Interview with SANCTUARY director Len Collin

Set in the world of people with intellectual disabilities, the award-winning SANCTUARY is a touching and funny love story about Larry and Sophie, two people who long to be together in a world that does everything to keep them apart.

Larry has Down syndrome, Sophie has severe epilepsy.  The two are attracted to each other and, through a care worker Tom, they sneak away to a hotel room during a supervised trip to the cinema.  What do they do once they are there?  How do they express a love that dare not speak its name?  Are they aware that in Ireland they are about to break the law?

The movie opens in Irish cinemas on Friday 7th – Check out our behind the scenes chat with director Len Collin.

How did you get involved with Sanctuary?
I initially got involved with Blue Teapot Theatre Company when they commissioned me to write a short film script for them. That script was never made into a film, but was performed at Druid Theatre as part of Culture Night in 2011. As a result though I became part of the Blue Teapot family and began teaching the actors classes on acting to camera. So I was around for Sanctuary when it was first performed. After I saw the play pints were had, and I proposed to Petal Pilley, who directed the play and commissioned Christian O’Reilly to write it, that we should make it as a film. It was probably the most expensive pint I’ve ever had.

What drew you to the project?
The quality of the written work, and the performances of the cast were just amazing. They have great stage presence. However it was the fact that this was a world that is rarely seen through the gaze of the person with disability. Yes, there are stories about disability and Intellectual Disabilities, but they tend to reflect the normative view of the world, this was a story about people with ID by People with ID.

Christian O’Reilly wrote the screenplay, but the film feels very personal to the cast. Did they have much input?The cast clearly had a lot of input…  What was interesting about the short film script I had written… and Christian’s script  for Sanctuary, was how we had both latched on to the “Personalities of the Pots” My short was a bleak, darkly humorous piece set in a dystopian future – Yet the characters I had, were similarly drawn to those in Sanctuary.

With Kieran (Coppinger) playing the straight laced boyfriend of Charlene (Kelly) and Patrick (Becker) being the joker in the pack. The fact is they are forceful personalities and that has to be respected. They were consulted and engaged with a lot both during the development of the play and the film. Christian and I felt strongly that it needed to be plausible and accurate. If the pots didn’t like it, thought it was silly or didn’t think they would do or say that… then it didn’t go in.

What was it like filming in Galway?
I love Galway… I’m from Sligo originally, a Mayo man at heart… raised my kids in Westport… but I want to live in Galway. It has everything. The best of the west. As a location there is so much variety, sea, countryside, city. The Council and the people got behind the film and we got amazing help… permissions to film in places that were busy at Christmas time for example. Kieran Hennessy our Locations Manager did a brilliant job. But also sometimes you had to act on the fly because of the weather… Storm Desmond blew in and that meant improvising by filming under the Spanish Arch… the scene looks stunning Beautifully shot by Russell Gleesson… and Michael Lemass was awesome on sound… because literally it is in the middle of a storm “Don’t go into the water!” As herself was saying on RTE that night. Yet we carried on filming and you could hear every word. Galway deserves to be a city of film. Love it!

How did you balance the lighthearted feel, the humour and the darker elements of the film?
Again I think a lot of this comes from the cast. They deal with life’s problems very differently to many of us… They do not dwell. The character of Sophie has an awful past, but she doesn’t dwell on it… she just wants to be in control of what happens. It was always in my mind whilst directing that I had to be true to their personalities, their performances… but as a creative you need to be able to control those elements. So for example to me it was important to inform the audience carefully of what people with ID have to contend with… but then just get on with it. So if Larry takes a while to change his shirt, fine… but it gets changed. If Sophie has a tremor and shakes… so what… she gets on with it. That’s what they do. They triumph… and that spirit I think is the driving engine of the film.

