In a case that rocked Great Britain in 1993, 10-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson abducted and brutally murdered toddler James Bulger. The 2018 Academy Award-nominated short film Detainment dissects the interrogation of the two boys. Rent it here on YouTube.
My 2018 interview with Detainment's director Vincent Lambe has a lot of timeless content about true crime, these kinds of utterly senseless murders, and how they should be depicted on film.
I caught up with award-winning film-maker Vincent Lambe for a chat on screenwriting, film, research, true crime in film, film-making, and much more as it relates to his latest, the acclaimed short film Detainment, based on the horrific murder of young James Bulger in England in 1993.
The perpetrators of Bulger’s murder were two young boys, with Detainment chronicling a part of their interrogation by police and written from the actual interview transcripts produced at the time (see The Guardian’s selection of original primary material on the Bulger case here).
Ely Sloan and Leon Hughes give incredible performances as the two suspects Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in parts that really stretch what any actor (let alone child actors) has to face, in the profound evil of the case. Detainment also stars Will O’Connell (Game of Thrones), David Ryan (Vikings), Tara Breathnach (The Tudors), Morgan C. Jones (Legend of Cambria), Brian Fortune (Game of Thrones) and Kathy Monahan (Vikings).
Even more than 25 years after the Bulger murder, the question of why is still very much wide open, with nothing really being resolved. Lambe’s film eloquently explores the why question while giving us a realistic portrait of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, which was quite the razor to walk, as Lambe explains below.
Enjoy the interview and catch Detainment’s trailer below.
Hello Vincent and welcome! Getting right into Detainment, what inspired you to take the James Bulger case as inspiration for a short film? As somebody fascinated by true crime (then again, I suppose who isn’t?) I’m really kind of surprised it hasn’t been treated more extensively in cinematic form even though the crime itself happened 25 years ago.
Well, I often find there are certain events in history that get left untouched by film for a long time and this is one of them. It is a hugely sensitive subject – one of fear, despair and so horrific that many people shy away from absorbing any more facts about it.
Absolutely. It’s a horrific story: one that makes you wonder why?
I was 12 when it happened and I grew up hearing about it. 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. By the end, 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.
I admire that kind of realism.
What were the challenges like? Particularly in getting the child actors to approximate what it would be like to confront such unthinkable, profound depravity? I thought Ely Solan did a particularly good job of that as Jon when the officers get him to crack more fully.
One of the biggest challenges was finding these two incredibly talented child actors who could convincingly play the lead roles. We started casting very early because if we didn't have the right boys, then we didn't have a film.
Ely Solan gives a phenomenal performance as "Jon" which is one of the most challenging roles I have ever come across for a child actor. 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.
Ely is an extraordinary boy who is very in touch with his emotions and he has received a huge amount of critical acclaim for his utterly convincing and emotionally raw portrayal of "Jon".
Excellent. He deserves that acclaim.
Detainment was Ely’s first film, but he has gone on to play roles in some major productions including a young Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas alongside Jonathan Pryce and “Robert” in the upcoming feature film Four Kids And It starring Michael Caine, Russell Brand and Daniel Brühl.
Leon Hughes is also an exceptionally talented actor who gives a powerful performance as "Robert" which is another hugely demanding role.
In contrast to Jon, Robert wants to argue back with the detectives, he is self-assured and has a maturity beyond his years. 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.
Both Ely and Leon have already won acting awards for their performances in the film and they have received a huge amount of acclaim from critics and film festival juries all around the world.
After the boys had been cast, 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. We also did a lot of improvisation with the boys in character as "Jon" and "Robert". So by the time we started shooting, they were so well prepared and very comfortable with the roles.
What was your process like in deciding how to best balance the tension of the story? I thought you did an excellent job of taking the viewer over that ebb and flow and allowing enough confusion in to let the audience understand what it must’ve conceivably been like in the interrogation room specifically, and as a consequence, to see just how hard the detectives’ jobs are.
By adapting almost 15 hours of interviews into a 30 minute drama, the film really just gives us a brief 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 balance the tension and 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.
About the crime itself – this is something Detainment as a film also asks – what motive do you think Jon and Robert had? I’ve read a bit about possible sexual aspects to it (with the batteries especially) but apparently into adulthood both Jon and Robert had more or less never touched on this – even in deep analysis by forensic and child psychiatrists. Although it does also bear saying there that Jon ran into further trouble with the British system when he was out on the British version of parole for the crime and they apparently found what amounted to child pornography (my source called it “child abuse images”) in his possession. Maybe a repressed sexual aspect to the crime? I realize you aren’t a forensic shrink but I thought perhaps you had a theory as to motive, especially as one really can’t help asking that question in watching Detainment.
