things with the show is you''re not just people randomly killed. We're giving people an insight into the lives of the victims, which you don't often see. You actually get to care about these women that are being brutally killed, and in so doing you realise that they are human beings. I feel like the programme is having a bigger impact on people because they feel like they are a part of it." Her parts in Our Robot Overlords are being filmed today, initially minus Kingsley and his mechanic cronies. Along with English child actors Ella Hunt (Les Miserables) and Milo Parker plus a bunch of native rag-tag extras, she shouts defiantly up at an invisible menace.
T his single 30-second scene is filmed roughly 27 times consecutively, just allowing enough time in between takes for Anderson to don a padded blue coat, furiously type away at her Smartphone and then get back into character. At one point she trudges off set and slouches in a banged-up gokart. Defending yourself against a villain that you can't actually see must be a tiring business. As she acknowledges, though, "this is partly what acting is about. I'm pretty much used to it by now". Despite a relatively small budget, around Pounds 20m, the film makes heavy use of special effects, which means the remorseless invaders will only arrive on the scene way down the line, in the editing process. Later, on her way to catch a plane back to her home in London with her parts finished for the week, Anderson seems buoyant, and smitten with the many "filmic locations" of Northern Ireland (shooting for Our Robot Overlords also took place in Belfast and Bangor). "The landscape here is so dramatic," she enthuses. "Which is great for us when filming, and obviously for you guys who live here."
She's even taken to the erratic weather: "It is just crazy! One minute it's sunny and the next it's pouring with rain. It can be frustrating for the film crew, but there's something very appealing about it not just being palm trees and sunshine all the time." As a mother of three herself, the 44-year-old agrees with the idea that the looming threat of the robots acts as a symbol for a parent's natural yet somewhat irrational fears over the safety of their chil- dren in everyday life. "That's definitely an identifiable element to the film," she says. "No matter what the danger is, all parents across the world are always concerned about the well-being of their kids. Any parent would be willing to sacrifice themselves for their children." Anderson's evident understanding of such matters allows her to bond well with Hunt and Parker. The trio joke around and slap each other on the back in downtime, and in one take the former X Files star even raises her middle fingers aloft and tells Robin Smythe, Kingsley's "manipulative" character, to basically go to hell, prompting laughs from the younger two.
A few of the onlooking crew look a little concerned though: "Yeah, we're going to have to cut that out," remarks one camera seeing man. Any more of this seemingly unscheduled behaviour and the film's 'family fun' status could be in danger ... For family, says producer Piers Tempest, is at the heart of this flick. The amiable Englishman is under strict orders not to give too much of the plot away (given that the film is due for release next summer), other than that Kate, Anderson's character, and her gang of stricken children must defend themselves against giant robots, who rule all. Although Our Robot Overlords. boasts an effects team that has previously worked on Iron Man and the latest James Bond romp Skyfall, the script apparently places much emphasis on relatability. Tempest and Co were keen to move away from wholly unrealistic blockbusters like Transformers and make something that was, to an extent, grounded in familiar life. The producer questions: "Why do aliens always land in trailer parks in the American deep south? Why not over here?"
A disused quarry is most certainly alien territory for Sir Ben Kingsley, whose arrival on set has been postponed due to another sudden downpour. However, I'm still only granted a maximum of 10 minutes with the Golden Globe winner. Resembling a sodden dog, I venture over to his trailer with the half-joking, half-deadly serious warnings of the crew ringing in my ears: "He's quite precious about being referred to as 'Sir'". After a warm greeting, things instantly take a turn for the worse as I label his character in Our Robot Overlords a"pantomime villain". His big, intense eyes fixed on me, he responds with controlled venom. "You've clearly come in here with an agenda," he accuses. "I mean, really? That's a terrible start. You're judging him and squashing him into a narrative that simply doesn't exist. My character in this film is pragmatic, he's a survivor." His on-screen persona Robin Smythe sides with the destructive robots at a time of crisis, a cowardly move which Kingsley sympathises with because, he points out, we have so little experience of being suddenly invaded.
"Look, we don't know how we'd react if our country was occupied by foreign forces, so it's hard to judge him. We're full of these principles and loyalties but, ultimately, you either eat or you don't. A lot of people have to compromise. My character is merely joining what he thinks is the future." Contemplating Ulster's "very ambitious" film industry perks him up considerably. He says Northern Ireland Screen, the agency that helps fund Queen's Theatre, Belfast Film Festival and is partly paying for Our Robot Overlords. , is "trying very hard". He adds: "You have an industry here that is determined to work, so it's a good place to be. Nobody's lazy, nobody's taking anything for granted, there's full enthusiasm, they really want to make it work and there's a great energy to it." Dwelling on the ever-growing impact of CGI on the movie business, Kingsley displays a surprising lack of regret and a willingness to move with the times. You may expect an old-school character actor, who has undertaken such high-profile roles as Gandhi and Otto Frank, to be thoroughly against the concept of special effects. In actual fact, he claims to have found a way to navigate this potentially disorientating new era for his trade. "I'm a reactive actor who loves working with other actors, but now it's all CGI," he says.
