Two ten year-old boys are detained by police under suspicion of abducting and murdering a toddler. A true story based on interview transcripts and records from the James Bulger case which shocked the world in 1993.
Eleanor McSherry was at this year’s Kerry Film Festival and got the chance to talk to Vincent Lambe about his docudrama, Detainment, which won Best Irish Short Film at the festival.
Killarney House is a gem of a building nestled in the heart of Killarney. The views from its gardens on a clear day, with the mountains behind it, are a vista worthy of any film. Sadly, I was not there filming but more excitedly, there to interview Vincent Lambe, a new Irish director/producer on the film landscape and winner of Best Irish Short at the festival.
According to Vincent Lambe’s website he is ‘an award-winning director and producer from Ireland. He is a graduate of the National Film School of Ireland and has worked with a wide range of companies and broadcasters including TG4, Nemeton Television, Vico Films, Sony Music and Universal Music. He is a double winner of the Young Director Award at the Cannes Lions, winning both the Gold Screen Award and The Special Jury Prize and an unprecedented standing ovation for his latest film Detainment. The film premiered at the 58TH Krakow Film Festival where it won its first award and it won the Grand Prix at the Odense International Film Festival, which means it is officially Oscar qualified and goes on the longlist for the Academy Awards.
Vincent has a long distinguished list of films and accolades under his belt, which is not only impressive but a little intimidating. His docudrama Detainment is a story about the two ten year-old boys who are detained by police under suspicion of abducting and murdering a toddler in Liverpool in the early 1990s. ‘A true story based on interview transcripts and records from the James Bulger case which shocked the world in 1993’. This film is already on the longlist for the Oscars and is not for the faint-hearted; it is disturbing, heart-wrenching and also thought provoking.
This is a very timely short, in light of the rise of TV genre of True Crime documentaries. Viewers all over the world are switching onto Netflix and its ilk, wanting to see why some people commit murder. What makes this film so compelling is that it not only looks at the murder of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger but also at the children, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, who committed the crime. The film doesn’t glorify what they did or make excuses for them but puts the details in front of the audience in order for them to make up their own minds, which is a fantastic feat. So being able to interview Vincent, the mind behind the film was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Making a film like Detainment, was there a fear that no one will give you funding, what was the reception like for the idea?
Well, I didn’t get funding. I did try and it was tricky. I knew it was going to be tricky though, it was a risky one. I can understand that if RTE or the Film Board funded it, there is a risk that it could be either be really really good or just terrible. I just got so frustrated with the whole process I just saved up money and put €35000 of my own money into it.
How are you finding the reception from the Irish filmmaking establishment, now that the film is finished? Are they taking notice of the film?
Yes, just lately, in Galway where the film had its Irish premiere, they showed the whole 30-minute film, which is tricky as this is long for a short film. It’s hard to programme for festivals and I knew this. I went against my own advice on it, short films should be short, thus easy to programme. I also knew that it is not right for all festivals either. The ones that it is right for seem to really like it. So Galway was first, now here (Kerry Film Festival) and the Richard Harris Festival. It’s not right for everything.
The timing is also important for a film like this. If you think of when the boys were arrested, there was little media, not like we have today. If they committed such a crime now there would be blogs, youtube, social media and it would have been all over the media and internet, so there would be little your film could offer to the discussion. But your film explores the story from an angle we never really were allowed to see at the time. Do you think now is the right time to re-tell this story?
I don’t think there is any good time to tell a story like this. I mean its 25 years since the murder happened and, while I had been thinking about this for such a long time, it had not been talked about in the media in such a long time. Then I saw it was back in the news due to the anniversary and it felt really strange, as I was not the only one thinking about it anymore. It was not good news stories either, Jon Venables going back to prison, which was bad. Also it was not a popular opinion I had, that this was a tragedy for three families. People are more comfortable of looking at those boys as those evil monsters.
The boys’ Liverpool accents in the film are so good, considering they’re from Dublin and Galway; did they have to work hard at it? What was the process that you used with them to get the accents so good?
