Considering the breathless thriller he just made and his infectiously enthusiastic demeanor, it may seem hard to believe that Yann Demange is a patient man. Yet as a celebrated director in England for such television series as “Top Boy” and “Criminal Justice,” Demange could bide his time in picking the project that would become his feature debut, all the while honing his skills on crime dramas that were unusually dynamic in their storytelling and their action. Working with much of the same creative braintrust over the past nine years, including cinematographer Tat Radcliffe and editor Chris Wyatt, will do that. But Demange also has formulated a way of working that allows his collaborators as much of a perspective on the overall creative conception of a project as he does, creating a bible where ideas build upon one another until a world is consummate.
That’s certainly one reason why Demange’s first film “’71” is such an exhilarating and immersive experience, a stirring drama set against The Troubles in Northern Ireland told through the eyes of Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) a young British soldier who is marooned by his platoon after they’re deployed to quell the violence in Belfast and end up triggering a new round of riots. With both operatives of the Irish Republican Army and England’s own Military Reaction Force eager to take him out, Hook becomes dependent on the few sympathetic locals he can find while running through the city’s streets and tenements en route to a way out.
Though Gary is chased through territory that’s been well-covered before by such native filmmakers as Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, the civil conflict has never been envisioned in the way the French-Algerian Demange and Scot playwright Gregory Burke see it, using the various factions mounting up against the single soldier to create unbearable tension yet also speaking to the futility of war. While Demange is careful not to overstate the importance of what he’s made, simply aiming to make a crackling debut, he has announced with “’71” that he’s primed to become one of cinema’s most important voices going forward with a brisk, confident first feature that’s perfectly realized. A year after “’71” first blew the doors off the Berlin Film Festival where it premiered, the film is finally being released on American shores and in honor of the occasion, Demange took a moment to talk about how he left his own script to pursue Burke’s, why he prizes collaboration and presiding over a rigorous nine-week shoot.
You’ve said that you were writing a screenplay of your own set in Algeria when “’71” came along. What made you feel like you could invest yourself in this?
Ultimately, when I read “’71,” it reminded me “my screenplay wasn’t strong enough, and I won’t be making it.” But a lot of it was about children growing up in conflict, children being manipulated, and belonging to a tribe — what does it mean to belong, [to have] a sense of place. My film was called, “Father,” and it was about a young boy seeking the paternal, and I saw all this in this. Jack [O’Connell’s character Hook] for me is a character [who in] seeking the paternal found a tribe and it was the Army. They say we’re your tribe, we’re your family, we’re your home, but there’s a terrible betrayal that takes place where they’re quick to sacrifice these boys in dirty conflicts and no one really knows what’s going on.
I collaborated on it for a long time with the writers and the producer. Though I’m an outsider — I’m not an Anglo-Saxon or Gaelic, I’m French Algerian — I certainly felt a very personal connection to the story. It was almost contemporary. We could be talking about Iraq or Afghanistan. When I was in Colombia with the film, people were telling me it reminded me of their story; 50 years of civil war … Almost every civilization has experienced this at some point in their history.
You mention collaboration and it seems you’re even more keen on it than most filmmakers with the creation a tone book, a real, physical document where you and everyone in all of your departments contribute ideas to build upon one another for the creation of the look and feel of the film. Where did the idea to do that come from?
Very early on when I did a short film, I realized halfway through that we were all trying to make our own version of the film. I don’t like being dictatorial, but it’s not a democracy if you’re directing it, [yet] you want everyone invested and feeling they’re really contributing to the same vision. So creating a tone document that your heads of department are invited to contribute to, and help you to curate, is a great way of creating a hymn sheet that we’re all going to sing from. It’s like making sure we’re all on the same page quite literally.
We meet regularly as well, in prep, once a week, and we discuss the tone document [in terms of] where we’re at, and what we’re learning about the world we want to create. Everyone feels invested, has a voice, and you get the best from your collaborators, but you also make sure that we’re not turning it in different directions, that we’re all united in trying to make the same movie. It’s about communication and communicating what we’re trying to achieve.
Is it true David Holmes finished up the score before shooting so you could listen to it while you were filming?
