"THE Strand has a lot of history for me, I've been going there since I was a wee fella," enthuses Co Antrim-born film producer Mark Huffam, who treated the east Belfast picturehouse to a special Q&A-enhanced opening night screening of his latest project, Ridley Scott's lavish historical epic, Napoleon.
Hailing from Ballyclare and based in Holywood, Co Down, Huffam is a major player in the 'other' Hollywood: his producer credits include Saving Private Ryan, The Martian (for which he was part of its Best Picture Oscar-nominated team), Game of Thrones, Mamma Mia! and Prometheus.
However, even after years of working with big names such as Joaquin Phoenix, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman and Matt Damon, regular collaborator Ridley Scott – Napoleon is Huffam's seventh project with the South Tyneside multi-Oscar-winner – and Steven Spielberg, the producer still hasn't forgotten the simple thrills of those early trips to the pictures.
"I have gone to the cinema for as long as I can remember and I have always loved the experience," says Huffam, whose starry career in TV and film began with a three-day stint as a runner for BBC Northern Ireland's election coverage.
"In the bad old days of the Troubles, I remember being put in the back of an estate car and driven from Templepatrick to Banbridge to go to the Iveagh cinema.
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"If I had to choose the one film that got me totally inspired, it was going to see Star Wars at the Iveagh as a kid and coming out thinking I was a Jedi Knight."
Wednesday evening's sold-out Q&A screening of Napoleon was a special fundraising event to help raise funds for The Strand Art Centre's imminent refurbishment: the 78-year-old cinema will close its doors in February 2024 for 18 months in order to undergo a £6.5 million redevelopment.
The proceeds from the Napoleon Q&A event, which saw local film buff Brian Henry Martin interviewing Huffam prior to the film being screened, will go towards the remaining 10 per cent of funds still to be raised to bring The Strand back to life with refurbished screening rooms and a new interactive history exhibition, plus new theatre and live performance spaces.
The Ballyclare man was keen to lend his support to the project and says he can't wait to see how the new look Strand turns out. Huffam sees it as symbolic of cinema's ongoing revitalisation in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
"The Strand has a fabulous location," he tells me.
"I remember taking my own kids to see things like The Lion King there. It's our last existing art-deco moviehouse of the old-fashioned kind, from the era when going to see a movie was an event.
"The new spaces that they're adding are great too, because we have to encourage people that a cinema should be somewhere for people to go have fun, enjoy themselves and spend time.
"Covid hit [cinemas] quite hard, so it's great to see visiting the cinema starting to become an 'event' again. I just think it's a far more enjoyable experience than sitting in your front room watching films."
That's an interesting perspective coming from a top producer who has just made a movie with money from prestige streaming platform Apple TV+, which will make Napoleon available for home viewing once its theatrical run has concluded.
"We're kind of sitting in the best of both worlds," offers Huffam on what is fast becoming the modern model of making movies.
"We've got Apple behind us, who financed the film and were fantastic partners, and then we've got Sony and Tom Rothman totally behind us giving it a huge theatrical push.
"So, we still get the big theatrical release for people to go to the cinema and enjoy themselves and have the popcorn, have the event."
Ridley Scott's latest is a certainly an event: it's an epic in every regard, from its lavish costuming and set design to its hugely intense recreations of Napoleon's most (in)famous battles, utilising thousands of uniformed extras and much wince-inducing practical stuntwork to visceral visual effect.
"It's the 'biggest' film I have done in my career to date," admits Huffam, whose first hands-on experience of filmed drama was working with a young Kenneth Branagh on Brian Reid's acclaimed 'Billy plays' for the BBC in the early 1980s.
"It's also most definitely the biggest film I have done right in the middle of Covid. That added a whole layer of complexity even before we tried to do the Battle of Austerlitz, the Battle of Waterloo and the taking of Toulon.
"But I have to say, Joaquin Phoenix was fantastic. He was so professional. He'd get there two hours before call time to walk the battlefield and get into character for the day."
Happily, the seasoned producer was able to fall back on his previous experience working on the epic battle sequences of Saving Private Ryan and Game of Thrones (which Huffam helped persuade HBO to shoot in Northern Ireland) for Napoleon.
"Maybe on a 'small' day, there were 750 people on set: but on a 'big' day there were 2,500 to 3,000," Huffam recalls.
"We had a large number of extras, stuntmen and horses, all being shot by Ridley using 11 different cameras.
"As a producer, you are instrumental in putting the whole team together, and then you throw someone like Ridley into the mix, who really does run it all like a general – which, on that scale of a project, you need."
Happily, the Co Antrim man still managed to find the odd moment to just appreciate the spectacle of being on the frontline of the film.
"When people ask me 'do you enjoy it?', I always say you enjoy it when you're still standing at the end of the day," he offers.
"But here, it was lots of cannons, lots of muskets, lots of black powder – you know, just a lot of fun."
Napoleon is in cinemas now. To contribute to The Strand's restoration fund visit Strandartscentre.com