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Interview: ”71’ Director Yann Demange On Jack O’Connell, Northern Ireland & Not Being Able To Call His Film “Art”

Interview: ''71’ Director Yann Demange On Jack O’Connell, Northern Ireland & Not Being Able To Call His Film "Art"

It’s taken a while to travel to U.S. shores, but this week, the remarkable, gripping “’71” arrives in theaters. In the wake of the film’s rapturous reception at Berlin 2014, a great deal of the discourse was devoted to its young star, Jack O’Connell, whose Next Big Thing status was crystallized by this film coming so hot on the heels of “Starred Up.” But as we pointed out in our review, “’’71’ is more than just a performance showcase, delivering a gripping, at times almost unbearably tense, incredibly involving anti-war statement…if there’s any justice, it will be as much a breakout for its neophyte director as for its lead.”

That director is Yann Demange, a first-timer in the feature film stakes, but an experienced director in U.K. television prior to this sizzling debut. We got to talk to the affable, engaging, casually profane Demange (the f-bomb averse are in for a treat) at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, about O’Connell; about constructing such a thrilling, shapeshifting film; and about wading into the fraught, booby trapped territory of Northern Ireland’s history of The Troubles.

How wary were you of tackling this notoriously divisive and still incredibly raw subject?
Oh, man, hugely wary. But Film4 had actively been helping me try to find a feature film for 4 or 5 years, and eventually said, “We wanna send you this film about Northern Ireland.” And you sort of gracefully go, “Ok, I’ll read it,” but you’re thinking “Fucking no way! Mate I ain’t touching that!” After “Bloody Sunday” and “Hunger“? Like, the last film made about this is a masterpiece. I’m not going there.

But I read it, and it just floored me. The scene where the urchin says “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to him” when I got to that point in the script I was like, “I’m fucking doing this.”

What was it about that scene that so convinced you?
I’d never seen a character like that. *MAJOR PLOT SPOILER HERE* And then there was the explosion, and the mechanics of how it played out needed finessing, but [Gregory Burke, the writer] had made me fall in love with someone, and within a few minutes then…I really felt his death. I was floored by it. *PLOT SPOILER ENDS* That’s when I thought I could see a way to make this story universal and transcend the specificity of the Troubles.

Are there other films that have achieved that transcendence?
Oh yes, the script made me think of elements of “Hurt Locker,” what Kathryn [Bigelow] was doing with that film. Because I remember watching it thinking “This could be anywhere right now”. I think she really did that — transcended the specificity of that particular conflict. And I’m half Algerian, so it made me think of the Algerian conflict. And I grew up with “The Battle of Algiers” in my life — my aunt’s in the film.

Really, she’s in “Battle of Algiers”?
Yeah, she plants the bomb in the milk bar. [Pontecorvo] cast non-professionals, like I mean she never did any other film after.

Well if you’re going to have one credit…
Hah! It’s not a bad one to have, is it? Anyway, during the adventure of making this film, I started to realize that without specificity you can’t have universality. Like, how the kid, the urchin speaks — fuck it if people don’t understand him. Make him really specific and true and that actually helps people connect more. I mean, who understood “The Wire” when they first saw it?

The motif of children and war and innocence is one you return to often in “’71”
Yes, early on I’d said I wanted to introduce the idea of the younger brother at the front, so [the lead character] has more reason to survive. But also I really wanted to talk about children in conflict — not soapbox about it, but because when I started researching, looking at images, I just saw kids in every shot. My brother spent a long time in Beirut, and his pictures are like that: people with guns and always a kid in the background.

I think it’s insight like that that helps the film strike its unusual balance between genre and arthouse.
At first you can say, “It’s ‘Apocalypto‘ in Belfast!” And yes it is, but you can’t just exploit a recent and painful period in people’s lives to make a fucking genre picture. And we all knew that. So we knew it had the shape of a genre picture, that’s how we’ll get a 20-year-old to watch it. But it had to have an honesty, a humanity, a soul.

