24 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
"I believe that if you have a chance to make a film... you must take it as it may not come around again"; IFTA Best Film winner Brian J. Falconer talks to IFTN
10 Feb 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Brian J. Falconer and Liam Neeson on set of Ordinary Love.
We spoke to IFTA and BAFTA-winning producer Brian J. Falconer who topped off 2020 with the IFTA Best Film award for Northern Irish drama, Ordinary Love.

Falconer also recently wrapped on Northern Irish feel-good comedy Ballywalter, which saw him successfully implement a COVID Protocol during lockdown. Falconer gives some insight into establishing a safe work environment, advice on filming during COVID, and receiving an IFTA Award from Martin Scorsese.

Having produced over a dozen short films, Falconer first came to prominence in 2015 with his BAFTA-winning and Academy Award® nominated Boogaloo and Graham. Since then he has springboarded towards the top echelons of the screen industry earning critical acclaim from his debut feature film The Dig (2018); directed by debutantes Andy & Ryan Tohill, which won Best Film at the 2018 Galway Film Fleadh, received a BIFA nomination, and had its North American Premiere at TIFF 2018. 

This success was followed up with Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa’s 2019 feature Ordinary Love; a debut screenplay by acclaimed Irish playwright Owen McCafferty. Starring Academy Award® nominees Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) and Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List), the BFI and Northern Ireland Screen-supported drama had its world premiere at TIFF 2019.

With 2020 coming as a year full of setbacks and frustrations, Falconer managed to cap off the year with the 2020 Best Film award at the IFTA Film & Drama Awards. “Winning the 2020 Best Film IFTA for Ordinary Love was an amazing moment I will never forget and the highlight of the Ordinary Love journey”, Falconer told IFTN. “In my head, I thought it wasn’t to be our night because we were up against four great Irish films; Arracht, Extra Ordinary, Calm with Horses, and A Bump Along The Way.”

“Honestly, I just felt privileged to be part of it (Ordinary Love). It was like that from the start of the project though; it was all a privilege,” Falconer continued. “From my producing partner David Holmes reaching out to me and pitching me Owen’s idea, to reading Owen’s first draft (which was the best thing I had ever read). From Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville signing up, to surviving my first financial close under the guidance of our other producer, the brilliant Piers Tempest. From our sales agent Bankside Films selling the world, to the World Premiere at TIFF.”

Brian was joined at the virtual IFTA ceremony by Ordinary Love writer Owen McCafferty and directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn to accept the Best Film award from veteran Hollywood director Martin Scorsese last October. “When Mr Scorsese read out Ordinary Love as the winner, my first thought was ‘Shit! I should have practised a speech’. I kind of froze but Owen quickly jumped in shouting ‘get the champagne out now, whatever it is, get it out!,’” Brian laughed. “It is quite amazing that Mr. Scorsese is invested in IFTA and supports Irish talent like he does! It was definitely a moment to reflect on and something that I draw motivation from.”

It’s a busy time for Out of Orbit, Falconer’s production company he co-founded with writer/director Jon Beer. The outfit have a slate of features in development with the support of Northern Ireland Screen and the BFI including Owen McCafferty’s new project Breathing and Harvesting by Lisa Harding who is adapting her 2017 best-selling debut novel of the same name with director Michael Lennox (Derry Girls, Boogaloo and Graham).
“We are also developing The Banshee, an original horror film from writer Patrick Loughran with Bankside Films who we loved working with on Ordinary Love and our new short Saul & I, directed by my business partner Jon Beer,” said Falconer. 
The latter of which has been selected by Tampere Film Festival to have its World Premiere as part of their new Generation XYZ Competition. Beer is said to be also currently developing the Saul & I feature film through the Out of Orbit Slate, Falconer also noted that Out of Orbit has also been developing a slate of television projects, “the first of which will be pitched to broadcasters this month.”

