Director Vincent Lambe talks about his Oscar-nominated short Detainment


Vincent Lambe, the director of the Oscar-nominated short subject Detainment, talks to Culturess about crime, humanity, and tabloid backlash

In 1993, two 10-year-old boys in England became the youngest convicted killers in modern history after abducting and murdering a three-year-old. Their story has permeated the popular culture, being the inspiration for everything from feature-length films to episodes of Law & Order. And yet in 26 years, the impact of the case has never wavered. Though the two killers have served their sentence and been released, they’ve been given new identities, leading to several arrests of average citizens who have claimed to know them and released their alleged names online.

All of this is at the heart of Vincent Lambe’s Oscar-nominated short subject, Detainment. Using actual trial transcripts he presents a recreation of the interrogation of the boys, Jon Venables (played by Ely Solan) and Robert Thompson (played by Leon Hughes). At a taut 30-minutes Detainment is a master class of suspense and heartbreak, presenting these two boys free of sympathy or bias, but instead with sad humanity and authenticity. Lead actors Solan and Hughes are playing average kids, their acting raw and natural. Hughes, in particular, is aggressive and cocky as the dominant Robert, arguing with the detectives trying to catch him in a lie.

Director Lambe sat down to talk to Culturess about making Detainment, the backlash he’s faced at attempting to tell this story, and how it feels to have an Oscar nomination for a film that many felt was “too heavy.”

What inspired you to tell this story?

It’s a story that I’ve been hearing about since I was 12-years-old. I could never understand how these two 10-year-old boys could commit such a horrific crime. It would come back in the news again and I remember the shudder I felt because it had been so long since I heard about the story. I wanted to try and understand, or get a better understanding as to what could have led two 10-year-old boys to kill. I started reading everything I could find on the case.

I eventually got to the interview transcripts and I was amazed that it wasn’t public knowledge even though they’re there and accessible. No one had ever made anything on this case and certainly never delved into those transcripts. I saw something that not everyone was seeing with them. At the same time, I had a lot of apprehensions about making the film because it’s such a hugely sensitive subject, so I wanted to make sure everything in the film was entirely factual and that there were no embellishments whatsoever.

Writing it was like fitting pieces of the puzzle together…

Well and here in the U.S. I know this story has “inspired” a lot of television shows and movies.

That’s right. A lot of the ones that have done this have changed names. With this film, we went through every scene, every line, because I wanted to make sure we could call it a true story as opposed to just being based on a true story or inspired by a true story. The film is entirely factual, which is why we used the real names of the boys. It was fascinating when I read it, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been made. Writing it was like fitting pieces of the puzzle together, deciding when to cut from Jon’s interview to Robert’s interview, and to get that balance of tension.

And you’ve received quite a bit of pushback for this film, particularly from the victim’s family, correct?

You are absolutely correct. There’s a media storm in the UK.

What’s that been like?

I’ve learned a huge amount about how the UK media does its work. I was expecting to get a certain amount of backlash with a story like this because it is a case that divides opinion. It’s full of grief and anger and so horrific that people want to shy away from it and don’t want to look at it. I was always expecting a certain amount of backlash, but I never expected that people would just say things about the film, which are untrue. That’s what’s happened now and people are understandably outraged because the tabloids have reported that there’s violence in the film; they think it’s a very different film. There’s no violence in the film whatsoever. It’s all this misinformation [and] people believe what they read and [the tabloids] won’t correct it. I’ve asked them to print my response and correct it, and there are experts now connected to the case who have come out and said the film is entirely accurate. But the tabloids like the story the way they have it, and if they like a story the way they’ve got it they won’t do anything.

It’s very hard but there’s been some very intelligent articles like in The New York Times and the Times of London and The Evening Standard, responsible broadsheets that are now beginning to review the film and are saying it’s responsibly made. I hope we can turn it around, but there’s a lot of damage that’s been done and it’s all based on misinformation and very hard to counteract because people haven’t seen the film. The only people outraged by it are the ones who haven’t actually seen it.

Isn’t that the way, though? People assume based on a premise or a title…

Yeah, or they’ve read something in the tabloids and so many articles that were done are purposefully misleading. It’s just not responsible journalism but it’s caused this huge media storm. The amount of death threats and hate mail I’ve been getting is insane. So I hope people will see the film and will watch it with an open mind.

