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Vincent Lambe Talks 'Detainment' with IFTN
14 Feb 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Vincent Lambe on set of Detainment.
IFTN caught up with Irish director Vincent Lambe to find out more about how he made his Oscar-nominated and divisive short film ‘Detainment’.

‘Detainment’ follows the story of two ten year-old boys who are detained by police under suspicion of abducting and murdering a toddler. The film is based on the interview transcripts and records from the real events of the James Bulger case which shocked the world in 1993.

The film features two breakout performances from young actors Ely Solan (Jon) and Leon Hughes (Robert). The supporting cast includes a number of well-known Irish talent including Will O’Connell (Detective Dale ), David Ryan (Detective Scott), Tara Breathnach (Susan Venables), Morgan C. Jones (Detective Roberts), Brian Fortune (Detective Jacobs) and Kathy Monahan (Ann Thompson).

The production crew behind the camera include producer Darren Mahon, Robert Dwyer-Joyce, DoP Patrick Jordan, production designer Steve Kingston, Constume designer Belle Phipps, composer Filip Sijanex, production manager Eibhlin Hewitt, casting co-ordinator Lisa Walsh and art director James Donnelly. The post-production team included Michelle Fingleton, Ken Galvin, Rob Moore and Caimin Agnew, Donal O’Kane, Warren Dowling and Diarmuid Noyes.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin caught up with Vincent to find out more about the Oscar-nominated short film.

IFTN: ‘Detainment’ has seen you receive international acclaim culminating in your first Academy Award nomination but could you first tell me about how you got started in the industry?

“I’ve wanted to tell stories for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I used to make films with my dad’s Super 8mm camera, casting my poor parents in various roles. Then as a teenager, I made some short films with actors from my drama school and one of them won an award at the Fresh Film Festival which was really encouraging at the time. I attended the National Film School in Dun Laoghaire and after graduating, I started working freelance in film and television production. I’ve produced live television with TG4, music videos commissioned by Sony Music and Universal Music and lots of short films, but I quickly realised how difficult it was to get paid to direct! I have worked in casting for a long time and as an agent for child actors. Over the course of 12 years, I have done thousands of auditions with children and without really planning it, the experience taught me a lot about directing actors.”

IFTN: The subject matter is based around one of the most infamous murder cases of the 20th century. What led you to make a film about the Bulger Case over 25 years later and how did you come across the transcripts that the film is based on?

“I was 12 at the time it happened and I grew up hearing about the case, but I could never understand how two ten year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime.  I was always told that they were simply “evil” and that is still the popular opinion today – so much so, that anyone who suggests an alternate reason or tries to understand them, gets criticised and attacked. As a result, it has stifled debate on the whole issue. I do feel their actions were evil, but I think it is important to gain a deeper understanding because dismissing children as “evil” can lead to more similar crimes being committed. While it is a painfully difficult case to understand, I feel we have a responsibility to try and make sense of what happened.”

“The recorded interviews were played during the trial and the transcripts then became public record. They have been published several times, but I think ‘The Sleep of Reason’ by David James Smith is by far the most comprehensive resource which offers a thorough collation of the facts and detailed accounts of the police interviews with both Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.”

IFTN: It’s such a delicate subject matter. I’m interested to know how you chose your exact approach to telling this story and what considerations were made when approaching the structure of the story unfolding on screen?

“I had a lot of apprehensions about making the film as it is such a hugely sensitive subject - one of grief and anger and so horrific that many people tend to shy away from absorbing any more facts about the case. The public outrage surrounding the case was unprecedented and even after 25 years, it is still very much evident today. So it was very important to me that details were accurate and that the film was entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever.”

“There is more than one perspective on the case and I think there should be room for a measured public debate on the circumstances which led to this terrible crime being committed. However, as we set out to make a fact-based film which was impartial, we did not attempt to contact any of the families involved and instead relied solely on the factual material which has been public knowledge for 25 years. The film is based on transcripts and is almost entirely verbatim. Contacting the families wouldn’t change what was contained in the transcripts, but I think it would most likely have changed what would be in the film as there would have been pressure to tell the story from a certain point of view. “

“I did, however, try to take full account of the television programmes, books and articles to which the Bulger family have contributed over the years, in my preparation for the film. I was mindful of the great private pain the tragedy has caused and the importance of balancing that with the public interest in considering the case and its significance in understanding why children commit serious crimes.”

IFTN: In relation to funding – How did you go about the pitching this project and were concerns raised about the divisive nature of the subject matter?

