The recipient of last year’s Special Jury Prize for his film Detainment (pictured here [left] with producer Darren Mahon) chats to us about the accolade and varied path his film took on its way to the Academy Awards.
In the first of a series of articles leading up to this year’s YDA Awards we look back at previous winners and chat about what the accolade meant to them.
First up is Vincent Lambe, Special Jury Prize (and standing ovation) recipient from the 2018 ceremony, for his film Detainment, an incredible, harrowing short that documents the police interviews with the two young murderers of James Bulger.
Since picking up the award, Lambe has seen the work screen and win at numerous film festivals, cause controversy amongst those who thought it shouldn’t be made, and even get nominated for an Oscar.
You picked up the Special Jury Award at last year’s YDA; what do you remember most about that year’s ceremony and your success at it?
It was a really amazing experience. It was one of the first public screenings of Detainment, but I wasn’t even expecting it to be screened in full. For short films over 5 minutes, they would normally just play a trailer. But they decided to make an exception for Detainment and instead played the whole film. I didn’t understand what was happening at first. I thought it was a mistake and that they would stop it after a few moments, but they screened the whole 30-minute film. I had planned on spending the night collecting email addresses and trying to convince people to watch a screener of my film, but suddenly, there was no need for that. Everyone there had seen it.
‘I think the YDA is an incredible opportunity for new directors to get noticed.’
How hopeful were you that your work might come out of the YDA with some form of recognition?
It was completely unexpected because the standard of everything was incredibly high. I really didn’t think that a 30-minute film would make much of an impact at an advertising competition. The film won Gold in its category, but after it won the Special Jury Prize and received a standing ovation, it just took my breath away!
What effect did the win have on your burgeoning directing career?
It definitely opened a lot of doors for me and has given me some wonderful exposure to industry personnel. After the ceremony in Cannes, I met with lots of commercials companies in the UK. Being a drama director, they recommended getting a commercial on my reel before signing. I was still in debt after self-funding Detainment so I couldn’t afford to spend my own money to shoot something at the time, but I was very interested in making a cause-based commercial or something for a charity. Then everything got a bit hectic with film festivals and… well, we’ll talk about it later, but for a while, I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees – so I’m currently unsigned for commercials and it’s really only now that I’m coming back to the idea. I think a performance-based commercial for a charity or PSA can really resonate with viewers and it’s something I would really love to do as a way of breaking in to commercials.
What made you want to get into directing in the first place?
I’ve always wanted to tell stories and have been writing short stories for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I started making short films with my dad’s Super 8mm camera, initially casting my poor parents in various roles. Then as a teenager, I started attending acting classes and made short films with friends from my class. One of them won an award at the Fresh Film Festival for young filmmakers in Limerick and I remember how encouraging it was at the time. I later studied film at the National Film School of Ireland. I’ve since worked in casting and as an agent for child actors and without really planning it, the experience of holding lots of auditions over the years has taught me a huge amount about directing actors.
‘I used to say that some day I would be at the Oscars, but it always seemed so very far away.’
Do you think it’s become more or less difficult for new talent to break through in the world of commercials?
Well, it’s certainly not easy! After graduating from film school, I realised how difficult it was to get paid to direct and especially how difficult it was to break through in the world of commercials. It is a hugely competitive industry and I think companies and clients are probably less inclined to take risks.
How important do you think competitions and events such as the YDA are for allowing new directing talent to get noticed?
I think the YDA is an incredible opportunity for new directors to get noticed as it is specifically dedicated to beginners. It is recognized as the most important fringe event of the Cannes Lions and gives winning directors wonderful exposure to industry personnel who can help them in their careers.
What advice would you give to any director looking to carve out a career in advertising?
Well, seeing as I am still a director looking to carve out a career in advertising, I don’t think I’m in a position to be giving advice just yet. But I think the YDA is definitely an excellent place to start.
There was the little matter of the Oscars earlier this year. How was the night? How did you feel on hearing the nomination?
As a boy, I used to say that someday I would be at the Oscars, but it always seemed so very far away. When the nominations were announced, none of us could really believe it. It took a long time for it to sink in. It was such an amazing and surreal experience to be there at the Dolby Theatre. It was also very special to be able to share the experience with the two child actors from the film, Ely Solan and Leon Hughes, because they worked so hard and none of us would have been there without their astonishing performances.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t ask about the controversies leading up to the Oscar ceremony. How do you feel about that now? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, it’s utterly exhausting being at the centre of a media storm, having to deal with hate-mail, death threats and trying to run an Oscar campaign at the same time. I never imagined the level of attention and the furore that the film has caused. As it is such a hugely sensitive subject, I expected there to be a certain amount of backlash, but I never expected there to be so much misinformation reported about the film. So much of what was reported in the tabloids was inaccurate or extremely misleading. People believed what they were reading and were understandably outraged. I think they had a very different film in their minds, but there is nothing graphic or sensational in the film and there is no depiction of the murder whatsoever. It is based on the interview transcripts and is almost entirely verbatim. It was difficult to counteract the misinformation because people were judging the film based on inaccurate or misleading reports and then calling for it to be banned without having seen it.
I have enormous sympathy for the Bulger family and I am so very sorry for any upset the film has caused them. My biggest regret is not making them aware of the film sooner. I offered to meet with Mrs Fergus privately to make that apology in person and to offer my heartfelt reassurance that I never intended any disrespect by not consulting her.
‘I would hope that audiences in the UK will be able to view the film with an open mind, but I think that’s going to be difficult for people who have already formed an opinion.’
As we set out to make a fact-based film that was impartial, we did not attempt to contact any of the families involved and instead relied solely on the factual material which has been public knowledge for 25 years. I think if we were to consult with any of the families, there would have been pressure to tell the story in a certain way. Contacting the families wouldn’t change what’s in the transcripts, but most likely, it would change what would be in the film. If the film wasn’t impartial, I felt it would have defeated the purpose of making it.
In my preparation for the film, I did take full account of the television programmes, books and articles to which the Bulger family contributed over the years. I was mindful of the great private pain the tragedy has caused and the importance of balancing that with the enormous public interest in the case.
One of the biggest criticisms is that the film “humanises” the killers, but if we can’t accept that they are human beings, we will never begin to understand what could have driven them to commit such a horrific crime. The film is in no way sympathetic to the killers and it does not attempt to make excuses for their actions. We see them, not as the monster of popular imagination, but as they were, as children who had perpetrated an act of unimaginable horror.
The popular opinion in the UK at the moment is that the killers were simply born evil and anyone who suggests an alternate reason or tries to understand them gets criticised and attacked. As a result, it has stifled debate on the whole issue. While it is a painfully difficult case to understand, I believe we have a responsibility to try and make sense of what happened. I have never claimed that the film has all the answers, but it certainly challenges audiences and allows them to ask the right questions.
Several experts connected to the case have since come out in support of the film, including David James Smith (author of ‘The Sleep of Reason: The James Bulger Case’) and Malcolm Stevens (who oversaw the detention and rehabilitation of both boys), stating that the film is an important contribution to the discussion of the case and sensitive to the on-going trauma.
I would hope that audiences in the UK will be able to view the film with an open mind, but I think that’s going to be difficult for people who have already formed an opinion. So far, ‘Detainment’ will be shown on television stations in Ireland, France, Germany and Belgium. There is currently no date for a UK broadcast, but it is available to watch on iTunes and as part of the Oscar nominated short films on Amazon video and various other platforms.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have now signed as a director with ICM in Los Angeles and I’m busy pitching on a feature film at the moment. It’s a really great script, based on a true story, but it’s still early stages and there’s a few projects I’m looking at right now.