And for a case that happened so long ago, there is much still swathed in mystery. As your film mentions certain transcripts have never been released because they were too horrific.

It was also because they figured it wasn’t relevant to the conviction of abduction and murder. Some people try to make more out of those than there really is. They say it was things of a sexual nature and they weren’t trying it on a sexual assault charge, so that’s also part of the reason they weren’t played. But also I think they felt it would be too distressing and wasn’t necessary to put the family through that.

… the only way to prevent something similar from happening in the future is if we understand the cause of it.

I wonder too if there’s something to be said about how the legal system is presented. The perpetrators are given extreme anonymity now which isn’t like that here in the U.S.

Because they were children their identities should never have been released. That was one of the most ludicrous things about the case. I couldn’t understand how all these things were in place to protect young offenders and they all went out the window with this case. They were tried as adults as well. People thought that the decision to try them as adults was going to go on for a long, extended period. There’s a journalist I’m in touch with now who was there for the hearing. He said there were two schoolteachers who came in and said, “Yes, they know it’s wrong to hit. They know it’s wrong to lie. They know it’s wrong to steal.” And they got a neighbor as well to say the same thing. Then they said, “Okay, well they know right from wrong. We’re going to try them as adults.” Just like that. It’s a whole different set of rules.

But also the reason to release their identities; I read what the judge said and I started to understand why. He says he wants there to be an informed public debate on it. He felt it was for the greater good of society, and he wanted people to look into their backgrounds and understand who these boys were so that it never happens again. But that has never been done, so it’s a big part of why I wanted to make the film because people will just call them evil. They just look at them as evil and I think if you dismiss children as being evil it can lead to similar crimes being committed. They don’t understand it, and the only way to prevent something similar from happening in the future is if we understand the cause of it.

Now if anyone says anything [other] than these two boys are evil — if you offer an alternative reason as to why they did it or try to understand it — you get criticized for it or shouted down and attacked, in my case, because they believe you’re being too sympathetic. The film isn’t meant to be sympathetic in any way. It’s not meant to make excuses for the boys, but it does attempt to understand them and it humanizes them and that’s what people have an issue with.

Can you talk about casting your leads? The children here are remarkable.

[The real boys] were two ordinary boys who did an extraordinary thing and that’s what people can’t understand. They want to think of them as these evil monsters and when it happened people couldn’t cope that these were 10-year-old boys. The only way they could makes sense of it was if they were evil.

I researched into who the boys were and what they were like. I’ve worked in casting for a long time. I worked as an agent as well for child actors. I’ve done thousands of auditions over the years. We did a really big casting [call] because one of the biggest challenges was to find these two incredibly talented child actors who could play those roles. They’re probably two of the most challenging roles I’ve ever come across for child actors. Ely Solan plays Jon [Venables] and Leon Hughes plays Robert [Thompson], and they’re both extraordinarily talented actors. The way we did the casting I did slightly different, which I like to do when I’m casting anything.

I get the kids off the script because a lot of the time they’ll come in and be well-prepared with their drama teacher and no matter what direction you give them they’ll give you a similar delivery because they’re over-rehearsed. So with this one, we would get them to prepare one scene and then we’d start improvising with them immediately after. So I’d have an actor in the room who would start improvising and start saying things like, “Well, I think you’re lying. I think you’re lying and I think Robert’s telling the truth.” It was great to see what they did with that. I told the actor improvising with them to do it slightly differently. So in the film, the detective is very gentle with the boys. I told him to lose the rag with them a little bit and scare them and see what they do. It was great because suddenly the boys, they weren’t acting anymore. They were just responding.

What was it like once the kids were on-set because you’re dealing not just with two 10-year-olds but also a 3-year-old?

I’ve got a lot of experience doing it without really planning it [laughs]. I found that by working in casting I found that I learned a lot about how to direct actors, especially child actors, and to find effective ways of working with them. I always wanted to make films, and then just to make money I moved into casting and never really planned it that way. It was great experience to learn how to direct children and I’m grateful for working with them. The boys also put a huge amount of work in themselves. They have to have that in them. We became good friends and it was great working with them on it. They developed a really good understanding of who those boys were.

