Disney's new world in Ireland
The producer behind Disney’s new teen drama says it’s a game changer for Ireland.
Raymond Lau was hand-picked to produce The Lodge in Northern Ireland for the global channel.
This week his vision of teen tunes and trysts, filmed in Ballynahinch, will launch in 108 countries.
And he believes it’s not just a springboard for him – the series will give the local film industry a massive lift.
Raymond was a comedy producer with the BBC for ten years, launching The Blame Game and LOL before moving into children’s TV.
He made Dani’s Castle for CBBC which was such a success he was asked by production company The Foundation to pitch to Disney for the new 10 part teen musical.
It’s based on a hit Israeli format but Raymond made his mark straight away, from finding the best location to adding a reality TV storyline.
The story centres on 15 year old Skye who moves to Northern Ireland after her mum’s death and has to cope with her grief as well as a whole new life.
“It is a big beast. In the original format Mia was the lead character and a low budget drama comes to film in the lodge. So the change I made was to make it a reality TV crew who comes to film one of the characters because I felt it was more contemporary for the audience,” says Raymond.
“Having done Dani’s Castle it was a natural progression. We are trying to cover the emotional ups and downs of teenage life and we wanted to include the social media aspect, how people become friends on social media, how they stay friends, how they connect with each other.”
With family roots in Cushendall Raymond originally hoped for a North Coast location, but the Montalto estate in Co Down was a winner with Disney. It’s close enough to Belfast for flights and to locations like Tollymore and Rostrevor for exterior scenes.
“All these things made it the perfect fit.
“Then we transformed the carriage rooms into our set and everything there is specifically built. The set is put in on flats and attached to the wall, and we had to take it out for three weddings,” says the producer.
Despite his TV experience the 41 year old reveals he also had a crash course in international etiquette.
“Because Disney is so big and covers so much you have to be aware of so many cultural nuances, everything has to be cleared for all territories.
“So with things as ordinary as pointing at something, in Middle Eastern territories pointing is regarded as disrespectful.
“There are little things like that which I would have no idea about but the Disney execs do and they are very clear on what we can and can’t do.
“We have to think about everything visually. We can’t just put an English word up on a sign. David Craig our designer has been working with the in-house Disney team to create the look that they want for this series.”
Raymond was also central to the casting trawl which took months to get young performers who could sing, act and dance. Disney is planning to release an album of nine tracks recorded by the cast, as well as online videos and digital diaries alongside each TV episode.
“This is the first time this has all come together under one project. Sometimes the digital content is like a bolt-on, and just managing that is certainly the biggest thing I have ever done,” he says.
High School Musical composer Steve Vincent created the sound for the series, helped by song writers who have worked with Taylor Swift. Londoner Sophie Simnett, who starred in The Five, is Skye in the young cast which was mentored by the X Factor’s vocal coach.
“It’s a departure for me because I’ve never done a musical before,” says Raymond.
“And knowing how far and wide the Disney net is, it’s a big thing. Working with the kinds of people that Disney connects you with it just opens so many doors.”
Of around 100 crew on the show nearly half were from Northern Ireland, including one of the directing team, Des McCarthy, as well as writer Bronagh Taggart, who scripted two of the episodes.
Raymond says investment from NI Screen is paying off and The Lodge might not be as headline-grabbing as Game of Thrones but it’s still big news.
“I want to be able to pitch the next show to Disney without it being somebody else’s format. I want it to be our own and I think it’s a rallying cry for everyone,” says Raymond.
The Lodge is on the Disney Channel on Fridays.