Born: August 21st, 1965. Died: February 11th, 2023
James Flynn, a producer of prodigious energy, was a key figure in the growth of the fecund Irish film industry. As business manager and later deputy chief executive of the reconstituted Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland), Flynn – who has died after a short illness at the age of 57 – was an inspiration to a rising generation of domestic film-makers. Working with the veteran producer Morgan O’Sullivan, he later brought such huge TV productions as The Tudors, Vikings and Penny Dreadful to Ireland. Flynn’s film credits include Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, Pat Murphy’s Nora and John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. The news comes less than three weeks after Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, on which he was co-producer, received nine nominations for the next month’s Academy Awards.
On hearing of Flynn’s death, the director Neil Jordan, who worked with him on films such as Ondine and Greta, praised his honesty. “Very few producers have that quality to that extent,” he said. “He was absolutely honourable in all his dealings, and if he gave his word that was it.”
Born and raised in Kilmacud in south Co Dublin, the son of a banker, Flynn studied for a bachelor of commerce degree at University College Dublin before going on to work at John Boorman’s Merlin Films. He was not yet 30 when, in 1993, Michael D Higgins, then minister for arts, brought the Irish Film Board back into existence after a six-year hiatus. Lelia Doolan, chair of the board, was quick to recognise the young man’s gifts. “He was the first person we appointed ... and we had some heady times in Galway, getting a whole new idea started,” Doolan said. “He just loved it. He took to it like a duck to water. And he had such a lovely open nature that it was easy for him to get along with people.”
Andrew Lowe, cofounder of Element Pictures and a friend for decades, was among those testifying to Flynn’s uncommon passion for cinema. “James was a huge cinephile who took great pleasure in challenging friends and colleagues with industry-related riddles – usually involving someone who was nominated for an Oscar in the 1960s.”
Flynn’s contribution to the indigenous production sector was incalculable. In 1997 he and the film-maker Juanita Wilson, whom he married a year later, set up Metropolitan Film Productions with a mind to developing Irish films for the international market. In 2010, Wilson’s The Door, which Flynn produced, was nominated for best live-action short at the Academy Awards. “He understands cinema more than anyone I know,” Wilson told The Irish Times in 2011. “He knows what it takes to make film. If money is short, he immediately knows what we spend it on and what we don’t spend it on.” At that same Oscar ceremony, Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells, on which Flynn served as executive producer, was nominated for best feature animation.
If there was any organisation that had any kind of positive effect on film and film-makers, James Flynn was somewhere at the heart of it— Lelia Doolan
While that was going on, Flynn and O’Sullivan were inviting the world to Ardmore Studios for The Tudors. The historical drama, which ran from 2007 until 2010, offered practical education to a host of Irish professionals, behind and in front of the camera.
“I thought I’d love to work with this guy if he ever got into producing,” Jordan said, remembering early encounters at the Irish Film Board. “Suddenly he was doing all these large television pieces. When I came to do The Borgias with Jeremy Irons, I asked James to do that with me and off we went to Hungary. We spent about four years there.”
Following that, Flynn and O’Sullivan brought six series of Vikings and three of Vikings Valhalla to Ireland. By this stage, the nation had become almost blase about huge productions spreading wealth throughout the land. It seemed perfectly natural that a film such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens would choose Ireland for location shooting. Such success built on the work that Flynn and his colleagues had been doing for decades. In the years after the film board made its reappearance, the Irish industry confirmed it had the talent and the facilities to compete with any potential rivals. Flynn was right at the heart of that project.
“He was absolutely crucial,” Lelia Doolan said. “But he was so much of a back room fellow that he never went out flaunting himself. If there was any organisation that had any kind of positive effect on film and film-makers, James Flynn was somewhere at the heart of it.”
He always had time to provide help and support to others and took genuine pleasure in the success of his peers— Andrew Lowe
One of his most significant legacies may prove to be the RTÉ series Love/Hate. As well as entertaining the nation with disreputable behaviour between 2010 and 2014, the show offered early opportunities to emerging actors such as Ruth Negga, Charlie Murphy, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and the current Oscar nominee Barry Keoghan. It would not be unreasonable to describe that cohort of performers as the Love/Hate Generation. Flynn also worked on series such as Camelot, Raw and the recent Kin.
“He loved movies,” Jordan said. “He loved television too. But his real desire was to make an individual production that begins and ends.” Laurence McKeown, writer of H3, a 2001 film about the Maze hunger strikes, remembers Flynn leaping at the opportunity to produce that title. “[We] called James and told him that we’d heard he might be interested in producing H3,” McKeown said. “His response was, ‘I’d not only be interested, I’d be honoured’.”
Through the last quarter of a century, Juanita Wilson – who co-produced H3 – has remained his life partner and professional collaborator. Flynn acted as producer on Wilson’s two acclaimed features: As if I Am Not There, a searing tale of abuse from the Bosnian War, and Tomato Red, a 2017 thriller featuring the fast-rising Julia Garner. Wilson was by Flynn’s bedside with their two adult children, Alex and Anna, as he died peacefully at the weekend. The state of shock that passed through the Irish film community offers some measure of his significance.
“He always had time to provide help and support to others and took genuine pleasure in the success of his peers,” Andrew Lowe said. “He was a great friend and close colleague of mine, and I will miss him terribly.”