'They knew the motivation behind what I was trying to do' - Irish director Frank Berry on working with former prisoners during research for Michael Inside
Chris Wasser sat down with the director of critically acclaimed Irish film Michael Inside, which has just hit the big screen in Ireland.
The Best Film winner at the 2018 Irish Film and Television Awards, the critically-acclaimed Michael Inside is finally released in cinemas this weekend. Written and directed by Frank Berry (I Used to Live Here), the film tells the story of an 18-year-old Dubliner named Michael (Dafhyd Flynn, in a star-making turn) who is caught holding a bag of drugs for a friend and is sentenced to three months in prison. Co-starring Lalor Roddy as Michael’s grandfather, Francis, and Moe Dunford as a violent prison inmate named David, Michael Inside turns the prison film genre on its head with its fraught yet compassionate take on a familiar format. We sat down with film production teacher-turned-award-winning director, Frank Berry, to talk research, casting and the real issues at the heart of Michael Inside…
How did the idea for Michael Inside come about?
“I first got the idea to make a film about [the characters of] Michael and Francis during the production of my last film, I Used to Live Here, which I finished shooting in early 2014, so it would have been the year previous to that. It’s a relationship I’ve observed over the years of a grandparent / grandchild, and also, working on I Used to Live Here, I met a lot of young people that inspired me, who I felt didn’t really have a big picture – a look at their understanding of their life direction, you know, they may have left school early, they were vulnerable. So, while I was making I Used to Live Here, I knew what my next film would be…”
You spent 18 months researching for the project, working alongside the Irish Prison Service, and conducting interviews, classes and workshops with former prisoners and participants of the Pathways film education programme. Talk to us about this process…
“First of all, when I went to Pathways, they were careful about agreeing to me going there every week, and to the type of research that I wanted to do, because obviously, they have responsibility to the participants there. I had a long conversation with the manager, Tom Lonergan, and we talked a lot about life, and I know now that he was just sussing me out!
“I had just made a film with non-professional actors in Tallaght, and I spoke about that experience of sitting with young people for such a long period of time and how I wanted to express their lives, and I think that the sincerity of it resonated with him, and he suggested starting softly, just going down and seeing how the participants responded to me. They might have said ‘No’ and then that would have been the end of it.
“So, I started doing that and then I asked the participants if they wanted to see my last film, and the college that I teach in, Colaiste Dhulaigh in Coolock, was screening it for the students, and I invited the former prisoners to come down and see it, so they could get a sense of what I’m about. I think that was a turning point. I think they knew the motivation behind what I was trying to do”.
What was the initial response to the character of Michael?
“When I talked about Michael, the former prisoners responded to it. Not everybody could relate to it directly, but a lot of the people that I came across over the 18 months would have been able to connect with that story in relation to their own past. The more the project went along, the more people opened up, because they felt, you know, ‘Maybe I could be part of something positive here’. That really started to come into play. And they became really honest.”
Michael Inside doesn’t play out like a formulaic prison drama…
“I never described it initially as a ‘prison drama’, because it came from the same place as I made I Used to Live Here, as a social drama. We were coming at it from a different angle – a character who is convicted of a crime, and then we follow him into prison and the focus is how he changes and how it affects him, so it was Michael ‘inside’, in prison, but also how he changes inside himself. I think that focus kept us from feeling the need to hit the marks of a conventional (prison) drama. It has more in common with classic social realism, perhaps, than the prison genre”.
How did you come to cast Dafhyd Flynn in his first lead role?
“I’ve known Dafyhd for a long time, and I was just really convinced of his ability to act naturally and to be expressive. I knew that I needed to convince the Irish Film Board and my production company, so I did some workshops, they were just some short scenes, but for the Film Board, I took photographs of previously unknown actors from social realist dramas, like Kes, Ratcatcher and A Short Film About Killing, and then I put Dafhyd in the middle and I talked about how what all these actors have in common is a deep stare or an ability for us to wonder what they’re thinking. Even in his photographs, you could see that quality, and with a film that has a social issue, this ability to express emotion channels the issue through the main character. I was convinced that Dafhyd had that quality.
“Also, I get on so well with him. Even though we’re from different backgrounds, a lot of Dafhyd’s character does remind me of myself when I was that age. He was wonderful to work with. For such a young man, he’s genuinely motivated by the work. He’s not preoccupied with being famous, at all. I brought his workshop scenes into Pathways, and I showed them to former prisoners and they all recognised the authenticity. Because Dafhyd knows people who have gone through what Michael goes through, he was an authority on the character of Michael”.
Is it true that Moe Dunford wrote you a letter asking for a part in this film?
“That is true, and it was wonderful to receive. It’s even better to receive when it’s someone that you admire as much as I admire Moe. It’s really important to me that everybody I’m working with doesn’t just see the job as another gig, but actually is involved in what we’re trying to do and is invested in it. And from the very beginning, I felt that Moe was engaged in what we were doing. And I really appreciated that.”
What would you like audiences to take away from Michael Inside?
“First of all, I hope that people have a cinema experience that’s powerful, I think that’s something that we all hope for when we go to the cinema, is to be moved. I’m such a huge fan of cinema and that’s my motivation, is to make a compelling story that people will be moved by and it could reaffirm what they already know, or it could enlighten them in some way. And I think early indications tell us that a lot of people are finding it very moving. If the film can have a purpose, that’s one of my motivations, too, and it was a motivation of the former prisoners, to reach people, to offer and to express some compassion for lives that maybe people in our society can judge a bit too quickly…”
Michael Inside is in cinemas now.