Was there hesitancy during casting from parents to let their children audition considering the notoriety of the case?

A lot of parents, when they knew what it was about, decided not to let their kids go to the audition. Quite a few of them had an issue with that because it’s a hugely sensitive case. If people can’t accept that they’re human beings then we’ll never understand what could have led them to commit the crime.

Your short is really going beyond how movies have portrayed child killers in the past.

Tabloids like to keep it very black and white that those boys were evil and that’s why they did it. That’s why I could never make sense of it because it was such a simplistic answer. I wanted to look into their backgrounds, bring some shades of gray to the black-and-white of the case.

You bring up color and I noticed a lot of color changes when you’re shooting Jon’s interrogation versus Robert’s. Was that an intentional choice?

One of the biggest things we changed is what the interview rooms looked like. It was done mainly as a storytelling device, where we’ve got a different color in each of the rooms, different tones, so the audience always knows which room they’re in because there’s so much cutting back-and-forth between those two rooms. In reality, both rooms have white walls, but it would be confusing for an audience to [see] that. We wanted the audience to know which room they were in at all times so we went with a grayish-blue tone for Jon’s room and Robert’s room has these beige-y/brown tones.

There’s a different mood in each of the rooms, as well, that’s determined by how the boys respond to when they’re questioned and the detectives’ reaction to that. Robert, he wanted to argue back with the detectives; he had smart-aleck answers for everything. But then Jon is the complete opposite. The first hint that he might not be telling the truth he’s up out of his chair hysterical; he throws himself into the lap of the detectives for comfort at one stage and then buries his head against his mother and wails, “I never, I never” until it no longer sounds like words but just one long cry. That’s how it was. They were hugely emotional scenes.

It just feels real and raw.

When you’re working with a story that’s so emotionally charged was there a particular day of filming that presented a challenge to capture?

Every day was difficult. We had a lot of fun shooting the shopping center scenes, but every other day there was one big challenging emotional scene. The film, it’s full of these scenes and it was important for all of those to be done with an intimacy and a naturalness which makes the audience never feel as if they’re being played. That was probably the second biggest challenge. The first was to find these two boys to play the roles and the second was to do all those emotional scenes in such a way that the audience never feels like they’re too demanding of their attention but that it affects them. It just feels real and raw.

I have to ask what it felt like when you got the Oscar nomination?

First of all, the biggest shock was when we found out we were shortlisted because we absolutely didn’t expect to make the shortlist of ten films. There were so many other great films that were on the longlist and they’d been winning at festivals. Our film had only been screening for about six months in festivals. I was afraid people weren’t watching it because Academy voters don’t have to watch everything on the longlist when they’re voting at that stage. I just assumed they were going to overlook Detainment because it had such a short life. It had won a lot of awards in those six months but it hadn’t gone to the big festivals because it wasn’t screening that long.

When it made the shortlist it took my breath away. We couldn’t believe it. From 140 films down to 10. Then it made the nominations and it was the first name they called out. It’s a strange feeling to be here, but great. It’s great it’s getting the recognition and I think it’s getting the recognition because Academy voters are recognizing it’s responsibly made and it’s a balanced film. I hope all the people that are outraged by it will actually watch it and realize it’s a different film to the one that they think it is.

And I hope it proves the validity of the short film category. With the Academy wanting to cut the shorts for time and then backpedaling, these short films should be presented and honored.

It packs a lot in, in thirty minutes. I wanted to make a film that would affect audiences and would have the power to affect social change. I think it’s a good example of what you can do with a short film. They don’t all need to be simple little stories that make you smile. A lot of festivals wouldn’t show Detainment because they thought it was too heavy for the audience. It was really depressing getting this feedback because they gave us great feedback saying, “It’s a really good film, but just not right for our audience.” Or else they couldn’t find a slot for it because it was long, it’s thirty minutes and it is hard to program. I was getting this sinking feeling and then the Oscar nominations came out and it changed everything. It was amazing. It canceled everything else out.

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You can watch the 91st Academy Awards this Sunday, February 24 on ABC at 5 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. CT.