Well, it’s a very difficult issue. During their detention, both boys were examined constantly by experts skilled in understanding violent and unpredictable behaviour. Psychiatrists have prodded and probed for years, but have little more insight as to why the boys committed the crime.
Yeah, seems like motive here is rather enigmatic.
When I was growing up, I was always told that these boys were simply “evil” and a lot of people strongly believe that, but I think it’s just easier to label them ‘evil’ than to understand the mystery of human behaviour and what could lead two ten year-old boys to kill a toddler. I don’t believe that someone is simply born evil, but I think if you look into their family backgrounds, it will begin to offer at least some amount of insight and understanding.
I agree. Monsters are made. Not born.
A further question on the criminological aspect, what was your process like in essentially building a quasi-psychological profile of both boys for the film’s purposes?
I did a lot of research in to the boy’s family backgrounds, their personalities and the dynamic between them.
Jon came from a very respectable middle-class family. While his parents were separated, they were united in his upbringing. He had two homes and would spend part of the week with his mother and the other part with his father. But Jon was hyperactive and always playing up. He met Robert when he transferred from another school. Both boys had been held back a year and were put in the same class.
Robert was part of what can only be described as a terribly dysfunctional family. His father would beat his mother mercilessly and left the family home for good when Robert was five. His mother attempted suicide with pill overdoses, but eventually turned to drinking as a means of escape.
As a result, the Thompson household was a violent bedlam with six brothers. While Robert was picked on and beaten by his older siblings, he would take his aggression out on his younger, more vulnerable siblings.
While both boys blamed each other, it was reported that one of them said “Let’s get a kid, I haven’t hit one for ages”. Robert had created a sort of ‘tough guy’ persona for himself and felt like he needed to live up to that. Jon, on the other hand, was weak, but he was desperate to impress his tough friend. On account of that dynamic between them, neither would chicken out or back down once the task was set.
Sort of a similar dynamic (sans the serial killing) to the likes of Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Toole it seems: one more dominant, the other more passive.
What does the Bulger case and Detainment as a film have to say about the nature of evil? Not necessarily that the boys were evil but there was certainly a profound degree of evil in the actions they took.
Newspapers, seeking to reflect the mood of the nation have labelled the killers variously as “evil”, “monsters”, “the spawn of Satan” and “freaks of nature” with “hearts of evil”. I think Detainment as a film, shows us Jon and Robert, for the first time, not as the evil monsters of popular imagination, but simply as they were – two ten year-old boys who have committed a horrendous crime and they don’t know why. The film is not intended to be sympathetic to the boys or to make excuses in any way, but by authentically dramatizing their interview transcripts, I think it forces us to acknowledge the worst of human potential and still see humanity.
Yeah. I absolutely didn’t see the film as sympathetic to the boys. It eloquently showed the very real minutiae of the interrogation and the crime itself.
Any really memorable moments from behind the scenes during filming? (I usually add “funny” as another adjective in there but that obviously is not appropriate here).
Even though there were some very intense scenes, it was a very warm, friendly set for the boys to work on and they really enjoyed the experience. We became good friends and there were plenty of light moments during the breaks between filming. The boys used to make fun of me because they started noticing that all of my shirts had blue and white stripes. Quite observant of them, really. I have a lot of shirts and true enough, they are all blue and white!
One question I ask everyone: what directors and films have most influenced you as an artist?
I have always been fascinated by true stories and there have been some incredibly powerful fact based dramas that have had an influence on me recently such as this year’s BAFTA-winning BBC drama Three Girls which is bravely told and challenges the audience in it’s dramatisation of the Rochdale child sex abuse scandal. Some others that come to mind are BBC’s The Moorside, a heartbreakingly human drama about the disappearance of Shannon Matthews and ITV’s Little Boy Blue which is an emotionally raw and powerful account of the murder of 11 year-old Rhys Jones.
What makes a great film?
I think, regardless of the genre, it’s a filmmaker’s job to elicit an emotional response in the viewer. If I watch a film and don’t feel anything, then I think it has failed as a film. But the films that I think audiences most remember are the ones that affect them in such a way where they never feel like they are being played, but are left thinking about the story and the characters long after the closing credits have rolled.
Fantastic summation. Our final question, what’s next for you?
The success of the film so far has opened some doors for me. After it won the Young Director Award at Cannes and got a standing ovation, I woke up the next day with a huge amount of unread emails from companies who wanted to meet with me to talk about my future. Since then, the film has won over 12 awards and has been long-listed for the Academy Awards. I’m not sure exactly what’s next, but it’s definitely an exciting time.