Vincent Lambe’s short film Detainment is based on the true story of James Bulger, a two-year-old boy who was abducted in Merseyside in 1993 and found brutally murdered two days later. But the most shocking aspect of the case was that the main suspects were just children themselves – two ten-year-old boys.
Writer and director Vincent Lambe, who won the Young Director Award at Cannes, joins us on Close-up Culture to discuss making a 30-minute short film about one of Britain’s most infamous and harrowing crimes.
Q: This is such a horrifying and sensitive true story. I think you were still in your teens in 1993, but were you particularly interested in the story at the time it happened?
A: I was 12 at the time and like everyone else, it had a very big impact on me. I grew up hearing about the case, but could never understand how two ten year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime.
Q: Do you remember the moment you decided to take it on and make a short film?
A: The case had been out of the news for a long time and then, one day, someone mentioned it unexpectedly. I thought of those two boys who terrified us with their malice all those years ago, the shudder I felt.
I wanted to understand it better, but the only explanation I had ever been given was that these boys were simply ‘evil’. I think it’s a lot easier to label them ‘evil’ than to try to understand why it happened. 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 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 was unprecedented. It has provoked universal grief and anger, which even after 25 years, is still very much evident today. So, when deciding to adapt the interviews as a 30-minute drama, it was very important to me that details were accurate and that the film was entirely factual.
Q: A few months ago I spoke to ‘U-July 22’ writers Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen about the precautions and measures they took when dealing with the Andrers Breivik massacre. What steps did you take for ‘Detainment’?
A: We had a huge amount of factual material to rely on and the film is based firmly on interview transcripts and records. However, there were a lot of details that I chose not to include. I thought about it a lot because it is such a sensitive story and I wanted to ensure that it was respectful to the family of James Bulger and responsibly made. At the same time, it was important to keep the essential facts. The film gives a very brief glimpse of what happened during the interviews, but there is still a lot more to the story.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience working through the transcripts and how closely you stuck to them?
A: The film is based on the 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 found that my opinion had been altered and I would hope that people watching the film might have a similar experience.
Q: How emotionally involved do you allow yourself to be when directing and writing a project such as this? Is there a balance to be found?
A: Well, the film touches a subject which is so full of emotion – one of fear, despair and so horrific that many people shy away from absorbing any more facts about it. It affected me in the same way it has affected so many other people and I think it’s important to acknowledge the anguish of the parents and family of James Bulger.
The film, however, gives a brief glimpse of just 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 have enormous sympathy for them.
While the film is entirely factual, it takes a brief look at just one aspect of the case. I would hope that audiences would be left wanting to know more and start researching the case for themselves.
Q: Did you have any moments of doubt or big hurdles to overcome during the film?
A: I would say there were two particularly challenging aspects of the production.
Firstly, finding the child actors for the lead roles and transforming them into these characters was definitely a big challenge. We started casting very early because if we didn’t have the right boys, then we didn’t have a film. After seeing hundreds of boys, we eventually cast two incredibly talented actors – Ely Solan and Leon Hughes. 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.
Secondly, 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.
Q: Can you go into more depth about casting Ely Solan (who plays Jon) and Leon Hughes (Robert)?
A: Well, 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. We did a big casting for Detainment 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.
Often, a kid with no acting experience whatsoever is the easiest to direct and that’s what we found with Ely. 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, it felt like something inside him had been unlocked.
On the other hand, Leon had been attending drama classes. He had initially auditioned for Jon and he was so good that we didn’t think he could possibly work as a Robert. When we brought him back, he just morphed into the role – he is an extremely versatile actor who takes direction wonderfully.
Q: What made you feel they were ready to be involved in such a emotionally weighty project and how did you work with them through the process?
A: Once the boys had been cast, we spent the summer months rehearsing and we all got to know each other really well. Their parents would have explained a basic understanding of the case to them and they had lots of questions for me. We talked a lot about it and they developed an amazing understanding of who these boys were and the dynamic between them. We also did a lot of improvisation with the boys in character as Jon and Robert.
So by the time we started shooting, they were so well prepared and very comfortable with the roles. Even though there were some very intense scenes, it was a very warm, friendly set for the boys to work on and they really enjoyed the experience. We’re still great friends and it’s brilliant catching up with them at film festivals where audiences always want to chat to them about their astonishing performances.
Q: There are a lot of dynamics at play in the interview room with children, parents and detectives involved. How did you foster the relationships between the different actors?
A: During the rehearsals with the boys, we brought other actors in to do screen tests for the supporting roles. It was particularly important to get the chemistry right for certain relationships such as Jon and his mother (Susan). It was a difficult role to cast, but once we did a screen test with Ely and Tara Breathnach, the connection between them immediately felt right. Tara has a wonderful empathy and warmth about her which made it easy for herself and Ely to form a friendship off-screen and this beautiful relationship between mother and son on-screen.
Likewise, when casting Jon’s father (Neil), we did a screen test with Ely and Killian Sheridan who brought so much to the role by saying very little.
The relationship between Robert and his mother (Ann) is quite different to that of Jon and his mother, but it was equally important to get the dynamic right. When we did the screen test with Leon and Kathy Monahan, the energy between them was really compelling and they have such an interesting nuanced on-screen relationship.
For the detectives, we also did some screen tests to experiment with the dynamic between different actors and the boys. The detectives in Jon’s room are played by Will O’Connell and David Ryan while the detectives in Robert’s room are played by Morgan C. Jones and Brian Fortune and they are largely responsible for creating the mood that pervades the film.
Q: The film has won a number of awards including Best Young Director award at Cannes. What has the response meant to you and your crew?
A: Well, it’s really great to see that audiences and film festival juries are connecting with it. The first festival was The Krakow Film Festival where it won its first award. Then, shortly afterwards, it won the Young Director Award at Cannes where it received a standing ovation and that just took my breath away!
After only a few months into it’s festival run, it has already won several awards including the Oscar qualifying Grand Prix Award at the Odense International Film Festival which puts it on the longlist for the Academy Awards. We have already had huge interest from distributors, but it still has a long film festival journey ahead.
Q: What is next for you? Any upcoming projects or ambitions you can share with us?
A: The success of the film so far has opened some doors for me. After it won the Young Director Award at 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. I’m not sure exactly what’s next, but it’s definitely an exciting time.