Tuesday 25 June 2019

The successor to Game of Thrones? On set in Limerick at George RR Martin's new show Nightflyer

… but will Nightflyers be the next Game of Thrones? Meadhbh McGrath pays a visit to the set of Netflix's new sci-fi series, based on a George RR Martin novella, and meets the Irish cast and crew who are determined to make it a success

Behind the scenes at Nightflyer being filmed in Limerick. Pictured: (l-r) Gretchen Mol and Eoin Macken. Photo: Steffan Hill/Syfy
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadker TD is pictured at Troy Studios Limerick on the set of SYFYÕs Nightflyers with cast members Eoin Macken, Maya Eshet and Sam Strike. Photo: Alan Place/SYFY

Deep in an unassuming industrial estate in the Limerick suburbs, I'm guided through a series of empty warehouses before a door opens to a hive of activity. To my left, a man is being strapped into a futuristic space suit, while to my right, assistants rush past, their arms laden with props.

"She needs a spittoon!" I hear one of them cry through a plume of dry ice.

I'm on the set of Netflix's new sci-fi series Nightflyers, which debuts on the streaming service this weekend. The show has been adapted from a 1980 novella by George RR Martin, he of the fire-breathing dragons, White Walkers and ubiquitous full-frontal nudity.

Before he created Game of Thrones, Martin wrote about a group of scientists trapped on a haunted spaceship called the Nightflyer. The less said about the 1987 film adaptation, the better, but the TV series, co-produced by Netflix and NBC Universal, turns the 100-page novella into a 10-episode thriller.

Behind the scenes at Nightflyer being filmed in Limerick. Pictured: (l-r) Gretchen Mol and Eoin Macken. Photo: Steffan Hill/Syfy
Behind the scenes at Nightflyer being filmed in Limerick. Pictured: (l-r) Gretchen Mol and Eoin Macken. Photo: Steffan Hill/Syfy

As Daenerys Stormborn and Jon Snow prepare to take their final bow this spring, networks are scrambling to find the next TV phenomenon, and while everyone I meet is at pains to emphasise that this is not "Game of Thrones in space", Netflix is clearly hoping to strike gold.

But Nightflyers has also been a boon for Limerick, where it was filmed at the newly opened Troy Studios in Castletroy. The series is the first project to shoot in the former Dell plant, and it takes up all three sound stages with some 50 sets, ranging from a claustrophobic "memory suite" to a seemingly infinite tunnel, mirrored to create the illusion of depth.

According to Siún Ní Raghallaigh, chief executive of Troy Studios, there are 320 crew members a day, 91pc of whom are Irish. Many are from the west of Ireland, and there are a number of students and teachers from the Limerick School of Art and Design, including 11 graduates working in the costume department - where I find a white board offering a phonetic guide to Irish terms including "slancha" ("sláinte"), "kay lesh a" ("cé leis é?") and "e-ha wha" ("oíche mhaith").

"I've always said that Ireland suffered from a lack of infrastructure, so this is my first foray into solving that problem," says Ní Raghallaigh, who also serves as chief executive of Wicklow's Ardmore Studios.

"As the saying goes, the rising tide lifts all the boats. We are a small country, and I believe for the indigenous industry, we punch above our weight, with Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan and lots of talent in directing, acting and animation. The indigenous industry really needs that exposure to the international marketplace."

Troy Studios was the only space large enough to accommodate the required sets, and the scale of the site, combined with very attractive tax breaks, sealed the deal. Some 90pc of the shoot takes place in the studio, but a few scenes were filmed on location at Castle Oliver and around the city's cobbled streets.

An Taoiseach, Leo Varadker TD is pictured at Troy Studios Limerick on the set of SYFYÕs Nightflyers with cast members Eoin Macken, Maya Eshet and Sam Strike. Photo: Alan Place/SYFY
An Taoiseach, Leo Varadker TD is pictured at Troy Studios Limerick on the set of SYFYÕs Nightflyers with cast members Eoin Macken, Maya Eshet and Sam Strike. Photo: Alan Place/SYFY

"It's Hollywood come to Limerick, isn't it?" Ní Raghallaigh smiles. "When you think of somewhere on the west coast that's very arty, you think of Galway, automatically, but Limerick is like the cheeky cousin edging in there - it's doing Fringe and it's doing a lot of creative projects. The energy is fantastic, and I think we've contributed to that."

There is a palpable excitement in the area, and my taxi driver points out I'm not the first person he's dropped over for a tour of the set.

"There's a parade of politicians in here," grins Brían F. O'Byrne, the Cavan actor who previously starred as Detective Moynihan in Love/Hate and now plays Auggie, the chief engineer of the Nightflyer. "The Taoiseach was here, the minister for the arts was here, local TDs were here, local councillors were here… Everybody wants to go to space."