What was hardest was bringing in shades of grey. Because I’m not like a Greengrass, you know? I’m not that bright, I didn’t go to good schools, I’m not a historian. I’m not interested in lessons. I just wanted to connect in a human way.

And I really struggled, when I began, to understand the Loyalist point of view. It was all white noise when I grew up. I was born in Paris, and plonked into Streatham in the late ’70s, ending up in West London, and this thing was just on the news constantly. But no one in my house understood it, it was just, “there’s been another bomb” “Who is it?” “The IRA” “Oh right.” It was like hearing Brits trying to talk about the Algerian conflict: Algeria? Where’s that? Eastern Europe?

We were so parochial, you know? I was amazed how ignorant I was, once I started meeting people and talking about it. I had no idea the level of sectarian division. I had no idea, and why they don’t put it on the curriculum?

Yes indeed, I’m Irish and grew up with that same white noise. In fact, I have to say that going in I was kind of reluctant to watch a film about the Troubles…
I know! The eyeroll, right? I couldn’t help the eyeroll. Every sales agent we spoke to, we got the eyeroll. We couldn’t get a single presale. Apart from Turkey, for some random reason. That was why it was important that I humanize everyone, and understand all sides. And here’s what knocked me for six: I didn’t realize the age of the key players. Some of them who were really high up were like 21, 22. They were kids and it was tribalism.

This guy I was talking to was quite high up in the [loyalist paramilitary group] UVF and now he’s like a jovial granddad type, very weird. But he remembered the local leader knocking on his door to give him a shotgun saying, “I’m too old. It’s up to you to defend the street.” He was 18. And that’s when it struck me — I don’t need to understand the ideology. I just need to show they were 18 year old kids with shotguns shoved into their hands being told the Catholics were coming to kill their families.

Tell me about casting Jack O’Connell.
The script was originally for a 17-year-old — one of the things that got me was you could be 17 and join the army back then. There were 17-year-olds that died. So I wanted him to be 17. And I saw pictures of Jack, and he was in “300: Rise of an Empire” at the time, and he was ripped — and I was like, I can’t have this.

But I met him, and he must have finished ‘300’ six weeks beforehand and just totally given up [any training] — he was like a rake! He was a skinny thing! We had two pints together and I loved him. He’s got that old-school masculinity, that roughness, he’s a little bit dangerous, but he’s vulnerable and you want to look after him. You know he has felt pain. There’s a lot of narrative behind the eyes. He comes with stuff.  So I asked him to come in to read, and he fucking smashed it. And I was like well, that’s that. It was so early on and there was no question: it was Jack.

I interviewed him in Berlin and he mentioned being more scared about playing the character in “’71” than in “Starred Up”
That’s right I think — but at one point “Starred Up” was the bane of my life. I’d cast him, I wanted him, and Film4 were like, oh, but we’ve got this other film we want him for too… And Jack told me how much he wanted to do it, and I said, I can’t stand in the way of that — it actually sounded like a film I’d have loved to direct!

So I moved the whole shoot, for him. And we made it difficult on ourselves, and on Jack, because we had to shoot a lot faster — the sun wasn’t going down till 10 pm, and it was up at 4 or 4:30 AM, and so we literally had 3 hours less shoot time per night because of the shift from a winter to a spring shoot. But no regrets. It was hugely taxing on Jack, though, he had no break.

He also mentioned that your one constant piece of direction to him was “Rein it in”
The thing is Jack, naturally, when it comes to fight or flight, he’s all fight. So he had to suppress his nature the whole time. Straight away, you can see it in his eyes, he wants to lash out. And that becomes amazing when he does rein it in, because you can see all that energy behind the eyes, like a coiled spring. And he takes great direction, he’s fucking good. Not many actors can hold a silence.

