It has been just over fifty years since Ardmore Studios first opened its doors, and Ireland welcomed its first film studios. In May 1958, after years of struggling and campaigning, the Wicklow based studios were opened by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Sean Lemass. The Studios have since played host to over 100 films; attracting international directors, actors and producers who have created films that reached audiences far beyond their Irish birthplace.
The fledgling studios, situated on a ten acre site, represented an investment of over half a million pounds. Before the studio’s opening, Ireland was confined to location shooting, which would represent only a small part of the completed film. Following the launch of Ardmore Studios - and with Emmet Dalton and Louis Elliman as Managing Directors - international filmmakers began to view Wicklow (with its picturesque coastal landscape and close proximity to Dublin city) as an attractive filming location.
The first film to take the stage was a screen adaptation of Irish playwright Walter Macken’s acclaimed play Home is the Hero in 1958. Directed by Emmy winning American director, Fielder Cooke, Macken himself took the title role. British director George Pollock took the helm for the Studio’s next two films, both of which shot in 1959 and both of which were based on Abbey comedies; The New Gosson, by George Shiels, renamed Sally’s Irish Rogue, and Hugh Leonard’s The Big Birthday re-titled Broth of a Boy.
Dalton and Elliman travelled to America to promote the studios in the late 1950s - stirring interest amongst many leading US producers and attracting Ardmore’s first major movie Shake Hands with the Devil. Produced and directed by Michael Anderson, the film is set against the Irish War of Independence and stars Oscar winning actor James Cagney and screen beauty Dana Wynter. Within the year another Hollywood legend, Robert Mitchum, arrived at the studio to star in Tay Garnett’s A Terrible Beauty in 1960.
And so began the prolific output of the Ardmore’s early years where the studio played host to films such as Robert Baker’s The Siege of Sydney Street; Nigel Patrick’s Johnny Nobody, with Cyril Cusack and Don Chaffey’s The Webster Boy pass through the studios. Guy Green’s controversial Ardmore-shot 1961 film The Mark, was nominated for the Cannes Golden Palm award and earned its star, Stuart Whitman, an Oscar nomination.
In 1975, film director John Boorman became Chair of the studios with Sheamus Smith as Managing Director. The newly revamped venue welcomed several major films including The Purple Taxi, with Peter Ustinov and Fred Astaire; The Last Remake of Beau Geste, directed by Marty Feldman and The Great Train Robbery, written and directed by Michael Crichton and starring Sean Connery.
In 1981, Boorman began shooting his own $11.5 million budget movie, Excalibur at the Wicklow studios, enlisting the then novice acting talents of Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Ciarán Hinds and the equally green abilities of Neil Jordan in his first filmmaking role as a creative associate.
Ardmore has proved itself chameleon-like over the years, lending itself to whatever setting a film requires. For Martin Ritt’s highly acclaimed 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, areas of Germany were reconstructed in the studios; in 1966, The Blue Max saw areas of Wicklow transformed to recreate the Battle of the Somme whilst Mel Gibson’s 1994 epic tale, Braveheart saw Wicklow’s stunning landscape stand in for the Scottish highlands, not to mention the hugely successful television series The Tudors which saw the Ardmore lot transformed into 16th century England.
Some of the world’s acting legends from past and present have recited their lines within Ardmore’s walls, from golden age acting stars such as Julie Andrews (Darling Lili), Richard Burton (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Fred Astaire (The Purple Taxi) and James Cagney (Shake Hands with the Devil)to modern day luminaries such as Sean Connery (The Last Great Train Robbery), Clive Owen (King Arthur), Pierce Brosnan (Evelyn), Meryl Streep (Dancing at Lughnasa) and Helen Mirren (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone).
Ardmore based projects have led to award wins for dozens of actors and filmmakers throughout its history. Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn received an Oscar for her role in 1968’s The Lion in Winter, while Daniel Day Lewis and home grown talent, Brenda Fricker picked up Oscars for their haunting roles in My Left Foot. Furthermore, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart collected five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Directors who have shot at Ardmore include John Huston (The List of Adrian Messenger, Sinful Davey); Neil Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto, The Crying Game); Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon), Pat O’Connor (Dancing at Lughnasa), Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo), and Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America). In 1963, Francis Ford Coppola shot his first film in the Wickow studios for a budget of £30,000, ten years before he directed The Godfather. The thriller, Dementia, was completed in just three weeks. In 1994, director John Erman shot the Emmy award winning series Scarlett, returning to the studios in 2004 to direct TV drama The Blackwater Lightship in 2004.
For the last five years, Ardmore has been home to two historical series; from 2006 to 2010, The Tudors has made use of Ardmore’s resources, with the four series having a combined budget of approximately €90 million. Following on from the success of The Tudors, Ardmore recently played host to the lavish Camelot production in June 2010 for twenty two weeks. Boasting an impressive cast including Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green, the ten part series was created by The Tudors’ creator Michael Hirst and written by Chris Chibnall with the second series expected to start filming in late 2011.
International guests continue to arrive on studio doorstep; Disney’s King Arthur shot in 2003, boasting a €100 million budget and starring Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Clive Owen. Further international productions that made use of the studios and the facilities therein include Ella Enchanted and Becoming Jane, both starring Anne Hathaway; The Count of Monte Cristo, with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce and Reign of Fire, directed by Rob Bowman and starringChristian Bale and Matthew McConaughey. Recently Brian Kirk’s 2007 drama, My Boy Jack,starring Kim Cattrall and Daniel Radcliffe; romantic comedy Leap Year, starring Oscar nominated Amy Adams and Matthew Goode and drama P.S. I Love You, completed production in Co. Wicklow. The most recent productions to avail of Ardmore’s services are Frank (2013), The Widower (2013), Mary Queen of Scots (2013), All is by my Side “Jimi Hendrix biopic” (2012), Byzantium (2012), Moone Boy (2011,12), Ice cream girls (2012), Run and Jump (2012) Flowers of Desire (2011), Asterix (2011).
In 2008, Ardmore Studios celebrated its 50th Anniversary. It is no exaggeration to say that the studio is the driving force of the Irish film and television industry and is the reason many international producers have brought their big budget projects to our shores. As a creative space, it is a hub of productivity and innovation that provides a sturdy foundation for the world’s best loved filmmakers and their celebrated work.