Vincent Lambe Talks Detainment
We chat to the YDA-winning, Oscar-nominated director about adapting the harrowing Jamie Bulger murder case and how he drew such great performances out of youngsters.
True Crime is a sub-genre that holds a distinct fascination for audiences. From the life-saving power of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line through the gaudy glamour of The People vs OJ Simpson to the plot-thickening tension of Making A Murderer, docs and dramas alike have captivated viewers with the whos, whats and wheres of real-life wrongdoers. However, telling such a tale becomes a lot tougher when the crime is especially heinous… and the perpetrators themselves are children.
In his award-winning short Detainment, director Vincent Lambe tackles the heartbreaking Jamie Bulger case - in which two pre-teen boys tortured and killed a 2-year-old boy - by dramatising the devastating police interviews given at the time. Injecting emotion, power and unexpected pathos into the piece are two exceptional performances by the young leads taking on the roles of Jon and Robert. Coupled with authentic reconstructions and tight editing, the short’s 30-minute run-time packs a punch that has already provoked standing ovations and awards from screenings worldwide - including this year's YDA.
We caught up with Vincent to chat about how (and why) he chose to adapt such a harrowing tale, getting such great performances out of youngsters and the terrific critical response.
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How did you come to this project? What was it about the case that made you want to dramatise this element in particular?
I was 12 years old when it happened and I grew up hearing about the case. It had been out of the news for a long time and then, one day, someone mentioned it unexpectedly and I remember the shudder I felt. I thought of those two boys who terrified us with their malice all those years ago. I couldn’t understand how two ten year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime.
A lot of people will tell you they were simply ‘evil’. I think it’s easier to label them ‘evil’ than to try to understand the unfathomable mystery of human behaviour. But I wanted to learn more and I started reading everything I could find on the case. I didn’t know at the time that I would be making a film about it, but that was how it started. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
By the end, I found that my opinion had been altered and I would hope that people watching the film might have a similar experience.
Where did you start? The film states that it’s based on the transcripts of the actual police interviews - did you take that verbatim or was there a need to heavily adapt? How hard was it to process those transcripts in the first place, both in a screenwriting sense and emotionally?
The film is based on interview transcripts and records and the majority of it is verbatim. I found that writing it was a bit like fitting pieces of a puzzle together, trying to get the pace and structure of the story right, but it is entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever.
I had been hearing about the case for so long that I felt like I knew everything there was to know, but I realised that I actually knew very little about the interview procedure, what happened on the day and also about the two boys and their family backgrounds. I was surprised how different the boys were when they were questioned.
By the end, I felt I saw something that not everyone was seeing, but I obviously had apprehensions about making the film as it is such a sensitive story. The public outrage surrounding the case of James Bulger was unprecedented. It has provoked universal grief and anger, which even after 25 years, is still very much evident today. So it was very important to me that details were accurate and that the film was entirely factual.
The film features incredible performances from your young actors - how did you illicit those? Is it tough striking the balance between a warm, friendly set for kids to work on with the horror of the content and emotions they have to bring?
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 I’ve learned a lot about the most effective ways to direct child actors.
Often, a kid with no acting experience whatsoever is the easiest to direct and that’s what we found with Ely Solan who plays Jon – he had never acted before and this was his first audition, but he is an extraordinary boy who is very in touch with his emotions, bright and listens. I don’t think he knew what he was capable of, but by the end of his first audition, something inside him had been unlocked.
On the other hand, Leon Hughes who plays Robert had been attending drama classes, but this was his first film – he had initially auditioned for Jon and he was so good that we didn’t think he could possibly work as a Robert, but when we brought him back, he just morphed into the role – he is an extremely versatile actor who takes direction wonderfully.
We did a big casting and saw hundreds of boys for the lead roles. 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 the boys had been cast, we spent the summer months rehearsing and we all got to know each other really well. So by the time we started shooting, they were so well prepared and very comfortable with the roles. It was, of course, a very warm, friendly set for the kids to work on and they really enjoyed the experience. But there’s a lot of very challenging emotional scenes throughout the film and I think one of the biggest challenges as a director was 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.
It looks as though you shot in many of the genuine locations. Was there any issue in doing this? We imagine that it’s still a painful memory to many residents?
The scenes with the actors were all filmed in Dublin which actually looks a lot like Liverpool, but then we went to Liverpool to film exteriors of the actual shopping centre, the police stations and all along the route the boys took. Very little had changed in 25 years and it was a strange feeling to be there. We had a minimal crew for the Liverpool shoot and thankfully, we didn’t run in to any issues.
The short is a tough watch. Was there any point at which you considered sharing fewer details?
There’s a lot of details that we chose not to include. We thought about it a lot because it is such a sensitive story, but we felt it was important to keep the essential facts. The film gives a very brief glimpse of what happened during the interviews, but there is a lot more to the story.
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Did you involve / consult any of the families in the making of the film?
We didn’t attempt to contact any of the families as we set out to make a film that was impartial and entirely fact-based, but we had a huge amount of factual material to rely on and the film is based firmly on the interview transcripts and records.
The film has already had a great reception - most recently picking up the special award at the YDA in Cannes. How did it feel to finally get it out into festivals?
The first festival was The Krakow Film Festival where it won its first award, which was followed shortly by the double win at the Young Director Award in Cannes.
I was delighted just to have been shortlisted for the YDA in Cannes because the standard of everything on the shortlist was incredibly high. When it won the Gold Screen Award for it’s category, I was expecting the trailer to be played, but they decided to make an exception and played the whole film instead. When it won the Special Jury Award and got a standing ovation, it just took my breath away!
It’s a story that most people in the UK know, but may not be in the minds of those outside. Have you found audiences reacting to it in different ways?
When we did the Q&A at the Krakow Film Festival, we found that very few people in the audience were familiar with the case, but they were affected by the film and wanted to know more about the case.
It is, of course, a subject that is deeply rooted in the British consciousness – it is extremely sensitive and often divides public opinion, but I think people should remember that while the film is entirely factual, it really just gives a brief glimpse of one aspect of the case. There is a much wider story there and it is a heart-breaking one. It’s impossible to show the unimaginable pain of James Bulger’s family in the space of a short film and I think it would have been entirely inappropriate to try to do justice to that in such a short space of time, but I think it’s important that it’s not forgotten.
The film takes a brief look at just one aspect of the case, but I would hope that audiences would be left wanting to know more and start researching the case for themselves. And if it sparks a debate, then that’s probably a good thing.
What’s up next for you?
After the film screened in Cannes, I woke up the next day with a huge amount of unread emails from companies who wanted to meet with me to talk about my future. And the emails haven’t stopped.
Since I was about 10 years old, I’ve dreamed about having a career directing so it’s an exciting time for me right now.