Interview with director Frank Berry for ‘Michael Inside’, a new Irish film about an 18 year old man living in a Dublin housing estate who is sentenced to 3 months in prison after being caught holding a bag of drugs for his friend’s older brother. The film was researched & workshopped with former prisoners from the Irish Prison Service’s Pathways Programme

What was it like trying to build this genuine and heartwrenching film without having to worry that it came across as clichéd?
Well for me I didn’t have to worry too much about cliché’s if it came from real live’s so the idea was to research it as well as I could. I felt that the film had to be an expression of people’s experiences then it would have value. When I’m writing what I try to do is not make stuff up a much as I can. I try and listen to people and put something up on screen that would hopefully be beneficial and of value.

When you were crafting your cast how long before you found them? Because this is the second time you’ve worked with Dafhyd (Flynn), but how long before you found Moe (Dunford) and Lalor (Roddy)?
Okay well, I met Dafhyd when he was 12 so I know him a long time as well as his family. So I had him in mind for a while, but the question was would I be allowed to put him in a feature film so I had to do some workshops with him, three workshops in total, and I brought those to my producers and also to the Irish Film Board and I said I’d like to cast this young man and I got great support because I think they could see in those workshops all the quality I could see. Because Dafhyd has a real talent for subtle acting.

For expressive eyes.
Yeah very much so what I did with the film board was I took photographs of a lot of films that I liked that had unknown actors at the centre of them. The lead in Ratcatcher, a short film about killing, the lead in Kes and I put Dafhyd beside them and I said what they all have in common is they have this quality to channel an issue through them. They have a deep stare that if you film them in an environment they have a quality where they are responding to that environment. And there’s a poignancy about their presence and I felt that Dafhyd has that quality, he has the depth behind the eyes and that was very clear so when I put him amid a lot of other actors from films that have social issues they could see they could see the value in casting a person with not a lot of experience as opposed to a named actor. And Dafhyd did do that in the film.

So with Moe and Lalor what was it like casting them because they’re two sides of a path that Michael will have to head down.
Well Moe is an actor I’ve been a fan of for many years and after I made I Used To Live Here he wrote and dropped me a line, and it was lovely to receive. And of course when it came time to cast my next film I sent him a script and I sent him a letter saying how much I’d love him to play the part and he agreed which I was absolutely delighted by. Our very first conversation that was really important to me showed we were both coming from a similar place. He was really interested in the former prisoner’s experiences he was really, genuinely interested in what I was trying to do with the film, putting something on the screen for us to look at and discuss. And I immediately felt he was going to do something great here and it’s going to harmonise with what we’re trying to do with the film and so he came to the film from an authentic place so working with Moe I just observed how he likes to work and tried not to get in the way and would just talk to him about what the film is about away from the set and talk to him about the character of David and David’s past and Michael. And I could feel Moe getting more and more emotionally engaged and passionate and excited about this. And so I knew this was all I needed to do and then on set there wasn’t a lot of direction from me it was really a case of just letting him do his thing because I was confident he knew what the role entailed and he made it his own and sometimes he’d take me aside and he’d ask me a couple questions about David’s background and we’d talk like that. So it was a very satisfying way of working.

Regarding Lalor, Lalor was again a straight offer. I’ve been a fan of Lalor Roddy’s for many years but, to be honest, I haven’t seen him in enough major roles. Becuase I think he’s one of our finest actors in this country
That’s interesting that you say that because I don’t remember seeing Lalor in anything until this role and I dare say he’s a revelation. He’s heartbreaking, his journey through this is absolutely heartbreaking
Yes, he was amazing to work with. Like Moe, like Dafhyd he made the film better he asked all the right questions. Again I met him for a coffee after he accepted the role and we spoke for about two to three hours just about life and young people and my life and my experiences and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his views on the world. He’s a very wise man.

It shows in the film
Absolutely. He was such a pleasure, standing beside the camera watching what he was doing I was in awe. He’s just very serious, he has his own process and like Moe I tried to not get in the way of and the thing about actors is the support they give each other. The truth is I’ve never worked with an actor that wants to be famous I always feel strongly that when I’m sat in front of them that they’re really trying to express themselves and that there’s an artistic drive within them. And sometimes I think when you’re sitting across from that if you’re too impositional as a director you get in the way of them expressing themselves and I think what is important is to talk to them about what the film is about, what the scene is about away from the set. And just talk to them as human beings about life and then let them do their thing and then some actors need you to say dial it up or dial it down or they need feedback I’m just there for whatever they need.

On that topic there is a particular scene which I found incredibly affecting that involves Dafhyd and Moe and another actor I don’t want to go into too much detail because it’s quite a surprising scene involving another inmate and a kettle.
Oh yes.

What was that like to film and help Moe get in the mindset for that because I think it is easily the most intense scene of the film?
Okay, well it was initially daunting and it’s one of those things you know how you’re going to film it you’ve thought about it you’ve discusssed it you’ve planned it and all the elements are there and then you’re not quite sure how it’s going to happen so you’re hoping for a bit of magic and you’re hoping for some surprises. We shot most of the scenes apart from the montage are in one shot so there’s lot to be covered in one shot but I’ll tell you about that scene and how it evolved.

It’s quite haunting
Do you know what happened actually we filmed the scene and it was in one shot and we had everything in place and it was actually Moe’s first day.

