British director Yann Demange has been eagerly sought out for the past year, ever since ”71′ broke out at Berlin 2014. (The film played some 33 festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York, London and Sundance. He’s has been a critical darling (winning best director at the British Independent Film Awards and BAFTA-nominated), wined and dined on the festival circuit and in Hollywood, where he has been hanging his hat for the moment.
That’s what director discoveries do: go to meeting after meeting looking for the next best project. The danger, oft-repeated, is that agents and managers and sweet-talkers lure the unsuspecting rube into development limbo–or misguided studio projects–until the heat is gone and that catapulting career moment is past.
Ask David Michod, Stephen Frears, or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who unfortunately followed up his Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie boondoggle “The Tourist.”
Some wondered if Demange was having way too much fun to get serious. It’s natural, after killing yourself on a movie, to want to relax and party down. But in the end, Demange is too sharp to let his moment pass. He’s set to work with some of the smartest producers in town. He plans to direct Sony’s high-profile documentary remake “The Seven Five,” about corrupt police officers in ’80s New York, to be produced by “Birdman”‘s John Lesher and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison. First, he’s reuniting with his “’71” producers Angus Lamont and Molly Smith and writer Gregory Burke to shoot an untitled story about the LA riots for Brad Pitt’s Plan B and New Regency, which backed two Oscar winners in a row (Plan B and Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman”) as well as “Gone Girl” and AG Inarritu’s upcoming “The Revenant.”
First of all, Demange was no directing newbie. He put in his 10,000 hours in British television. And to their credit, the canny execs at Film Four–led by Tessa Ross–carefully sifted and waited to find Demange just the right first feature. He was developing his own Algerian story. But when Gregory Burke’s script for “’71” turned up, Demange knew it was better than anything he could write himself. And jumped on it. And Film Four were confident enough to support him with a bigger budget than usual.
Sure enough, Demange knocked out of the park this intensely immersive Northern Ireland war story about a young British soldier (breakout actor Jack O’Connell, star of “Unbroken”) who is stranded on the wrong side of Belfast and must find a way to get back to his base. We are as lost and terrified as the soldier, who is trying to survive in hostile territory with no rescuers in sight.
Roadside Attractions waited to release the film post-Oscars in the hope that star O’Connell would pick up some steam from Angelina Jolie’s box office hit “Unbroken,” which landed only a few tech nominations.
Anne Thompson: Why was this the right project for you?
Yann Demange: The first decision was to make it about a soldier’s story. Angus Lamont, my producer, approached Gregory Burke with the idea, he wrote an amazing screenplay, submitted an early draft. I was surprised, and taken aback, that no one ever had tried to see it from that POV. They captured that sense of being caught in the chaos, with no clue as to what is going on, the universality of the soldier’s experience and condition. There are many conflicts around the world.
When we further developed the screenplay, I pushed that idea of a constructed point-of-view, without an overview. No one who came to see it would still know about the Troubles. Give them a history lesson and it’d stop the story. Yes, it would be anchored. But I wanted to actually make it like it was experiential, not distanced from someplace above him, knowing that he’s a pawn, seeing how the game is rigged. I wanted to be with him, not seeing the wood for the trees, experience it like him, don’t break the POV, stay with him, never ahead of him, not know more than him. Eventually we show the other plates spinning and give an overview of him caught in the situation, as various strands come to a head; we shoot and experience the violence with him, are shocked with him.
Casting Jack O’Connell was key; why was he right for the young soldier?
I was aware of him in indie films like Dominic Savage’s “Dive.” I loved his raw energy. He has an old school masculinity you don’t see much of nowadays. He’s edgy but also more importantly, he has vulnerability: he’s honest, he’s brave, he’s masculine. While he has alpha traits, it’s not about machismo. He’s vulnerable, you empathize for him, he understands pain, has felt pain.
Your years of television experience prepared you well for this feature. Did you feel ready?
I was scared shitless, intimidated, scared that I was about to direct something. What I did have to have? All those years working collaboratively with my DP of 9 years, that was non-negotiable. That way I was not feeling alone, working with those collaborators. If I looked up the mountain, the climb would be too overwhelming. But with my people by my side, I knew I didn’t have to have all the answers. The whole thing is, you never know if you’re going to get to make another film.
How did you make the decision, as all these offers came at you, about what to do next?
My producer Angus Lamont and writer Gregory Burke are with me on a project about the LA riots. We’ll research for a couple of weeks, visit the locations, meet people, Cripps, cops. The other, “The Seven Five,” is with Megan Ellison and John Lesher and Michael De Luca at Sony. It’s a corrupt cop in New York, really a Scorsese homage, an opportunity to do a dark comedy, sort of like Andrew Dominik’s “Chopper,” a reverential nostalgic New York film. I want to make something anarchic about the beginning of the war on drugs, during the crack epidemic, working with writers on something I can shape. We’re at the beginning of that journey.
What was it like talking to all those Hollywood people? Was there a high point?
Are you moving to L.A.?
I’m in the process of moving to research the LA riots, I am also working with a commercials company [Stink] to make a bit of income as I am holding out for the films I care about.