’71: An interview with director Yann Demange

Coming to theatres this Friday from director Yann Demange and Black Label Media comes the history of conflict in ’71.

The film tells the story of Gary Hook (Jack McDonnell), a young man who joins the Army believing he would be stationed in Germany. Instead he is sent to Belfast in Northern Ireland and before being shipped out he must say goodbye to his very young brother who is living in a boy’s home.

Once in Belfast, Hook’s Commanding Officer (Sam Hazeldine) briefs the group of soldiers on the hostilities between the Protestant Loyalists and the Catholic Nationalists. The group is also told that within the Nationalists there are problems with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Provisional IRA.

Loading up without gear to keep the residents calm, the platoon works with the Royal Ulster Constabulary to do a house search in the Catholic community. Once on the streets, the platoon is met with things being thrown at them and a gathering angry crowd. When a shot is fired chaos ensues as a boy grabs a rifle dropped by a soldier.

Hook and Thommo chase the boy to retrieve the rifle and are now away from the soldiers who are loading up to leave the area. The anger is turned toward these two young men as Thommo feels their wrath. IRA veteran Boyle (David Wilmot) warns the Provisionalists leader Quinn (Killian Scott) that they are going rogue as Hook is on the run.

Good morning, thank you for speaking with me today Yann.

Of course, you’re welcome.

Congratulations on ’71, it is an amazing film.

Thank you so much.

I’m still thinking about it. I was discussing the interesting aspect of discovering who is the ‘good’ guy and who is the ‘bad’ guy.

Life isn’t that simple is it?

Not at all.

The starting point for me is that they are all human beings. I tried to humanize them all. It wasn’t my place to take sides and to humanize them in shades of gray. We could have but were determined not to do that.

You did that amazingly well. That’s the point, if you are in the middle and watching both sides it becomes intense. Usually you go into a film knowing who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ but here, I don’t know how you did it but it was beautifully done!

Why thank you! I did the research. I spent time with soldiers and people from every side and see different points of view. They are human beings who are passionate about what is going on that is tribal and that is something people can identify with, there is a universality about it. I was making the effort to identify with the different points of view in a messy conflict. There are messy conflicts today with young men in the middle of it.

Is that what captured your interest in the script originally?

Yes. I tried to follow a young boy who was homesick and doesn’t even really know who he is in the world yet. These are young men, boys really, children growing up in the middle of this conflict.

These boys were just so young to be in the middle of all this.

We didn’t even capture it all. I mean you could join the British Army at 17-years-old! People with families were letting their boys join the Army because the trouble in Ireland wasn’t even on people’s radar. They thought they were joining the Army to be posted in Germany etc. It was like the commercials saying ‘join the Army!’ and it would be a wonderful experience. These boys went in not knowing what was going to happen and these 17-year-old boys killed. Imagine the parents!

Actually I can, my son joined the Army at 18. Maybe that’s what reached me so intensely. Seeing what that young man was going through was scary. As a director, when doing a film that is intense from beginning to end, how was it for you to set up because you had a very short filming schedule.

It is my first movie but I’ve done a lot of television so I’m pretty good at shooting fast. I’ve never done anything this ambitious but I wanted to make sure it felt like the viewer was there. Filming the riot for example and the chase was a bit like a military operation really. There was the planning and execution, mobilizing the troops using my DOT and my camera man that I’ve worked with for over ten years now. It was intricate and we put a scale model and figurines to work out how to choreograph the whole scene. We really had a strong sense on how things would work before we hit the set. You live and die on you’re weakest link so we really made sure to believe the crowd. We worked on how the extras would perform, look and execution of the scene. I spent a lot of time with the extras making sure they knew there part in the film. I worked with them for 8 hours before we even shot. We didn’t want agency actors; we wanted it to be believable.

Trust me when I tell you that I believed the faces in the riot scene. They were as scary as they needed to be for me. The other scene that stands out is in the pub.

I believe that the extinguishing of a life in this film had to matter. Every life has to matter in this film and throughout I wanted to show how quick it can change. I wanted it to be a shock and feel it as Gary does in real time. That was a difficult thing to pull off to feel as it is in real time. The pub scene was hard to execute.

The emotional reaction that happens throughout the film is intense, just intense.

That was the idea. I’m glad to hear we had that effect on you.

Choosing Jack O’Connell, I was reading that you said he was very good with expression and emotion over word. I have to agree with you 100% on that, in every situation he was put in, just his reaction to it was amazing. Did you realize you would be getting that from him?

You never know in advance what you are going to get. I just had a feeling. I had him audition just once in the scene with him and the younger brother. There was such soulfulness. I mean he really knows your heart. Jack O’Connell wanted to be a soldier or a football player. He is cut from that cloth. He is a visceral kid. Now he’s changed into manhood but when I met him he was the right person at the right time. He was trying to decide what kind of man he wanted to be. The Army, tribal and gang offers a family sometimes for those who need it. You could believe Jack as Gary needed that in his life. He could express that pain and bewilderment. He has it all going on in the eyes and he’s quite incredible with life experiences at his age. I could believe he could be responsible for a child at home, I could believe that he cared and had that kind of affection and warmth.

His ability to be able to show shock, fear and anguish – sometimes it’s hard to distinguish that with so much happening but his mannerisms just pulled at your heart. He is in the middle of something even HE doesn’t understand!

It’s exactly that. That is the crux of it. He is a boy inside and something I realized that these boys trust their leaders and don’t have a clue what’s going on. They trust in their tribe, they trust in their leaders, they sort of give themselves over.

The ending, the raw betrayal on his face – he’s not a stupid kid by that point and to see the look on his face showing the betrayal by those he trusted is just heart breaking.

It’s so touching to hear that you’ve connected with the film in that way. I can’t tell you how it’s touched me. When we were setting up this film, a lot of people said it wouldn’t be universal and countries wouldn’t connect to it. I have to say that it’s amazing in America and I think it’s because you have had so many conflicts and wars that it’s in America’s consciousness. It’s so very humbling.

I appreciate so much what you put together, how you put it together and the raw emotion that came through. Thank you so much for taking the time.

It’s my pleasure, thank you so much!

This film has been nominated and won several awards such as Best Picture at the Athens International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival. ’71 has also won for Best Director, British Independent Film, Screenplay and Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. The film has also won awards from the London Critics Circle Film Awards and the Breakthrough Award for Jack O’Connell by the Dublin Film Critics Circle Awards.

’71 is an intense and conflicting film that will leave film go-ers talking. As Director Demange says, life isn’t simple and a story of human beings. This film is about conflict that became a deep wound in Ireland’s history. There is so much about the film that I don’t talk about because I believe that ’71 needs to be experienced!

In the end – he is staying alive to keep his promise!

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Jeri Jacquin

Jeri Jacquin covers film, television, DVD/Bluray releases, celebrity interviews, festivals and all things entertainment.