"I think the thing is to be minimalist. You do as little as possible and the audience does a lot of the work for you. My acting is so subtle and minute, that the audience will become my narrative. The danger with effects is the actor might be tempted to over- compensate because there's nothing there. What you have to do, then, is not explain a scene to the viewer, but tell them the story." Visibly warming up as the shower outside continues, the 69- year- old (who, up close, genuinely looks 20 years younger) continues to ponder the advancement of technology: "They got to the Moon on far less than what's in there (pointing to his Smartphone), which is extraordinary. There have been so many films recently where an artificial intelligence takes over, and I think that's a reaction to how quickly things are moving in that sense."
His co-star Anderson chuckles about not understanding "the difference between 3G and Wi-Fi" and "only just becoming part of this Twitter world". She also remarks that she often "freaks out over access of information. and safety of information. We can't keep control of it. Even with phones and computers, things that we previously thought were safe, we're now finding out that people can invade that privacy too. When everything goes out into that stratosphere you lose that illusion of control. I find that a bit freaky. I feel like I'm losing control." We've already seen that she has an easy rapport when dealing with young actors; what about Kingsley, though? Does his sheer presence ever intimidate his junior on-screen counterparts?
"No , I don't think so. I've found there's something very unclut tered about the nature of child actors," he retorts. " It's their honesty and lack of judgment. I wouldn't want to be ageist and squash them into a corner or treat them differently, so in my mind there's no real adjustment to be made." After boasting that he possesses "total recall" when reflecting on the roles he has played in his career, he muses: "I'm able to remember the experience of playing a character and how he chemically felt. To me, every character is like a different taste in the mouth, that's how I define them. And yes, some characters do stick to the inside of my ribcage longer than others, but they all have a place in my heart." Back to the film he's currently involved with. Kingsley admits to being not altogether clued-up about the overriding message or meaning of Our Robot Overlords. himself, having only been through a few scattered days of shooting, but he offers up this summary: "The robots are nonempathetic, therefore have no feelings of guilt or compassion and you can't reason or rationalise with them. "Therefore it's the blank face of the enemy, rather than something you can understand, which is very frightening. I think it will be an immensely enjoyable film, though, and very touching." And then once more he draws on the idea that seems to fascinate him: "And, of course, it's underpinned by the terrible dilemma of being under occupation, which we know absolutely nothing about." With that, my time in the trailer is up. There's an awkward moment where I can't prise open the door, with Kingsley bellowing from within: "Ha! It's a trap!" And then, more helpfully, "you just pull the lever and then push it back."
Back in the heart of the quarry, lunch is over for Anderson and Co. They are going over that same mine shaft shot for the umpteenth time, illustrating how much unglamorous graft has gone into making this film so far. There is a quiet confidence within the crew, though, that Our Robot Overlords. will become a box office smash, and they are happy with their decision to come to this remote part of Northern Ireland rather than use a faceless studio. That stars like Anderson and Kingsley are eager to lend their considerable talent and energy to the project and that Northern Ireland Screen is willing to pump money into such home-grown endeavours can only be taken as a healthy sign. It may not be the new Hollywood quite yet, but the future of the Ulster film industry is looking bright indeed. l Born in 1968 in Chicago. Moved to the UK soon after and lived in London until she was 11. l Moved back to America, this time to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her back and forth life across the Atlantic Ocean is the reason for her constantly shifting accent. l Graduated from The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago in 1990. l Relocated to New York at the age of 22. After working as a waitress, she began her acting career in a play called Absent Friends at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
l Despite having vowed to never get into television acting, Anderson broke into mainstream TV in 1993 with an appearance on Fox's drama Class of '96. l Auditioned for The X Files a year later, citing the presence of a "strong, independent, intelligent woman as a lead character", as the main reason for doing so. Fox reportedly wanted an actress with greater sex appeal, but producer Chris Carter stuck by her and she took the role of Special Agent Dana Scully. lMarried The X Files art director Clyde Klotz in 1994, on the 17th hole of a Hawaiian golf course in a Buddhist ceremony. They had a daughter together, Piper Maru, but divorced three years later. l Voted Sexiest Women in the World by FHM readers in 1996. l In 1998 she starred in the comedy-drama film Playing By Heart with Sean Connery and Angelina Jolie. l Picked up the British Independent Film Award for Best Actress in 2000 for her role in The House in Mirth, an adaptation of the Edith Warton novel. l Married filmmaker Julian Ozanne on an island off Kenya in 2004. They split up in 2006. l After the The X Files Anderson appeared in a number of Britishset films including Bleak House, a new take on the Charles Dickens' story, and The Last King Of Scotland, with James McAvoy. l Had two further children with wheel-clamping firm boss Mark Griffiths; Oscar, born in 2006, and Felix, born in 2008. Anderson and Griffiths divorced last year. l Appeared in 2012's The Shadow Dancer, a Troublesera drama set in Belfast. l In March that year, she opened up to Out magazine about her relationship with a girl in high school. l In 2013 starring as DSI Stella Gibson (left) in BBC drama The Fall. From X-Files to The Fall
'All parents are always worried about their kids'
Originally published by Edwin Gilson.
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