Sharing a coffee with director Yann Demange has to be the ultimate February pick-me-up. Perhaps it’s the rave reviews he’s recently picked up from the Berlin Festival where he screened his feature debut ’71, a Belfast-set film about The Troubles, but his passion and broad, searching knowledge are palpable. As well as directing commercials through Stink, he’s also well known for his TV hits such as Top Boy and Dead Set. LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Yann about the short, sharp joy of commercials and getting under the skin of 1970s Northern Ireland.
LBB> Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera and thought ‘this is what I want to do with my life’?
YD> I don’t have a Spielberg-like anecdote that I can reel off about me and a Super 8 camera when I was little. I mean, I liked films. They crept up on me. I made my first short in my late teens or early twenties. I was a runner already on music videos at a production company but I always liked long form. I was always trying to tell stories.
LBB> Before studying film you spent some time doing a variety of things such as assisting on music videos, editing and shooting live music gigs. How do you think getting a ‘grounding’ like this helped your subsequent studies and career?
YD> It informs the way I behave on a set. I’ve made the tea and coffee, I’ve worked in most departments. I’m not conscious of exactly how it colours my approach but it can’t help but influence the way I am with people. I very much feel like I’m part of a team because I’m used to carrying the boxes. I was also an edit assistant for a while and working in post really helps you get a feel for how images work together and how to shoot a scene.
I felt like I already understood production before I went to uni. I went to London College of Communication because I was a London boy from a comprehensive school and I just felt I needed to broaden my horizons, engage with culture. I needed my window on the world to open up. It wasn’t about production – I could have got that from staying in the industry. I wanted to engage with art. It felt like I was lacking something.
LBB> It’s interesting that you had that experience with editing – that and the grade can really make or break a film.
YD> The grade and the edit are hugely important in film. You find the post process gets worked on a bit more in a commercial – in films all the work goes into the pre-production. The most enjoyable part of a feature is the grade, you’ve shot it and locked and you can focus on making it as pretty and gritty as can be.
The edit is a gruelling extension of the writing process, and it’s the same with commercials to a certain extent. It’s different in commercials because you have to collaborate with the creative team and it’s their piece of work in many ways. You have to make room for their voices. With film no one comes to the cutting room, not even the investors. That’s where the editor and I explore the story.
LBB> You’ve done a couple of really quite hard-hitting pieces of work – in particular I’m thinking about the Home Office coercion ad and the French Solidarite Femme PSA. As a director, how do you work with the actors to get these naturalistic and vulnerable performances?
YD> I don’t really have an approach or a modus operandi – it’s not one-size-fits-all. Each piece is different and every actor has their own process so I don’t want to impose my process on them.
When you’re working with children, for example in that domestic violence spot, you have to make sure that they understand the process. I almost take them to film school. I walk them through the process. I’m not trying to exploit them for a reaction. I almost find kids easier to work with than adults; they’re more fun. They’re courageous and they’ll go for it. When they get stuck that’s when it can get tricky. With an adult actor you can give them ideas to think about and interpret but for a child that’s a bit too abstract. It has to be more direct and visual and tangible. It actually exposes you because you can’t hide behind bullshit. You have to be engaged and honest and in the moment.
LBB> As someone who’s had done their fair share of top-notch TV (bit of a Dead Set fan!) how does that experience compare with the longer format work for brands? And do you think your TV and film work has in any way helped you approach commercials in a different way and vice versa?
YD> Unlike the 90s, there is a lot more cross-fertilisation. There was elitism; commercials were seen as ‘the thing’ and TV directors were seen as hacks. We all know that the explosion of TV has filled the gap that independent cinema created as it was hit by the recession and contracted. The box set culture evolved and authorship in television became more prominent and I just stumbled into that. You can take some of that into commercials. There’s so much to be learned from both. What I love about commercials is the discipline, the detail and precision. Working with creatives can be quite fun too.
I think it’s healthy to cross-fertilise and I don’t think things have to be as compartmentalised as it used to be. The downside is that I don’t specialise in one thing. I’m constantly turning my hand to different genres which can make me harder to define. Directors with a genuine passion for technical filmmaking, for example, can go on to become ‘the car guys’ and it’s an easier trajectory to follow. My path is a bit all over the place, but that’s how I enjoy it. I go towards what attracts me at the time. Fortunately in drama and long form I’ve transcended that point where people ask me what I do. They’re just interested in me. I’ve just been sent 17 films since the Berlin Film Festival. There’s a sci-fi film, to Westerns, a couple of period films… now it’s getting interesting. I’ve got a body of work and a range.
LBB> What do you want to do next?
YD> Well that’s the question I’m being asked. If I wanted to do a thriller or an action film I could be in production this year, but I don’t. I’d like to do something with a strong female protagonist because I haven’t done anything since Criminal Justice with Maxine Peak. I’ve done boys with guns, but I’m a little bit over it. I want to do something different.
