’71 Director Yann Demange on Tackling the Belfast Conflict

ON

71The conflict in Northern Ireland that exploded in the early ‘70s after decades of tension has been well documented in many films such as Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday to Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shake the Barley to James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer, covering it from all different angles.

Yann Demange’s directorial debut ’71 is more in the vein of Greengrass’ film, starring Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell as Private Gary Hook, a British soldier sent into Belfast to help with the growing conflict between Protestant and Catholic factions, only to be separated from his platoon on his first day on the ground. Over the course of 24 hours, Hook finds himself on the run as everyone there sees the British soldiers as a threat and try to eliminate him as he starts to realize how “confused” the situation has become.

Having initially seen the film at its world premiere at the Berlinale Film Festival in early 2014, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Demange earlier this week to talk about what is already one of the best movies of the year. Demange also talked to us about two movies that could be his next project, one set in Los Angeles during the L.A. Riots in the early ‘90s, and one based on the documentary The Seven Five about corrupt New York police officer Michael Dowd during the ‘80s.

ComingSoon.net: I know you’ve done some TV work, which I’m not sure has come over here to the States—

Yann Demange: I don’t think it has actually. People in the TV world have sent me a lot of stuff. They’ve seen it. But I don’t think this miniseries I’ve done had been broadcast. There’s talks of remakes, though.

CS: That seems to be the case that maybe 10 percent of British television gets over here and if you don’t live there, you don’t get to see it. I know a lot of people who liked it. I was curious about directing a feature. How did you find Gregory Burke’s screenplay and decide to make that your first feature?

Demange: Well, I’d been looking for a feature for quite some time. I was fortunate enough to do a lot of TV work, where I was getting sent a lot of screenplays. I was developing quite a few projects of my own, but the stars weren’t aligning. I’ve said this many times now, but in my mind, it’s rare that people get to make a second film so you have to approach the first like it’s your only one. (chuckles) I just had to make sure I really cared enough. In that context, I got sent this script by Gregory Burke, set in Northern Ireland, a subject that I certainly had no burning desire to touch, especially after Hunger and Bloody Sunday, I thought they had defined the world. It was just really the strength of the screenplay. It was sent to me by Film4, who financed it, and actually it was submitted by the producers, Gregory and Angus Lamont, who originally had the idea for the whole film in the first place and approached Gregory. It was Angus Lamont and Robin Gutch at Warp Films, who sent it to me via Film4, who I’d been talking to for many years. 

The screenplay, I just connected with it immediately. It was thematically dealing with lots of things I was trying to deal with in my own work and films I was developing. I was struck by how muscular it was and tense, but more importantly, the humanity and complexities at play. It was all about shades of gray, and he was never taking an easy way out. I had lots of opinions on the screenplay, and we met. I had a take on it. I had an idea of introducing the younger brother, for instance, changing the whole final act, shoot towards those shades of gray a bit more. I met him, I loved your screenplay, these are my ideas, this is how I’d like to take it. The stars aligned and we really saw eye to eye and it was like we gave each other a lot of energy back and forth. In the space of three months, we went through about four or five drafts with the producers included – it was a real collaboration, actually, everyone pitching in. That’s kind of the journey, really, because it wasn’t like a no-brainer. I was very sensitive about the fact that I’m not an Anglo-Saxon, I’m not Celtic. I’m an outsider on all this, and I was very anxious that we made sure we didn’t pick any sides. I had to do my research and spend some time in Belfast and really push it towards the shades of gray and humanize everybody. I was like, “Let’s work together for a few months before we try and finance it, so I know I’m really comfortable telling this story.” It’s a process that they felt the same, I should say, as well.

yanndemange2CS: You mentioned going to Belfast, and I was curious whether going there in the last couple of years, if you could even get an impression of all of what happened back in this period of time, where we’re still early in the conflict, in some ways.

