Ed Power visited the Castletroy set of the new Netflix adaptation of Nightflyers, based on the stories of George RR Martin
IN SPACE no-one can hear you scream. But they certainly can in Limerick, as Irish actor Eoin Macken discovered when he was cast in the lead role in Netflix sci-fi blockbuster Nightflyers — shot in a new state-of-the-art facility at Castletroy on the outskirts of the city
“There is an element of claustrophobia,” says the 35 year-old former model, his Dublin accent in contrast to the American twang he affects as Nightflyers troubled astrophysicist Karl D’Branin. “The sets are huge and it is very dark and the air was quite heavy. You ended up being in the studio for 10 or 11 hours, not seeing the sun.”
Nightflyers is pitched as the new odyssey from Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin. Having debuted in America on the SyFy network (to a less than stellar reception, it must be said) it now comes to Ireland via Netflix.
Macken plays the conflicted anti-hero of the piece. He is travelling to the fringes of the known galaxy aboard the space ship Nightflyer in the hope of contacting a mysterious alien race, who have the potential to save humanity from looming environmental catastrophe. But he is also haunted by a family tragedy and, the further he out he goes from Earth, the more his personal traumas seem to bleed into life on the ship.
“It’s a very heightened situation but you’re still engaging with a real character,” says Macken, a self- confessed fantasy and sci-fi addict. “His relationship with his daughter pushes him beyond the lucid and the reasons he is trying to communicate with the aliens become coloured by that.”
Nightflyers originated as a cult 1980 novella by Martin. Yet despite the Game of Thrones connection, the adaptation was not a soaraway success when debuting on SyFy in December and is currently languishing with a 33% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes ratings site.
That’s the risk with science fiction says Macken. Some people will get it — others won’t. “It’s that kind of show,’ he says.
Rewind six months and, in a nondescript office at Nightflyers’ Troy Studios complex (adjacent to the University of Limerick), a man from the props department is placing a set of eyeballs on a table. Set alongside are futuristic-looking weaponry and a foam human infant, the interior severely scorched. As the contents of this little box of delights confirms, Nightflyers — which is backed by the Irish Film Board — is sci-fi horror with the emphasis firmly on the latter.
Nightflyers is a big deal — both for Netflix,and for Limerick. The Castletroy complex accommodates a hulking soundstage and an eerily convincing approximation of a demonically-possessed space-ship. An estimated $50 million has gone to the local economy during the shoot — with more to follow should Nightflyers received a second season (Macken says he is in the dark as to whether it will be renewed).
A tour of the set confirms the scale of the endeavour. The interior of the USS Nightflyer is labyrinthine, clanking and uncanny.
Later, we see a scene filmed on the ship’s bridge, with one of the characters — in the murk it’s hard to tell if it is Gretchen Mol, the show’s biggest star — walking through a door and confronting the captain. We can’t make out what they are saying — suffice to say they aren’t discussing the weather or Limerick’s chances of retaining the McCarthy Cup.
Outside of Limerick and Ireland the big marketing point is of course the George RR Martin connection. Though his formal participation is limited by the exclusivity deal he has signed with GoT-maker HBO, Martin has always been proud of Nightflyers and professed his delight with plans for an adaptation (he is presumably eager to scrub the memory of a terrible mid-1980s movie version).
“He’s thrilled about the project,” says show-runner Jeff Buhler.
Nightflyers seems unsure how heavily it should lean on the Game of Thrones connection. The producers say they don’t want the show to be compared to Westeros. There are no dragons, no feuding great houses, no mud-caked battles scenes. And yet the Martin brand is surely key to its appeal and the sex and violence that helped make GoT a sensation is very much part of the formula.
It’s also clearly in a long tradition of haunted-house-in-space stories, a genre that began with Alien and also includes the 1997 cult classic Event Horizon — to which Nightflyers feels unabashedly indebted.
“Psycho In Space was my take when I was pitching it,” says Buhler, who has overseen a recent adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery and a movie based on Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train. “I used The Shining in space as a reference too. It’s full of Shining homages.”
The story is set in the early 22nd century when mankind has charted much of the solar system. At the very fringes of human exploration, the Nightflyer discovers a mysterious race — and bad things inevitably ensue.
“It’s 75 years in the future — the technology feels just beyond our grasp,” says Buhler. “We didn’t want to create anything that was completely far fetched. It’s tough to make horror land — you don’t want to find yourself doing fantasy at the same time.”
It’s the last day of principal photography on the series and Buhler is preparing to travel home after three weeks in Limerick. He’s been back and forth across the Atlantic, overseeing the shoot in Ireland and post-production in Los Angeles, where special affects are done.
“I had never been to Ireland before. I was completely blown away by the scope and size of what they were able to produce here. There hasn’t been a lot of production on this scale in this part of Ireland. There’s a lot going on in Dublin and Belfast. To be able to fly a flag here is just huge. We’ve been blown away by the level of support and by the craftsmanship.”
Nightflyers debuts on Netflix on February 1