LBB> When did you start having conversations about ’71 and what was it about Gregory Burke’s script and the Belfast/Troubles setting that intrigued you as a director?
YD> There’s an amazing woman in film in the UK called Tessa Ross. She is a powerhouse at Film4. Without her I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. She sat me down and told me she wanted to do my first film.
I was sent scripts and scripts and scripts but I couldn’t find anything I really cared about. You often hear that a lot of people don’t get to make a second film. The first film might be your only one so you have to love it. There’s no money in it, you spend at least two years of your life on it and then you go on the road to sell it. Your first film is a labour of love so you have to really want to do it. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to do for ages.
I had never had a burning desire to do anything about the troubles, but the script knocked me for six. It transcends The Troubles, it’s so universal and personal and relevant. It could be talking about Afghanistan, Syria or any modern conflict. It was about the civil war and the fall out; children growing up in the conflict and young men looking for somewhere to belong. They were exploited on all sides and they were just kids. I did a bit of research and I found that all the key players were under 21.
The script was extraordinary. I could relate to the characters – it’s about the people not the subject. But you do have to get to grips with the subject and do your research.
LBB> Dealing with a contentious and still very raw subject like sectarianism, did you feel that you were able to bring a fresh pair of eyes, an objectivity to it?
YD> I think what was really important was I’m not Celtic or Anglo-Saxon in any way, shape or form. I had an outsider’s eyes. I’m half Algerian and it made me think about the battle of Algiers. I could see so many universal qualities to it and we were at pains to show that it was about the many shades of grey. It wasn’t about taking a specific side, it was a visceral, human story.
LBB> How did you develop the look of the film? Were you trying to bring a 70s aesthetic to it, or try something different?
YD> Obviously the 70s period detail had to look right. I knew exactly how I wanted the night scenes to look but it took a while to find a look for the daytime. We decided to mix formats, so we shot on 16mm during the day and digital at night, all on anamorphic lenses. At the risk of being technical and boring, on the 16mm we used 1.3 squeeze anamorphics on Hawk lenses from Germany. On the digital we used 2x squeeze because of the size of the image and the speeds were different.
My references weren’t 70s movies. They were things like early Walter Hill films: The Driver, The Warriors. There was a bit of Melville’s The Army of Shadows too. That’s a film about the German occupation of Paris. There’s an amazing scene where the group find that there’s a collaborator in their midst; they take him to an outhouse where they’re going to execute him. They can’t shoot him so they’re discussing how to kill him, with him sitting there in the room. He’s their friend and he understands that he’s got to go because he’s been collaborating with the Germans. They choke him to death and it’s an extremely harrowing scene that will always stay with me. I used that as a reference when I came onto this film because there is so much humanity in it. It shows people in extraordinary circumstances, who would never have chosen to get drawn into a war and who are trying to work out how far they will go for their cause.
There have been two masterpieces in recent years, Bloody Sunday and Hunger, and because these two films exist they allow mine to exist. They had to come first, in a way, because they had to tell true stories. Mine is a piece of fiction. I’m not taking anyone to school, we’re not a voice for any side’s political views. We try to show everyone’s point of view and we try to humanise everyone.
LBB> I’m assuming that a lot of your cast had some sort of personal connection with The Troubles? How was it working with people who had very raw first or second hand memories of the situation you were depicting?
YD> Generations have been affected. It’s quite profound and you have a responsibility not to exploit these people’s recent history in order to make an exciting film. It’s extraordinary what they brought to the table, lots of anecdotes and personal stories. Even the composer who I worked with, David Holmes, grew up in Belfast. He got on board and introduced me to a lot of people.
I went over and met people who were active on both sides as well as families of victims. I went to public inquests. I immersed myself to try and get the texture. You have a responsibility and a duty to do that.
LBB> I was going to ask you about the response at the Berlin film festival, but now you’ve said that I’m really keen to know what the reaction has been from the cast and the people of Belfast.
YD> David loves it. We’ve become very good friends now and he’s an amazing collaborator and a champion of the film. The cast who have seen it seem to be connecting with it. I haven’t had a screening in Belfast yet because of release issues and festival premieres, but that’s the next step. I think that will be the most intimidating, scariest screening of the whole film.
At Berlin I was really overwhelmed by the response. I didn’t know how it would go across, but we felt that it was good and that the story was really universal, but you just don’t know if foreign press will connect. But they loved it – from Scandinavia to Latin America. Australia bought the film. It’s going to have a theatrical release across the world.
LBB> What does 2014 hold for you?
YD> I want to get my head down and shoot some commercials. I want to push that side of my game now. I’m not going to shoot a film this year; I just want to work as much as I can with Stink this year. I want to turn my hand to different things, learn different techniques and re-charge my batteries a bit. I love long form but they’re a big old commitment! You can’t just go from one to the next. There’s something about commercials that gives you energy, you can try different things. I need that stimuli, so that’s what I want to do now, for the next 18 months or so, if they’ll have me.