After completing the critically acclaimed and multi-award winning Channel 4 series ‘Top Boy’, director Yann Demange was ready to embark on his debut feature film. Despite developing and reading numerous scripts he had not found his next project. One screenplay he did not anticipate connecting with was a thriller set in Northern Ireland during the early years of the Troubles. However, after reading the script, he was gripped by the story of ’71, it struck a chord and the main character resonated with Demange.
The project was conceived a few years earlier as an original idea by producer Angus Lamont of Crab Apple Films. “I had a friend at school who joined the army at 15,” he said. “He’d already been to Cyprus and Northern Ireland while we were still doing our exams, he was so young to be in those situations. I’d also been researching The Troubles, and had come across a piece from the perspective of a Loyalist gang member. He talked about seeing a teenage British soldier crouched in a doorway, terrified, confused and crying in the middle of a sectarian riot. This young soldier, like most of the public on mainland UK, had no concept whatsoever of what was happening in Northern Ireland. I thought there was a story in his experience in that environment.”
It was this human experience that also attracted Demange. He immediately connected with the powerful narrative of the young man, which seemed universal and relevant in the modern world. This was a timeless story which would continue to appeal and captivate. “I’d never had a burning desire to tell a story about Northern Ireland in that period” says Demange. “But it was a remarkable piece of writing. It was muscular, visceral and utterly engaging. Above all, the idea of young men sent to fight dirty wars also struck me as pertinent. Often, they have more in common with the kids they’re pitted against than the men they’re taking orders from. It could be Iraq or Afghanistan. In ’71’s protagonist, Gary, I saw the opportunity to explore the vulnerable masculinity of an anchorless boy, with no family, looking for a tribe to belong to and ultimately finding it in the army, only to be betrayed…”
To move the script forward, Lamont had joined forces with Robin Gutch of Warp Films and they both had the same writer in mind – playwright Gregory Burke – who had crafted his multi-award winning play ‘Black Watch’ from interviews conducted with Iraq war veterans. “I really wanted someone who could capture the voice of young squaddies,” says Lamont, “Gregory immediately got it. The screenplay was commissioned with finance from Creative Scotland, Northern Ireland Screen, and Warp Films (using BFI Vision Award funding). Burke’s powerful first draft soon gained the attention of Film4, the BFI and STUDIOCANAL. It was at this point that we asked Yann to read it”. “When we met Yann,” Gutch says, “he pitched almost exactly the same film we’d imagined.” “It can happen like that,” remembers Demange.
“Sometimes you immediately know exactly how it will look and sound. Then when I met the writer Greg, he and I just clicked and after three months he’d rattled through five drafts.” As part of Demange’s own research, he visited Northern Ireland. “While we were developing the script I went to Belfast and met with both sides – active Republicans and active loyalists. I also met with families of victims. It quickly became apparent to me this was about shades of grey. I’m not a polemicist, we demonised and humanised in equal measure. But I was struck and surprised at just how young many of the key players were in that era. They were 21 year-olds and younger, very similar ages to the lads in the British army, just boys.”
When it came to casting his lead, the candidates to play Private Gary Hook came down to a short-list of one: Jack O’Connell. “We sent him the script, and he came in to read and just blew us away. It was obvious we’d found our man. Jack has an unusual quality that you don’t see in many young actors of his generation” says Demange. “He’s got an old-school quality, a raw vivid masculinity that he’s quite at ease with. He has a soulfulness and complexity within him that was right for the role. He could genuinely empathise and understand Gary Hook.”
“What I love about Greg’s script,” says O’Connell, “is there are no answers, no attempt to shift the blame. I’m half-Irish myself, and could see that these events were realities to people. I wanted to normalise Gary as much as possible, make him someone who existed in that time.”
Filmed in the UK over nine weeks, seven of which were night shoots, ’71’s production was as arduous as it was invigorating. “It was a tough shoot, man,” laughs O’Connell, “but we knew it was going to be brutal. I was on set only a little less than Yann, so a good relationship between us was key, I trusted him totally.” Together, Demange and O’Connell cut back dialogue on set to craft a sparser characterisation. “It’s a very expressive performance,” says Demange, “Jack’s pretty alpha, he’s got real fight in him, so he found it quite taxing holding back. It’s an exhausting part to play – you can’t hide behind the lines. I think he’s brave and committed and incredible to watch.”
The challenge, for O’Connell, wasn’t just the physical endurance – it was getting under the skin of the era. “To me, ’71 is truly a period film,” he says. “I couldn’t modernise Gary in any way. I hope I was immersed enough to kill any of my own contemporary mannerisms and do the character justice.” Although the production benefitted from Northern Ireland Screen’s backing from the outset, filming took place on location in England. “The Belfast of 1971 doesn’t exist in Belfast today,” Lamont explains. “To make it look as authentic as possible it had to be fake.”
