How did you learn about the James Bulger case’s children transcripts?
I was 12 when it happened and I grew up hearing about the case. I could never understand how these two ten-year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime. A lot of people will say they were simply “evil”. I think it’s easier to label them “evil” than to try to understand how two ten-year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime. But I wanted to learn more and I started reading everything I could find on the case. I eventually got to the interview transcripts and 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 with no embellishments whatsoever.
Why did you want to interleave the interrogations and scene reconstruction?
The film intercuts between Jon and Robert’s interviews as they took place at the same time and at certain points, we flashback to the day in order to tell parts of the story. By condensing over 15 hours of interviews to a 30-minute drama, we really just get a glimpse of what happened during the interview procedure. 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 everything in the film is entirely factual. We did a number of test screenings with audiences which included people who remembered the case and had been affected by it as well as international audiences who had never heard of the case before. The feedback they gave us was invaluable and really helped to shape the film.
How much were you interested in the parents’ presence during the interrogations?
I think the presence of the parents was particularly significant during Jon’s interviews. The detectives felt that Jon had a desperate need to confess, but that he was terrified his mother wouldn’t love him anymore if he told the truth. When Jon feels cornered, he becomes extremely emotional, he’s up out of his chair, crying hysterically, he wails against his mother and at one point, he even throws himself in the lap of the detectives for comfort. The detectives felt that Jon had a desperate need to confess, but that his mother’s reassurances were making it more difficult for him to tell the truth. The decision is then made for Jon’s father to replace the mother during the interviews because he will not offer the same comfort, but both parents played a major role in encouraging their son to tell the truth.
How did you work with the young actors?
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 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. We eventually cast two incredibly talented actors, Ely Solan who plays Jon and Leon Hughes who plays Robert. Ely 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. He gives a phenomenal performance as Jon which is one of the most challenging roles I have ever come across for a child actor. Leon is also an exceptionally talented actor who gives a powerful performance as Robert which is another hugely demanding role. Leon had initially auditioned for Jon and he was so convincing that we didn’t think he could possibly play Robert, but when we brought him back, he just morphed into the role – he is an extremely versatile actor who takes direction wonderfully. 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, but they also understood the gravity of the case and how sensitive it was and still is. Throughout the rehearsal process, we did a lot of improvisation with the boys in character. So by the time we started shooting, they were extremely 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 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.
Why did you decide not to include the trial?
The film gives a very brief glimpse of what happened during the interviews, but there is a lot more to the story, such as the trial, which is not possible to tell in the space of a short film. 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. 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.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
I think that short films enable the audience to experience a piece of concise cinema that presents characters, events and ideas in a condensed format. As there’s no room for padding or overly-long background information, short films can capture an audience’s attention straight away and hold it until the final frame. It’s a wonderful format which can be very powerful.
Detainment was shown in International Competition.