Ballywalter and COVID Protocols
Falconer recently wrapped production on Prasanna Puwanarajah’s feature debut Ballywalter; a Northern Irish comedy, which saw him tasked with overseeing the Covid Protocols. “Ballywalter was an amazing experience, but very, very difficult; that was down to COVID-19,” Brian recounted. 
“The first conversation I had with lead producers James Bierman and Nik Bower was how can we shoot this movie during the pandemic? We knew we needed a clear set of COVID-19 protocols that would be implemented from the top down and adhered to by everyone. So we prioritised COVID-19 by building the best possible team.”

Heading up the team was COVID-19 Officer Eamonn McKenna who had overseen the protocols for Robert Eggers’ The Northman (produced Mark Huffam), which recently wrapped production in the North. “Eamonn, James, and myself then developed COVID-19 protocols specific to our production,” Falconer continued. “Out of those came our COVID-19 Risk Assessment, which became the bible for how we would operate. Joining Eamonn was COVID-19 Supervisor Jannina Culpeper who’s role was to implement and enforce the protocols on set, manage our team of COVID-19 floor supervisors and oversee the COVID-19 testing regime, which involved regular PCR testing of all Green Zone members.”

This extensive testing regime was carried out by Kieran Brady and his team at NI Sports Medics. “The wearing of face coverings was mandatory and for any close contact work required the wearing of additional visors and PPE. Every cast and crew member was required to complete an online COVID-19 Awareness Safety Induction before starting work and were then required to complete daily Health Declaration throughout the shoot,” said Falconer. 

Brian believes that the only way Ballywalter was able to keep filming without shutting down was due to the commitment and focus of the Belfast crew. “It was down to their understanding of the responsibility we all had to the production, to keeping each other safe and to play our part in keeping the screen industries open by showing that we could continue to operate safely and responsibly during the pandemic. 

“A huge worry we had was that we had a natural break at Christmas for two weeks, at a time when COVID-19 cases were at an all-time high and the government had just announced a new 6 week lockdown,” Falconer added. “You can enforce the protocols on set but it is when everyone goes home, that is where COVID-19 is going to sneak in. We tested everyone prior to returning to work in the new year and all of the 77 tests came back negative. If that is not a sign of a committed crew, I don’t know what is.”

When asked about how he got involved in the project, Falconer explained that the project had been on his “peripheral” for a few years having produced Ballywalter’s writer Stacey Gregg’s debut short film Mercy. “I was first approached by the Ballywalter lead producers James Bierman (Empire Street Productions) and Nik Bower (Riverstone Pictures) in August 2020.” 

“I knew Riverstone for a number of years and I also knew of co-producers Alan Maher and John Wallace of Cowtown Pictures,” Brian continued. “As soon as I met James, I wanted to work with him on the film. We got on really well and I drew a lot of motivation from his work rate and complete understanding of his project and then once I met director Prasanna Puwanarajah and heard him talk about Ballywalter, that’s it, I was in!”
“My favourite moment on Ballywalter was watching Prasanna working with his actors Seána Kerslake and Patrick Kielty on set for the first time,” Falconer told IFTN. “Originally from an acting background, Prasanna knew exactly what he wanted in the performances and he got it, over and over. I am thankful to have worked with such talented, nice, hard working people.”

Although Ballywalter success in relation to COVID stands as proof that production is doable in the current environment, there is still a lot of doubt about pursuing productions in the current environment. When asked for his advice to productions considering holding off on filming, Brian told IFTN; “We faced that same dilemma last autumn but ultimately I believe that if you have a chance to make a film, regardless of the walls you are going to have to climb, you must take it as it may not come around again.”

Significant efforts have been made to support the screen industry since COVID began, but there is no question that more support is needed to aid smaller productions and film crew who have been unable to work during COVID. “I would always say more money to those in need, to the freelancers who fall between the cracks of government support!” Falconer told IFTN. “But I do believe that the regional screen agencies have been great in how they have reacted to the pandemic. 

“I know I am lucky, I got to work during the pandemic when so many others will not and they find themselves isolated without support,” Brian admitted. “I believe the screen agencies have a duty to support those freelancers who’s shoulders the industry is built on and continue to find new ways to support them as this pandemic continues.”

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