It’s never easy to depict a highly sensitive topic on screen, especially when it’s a horrific murder of a child by two other children. Such is the true story of Vincent Lambe’s “Detainment“, which poignantly recreates the early 90s investigation into the shocking murder of two-year-old James Bulger by a pair of 10-year old boys. Decades later, the highly publicized incident still touches a raw nerve with British and Irish citizens, who struggle to comprehend this heinous act of violence. In honor of its recent selection to the Academy’s shortlist for Best Live Action Short film, I caught up with Lambe to discuss the challenge of exploring the film’s touchy subject and the sense of understanding he aspired to convey. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
Shane Slater: What fascinated you about this murder case that made you want to make a film about it?
Vincent Lambe: I was 12 at the time it happened and I remember it very well. I think anyone alive at the time always remembers that shudder they felt. And I grew up hearing about it because it was always in the news. I could never understand how these two 10-year old boys could commit such a horrific crime. So years later I started looking at it again. Growing up I was always just told these two boys were evil and that was that. It’s a simple answer to it and that was still the popular opinion in the UK.
Then I started looking into it years later as an adult. Somebody mentioned it out of the blue and I just got interested in it. And I ended up reading everything I could find on it. When I got to the interview transcripts, I was expecting to find something darker. Instead, I realized there is this human story beneath it all. I saw something that not everybody was seeing with that case. And a lot of it is just because people just really didn’t want to see it. I started seeing it as a tragedy not just for one family, but for three families. And I found my opinion had been altered and I hoped anyone who sees the film might have a similar experience, or at least they would look into it or think about it a little more.
SS: We always say that cinema is a tool for empathy. It’s usually easy to empathize with children but in this case, their actions are so horrific. How did this affect your approach to depicting these characters?
VL: Here in the UK, it’s such a hugely sensitive case. And it still causes public outrage today any time they’re mentioned. So I had a lot of apprehension about making it because I knew it was going to be very hard to actually get people to accept it and look at it with an open mind. And I guess we’re still finding that. So when I actually decided to make it, I wanted to make absolutely sure that everything in the film was entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever.
SS: Did audiences respond as you expected?
VL: Overall, very good. The only people who really seem to have an issue with it are people who haven’t seen it. They think it’s a different type of film. Anyone who actually watches the film find they’re affected by it. Some people even found that it’s changed their perspective on the case. The film is not meant to be sympathetic in anyway to the boys. It’s not meant to make excuses for them. But it does humanize them. And I would say it looks at the worst of human potential but still sees humanity there.
SS: How did you approach pitching and casting the boys for these very sensitive roles?
VL: When I’m not directing, I work in casting as an agent for child actors as well. So it was something I was very used to and comfortable with. Over the course of 12 years I’ve done thousands of auditions with children. I found it’s a great way to learn how to direct children. What we did with this was, we’d get them all to prepare a scene and then after that, we’d immediately start improvising. The problem with child actors a lot of the times is, they’d come in and be a bit over-prepared and no matter what you say to them, there’d just be something that doesn’t ring true.
So I always get them off the script and we would just start improvising. And we did it slightly differently because in the film, the detectives are quite gentle when they question the boys. But for the purposes of the casting, I had an actor in the room with me and I told him to kind of “lose the rag” with them and scare them during the improvisation. So it always took them by surprise, but suddenly they weren’t acting anymore.
SS: How much did information did you give them about the real case?
VL: Their parents would have given them a basic understanding of it. Then they had lots of questions for me. I answered them all the same way I would answer anyone. The first one was why did they do it. Which is a great question. But if you ask most people on the street, they won’t really be able to give you an answer. They’d probably tell you it’s because they were evil or they’ll say they don’t really know. Really, the answer to it is that you need to look into their family background. And then you’ll at least start to get some understanding of it. It might not explain everything but it certainly gives you a much better understanding of how and why it could have happened.
If you look at Robert’s family for example, he came from a terribly dysfunctional family where the father would beat the mother mercilessly and he left the family home when Robert was 5. And Robert’s mother then tried to commit suicide with pill overdoses twice. That didn’t work, so instead she resorted to alcohol as a means of escape and she would spend all her time down at the pub. As a result, the whole Thompson house was bedlam. There were 6 brothers and the oldest would beat up the younger ones. Robert got beaten up by his older brother and instead of taking it out on his older brother, he would take it out on little Ryan, who was about 3 at the time. Around the same age as James Bulger.
So when they’re in the shopping center that day, one of them says, let’s get a kid, I haven’t hit one in ages. And that’s where it comes from. But then Robert also had this tough guy persona that he had created for himself and he felt like he had to live up to that.
Jon was kind of the opposite in a way. He was weak but he was desperate to impress his tough friend. He didn’t want to look weak in front of Robert. So once the challenge had been set, neither one of them would chicken out or back down because of that dynamic between them. Once you understand it like that, I think it offers some kind of understanding of how and why it happened. But people haven’t really bothered to look into it in a lot of detail.
SS: With the proliferation of social media and the extra scrutiny that comes with it, do you think it has it become more challenging to make films about sensitive topics?
VL: It depends on the story. It definitely wasn’t easy to make this film. It’s hard to tell this story without making the film being divisive. The one thing I didn’t want to do with this film is to have an opinion one way or the other. It’s meant to be an accurate representation of the facts.
I don’t know. It’s hard to make a film that says something that’s different from popular belief.