He was also very perceptive about how “’71” is less about the performances than “Starred Up” — his role here is just a part of a much bigger whole.
Occasionally it’s the film that is the star, and he got that about “’71.” It’s a cinematic experience. I don’t want to sound poncey, but I had aspirations of it being… being…

…art? You can say it!
I can’t! I can’t bring myself to say it! But yeah, I would talk about the mise en scene, I would talk about very pretentious things, but for me it was about the use of space and time, and I spent a lot of time crafting that.

Which reminds me I wanted to ask you about the editing, which is phenomenal throughout.
Well, the editor is phenomenal. One of the things that saves me is I’ve worked with the same DP and editor on everything I do for the last nine years. Tat Radcliffe is my DP, Chris Wyatt is my editor, they are amazing, and without them I’m fucked. Chris is like a co-writer, we have this way of working where he’s cutting while were shooting, and what he’s doing informs what I’m shooting. I would never have gotten through this if it was new relationships, because we had no time.

And do you think your TV background helped there too?
Without a doubt. You have to make decisions very fast in TV, so it was a good school for indie film. And some days we packed hard, like TV days, to buy a bit of space for other sequences, like the riot.

It’s an extraordinary sequence, as is another moment I wanted to explore, after the explosion when Gary [Jack O’Connell] is wandering around in a daze with the music throbbing…
The music at that point is Aphex Twin — it’s the only part that David [Holmes] didn’t score. But yeah, I flirted with lots of different styles. I don’t think films have to have one style all the way through. So the style changes here from classical, ’70s-style to more immersive, visceral, realist, and then as night came I wanted it to be a bit more mythic and to distance itself a bit from social realism. Not to be “oh he’s trying to do a metaphor here!” because that winds me up as well, and I’d get caught out because I can’t do that.

But Tessa Ross [the film’s Exec Producer from Film4] is amazing. She asked if there was anything I felt was missing, that I needed. And I said, it’s all working, but I’m not in Gary’s head enough and I need another two days to shoot a improvised sequence after the bomb. Kind of a mythic walk, purgatory or something — I don’t know what it means! I just think it needs it. And she said okay, so we squeezed it in. To me, it’s like a birthing scene. He’s such a passive character and this is the scene where becomes a person who is going to make a choice.

Yes, and it’s also the moment of the end of his innocence. The moment he grows up.

It is a complete loss of innocence scene and I wanted to have a few contemplative moments with him to show that. But also, I didn’t want to tell people how to feel either, so for example, I was very careful about how I used the music throughout the film.

The music is great throughout, how did you decide to work with David Holmes?
He didn’t really give me a choice! We were doing a commercial together, and I mentioned I was attached to this film set in 1971 Belfast and he was like “I’ve got to read it! My house got bombed when I was like 4 years old!” so I sent it to him, and he phoned me back the next day and said “I love it, I’m doing this!”

And he was so much more than a composer — he was a collaborator. And I wanted it to be quite visual and spare, so I referenced things like “Somerstown” for the soundtrack, and talked about Carpenter. I knew from the beginning I wanted an analog synth score. But I did not want to slip into electronica cool. “Drive” is allowed to do that, but we’re not “Drive.”

So, before the shoot, he made 20-odd pieces of music and a lot of it’s in the film. Because a lot of sequences, like the cat-and-mouse in the estate, I’d wonder does this shot hold? Is it tonally right? So I’d watch takes with the music on my headphones and I’d be like, actually we could slow that down or pause here. It really helped to set the tone.

So any plans for your next project yet?
It’s been amazing, because I’ve been sent a lot of stuff since Berlin  slightly overwhelming because I’m a slow reader! You perpetually feel like you’ve got homework. But I’m a commitment-phobe, and the trick is holding my nerve, saying no to some amazing opportunities. I have to try and listen to my instincts and if I don’t feel the passion I had for “’71” then I don’t think I should do it. I’m trying to avoid doing something just because it is a career move. Really, I just loved the process of making this film. And I want that again.

“’71” is in theaters now and comes highly recommended.

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