They worked hard with a dialect coach and he was great, that’s Gavin O’Donoghue from the LIR. Leon is brilliant. He was able to drop in and out of the accent; he picked it up really quickly. The dialect coach said he did very little with him. Ely found it trickier. He’s from Galway, and the vowel sounds are very different. He had a few sessions with the dialect coach, it made a huge difference. It was fascinating that it involved things like the placement of your tongue in your mouth to get that strong ‘th’ sound in things like ‘I think so’. They had to press their tongues against the roof of their mouths and the back of their teeth. Ely was saying ‘tink so’. I now know so much about the Liverpool accent that I didn’t know before; I could probably do a great job on it myself.
You’ve mentioned before that the two boys were not seasoned child actors but in fact natural non-actors? This seems to becoming more and more the way film directors want to go, directors like David Leigh and Ken Loach. Why did you do it?
I thought at first, to be honest that we would take one of the kids from the local drama schools. I was surprised who we ended up casting. It was as much about the right actor for the part rather than the most accomplished. Ely has never studied acting, never acted in anything or taken an acting class. I knew that I could workshop with them and not have that unnatural ‘on’ acting that kids do on stage but rather reacting to the situation. Ely never tried to act, all he can do is tell the truth, which was a dream to direct. Leon had been doing drama but this was his first film, he’s also a really versatile actor. For example, his first audition for Jon was amazing. The fact that he could also do Robert, which was fascinating for me, as it is so far from who he really is. He’s shy and timid, which people really don’t get after they’ve seen the film. He’s such a sweet kid that if you forgot your lunch money he’d give you his lunch and not eat himself.
It’s hard to get them, the young actors, to get into the minds of Robert and Jon, as we can never really know why they murdered Jamie. How did you overcome this?
I tried to get to understand, as much as I could by the evidence that is there, for example Robert’s family dynamic. Robert was just left to his own devices, six boys in a house where, if Robert was beaten up, instead of taking it out on his older brother, he would take it out on his younger brother, Ryan, who was 6. So when they are in the shopping centre Robert says ‘let’s get a kid, I haven’t hit one in ages’. That’s where that came from. What helped me understand was not that they came from disadvantaged backgrounds, that’s too easy to blame and plenty of people in that position don’t commit murders. For me it was the relationship and dynamic between the two boys, more so, than background that influenced what they did. Robert had this tough guy persona he created for himself and he had to live up to that and Jon was completely different, he was weak but didn’t want to look like that to Robert. So once the task was set, neither one of them could back down, for those reasons. For me that is more why what happened, happened. Their background and upbringing is relevant but it’s their toxic relationship which led them to do what they did.
I’m not sure if they even set out to murder Jamie. In the opening sequence of the film they are just hanging around the shopping centre to steal… whatever; it didn’t matter. The fun part is the stealing. Everything in the sequence happened; they poke an old women and steal a toy soldier, play with it on the escalator and break it, then throw it down the moving steps. It’s almost like a metaphor for what they eventually do, there is no enjoyment in just taking the toy soldier and put it neatly back the shelf, then leave. After they have taken the boy, it’s like what do we do with him now and to just bring him to a police station wouldn’t have given them any satisfaction. It’s very dark when you think of it. When you try to get into their heads, it’s like they didn’t know what to do. But there is also the fact that Jon wanted to look tough in front of Robert and Robert wanted to be the same, neither wanted to do the reasonable thing, it would have been lame. This is an example of that toxic relationship and its consequences. It’s a tricky concept to understand and most of us don’t want to understand. The case is so horrific a lot of people just want to shy away from it, than absorb all the facts about it.
The case is on most psychology courses now, to study, which is weird. Child psychologists are trying to understand the relationship that led to the awful murder. It’s a real interesting case to study.
Detainment screened on Saturday 20th of October, 2018, at Killarney Cinema as part of the Kerry Film Festival
Vincent Lambe: www.vincentlambe.com/