Demange: I kind of gave up trying to become an expert on it, really. I researched a lot of the archives. I read a lot of material, but most importantly, I met a lot of people. When I met them, so that I could get to the heart of it, then you can see you barely scratch the surface. By the process of meeting people that were really actively involved from all sides–the family of victims, I attended an open inquest or hearing where families of victims of a pub bombing in the late 70’s were still trying to campaign to find out the truth. Once you kind of meet these people, and you hear their stories and you start to get a sense about the anarchy of the situation at the height of it, and the pure tribalism and the major infighting when I met people, you realize that some of the key players were still under 22 at the time. You sort of go, “Wow, these are young boys.” That really brought it home for me. It was something I could hang onto on a human level, rather than trying to explain the intricacies and the complexities of the political agendas and the politics and the 100-year history leading up to that explosion. I really just tried to just hone in on the sort of base level tribalism and the visceral reaction and the anarchy on the ground.

CS: You say you’re an outsider. I imagine you’re in your 30s, so were you at all affected or do you actually know about what was going on when you were younger?

Demange: Well, when I was younger, I grew up in London, so “the Troubles” if you were. London would get involved when I was a kid growing up. So “the Troubles” were a part of the landscape, but you’d definitely get the British spin on things. We didn’t speak English in my household and no one really understood what was going on, but you’d see Margaret Thatcher spouting her opinions on TV, and you’d really get the British spin on it all. I read the screenplay, and obviously I’d seen many films from Alan Clark’s “The Innocent,” which is a wonderful film, too. I mean, there’s a rich history of cinema, and certainly British television, that probably hasn’t traveled, both documentary and fiction that talks about “the Troubles” and engage in it. So it was in my heritage, if you like, just by virtue of growing up in that culture. The thing that was really embarrassing was that when I read the screenplay, I realized I hadn’t a clue about the sectarian explosion that took place in Belfast. I knew of the struggle and how the fight was brought to the British shores, and the sort of ideologies that were at play and the fighting, what most outsiders know. It’s crazy how little people understand about the actual nature of what happened for that six, seven-year period in Belfast itself, where it was a complete bloodbath, a complete explosion of sectarian violence. I was very embarrassed about it. I grew up in London, and I went to the normal British, what they call comprehensive school system there, the normal free education, and it’s not in the curriculum. Kids do not get taught about it. The teachers work through the school system, they’re 20 and 23 and they do not have a clue about it. It’s like a history that’s swept under the carpet and not taught, so it’s crazy. Even calling it “The Troubles” is kind of patronizing. It’s got a spin on it.

CS: I feel like as Americans, we don’t really understand how complicated the situation was. I’ve obviously seen a lot of those movies as well, but I think this was one of the first movies where I understood more about the conflict, particularly between the two factions of Republicans who were fighting against each other. Besides being more action-based than some other movies, it really helps you understand more about what was going on there before it leaked over to London.

Demange: Yeah, well, I’m glad to hear that, that’s great to hear. We did try to touch upon it, without giving too much of a history lesson on that friction between the Official IRA and the Provisional IRA. The Official IRA, they were identifying more with the American Civil Rights movement, and they were kind of based south of the border in the Irish public in Dublin. The sort of new movement, the Provisional IRA were on the ground in Belfast dealing with some serious oppression by the Loyalist government. They were like, “The Civil Rights Movement’s not working for us. We need to fight back.”’71 and ’72 were the turning points. ’71, which is a period called internment, which I touched upon, without giving a history lesson about it, and ’72, six months later, you had Bloody Sunday. Those two instances were the biggest recruitment events for the Provisional IRA, and a turning point in the conflict.

yanndemange3CS: Bloody Sunday was just a year after this? Okay, I didn’t realize where this was time-wise compared to that.

Demange: Yeah, well, this is the period of internment, which is autumn of ’71, then Bloody Sunday’s early ’72, so there’s that eight-month period. The internment was when the Northern Irish government decided to arrest hundreds of Catholic men without trial, under this Terrorist Act–crazy history keeps repeating itself. But basically, they arrested over 300 men and they were like grandfathers, fathers–95 percent of them were not remotely active. They just raided the Catholic community, arrested the men, held them without trial and without charge. That, which we touched upon, is what caused the riot. That’s why the Catholic communities were barricading themselves in, to try and stop the REC from coming in and arresting willy nilly as they saw fit. That, and then, Bloody Sunday, which we know very well, which Greengrass documented fantastically, those two interims were major turning points, and after that, people were queuing up to join the IRA and to fight.

CS: I want to talk about casting Jack O’Connell because I’ve seen “This Is England” and “Skins,” but this is the first movie I saw him in last year, where I was completely blown away. Then I saw “Starred Up” and I saw “Unbroken.” I mean, he’s really an amazing actor and I was curious how you ended up with him playing Gary in this?

Demange: It’s great to hear you connect with him so much. I mean, I think Jack O’Connell’s amazing. I’d never watched an episode of “Skins” I must confess, but I’ve seen a couple of indie films that he’d done growing up. I watched “This Is England,” and I was a massive fan, even in those little scenes, my eye was always went to him. I was always keeping an eye on him because I like his raw energy, and I keep saying that he’s got this old school masculinity that’s sort of rare to see in one of his generation. He’s got that look, alpha male traits, there’s an element of that, but there’s also a lot of vulnerability there. You know he’s felt pain. He’s not affected. He’s very young, but he’s experienced and he’s lived, and he’s drawn up experience. It’s also timing, the right person at the right time. I don’t know if he’d play that part again in the same way. He was at that cusp of manhood, figuring sh*t out, working out at what kind of guy he wants to be, what kind of man he wants to become, and a lot of that vulnerability in his eyes was true to him at that period. There was timing involved, of where he was at in his life. Jack’s a wonderful actor with a big future, I hope. He knows how to hold a silent moment, which a lot of actors, don’t know how to do, no matter what generation they are.

CS: I met him for the first time in April, after I’d seen “Starred Up,” and having seen those two movies and “300,” I was surprised because in person, he’s nothing at all like those characters. He seems like a small, almost wiry guy in person, at least.

Demange: Yeah, he’s quite wiry, you’re right. He’s quite funny. He’s just something you put a camera on him and something happens.

CS: What was it like creating that environment? Did you actually shoot on location anywhere in Ireland?

Demange: No, I didn’t shoot on location in Ireland, because they don’t have the locations anymore. They ripped down all the old housing and built new affordable housing for the population. So actually, the buildings are modern and all the old period details are disappearing, and the Divis flats, which is crucial to our story, has been torn down. I shot in the North of England purely because of locations, no political reasons whatsoever. Northern Irish Screen really wanted to finance us if we could shoot it in Belfast, but what we did do is we flew every speaking part over from Ireland for that authenticity. I didn’t want to use actors that were first or second generation living in the UK. I wanted people from there, and it was great because they were like barometers of truth, really. They all were taught to question every moment, every scene. So that day player that walks on and has two lines, I trusted them to make dialogue changes if they something didn’t ring true. There were people who were constantly adding things.

CS: I really liked the authentic feel of the movie but I also liked the look of it, because you created something unique with long tracking shots that look almost handheld but the cinematography and lighting were still very cinematic.

Demange: Yeah, it was a mix of styles. I mean, some of it’s handheld, but actually, when you break it down, a lot of it’s steadicam and a lot of it’s on a dolly. We’re mixing styles. I have three or four story strands, and each one is treated differently. I assign lenses for certain characters and the camera moves in a particular way for different characters, so it’s deceptive in that it looks like it’s all handheld, but it’s not that kind of film.

CS: Your cinematographer actually did an amazing job with lighting it, because some of those shots, the aftermath of the bar sequence is one long shot for a good few minutes.

Demange: I mean, technically, it’s very difficult to pull off and there’s hidden cuts in post in there. I’ve been working with my DoP for two years, and he’s a real artist, he brings a lot to the table. We spoke about a certain way to ground the film in reality and at the beginning, and for people to feel really anchored in the real world, but then the film became nocturnal which is a different type of realism and then the journey takes on more of a mythic quality, so the lighting and impressionistic moments, moments, if you like, and yeah, sort of mixing it up in that way. 

yanndemange4CS: Well, whatever you did, it turned out great, and I have seen it three times with different audiences and it’ll probably end up in my Top 10 for the year.

Demange: Well, it’s very early in the year to talk about top 10 for 2015, but I hope you still feel that way at the end of the year.

CS: I know you’ve signed on to do a New York police drama. Is that your next thing?

Demange: Well, actually, I don’t know what my next thing will be. I’ve got that, but with the same producing and writing team of “71,” we’ve got a 1992 L.A. riots project. We’ll do that in your backyard. 

CS: Actually, I’m in New York, so that’s why I’m kind of interested in that one.

Demange: You’re in New York? Well, not quite your backyard, but the police story’s a real New York story. I just loved the documentary. It’s called “The Seven Five.” It’s about this corrupt cop called Michael Dowd who did 14 years I believe for his part in this conspiracy, because he was a complete corrupt bent cop. Actually, I saw the documentary, he was the most charismatic police character and I thought, I could see the opportunity to make a really dark comedy a bit like Andrew Dominik’s “Chopper,” for instance, in tone. I just loved his story and the world, so it’s like the beginning of hip-hop, New York when it was down and dirty. It’s really about the beginning of the war on drugs and the absolute futility of it and the madness of that legislation. When you look at a documentary like “The House I Live In,” anything that the police department has written about the information that led to arrests, so thematically, it’s got a lot going on, but also, it’s just got the most amazing characters, so I’m looking forward to that.

CS: It’s interesting that you did ’71 and then this other movie will be in the ‘80s and the L.A. riots will be in the ’90s, so you’d be working in three different decades, three different locations, all in the past. Do you like those challenges of doing very specific period pieces?

Demange: Yeah, I never thought of it like that. When you say that out loud, I feel like I’m creating the rod to break my own back. First of all, I only do films with “seven” in the title, so we’ll see if I can find “77” next. No, I don’t know. It’s not by design. You just gravitate towards the material that really grabs you and feels personal. “’71” to me is sort of incredibly contemporary and feels pertinent to right now. You have to ask yourself why you’re telling this story now, and when I read that screenplay I thought, “We could be talking about Iraq, Afghanistan, now the Ukraine, Syria.” There are scenes playing out like this all around the world, even the L.A. riots. When I was talking with Gregory Burke and the producer, I was like, “It feels so pertinent to talk about it right now leading up to it’s 25th year anniversary and the lessons that haven’t been learned and the patter that’s repeating itself and not just in LA in fact. So I don’t know. It’s not that I’m attracted to period films, but yeah, I need something contemporary. (chuckles)

CS: It’s funny to think about what’s going on today and how different it would be in Belfast or even in L.A., if there was the internet and cell phones back then. Back then, you didn’t have any of that stuff and it’s really changed the landscape of protests and riots.

Demange: Yeah, I mean, it’s changed it. When you look at “The Square,” and you look at what’s happened in Egypt or at how social media plays a part in things like that, it’s incredible. There’s not enough time or space yet to look at those particular things that are happening right now. All I can say, when it comes to mobile phones and social media, is that I’ve found that it completely kills thriller plots. (laughs) Whenever I’ve tried to develop a plot recently for a contemporary thriller, a mobile phone destroys it, so yeah, social media and mobile phones, they’re a killer for thrillers, I know that much.

’71 opens in select cities on Friday, February 27. You can also watch an earlier video interview with Jack O’Connell we did last August right here.