Film-makers hone in on butter smugglers of ‘troubled’ Derry

Local film-makers are planning to hone in one of the more unusual products of partition and the ‘Troubles’ - the smuggling of items over the Derry-Donegal border for a feature-length dark comedy film.

By Brendan McDaid
Friday, 17th May 2019, 12:57 pm
Actors Kevin Nugent (Frankie) and James McKenzie (Tony) on the Derry Walls.
Actors Kevin Nugent (Frankie) and James McKenzie (Tony) on the Derry Walls.

Aaron O’Neill, from the Northland Road area and Simon Russell, originally from England but now resident in Springtown, teamed up to develop the project after meeting on the set of ‘Game of Thrones’ as extras - Aaron as a Wilding and Simon as one of the Dothraki.

Aaron , who wrote his first script at the age of 12, has worked as an actor, camera person, sound recordist, director of his own short films and locations assistant, and after meeting talented writer Simon, they broached the idea of writing their first feature as a joint project. Together they have founded O’Reel Productions and have spent eight months full-time writing and rewriting ideas and stories before they finally decided on the concept for ‘Butter 77’.

A short film extract was recently filmed in Derry and released on YouTube and is already gathering widespread acclaim.

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Aaron O'Neill (left) and Simon Russell of O'Reel Productions.

Next week, the duo will meet with N. I. Screen to discuss the potential for advancing the project.

The film’s subject matter is extremely timely with the future of the Irish border at the centre of Brexit negotiations and much international attention focused on the north west region and the people who will be most affected by whatever new border arrangements, if any, emerge in a post-Brexit world.

Aaron also said he believes Lisa McGee’s ‘Derry Girls’ has blazed a trail in breaking the cycle of very sober and serious films related to the ‘Troubles.’

Commenting on how ‘Butter 77’ came about, he said: “The film is very much a 50-50 collaboration between us.

“It’s the story of a young butter smuggler trying to escape Derry for New York during the Troubles.

“I have a big family in Derry, the Duddys, and there is a big well of stories from the past that I have collected up. Films about the Troubles tend to be serious and it is rarely shown how people here laugh in the face of adversity.

“With the political climate and Brexit, now is a good time for the story set in a border town looking at life during the Troubles, as it serves as a warning for the generation to come.”

John Duddy

Simon Dobbins and actor Kevin Nugent, who plays Frankie.

New York based ex-professional boxer turned actor and Aaron’s cousin, John Duddy, has come on board to play the part of the uncle of the main character the film. John Duddy plays a man who during his wayward youth was sent away to be a priest.

The short film starring James McKenzie as Tony and Kevin Nugent as Frankie was directed by Aaron and made with the assistance of Simon Dobbins from Derry Independent Productions, who gave his time and expertise as cinematographer for free, with JC Bonnar on makeup/ costume and Fionntan MacDonald and William Ayton as runners.

Despite having no budget, the scene was filmed over a weekend and the end production has been very well received, having been watched a thousand times in the first three days after it was uploaded.

Aaron said that there is a rich pool of film industry talent in the north west that needed and deserved investment on a par with other regions. “There is so much untapped creative potential for the film industry here,” he said.

Actors James McKenzie and Kevin Nugent.

The film makers are now hopeful that they can attract the funding to fulfil their vision for Butter ‘77.

“We want to find funding to make this film in the way it deserves to be told. But one way or another, we will make it.”

To watch the film excerpt from Butter ’77 check out: