Business Insight

Disney chooses Co Down to film big-budget TV series The Lodge

Disney has made Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears household names – and now the multi-million dollar global brand is set to make Northern Ireland its next big star by choosing to film a big-budget TV series here with home-grown talent taking centre stage, writes Jennifer Maloney

Jennifer Maloney
20 September, 2016 01:00

WITH production of Game of Thrones coming to an end, the future of the Northern Ireland film industry still looks bright – and now it even has a little magic touch, as Disney has officially come to town.

The iconic brand, famed with high production values and its unique Disney look, filmed The Lodge, inspired by an original Israeli format called North Star, on the Montalto estate in Ballynahinch earlier this year.

The 10-part all singing, all dancing teen drama series is being released in the same year that High School Musical marks its 10th anniversary and The Lodge’s fresh talent are sure to follow in the footsteps of other Disney Channel luminaries.

The Irish News was granted exclusive access to the location and spoke to Raymond Lau, a former comedy producer with BBC Northern Ireland, who is producing the Disney series which will be broadcast across the world.

He credits the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones and Northern Ireland Screen’s work as key reasons Disney chose Northern Ireland.

“I think the attraction of Disney coming to Northern Ireland was purely and simply because they were tapping into resources that we have here now,” Mr Lau said.

“Due to the success of Game of Thrones, one of the biggest shows in the world, we have amassed quite a large skills base in Northern Ireland.

“I wouldn’t underestimate by any means the effect of the open door policy from Northern Ireland Screen. But first and foremost Disney wanted to find a location which best represented a European countryside which was exactly what parts of Northern Ireland have to offer.

“When we were looking for locations, we looked all over Northern Ireland,” Mr Lau said.

“We looked in Fermanagh and we were going to set this by the lakes there. Originally I pitched this for the Glens of Antrim because that where I’m from – if you can film those vistas those shots are worth a million dollars.

“After searching far and wide for the right location, we found Montalto in Ballynahinch and if you stand in the middle of the estate you have no idea where you were and that’s what’s makes this place ideal and special.”

Raymond Lau talking to Sophie Simnett who plays Skye on set for Disney's The Lodge 

The live action drama series of 22-minute episodes features nine original songs and the production called in the help of Disney’s musical experts based in Burbank in the US.

The drama also features mountain biking action shots, filmed in Rostrevor and Castlewellan, using the area’s famed tracks and biking experts.

Filming in Montalto, where the original house was built in 1765, had its own issues.

The estate, which was extensively renovated in 2010, had been booked for several weddings during the production schedule – which brought its own unique problems for the crew when building sets.

“We have had to panel it all so that the venue could be used for wedding bookings,” Mr Lau said.

“We had to come up with a system that allowed us to move sets in and out so we specifically designed the set with this in mind and had the right craftsmen on the ground to be able to do this successfully.

“We use local crews both in production and in design and so the painters, the joiners the decorators, the design team are all from Northern Ireland and they are all highly experienced.”

The Lodge employed 22 cast and 67 crew, of which 46 are from Northern Ireland.

The production created freelance opportunities for craft talent including two scenic artists, joiners, construction workers, make-up artists as well as the production crew. Post-production work took place at Yellowmoon in Holywood, Co Down.

The Lodge producer Raymond Lau on location in Ballynahinch, Co Down. Picture by Patrick Redmond 

Northern Ireland scenery takes centre stage in The Lodge, as the young stars are seen kayaking and mountain biking – as well as singing and dancing.

“The fact that Disney are here is fantastic and hopefully they will remain here and this is a springboard for future Disney shows. It has been a brilliant experience,” Mr Lau said.

“Once the North Shore studio is built and up and running, then hopefully we will attract other big shows. For The Lodge we used Extras NI. We did a massive call out for talent and we had open auditions in Belfast.

“The future looks bright for Northern Ireland and seeing shows like The Lodge being made here will hopefully give an aspiring performer, a young person sitting at home the confidence to get involved.”

As well as Mr Lau, part of The Foundation TV Productions (part of Zodiak Kids Studios UK), episodes were written by a team, which included Belfast actress Bronagh Taggart.

David Levine, general manager of Disney Channels UK & Ireland and a vice-president at the company, said: “We have a truly talented cast with exceptional vocals putting their stamp on characters that kids will care about and storylines that will inspire.

“The series’ universal storylines, themes and characters are certain to demonstrate great Disney storytelling and strike a chord with viewers.”

:: The Lodge premiers this Friday on the Disney Channel at 5.30pm.

20 September, 2016 01:00 Business Insight