“The film was actually entirely self-funded. At the script stage, it was always going to be a difficult one to get funding for due to the sensitive subject matter as it is a case which has provoked universal grief and anger and continues to divide public opinion. We didn’t receive funding from anywhere for the production and I eventually came to the realisation that the only way to make it would be to finance it myself. It has been an incredibly expensive process. I was hoping that after its Oscar nomination, things might get a bit easier, but we still haven’t managed to get any funding for promoting the film to Academy voters or for attending the awards ceremony and the public screening with panel discussion which takes place in Los Angeles. I’m still in enormous debt from making the film so it’s definitely not easy! Filmmaking is an expensive hobby!”

IFTN: The ensemble performance by the cast in the film is fantastic but particular credit has to be shown to Ely Solan and Leon Hughes who portray the two boys. Can you tell me about how you came across these two rising stars?

“One of the biggest challenges was finding these two incredibly talented child actors who could convincingly play the lead roles. We started casting very early because if we didn't have the right boys, then we didn't have a film.”

“Ely Solan who plays “Jon” had never acted before and this was his first audition, but he is an extraordinary boy who is very in touch with his emotions. He gives a phenomenal performance as "Jon" which is one of the most challenging roles I have ever come across for a child actor. When Jon feels cornered, he becomes extremely emotional; he's up out of his chair, crying hysterically, he wails against his mother and at one point, he even throws himself in the lap of the detectives for comfort. He has received a huge amount of critical acclaim for his utterly convincing and emotionally raw portrayal of "Jon". Detainment was Ely’s first film, but he has gone on to play roles in some major productions including a young Charles Dickens in 'The Man Who Invented Christmas' alongside Jonathan Pryce and “Robert” in the upcoming feature film 'Four Kids And It' starring Michael Caine, Russell Brand and Daniel Bruhl.”

“Leon Hughes is also an exceptionally talented actor – he had some stage experience with his drama school, but Detainment was his first film. He gives a powerful performance as "Robert" which is another hugely demanding role. In contrast to Jon, Robert wants to argue back with the detectives, he is self-assured and has a maturity beyond his years. Leon had initially auditioned for Jon and he was so convincing that we didn't think he could possibly play Robert, but when we brought him back, he just morphed into the role – he is an extremely versatile actor who takes direction wonderfully. Both Ely and Leon have already won acting awards for their performances in the film and they have received a huge amount of acclaim from critics and film festival juries all around the world.”

IFTN: The film is truly elevated by the performances of the two boys. As a director, how did you approach working with two child leads and what did you do to help them deliver such breakout performances?

“There was long casting process for 'Detainment' which I feel is really when the rehearsals began. We saw hundreds of boys for the lead roles and we would get them all to prepare a scene in advance, but then we started improvising with them on the day and took the scene to a different place. In the film, the detectives are quite gentle in their questioning, but for the purpose of the casting, I had told the actor who was reading the lines against them to just completely lose the rag with the boys during the improvisation. It always took them by surprise and suddenly, they weren’t acting anymore. “

“Once Ely and Leon had been cast as the leads, we spent the summer months rehearsing and we all got to know each other really well. Their parents would have explained a basic understanding of the case to them and they had lots of questions for me. We talked a lot about it and they developed an amazing understanding of who these boys were and the dynamic between them. I also did a lot of improvisation with the boys in character as "Jon" and "Robert". So by the time we started shooting, they were so well prepared and very comfortable with the roles.”

“During the rehearsals, we also brought other actors in to do screen tests for the supporting roles. It was particularly important to get the chemistry right for certain relationships such as "Jon" and his mother "Susan". Once we did a screen test with Ely and Tara Breathnach, the connection between them immediately felt right. Tara has a wonderful empathy and warmth about her which made it easy for herself and Ely to form a friendship off-screen and this beautiful relationship between mother and son on-screen. The relationship between Robert and his mother "Ann" is quite different to that of Jon and his mother, but it was equally important to get the dynamic right. We did the screen test with Leon and Kathy Monahan and there was a wonderful energy between them which resulted in a very interesting, complicated and nuanced on-screen relationship.”

“It was a very warm, friendly set for the boys to work on and they really enjoyed the experience. But there’s a lot of very challenging emotional scenes throughout the film and it was important for all of those moments to ring true – they needed to be done with an intimacy and a naturalness which makes the audience never feel as if they are being played.”

IFTN: Another major focal point of the film is its pacing. As editor of the film, how much emphasis did you place on the post production process?

“The post production took a lot longer than we had originally planned. It was important to balance the tension and get the pace and structure of the story right. We did a number of test screenings with audiences which included people who remembered the case and had been affected by it as well as international audiences who had never heard of the case before. The feedback they gave us was invaluable and really helped to shape the film.”

The 91st Academy Awards takes place on February 24th at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.




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