Quite the day to enter
Yeah so we were planning the scene by putting the focus on different places and because Michael/Dafhyd is in the foreground and the lads are in the background we were focused on the lads in the background and I just felt it was lacking energy so we decided to pull focus to Dafhyd in the foreground and have what you would normally focus on in that scene out of focus and the whole thing became about Michael.

The tone of the film is very much set by that scene
Yes that’s Tony Doyle he’s a fabulous actor and he did this scene many, many times but you know there was a lot of tweaking to be done in that scene but the idea for the film is really exemplified in this scene. Because you don’t see the violence, the camera moves to Michael and we see how it affects him. One of the important points in terms of the ethos of the film is that I’m not interested in glamourizing violence or using it in any kind of dramatic way. I’m more interested in looking at how it affects somebody and its effects. That’s something we stuck to for most of the film, apart from the ending – which might be a spoiler!

I would say so!
So at the end of that scene, it was quite a celebration that we got to the end of it because it was quite tough to do. Everybody there gave it one hundred percent, it was great.

Looking at the flipside, because in the film I would see Lalor and Moe as the two sides that Michael has to choose between, what was it like filming Lalor scenes? Because they are in themselves a different kind of intensity. When he is being accosted by the gang members in his household in such a by-the-numbers kind of situation as if “this is the norm”. What was that like to do? Because those actors as well just seemed to work so well together.
It’s a great question. I wanted to express the feeling that I felt when people would tell me that this happens. So when you hear the firsthand stories about guys like this showing up at your door, taking a seat on your couch, sometimes they pick up the TV and walk out the door with the television – and it just fills you with dread, really. So in many ways, the power is how ordinary it all is, and how they feel they have a license to do this. So because family intimidation is becoming much more of an issue in recent years – it’s a serious, serious problem in our society. During my research with Pathways I heard an awful lot of stories of local, casual but really intimidating family intimidation. So I wanted to put that on the screen. I think when people see that, they recognize that this is the way it is. This is true. I think if we had made it more dramatic or tried to play the drama more it would’ve felt less real. So directing that, that was where I came from. I was keeping it very, very simple and letting the words, the characters do it all, let the actors do. So it’s very, very simply covered and I think by doing that – again I didn’t want to get in the way with too much camera work, I just wanted to actually show it – hopefully it will have a visceral response as something that’s true.

You said there you went on this kind of journey to find all these stories to give your film authenticity. What was it like hearing all these stories? How forthcoming were people in giving you a little brief look into their lives? I mean these are not happy memories at all, so how forthcoming were they to tell them?
Well first of all for this type of process there is no shortcuts. That’s what I learned years ago, is that you’re not going to arrive into an environment, in somebody’s life and all of a sudden be told everything. It takes months and years for people to get to know you and actually, very rightly so, as you and I would, they want to know: Who am I speaking to? What are their motivations? What are they trying to do? And there’s no better way of expressing sincerity than being there a lot, every week, not letting people down, being genuine in what you’re trying to achieve. And people recognize that. You build relationships, quickly we have a shared conviction that we wanted to put Michael’s story up on the screen because it resonated with their own lives. A sense of purposefulness and importance grew around the project. People wanted to contribute. They wanted to be part of something that they felt would end up being a positive project for them to be involved in. They could feel good about it. That if we could show this film, and maybe young people watching it could see their lives in a big picture. They could see how a decision Michael makes – it doesn’t even feel like a decision. It’s just this invisible moment where he agrees to take something, a bag of drugs, but it’s actually a pivotal, hugely significant moment in his entire life. If young people could see that, then that might have some value in a world that’s depicted that they can recognize as a world that they know. That resonated with the former prisoners, so they did open up to me. Some of the staff in Pathways commented on how successful it was, and how much the former prisoners that I was getting to know were getting out of it, of being able to do something positive with their experiences and tell me. Sometimes we’d be workshopping – acting out a scene – and it would get too much for somebody and they would say “I have to go”. Then they’d come back next week. But that was always very clearly said, that if this does touch a nerve or bring back memories then please take a step outside or come back next week. That happened a couple of times, once or twice but you’re working in the world of people’s experiences so you have to be sensitive and careful. I always try to position myself responsibly at the beginning of every job. I try to put everything right, all the elements, so that we make a film that’s safe for everyone and purposeful.

You talked about how this helped a lot of people find purpose after this kind of event happened. What was the inspiration for yourself to have this story be told, to have this story of Michael be told so that you could get these voices heard in a way that would get it out there for a lot of people?
Well, I was making my last film in Tallaght I got to know a lot of young people. I was two years there and I did a lot of research with youth workers. I became very friendly with them. I felt like I worked in the community centre I was there so often! Actually, a lot of young people thought I was a youth worker as well! But I was there a lot and when you’re sitting down with the young people you start to see the world from their perspective, and you ask them about their lives and how they see their lives, and the paths that they had as options for them. There were some young people that were already feeling feelings of defeat. I really like working with young people and I could see their potential. Statistically, some of them are going to end up as part of the prison population through the circumstances of the environment they’re growing up in not because they want to be criminals. So I wanted to make a film about disadvantaged communities and about the impact of crime that wasn’t a gangster film, didn’t pay the gangsters in that area any compliments. Didn’t want to compliment them at all. We’re not interested, we’re actually interested in how you’re affecting this young life. We’re not interested in you. That was my motivation.

Michael Inside is out in cinemas April 6th.

Words – Graham Day