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The dockyard dream factory

Category: Reign of Fire News
Article Date: March 14, 2001 | Publication: Belfast Telegraph | Author: Neil Johnston

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DOWN by the Belfast docklands, a glamorous new era has dawned - the shipyard men have gone and the luvvies have moved in. For a set of huge Harland & Wolff workshops on the Queen's Island is being transformed into Northern Ireland's first state-of-the-art film studios.

The development is being seen as an important focal point for the province's burgeoning film industry and one which will bring it into the international market place for big screen and television movies.

And the Paint Hall Studios, as they are called, have already hosted their debut production - a (GBP) 3.5 million screen adaptation of the satirical Irish novel Puckoon by cult humorist and ex-Goon Show radio star Spike Milligan.

Milligan himself has a cameo role in the film, and the cast also includes screen legends Sir Richard Attenborough and Elliott Gould as well as a strong line up of Irish actors like John Lynch, Sean Hughes and Milo O'Shea.

The studios where the action was shot take their name from their former role as a gigantic Harland & Wolff workshop in which parts of ships were painted.

Built in 1974, it consists of four giant "cells", each of them 85 feet tall and covering 17,000 square feet. For film makers, the building has the added bonus of being soundproof, since the painting had to be done in a heavily insulated and climate controlled environment.

The Paint Hall Studios founder and managing director Jo Gilbert, a 45 year old Leicester-born film and theatre producer, casting director and former singer, is infectiously passionate about the project which is her brainchild.

"I knew the minute I clapped eyes on it that this was a tailor-made film studio," she said.

The events which eventually led to Jo setting up shop on Queen's Island began four years ago when she first visited the province after the NI Film Commission had helped to fund a film called The Chaps which she was making with local actor BJ Hogg - who appeared in the Oscar-nominated Dance Lexie Dance - and another actor , Hal Fowler.

"I soon realised that this was a very vibrant and creative place to be, and I started to come over from London on a regular basis," she said.

"By this time, BJ, Hal and I had formed our own film production company, Menage A Trois, and we were working on an idea of making a television series in Belfast called The Master Builders, which would be set in an architects' office.

"I didn't want bombs and bullets, religion and politics, and all that sort of thing. I think we have gone beyond that now. You have to think of the global market.

"Anyway, I wanted to find a waterfront location for the series - I like being near water - and that was how I found myself down at the docks, talking to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

"They were incredibly helpful, because although they said I couldn't have the location I originally wanted, they pointed me in the direction of the Paint Hall.

"When I first saw it, I just couldn't believe that, in the middle of dockland, there was a building in existence which was perfectly suited to the work I am in. I just went bananas, put everything else on the back burner and said 'Let's go for it'. I closed my eyes, signed on the dotted line, and moved in."

Having leased the massive workshop from Harland & Wolff, all they needed - and they needed it urgently - was their first production. Along came Puckoon, and the new studios were in business.

"I had sunk everything I had getting the place into shape," said Jo, "and any financial backing I have had has come from the private sector.

"I have knocked on a lot of doors, but I didn't get one penny of public subsidy from either the Government, the City Council, the Film Commission or the Laganside Corporation," she said.

"But we are up and running, which is what matters, and the great thing is that, apart from being a film studio it is also ideally suited for live theatre and concerts, for it can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

"I see the Paint Hall as being a home base for Northern Ireland creative talent and I want to fill the place with writers, actors, producers and directors.

"It's a tremendously exciting prospect, and I often wonder what the original designer of the paint workshop would say if he came back and found it occupied by a bunch of luvvies making movies!"

Work is starting to come in - Disney are interested in shooting parts of their latest epic Reign Of Fire there, and other big American companies are checking out its potential.

In the meantime, the final touches are being added to Puckoon, which will now go on the open market and will also be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

And Jo Gilbert will be there with it, hustling trade for the Paint Hall and marketing Northern Ireland as an ideal location for film making.

So its hurray for the mini-Hollywood down on Belfast's harbourside - the big paintshed which is now a factory of dreams.

Copyright 2001 Belfast Telegraph Newspapers Ltd.


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