Blackburn and Liverpool were cast as an uncanny double to Belfast’s terraces (it’s all in the red bricks), while Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate served as a brutalist doppelganger to the notorious Divis Estate. “Fundamentally, ’71 is a thriller,” notes Gutch “but Yann wanted to create a sense of credible action, and for that we needed credible locations. Throughout, ex-military were posted on set to advise cast and crew”, “from the way to hold a specific rifle to the squaddie lingo,” says O’Connell, who found himself drawing on his previous work-experience in the army. “At one point I was determined to join it after my football career messed up,” he said.
It was Blackburn where the film’s alarming and explosive riot was staged, the turning point of the film. “It was extremely intense,” says Demange. “We filmed over five days, rehearsed the whole sequence, and then ran it in real time, over and over again. Making sure the energy levels stayed up. The supporting actors were unbelievable and they really helped to make that scene come alive. One of the older gents got so into it that he was collecting the rocks -all rubber – and pocketing them to throw at the army.”
“We’d already shot the boot camp and training sequences,” continues O’Connell “so me and the boys felt like a unit by the time we were shooting the riot. That part of it I loved – I’ve made some great friends on the film – but over those five days there was a heat wave, we were all in ‘70s costume, and everything was made of wool. Respect to Yann for his focus during those scenes – we spent a lot of effort ensuring the riot felt volatile and risky.”
With his regular cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, Demange opted to shoot on 16mm for ’71’s daytime sequences, switching to digital for its night scenes. “We also shot anamorphic to give a more epic feel to the landscape”. Demange also created a Tone Book, which he invited the HOD’s (Heads of Department) to contribute to. The result was a reference book heaving with visuals from the period, it also included photographic references, music and film clips. Ranging from, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai, to the work of Walter Hill and John Carpenter.
Speaking about the aesthetics of the film, Demange says: “When I started researching the period, the visuals immediately struck me strongly as apocalyptic with road-blocks, burnt-out cars, smoke, dystopic, disturbing landscapes. Although the film is set in a recognisable urban environment of terraced houses and estates, for me, Gary’s journey is one that becomes more mythical and desperate as night draws in. I didn’t want us to be tied to realism the whole time. I imagined the post bombing scene, for instance, to look like a purgatory, a transient unsettling place between life and death.”
Gary’s experience, and his oppressive environment, is echoed in the sound of ’71. “I didn’t want a classic score that underlined the emotional highs and lows,” Demange says. “I wanted something sparse to match Jack’s performance, almost Carpenter-esque, a soundscape.” The Belfast-born music composer David Holmes, renowned for his funk-fusion scores for Steven Soderbergh, recalls his earlier, ambient work for ’71. “I’d worked on a project with David before,” says Demange. “When he heard I was doing a movie set in Belfast, he read the script and told me, ‘When I was four years old, I was sitting in the bath tub my house was bombed. I’ve got to do this movie’. I don’t even think he was ever offered the job. It just happened.” Unusually, Demange asked Holmes to compose the music before ’71 even started shooting. “He’d never done that before,” says Demange, “but it worked great for me, especially filming at the Park View estate for ’71’s third act. I’d direct a sequence, with David’s music on my headphones, and immediately feel a tone for the scene.”
The result is a desperate, urgent manhunt thriller set in a fierce, fluid period in British history rarely represented on screen. “Most of the films about the Troubles are relatively modern,” says Lamont. “But in contemporary footage from 1971, Belfast and its people look like they were from a previous era, a distinct look, more ‘50’s than ‘70’s, that was mirrored even in the British Army uniforms. It was 1972 that saw a spike in violence, close to 500 murders, but if you want to know why that happened, you have to look at the period before it.”
The film captures that turbulent era, when the IRA, Loyalists, police and military were all trying to figure their way around the situation they found themselves stuck in. That chaos seems unknown today, forgotten. So it’s appropriate that the central character has the same perspective as most of the audience. Dropped in the middle of it and trying to understand which side is which. Lamont says “Through his eyes we’re hoping to provide insight into what was a dark, dark time”. O’Connell follows “From the reaction we’ve had, from people who lived through the Troubles, it feels like the film is an honest portrayal. There’s no incrimination – it’s the story of a war, and in war, the rules get bent.” He pauses and smiles, “it should make for a boss film.”
’71 opens on October 10th in the UK (expect word on a US release date shortly). Alongside O’Connell, the likes of Paul Anderson, Richard Dormer, Sean Harris, Martin McCann, Charlie Murphy, Sam Reid, Killian Scott, David Wilmot, Jack Lowden, and Jim Sturgeon also star.