Yeah, because I was hogtied into shooting a lot of the pursuit, the cat-and-mouse stuff on the housing estate before I even shot dialogue scenes, purely because of logistics. Because this film’s hardly got any dialogue, I said to Dave, “It’d be nice to have a sense of tone and atmosphere. If you could contribute …” like everyone else contributing to the tone document. I said, “I want an analog score reminiscent of a [John] Carpenter score, but not toe-tappingly cool and I want you to give you a sense of atmosphere. Start writing now.” So he was contributing to the tone document. He created the whole score before we shot and 60% of it we used. Then he had to react to the film we actually cut [and edited], and respot and create [new pieces of music], but the actual theme, if you want to call it that, [during] the whole [chase scene] with the cat-and-mouse [hunt] in the housing estate, I shot with that [in my ear].
With regards to the camerawork specifically, how did you and Tat Radcliffe, your cinematographer, decide on where the camera would be placed? It’s not quite direct P.O.V. and yet you feel like you’re there.
There’s more than one storyline, so the way I constructed the point of view is that you are completely aware of Gary Hook for at least the first 35 to 40 minutes. We do not break. We’re with him and you’re experiencing it almost like first-person. You’re a character in the film, alongside him and definitely he’s the center of the film. I’m also not giving you a historical context, so you’re above him, and have an overview. Most people that come to the film will not have any historical context and won’t know about The Troubles and I wasn’t going to do a montage intro that gave the landscape. So you are with him, you can’t see the wood for the trees, and when someone gets shot, it takes you by surprise like it surprises him. You should be in shock with him, you should be scared with him, you should feel the adrenaline with him.
Then at one point I decided to go, okay, now, he’s in the toilet and I’m going to give you an overview for the first time, and try and give you a sense of the landscape. I’m still not giving a history lesson, but a sense of the chaos and a sense of other plates that are spinning, other storylines and create another tension using dramatic irony where you know a bit more than Jack, and you can see how certain things are coming together. Now, each strand like the MRF [the Military Reaction Force, the counterinsurgent unit of the British Army in Northern Ireland], played by Sean Harris, who are pursuing Hook, they all have their own language, like he’s all [filmed] on a dolly. We assigned certain lenses [to certain characters] and the camera moves in a certain way.
But, with Jack, this is almost like a buddy movie, and we’re the buddy that’s with him all the way through. I only did that with two characters – with [Gary Hook] and we have an intimate moment with the Republican boy [you see] at the end of the film, because I see them as flip sides to each other. That could have been Gary, if he’d of grown up on that street and you spend time with him and his sister. There are just little haiku-type of moments, but you have an intimacy with him that you have with Gary and with the others, you are observing them a little bit more.
The tone book was almost like a rule book as well in how the camera will behave at certain times. As the film becomes more nocturnal, and the sun goes down, the journey takes on more mythic qualities. The lighting and the way the camera behaves can be slightly impressionistic at times, especially [after a climactic moment halfway through the film]. I wanted to transcend realism a bit and borrow from mise-en-scene, like how the lighting can feel like flames and it could all feel like [Hook’s] going through a hellish landscape.
In many respects, the film does snap into focus at a certain point. How much were you guided by an idea of disorientation?
We spoke about it a lot. It’s about the construction of the point of view as well, so I thought disorientation and confusion are things to embrace because it actually made you closer to Gary Hook. There are times where you go, “Who’s who? I don’t know, they all speak the same, they look the same,” but that was the anarchy of the situation. I wanted it be experiential, not like something you watch play out, but I wanted you to be right in there with him, experiencing it, almost like gaming.
Every day on this shoot had to be pretty crazy, but was there one in particular that was tough to get through?
The riots were pretty crazy days to shoot, probably the hardest scene I’ve ever done. I’ve got so much story to tell in the midst of chaos — how a kid picks up a machine gun and runs, how two guys get left behind, how does the riot escalate, and how people unknowingly provoke one another. It was a lot of responsibility, a lot of balls in the air and it was tough. That was three days of chaos.
“’71” is now open in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood and in New York at the Angelika and the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.