The film really brings a whole section of society who are somehow less visible, and treated very differently than the rest of society, to the fore. Was this something that you felt strongly about?
Oh yes. I’m often asked if I have a relative with Down’s or Autism, as people often wonder how you get involved. I worked as an actor for many years in TIE (Theatre in Education) and in later years worked in disability arts every now and then such as at Colchester’s Dis-Play theatre group in the UK where I wrote a play and co-Directed it. So I’ve always had an awareness of the issues involved… but didn’t connect 100% until I worked with Blue Teapot. They end up adopting you. Kieran calls me his second dad (He probably has lots of second dads) and I’m proud of that, He’s a lovely person and a very talented actor. I promised the guys I would make a film with them… and now it’s happened… and I’m even building a PhD around it because I want to see more actors with disability on the screen. Pat and Lenny… I love “Garage” but imagine making that film with Kieran Coppinger as Josey. We were on a Blue Teapot day trip to Connemara a few years back, and I came along with the guys… we walked into an empty hotel – that shall remain nameless, it wasn’t busy – and the staff could not have been more unhelpful – and it was because we were “Specials”  – Now it’s much rarer these days than it was in the past… but think of what names you called the kid who was not up to scratch in mental arithmetic or sports events… They are nearly always derogatory terms associated with intellectual disability…. well you could almost see those words fluttering in front of the eyelids of the waitress that day.It makes you very angry. So yes I want to see change… and yes I’m passionate and lets truly see accurate portrayals of disability on screen by actors who have those disabilities.

What was it like working with a cast with intellectual disabilities, and who view the world differently than the society that often ignores them?
It probably comes across by now… but it’s a joy and a privilege. They face adversity with courage, dignity and good humour. I wish I could say that about myself.
Since you made the film, certain sections of the 1993 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act have been repealed, giving what the law calls “protected people” more say in their own lives. How did that feel?
Better than an Oscar. It’s fantastic to be able to make real changes happen. Often there is a misinterpretation around this area. We are not advocating that people with ID go book hotel rooms and head out to the pharmacy and by packets of well known prophylactics- No. It depends entirely on the individuals concerned. Just as it does for all of us… and this is the contentious issue around the law change. It now says “Protected Persons” instead… and actually allows consenting adults to do what consenting adults do. But the “Protected Persons” phrase is unnecessary. It’s already covered by other laws. The key is that it always has to be and should be consensual. So the campaign continues by people like Inclusion Ireland for the law to go further. There should be no difference for you, I or anyone. So yes… delighted with the law change… and hopefully it will be amended again to be truly equal.

What was it like to win the Michael Dwyer Discovery Award at ADIFF earlier this year? Did this help with getting the film to a wider audience?
Any award is special and gratefully received. Making a film is hard… and it drains the life and energy from you, so when people give you an award or a good review, or a laugh, or tears it’s just brilliant. However the to get the Michael Dwyer Award at ADIFF was just stunning. I don’t think I ever met Michael but he was an amazing man who has done so much for film in Ireland… one of the legends like Galway own Lelia Doolan. So for the cast of Sanctuary to be given that award was beyond words. Charlene’s face when she held the award priceless. The Dublin Critics Circle who decide the award are top critics… its their job to watch and appraise films… so personally I was stunned… because between you and me despite all the confidence… we didn’t really know if it could be done…. Not really… Not til you do it…. but now we do know. At which point I really do need to thank Edwina Forkin of Zanzibar Films…. She put so much on the line for this film… I can’t say how much… or what…. but without her this film would not have happened. Without the support of Blue Teapot, or the film board, or the BAI… and so many unsung heroes. Marina, the two Sonja’s, Danielle, Laura…. Barry Reid so many… and now at this stage Siobhan and Claire at Eclipse, David at Geurilla and Gregg at Content…. But producers put their health and “wealth” or lack of on the line….  I don’t know how producers do it… but they do… and they get so little of the glory.

What’s next for you?
I’ve got two projects I’m desperate to make…. Box which is based on an award winning play that got my career started in 1991… I’m that old. It’s set in the First World War (I’m not that old) and in 1991 and it’s the story of two soldiers one English one German who fall in love and desert together… contrasted by the stories of two runaways a bigot and a dreamer who are trying to find meaning to their lives.

The other is To Dream With Open Eyes… which is about a farmer finding the dead body of a girl in his field. Instead of calling the guards he washes and dresses her in his mum’s best clothes and starts talking to her in Irish. She talks back and tells him he better find her killer or the guards will think he did it….. It’s a psychological thriller.

Both very different films from Sanctuary…. but both have humour and Forbidden Love as the there core themes…which is also I guess the theme of Sanctuary


SANCTUARY opens in Irish cinemas on July 7th