Written and directed by west Belfast actor Martin McCann, who also stars, Fishbowl City is a revenge drama with a dose of dark local humour in its veins. David Roy spoke to the Killing Bono and Pacific star about making his first short film - and how you can watch it right now
ALTHOUGH his tense short film Fishbowl City has just been released, Belfast actor Martin McCann is already hard at work on the next project from his new locally based production company The Imagination Bureau.
Starring Omagh actor Gerard McSorely (already immortalised as Fr Todd Unctuous in Father Ted) as a struggling actor's agent based in Belfast, their Kickstarter-funded comedy pilot Starz (Tinyurl.com/ StarzBelfast) is currently being shot in Belfast and London.
The sitcom will also feature Co Down comedian turned acclaimed actor Michael Smiley and McCann himself, who recently starred in Yann Demange's critically lauded Troubles thriller '71 and the Irish short Boogalaoo and Graham. Both have received Bafta nominations and are generating 'Oscar buzz', with Boogaloo and Graham on the 'longlist' for Live Action Short at this year's Academy Awards. "We're actually doing a day's filming with Michael tomorrow," the Falls Road-born actor tells me via phone from London. "It's been a bit of nightmare to be honest - we lost one of our locations, so we've been running around like headless chickens to find another one. "But we're still doing our best to pretend to Gerard and Michael that we're running a tight ship."
Such 'on-the-fly' antics are part and parcel of independent film-making, as McCann discovered while making Fishbowl City on the familiar streets of his home city.
He stars as Michael, a working-class west Belfast guy who finally escapes a dead-end job and the temptation of easy money for a chance at enjoying "something different".
Of course, when his headstrong younger brother Steven (John Travers) and more-prankster-than-gangster mate Lawrence (Ryan McParland) get in over their heads with a malevolent local drug dealer (Peter Ballance), Michael is soon sucked back into the 'fishbowl'. Shot over a couple of weeks in late 2012/early 2013, the 45-minute crowd-funded and NI Screen-backed drama marks McCann's debut as a writer and director - a scenario which only arose when they couldn't secure the director they originally had in mind. "I feel like stories should address social issues," he explains of Fishbowl City's authentically urban setting and screenplay. "I just wanted to touch on the subjects that some young men find themselves up against, like bad influences. If you make the wrong choice, bad things can happen." Steven certainly finds this out the hard way. Despite big brother's efforts to keep him on the straight and narrow, the younger sibling's mistakes bring events to a violent head, with McCann's character forced to take the law into his own hands.
Before watching Fishbowl City, the Divis-area talent had warned me that it was a low budget affair. "Don't be expecting The Departed," he cautioned.
However, he needn't have worried: with help from his Antrim Road-bred Imagination Bureau partner and crack cinematographer Kevin Treacy, Martin McCann's career as actor-turned-director is off to an impressive start.
The high production values on Fishbowl City rarely, if ever, betray the project's meagre £10k budget - it's the kind of gritty, darkly humorous one-off drama you'd expect to stumble upon on BBC2 after the watershed.
However, the only place you can see Fishbowl City is online, where a one-off fee of £1.99 gives you access to unlimited streaming in full HD. "We were originally only going to charge 99p, but we thought that might be so cheap that people would wonder if it was worth watching at all," reveals McCann. "It's a new format for Northern Ireland - no other production company has made a low-budget production solely for the internet. We can say we did it first."
The self-taught actor, who began treading the boards with cross-community drama company the Rainbow Factory while still in primary school (he later became the patron of their parent charity, YouthAction NI), got his big break when Sir Richard Attenborough cast him alongside Pete Postlethwaite in the 2007 Belfast-set drama Closing The Ring.
This led to a role in Steven Spielberg's acclaimed Second World War-themed HBO mini-series The Pacific.
More recently, McCann played the title role in Irish rock comedy Killing Bono and scooped an Irish Film and Television Award for his turn as Occi Byrne in the movie Swansong before landing his latest on-screen credits in the aforementioned '71 and Boogaloo and Graham. "As an actor I've been in big enough productions before, but being able to do this one entirely ourselves has been an amazing experience," says McCann of Fishbowl City. "Obviously myself and Kevin are two young independent film-makers and we didn't have a lot of money. We know we're not competing with big-budget productions on TV like The Fall, but we're proud of what we've achieved. It was a real joint-effort. "He's a very experienced film-maker and he really helped me along. It's been a brilliant process and will hopefully will grow into a bigger thing for us. This was our first attempt and we can only get better." Indeed, at this point duty calls for McCann, who today is wearing several hats in the multi-tasking style of the truly independent filmmaker. "We're really excited about Starz," he tells me. "It's definitely not addressing any social issues, we're just purely doing it to have a laugh. "But we really believe in it. We've got a Kickstarter up to raise money for the post-production and we're already half-way there - people really seem to be getting behind us." By the time Starz is ready for release, this actor/location manager/director/producer could well have a couple of Bafta-winning productions on his acting CV - and perhaps a couple of Oscar-winners too. "It's fantastic news," enthuses McCann of the Michael Lennox-directed Boogaloo and Graham's Bafta nod. "And Yann Demange - what a first-time feature for him. He's one of the most gifted directors I've worked with. Every accolade that comes his way he completely 100 per cent deserves."
* Watch Fishbowl City now for £1.99 via Tinyurl.com/fishbowlcity. For more on Starz, visit Theimaginationbureau.com.