Phillip Rhys, who plays fellow engineer Murphy, adds that Leo Varadkar was particularly interested in diagnosing his character's extensive burn prosthetics. "He wanted to touch it," he laughs. "He was a doctor, and he was saying, 'First degree, second degree, third degree burn…'"

As well as cultivating a crew in the local area, Nightflyers has looked to producers across the country for further resources. "Being in Ireland, it gave us a different take on sci-fi," explains costume designer Magali Guidasci, who previously worked on blockbusters Armageddon and Alien vs Predator. "You know, there is a language in sci-fi - usually we see a lot of plastic and stuff, I didn't want to do it that way. Ireland is a country of wool, so I could introduce realistic elements into a space land."

The costume department heaves with everything from battered space helmets to gold vinyl coats from Penneys, but there are also knitted pieces created with textiles from Blarney Woollen Mills and John England Linen in Banbridge, Co Down.

"The mission is trying to save humanity, so I said, 'What would we do in the future?' As human beings, we would probably relate to our traditions. Maybe we have technology that lets us do totally different knitting, but a jumper is a jumper. It helped our work to be grounded and functional," she says.

O'Byrne notes that amidst all the buzz, there is a sense that the project - the production costs of which are estimated to be between $100,000 (€88,000) and $150,000 (€132,000) a day, with each episode taking 10 days to film - is an expensive gamble.

"If this does well, this will be fantastic. If it doesn't go well…" he hesitates. "I don't know, success breeds other things. Now, if you say, 'Let's shoot something in Belfast', people say, 'absolutely, Game of Thrones shoots there, it must be great'. I know they re-shot the pilot, but if that was put out first and it was like, 'This is terrible' - if someone's in LA writing cheques, they might think, 'Was there a bit of trouble in Belfast? Do we want to go there?'"

Supervising producer Sean Ryerson was brought in when, he says, "things were falling apart": the original showrunner had left following 'creative differences', and the production was way over budget. But when we meet, he's confident that Nightflyers is back on track and that the show has the ability to run and run.

"It's an enormous investment. If it doesn't… ouch," he winces. "We've invented film in Limerick, and I think over the next five years we'll create an enormous film community here. We're pouring resources into training people, and we have a really big commitment and a strong feeling that we have something that will last."

O'Byrne, who commutes to set from Sligo, remains positive, too.

"I would be optimistic, and it really would do exciting things for the Limerick area," he says. "There's a lot of excitement you don't get normally. If you're in Vancouver, it's like, 'The studio's open, but who's in there now?' Nobody knows, but here, there's an ownership to Nightflyers. It's not just 'a show' in here, Nightflyers is here! There's excitement about a George RR Martin show being here, so you can feel that."

Martin is an executive producer, but he hasn't been involved in the writing or direction. I'm repeatedly told that Nightflyers is a separate beast from Game of Thrones, owing more to sci-fi epics like Alien and Event Horizon.

"I think George RR Martin's got a big enough imagination to do different things over the course of his career," says Ryerson. "This is certainly different to Game of Thrones. This is psychological horror. You watch people crumble mentally more than endless, endless blood."

From the two episodes made available to critics, Nightflyers seems to be the type of sci-fi show that wants to be different from all the other sci-fi shows - something Eoin Macken, whose credits include Fair City and fantasy series Merlin, makes the case for.

"It's not about trying to find space aliens and s***," he insists. His character, Karl D'Branin, is the leader of the expedition, and wants to track down alien species the Volcryn to get help bringing back his dead daughter.

"That's really what drives him, and that's more far interesting than 'just go find aliens'. I think one of the things that brings down a lot of sci-fi stories is when it starts becoming totally ridiculous. It needs to be grounded in some solid form of reality. This is very much about the relationships, the character details and the psychological aspects of them."

The breakout star of the series is Jodie Turner-Smith, who plays Melantha Jhirl, a genetically enhanced superhuman. She even got a shoutout from Martin on his blog, as he applauded the casting for correcting the 'whitewashing' of the character in the cover art for the novella and the 1987 film.

Turner-Smith has a Grace Jones biopic and a romance opposite Daniel Kaluuya lined up, and she already has a starry glamour about her: she accessorises her space suit with bejewelled Uggs, a fur-lined parka and a giant fluffy pet Chow Chow - a dose of glitter to counteract the severed limbs and prosthetic organs I've spent the day with.

"It's a little bit nerve-wracking to walk into it having the expectations that it'll be the next (Game of Thrones)," she admits. "I want people to walk into it not looking for that, just with an open heart to whatever this might be. We're out here doing this in a bubble, in a black hole on a soundstage. We don't see the light of day for hours. You don't really know what you're doing and how it's going to land until after."

Nightflyers was released in the US in December, and while there's no news on a second season yet, the producers are confident they'll be back in Limerick in the near future - and they could be bringing more US productions with them.

"Who knew that you could actually just show up into a place like this, with this kind of a complex show, and get it done?" says an awestruck Ryerson. "Well, you can do it."

'Nightflyers' is available to stream on Netflix now

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