During an investigation into the murder of a baby, local Gardaí put pressure on a young mother and her family. Confused and scared, she confesses to a crime she did not commit and is charged with murder. Based on the Kerry Babies case, Danny Hiller’s timely drama puts 1980s Ireland under the microscope. This film doesn’t shy away from examining the power dynamics within the Irish state bodies; the dismissal of young female voices; the disregard of the Catholic Church for vulnerable parishioners and most importantly, the intense personal struggle of one woman and the lasting effect it had on her family.
Gemma Creagh talks to writer/director Danny Hiller about his film, which screens in Irish cinemas in April.
First of all, can you tell me what drew you to telling this particular narrative?
If anything, it’s something that followed me, to be honest. I come from an Irish family and, as happens with Anglo-Irish families, the Aunts would send over newspapers to my mother – which were a week out of date. I started to become curious about this story. Then you move away from it – but, as an event, it kept turning up for me. Once, when I was flying over home, I opened a double-spread paper – it must have been an early anniversary – and all the information was there again. It wasn’t a case of me thinking it would be a smart idea to explore this material. In some way, it came after me.
When you contemplate the reality of this story, it’s actually ridiculous, yet in some ways not surprising in the context of Ireland in the ‘80s.
The ’80s were a difficult time if you look at the behaviour in both Ireland and the UK. I was split growing up between the two and I think that era was uniquely difficult, both in terms of the jurisdiction of the law and the general kind of mania and behaviour towards women. If you look at that evidence now it would just be laughed out.
I wasn’t interested in the ‘whodunit’ element, and didn’t want to elicit any kind of thrill out of it. What interested me was how human beings survive all that. In most of the work I’ve done – in theatre as well as I was actually a theatre director for years before I moved into film – I’m always drawn to characters where their life is in a crisis, without being grand about it. That was just a fascination. That’s probably because of my own working-class background. I came in trying to understand how you would deal with it, survive it, and move on from it. By the time I’d finished researching, it almost wasn’t the story that it was, it was the story it became.
Can you tell me about the process of this film getting made – from script through funding to screen. How long did that take?
All films take a long time. Sometimes it can be embarrassing to say how long it takes! But it took years to get it to this position. It started out with my exec producer, John Davey, and to give you a measure of the commitment, I remember John saying to me one day ‘this is such an important story. Even if we don’t make any money out of it, we should make this film.’ This was never a film that was made for personal gain or profit. We just both felt that it needed to be made.
After this, I started the whole journey of research. I’ve spoken to so many people and done so much research in archives. The very first person I spoke to outside of my own immediate group and my family was the car park attendant at the Brandon hotel, which is where some of the people stayed during the hearing. I just wanted to get a sense of what happened on the ground. From there, I moved away and made it a more abstracted story.
Financially, John and I stood together on it early on. To get it over the line we then paired with Paul Cummins at Telegael. Then of course we were able to be beneficiaries of the very good Irish film tax break – section 481, which is massively helpful for filmmakers. Without that government support we would never have made it – we didn’t have any other funding at all it was all self-funded.
And also our actors were all sympathetic to the fact that this is not a film with a huge budget. They were all brilliant about making this film work from their point of view too. At every stage, there was great support and, in a way, I had an easy time because people said yes a lot.
You’ve got a plethora of great roles for women in this. It’s a weighty piece for an actor to get their teeth into. There’s a big emotional arc and yet it’s very thoughtfully written. There’s a lot there to attract strong actors, which you could tell because the performances were incredible!
The performances are incredible – thank you. Especially if you look at the family, the performances were a gift really and to work with this company was an honour. We did long days; it’s hard making a low budget film but in terms of the artistic curve of the rehearsal and the shoot, it was thrilling. Everyone understood it politically. It’s a very fine cast. Fiona Shaw is unbelievably brilliant to work with… and then the accompanying Ruth McCabe, Fionnuala Flaherty, Judith Roddy and then the boys as well – the two brothers, Alun Armstrong. People stepped into this and what was interesting for me was that they got the groove of it straight away. Everybody embraced and understood Out of Innocence culturally and that was a great benefit.
It means a lot for people to have those stories recognised on screen. We’ve been with living with them in Ireland for a long time as news pieces but it’s important for the healing process to see them represented in this way. There’s a ‘truth’ to this even outside the context of the specific story.
Well that’s exactly it. It needs to have its own truth rather than the literal truth. That’s exactly what I went after. Way way back when I started out, I was very interested in looking at a number of situations in Ireland where young women had been put into a situation that was difficult or challenging or unworthy. I tried at one time to bring a number of these stories together but it felt too episodic and, in a way, the one story that we ended up with was so enormously important politically and socially that I stepped back and just let the story run its course.
It looks stunning. It’s shot so well, with great attention to detail in the production design. Plus, it’s so atmospheric and tense at times – yet the emotional arc wasn’t overpowered too much stylistically. What was your prep there?
The prep was the gift of Seamus Deasy, the cinematographer. He is unbelievably gifted. We had a conversation one day and we were talking about the look at the film. He asked me what kind of look I wanted to get and I had to say to him: ‘listen I don’t use a monitor so, if it’s ok, I’m going to share the camera with you.’ He said: ‘well if you’re going to do that, I’m going to operate and we’ll make the film shoulder to shoulder.’
Through those discussions, Seamus then said to me, ‘I’ve got this ambition to do it as if we weren’t there.’ I absolutely went with that. We didn’t get into any of those external decisions filmmakers make. Obviously you have to make certain decisions because it’s part of the grammar of making a film – but we didn’t want to get into that area of focus pulls and those technical interruptions of the emotional truth. We both agreed this was how to do the film. Let’s not have a big generator outside. Let’s go with available lights and let’s shoot it shoulder to shoulder and let’s not intrude. What Seamus did, I think is poetic; to capture the feeling that he did in this film.
Out of Innocence was released in Irish cinemas on 12th April 2019.