The American film location scout who fell for Belfast
‘I love the smallness of Belfast’ says Scott Dewees, who lives in the Titanic Quarter
A native of Los Angeles, Scott Dewees first came to Northern Ireland 30 years ago. He now lives in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Titanic Quarter.
Scott Dewees, a retired film location scout and a native of Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles first came to Belfast in 1987. He was 33. It was wet. There was a big sign on Belfast City Hall declaring: “Belfast Says No.”
That was to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
There were a lot of angry people about, and a lot of violence: “I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.”
“It was dark and dank and grey and security people searching us. I was anxious to move on and get to the next stop. I knew there was a big ass war going on, but I was assured that nothing would happen to me because I was American.”
Back then he hadn’t quite assimilated the two shades of tribal distinction in the city. But he is well up to speed and even has the argot. “I understand now – but didn’t then – the differences between them’uns and youse’uns.”
The city has changed hugely in the intervening 29 years since he first stood at Belfast City Hall, and it has changed particularly from where he is standing now. Which is in the penthouse apartment of a block of luxury flats overlooking the Titanic Quarter.
From two big west and north-facing windows the views are stunning; there’s Belfast Lough, the great Samson and Goliath cranes of Harland and Wolff, the broad back of Black Mountain overlooking the city, there’s Cave Hill, and down in front of him, the Titanic visitor centre and a neat little marina where some pretty sharp-looking yachts are docked, even if they are not quite of Russian oligarchic size.
The Titanic Quarter, almost a semi-autonomous part of Belfast, is said to be one of the world’s largest urban-waterfront regeneration projects. It’s cool and cosmopolitan and also houses people from the Game of Thrones production and from Microsoft, IBM, Citibank Belfast Metropolitan College, Ulster University and Queen’s University. All told more than 100 Northern Ireland and international organisations are located here.
It’s also big and getting bigger with property developer Pat Doherty and financier Dermot Desmond among Titanic Quarter’s biggest investors. So far £425 million has been pumped into the area which over most of its 185 acres still presents a lot of empty space. But there are long-term plans for more hotels, offices and enterprises to establish here with planning permission granted for a further 2,000 apartments.
Currently Scott Dewees is one of 1,000 people resident in Titanic Quarter. In all 18,000 people live, work and study in the quarter. Moreover, the Titanic visitor centre was recently crowned the best tourist attraction in the world, attracting one million visitors annually.
Dewees is familiar with the story of the ill-fated Titanic that sank in 1912 with the loss of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. “”Yeah, yeah, I know what they always say here, ‘it was all right when it left Belfast’.”
He came to the TQ, as it is often abbreviated, in March 2011 with his friend, Bernadette Caulfield, an executive producer on Game of Thrones. “She was a bit iffy about going to Belfast, so I came with her to help her to set up.”
He is still here and is in no rush to get back to the US. Dewees, who is 62, is in the process of buying a penthouse beside the one he and Caulfield currently share. The dollar strengthening against sterling after the UK voted to leave the European Union means that he has “saved a bunch of money” in making the purchase. “I don’t want to say thank God for Brexit, but every cloud has a silver lining.”
He won’t say how much he is paying for his new apartment but separately one learns that prices range from £135,000 for a one-bedroom flat to £495,000 for a three-bed apartment, and his is top of the range and top of the building.
Caulfield heads home to her husband and big ranch in Kentucky when she gets a chance but with Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland “she works seven days a week, 12-15-hour days” so she has not become as acclimatised as her compatriot.
“She does not get Belfast as much as I do, but she loves it,” says Dewees, who of Dutch stock has no Irish background.
“Belfast is a city in a country in a renaissance; what better place to be in than a city coming out of its civil war; it’s a wonderful place; all of my friends like it a lot, they can see why I am here,” he adds.
Dewees has a reasonable fix on Northern politics and can’t understand “how anyone who was in the Troubles can be in the government - you need new blood”. And then he remembers the advice he got from “everyone” when he moved over: “Oh yeah, don’t talk politics or religion.”
He likes the Belfast black humour and can be black-humoured himself. “Anyway, I didn’t move here for the politics, I moved here for the gun control.”
And quite seriously having lived for years on top of the San Andreas Fault in California he says another advantage is that he is “not nervous of earthquakes” anymore.
He agrees that on a cold and wet winter’s day the greater TQ area can be grey and bleak but he points to the gas fire and the thermostat. “See that knob, I turn it up; that fire, we turn it on. I had half of century of warm, I had 55 years of sun, it’s nice to get some other stuff.”
As a liberal Californian of course he opposed The Donald and voted Hillary. He was “stunned” how some of his friends supported the incoming president. He says that with the election some of his friends are seriously thinking of joining him in Belfast. “I picked a good time to leave the United States. ”
Dewees made a good living as a location scout and was involved in films such as X-Men: First Class and Hancock, but mainly worked on TV ads for companies such as Amtrak, Dodge cars and Vodaphone. He loved the job but doesn’t miss it. He now does charity work fostering abandoned dogs, mainly collies, getting them back in shape so that they can be housed with good owners. Jesse, a lively collie with sociability issues, is his current charge.
He has a busy social life and even has a local in the city centre: “I go to McHugh’s near the Albert Clock and have my corner where I sit. I tried Guinness the first year I was here but I put some weight on me, so now I have gin and slim, that’s my drink. Everyone knows me there. My American friends come and say this is my Cheers.”
Dewees feels he has a good grip on whatever is the essence of Belfast. He makes the interesting point that as an American that perhaps he doesn’t have the same Troubles-related antipathy to the North that is inherent among some people in the Republic: “I don’t have the personal baggage some in the South have; I just took Belfast as I found it.”
However the local accent still stumps him sometimes, especially the habit of substituting “i” for “o”, as in, “I can tell you right nigh…” as Gerry Adams might say.
Neither can he quite figure why “New-town-ards is Newt’nards”. He says he has “pedestrian” eating habits and as for local burgers and burritos laments that Belfast just hasn’t got there yet. “And you don’t put enough meat in your sandwiches . . . But I’ve stopped whinging about it.”
Otherwise, it’s all good. “I love the smallness of Belfast, and the people. I just do. I have made friends, and some of them are now lifelong friends.”
And a la President Kennedy in Berlin, and with only a little self-mockery, he concludes, “I am a Belfaster.”