Belfast's film-making Tohill twins dish the dirt on their brand new thriller The Dig
This year's Belfast Film Festival closer is The Dig, the debut feature from Andrew and Ryan Tohill. David Roy spoke to the Belfast-based directing duo and their Bafta-winning producer Brian J Falconer about the locally shot thriller, which stars Moe Dunford as a murderer who forms an uneasy alliance with his victim's father
AS MOVIE pitches go, it's a killer: 'murderer who can't remember committing murder teams up with his victim's father to exhume her body'. Needless to say, hilarity does not ensue in The Dig, a slow-burning thriller which will close the Belfast Film Festival on Saturday night.
Written by Stuart Drennan (6 Degrees, Seacht), it's the debut feature from Belfast film-making twins Ryan and Andrew Tohill (35), who cut their directorial teeth on acclaimed shorts such as 2012's award-winning Eyeline and Insulin, 2015's prequel to Stephen Fingleton's post-apocalyptic indie hit The Survivalist, while also working behind the scenes on the likes of Game of Thrones, Line of Duty, The Fall and Stephen Frears' Philomena.
Starring Moe Dunford (Patrick's Day, Vikings), Emily Taaffe (Beast, Paula), Francis Magee (Rogue One, Jimmy's Hall) and Lorcan Cranitch (The Legend of Longwood, Love, Rosie), The Dig finds the Tohills reunited with Insulin producer Brian J Falconer, who collected a Bafta win and Oscar nomination for 2014 short Boogaloo & Graham and will be producing Liam Neeson's next film, the Owen McCafferty-penned Normal People.
It's the latest product of NI Screen's New Talent Focus scheme, which spawned both The Survivalist and last year's superb Tyrone farmer revenge thriller Bad Day For The Cut.
"Stuart had developed the script for a couple of years already with NI Screen," explains Enniskillen-born Falconer.
"I was knocking on their door for ages trying to find a way of making a feature film, as were these guys [the Tohills]. So it was a case of all three elements coverging at the right time.
"The premise of The Dig was everything in terms of what attracted me to it. Myself, Ryan and Andy have been friends for a long time so we'd talked a lot about films and watched a lot of films.
"A debut feature has to be ballsy, it has to stand out from the crowd. When Stuart told me the premise of the film, I was immediately like 'wow, I've never heard of anything like that before'."
Of course, The Dig's simple premise was also very much a double-edged sword.
"A lot of it is two guys digging up a field," chuckles Falconer. "So, where's the drama? It all has to be in the writing, the directing and the performances."
Happily, The Dig combines excellent performances with Angus Mitchell's impressive lensing of bleak/beautiful Co Antrim scenery and high production values belying an extremely modest budget.
The first-time feature-makers were able to recruit a top-drawer cast to their cause thanks to double Emmy Award-winning casting director, Carla Stronge, as Ryan Tohill explains.
"We were extremely lucky," he enthuses. "Carla offered up an amazing array of very talented actors. The auditions were an incredible part of the process, to see these people bringing to life characters that we'd been developing for close to a year.
"Once the right person was in the room, we knew instantly."
Co Waterford actor Moe Dunford was particularly committed to his lead role as anguished ex-con Ronan Callaghan, a former drunk and convicted murderer with no memory of his heinous crime.
"He thought about that character constantly," says Andrew. "Everything was justification – 'What am I doing, why would I do it?' It was great that he cared so much.
"The actors did a lot of the hard work for us – all we had to do was arrange the cameras."
Ryan adds: "We did three days of rehearsals which were so beneficial for exploring the characters, building up trust between us and our actors and speeding up blocking and the whole process."
"It removed a lot of the big questions about scenes," comments Andrew. "When you're on set and you're losing light, you don't have time to explore options."
The Dig was shot in just 18 days on bogland outside Ballymena in the depths of a particularly cold winter.
"Just try just going for a walk on a bog, then think about trying to shoot a film on it," cringes Andy, whose wife was also heavily pregnant during the production which shot for 10 or 11 hours every day.
"Moving the unit 20 feet would take us 45 minutes, and all the while we were losing light and fighting the weather," agrees Ryan. "It was late November, so it would get dark around 4.30pm. It was a war!"
Andrew agrees: "Top tip for everyone: if you're doing a film that's 70 per cent exteriors, don't do it in November."
Indeed, given the harsh weather and literally mucky nature of the bog-centric plot, cast and crew definitely suffered for their art. Especially the cast.
"The actors went through hell," admits Andrew. "Moe would do anything: there was literally a time we went 'you need to be covered head-to-toe in muck' and he immediately jumped and slid right through the mud. There was no ego there."
"We're all wrapped up in two coats and gloves Moe is there in his smelly wax jacket with bare hands, freezing," agrees Ryan.
"But everyone loved it," continues Andrew, "there was a real team spirit and everybody pulled together. Everyone was getting something out of it.
"We never felt that any of the actors 'phoned it in' – Francis Magee [who plays hard-nosed cop, Murphy] had almost like an effortless way of performing, he was so natural that he didn't look like he was acting. When you see him on screen, he's electrifying."
"A lot of my job was just fixing problems," adds Falconer, "but then you'd get a second watching a monitor and see Moe or Emily doing something great."
"Getting home and watching the rushes from the day before really spurred us on and gave us the motivation to get up and do it all over again," confirms Ryan.
Of the brothers' approach to directing, Andrew explains their division of labour: "Ryan was really a figurehead for getting the crew to execute what we needed and talking to actors. I would sit by the monitor thinking visually and working with Angus our DOP [director of photography], thinking about the edit.
"Ryan also took Moe under his wing while I worked closely with the supporting cast, so we were kind of able to share the roles. It's very beneficially to be a twin brother in situations like that.
"I don't know if it's a twin thing, but we shared an identical vision of the film."
As for producer Falconer, his vision for The Dig was always clear.
"My whole goal was that this could stand up against any film," the Co Fermanagh man tells me.
"I guarantee you, it looks multiple times more expensive than it actually was – and that just comes down to the people we worked with. The crew here are the best in the world."
"Most of my friends are crew," says Andrew, "and everybody was behind us.
"Guys were walking away from [Syfy Superman prequel series] Krypton to do three weeks with us in a bog in the middle of November.
"We owe them a lot of pints."
:: The Dig, Saturday April 21, Movie House Dublin Road, 6.45pm and 7pm (both sold out).