’71- Interview with Jack O’Connell and Gregory Burke

To mark the release of the exceptional debut feature from director Yann Demange, I caught up with lead actor Jack O’Connell and screenwriter Gregory Burke.

First things first- the comment in the script Derby and Nottingham-was that already in or did Jack put that in?
Jack: Well its blueprint was…
Gregory: Yeah it was a Yorkshire / Lancashire thing at first, but then obviously with Jack being a Derby lad, it was his prerogative really.
Jack: I was quite happy to make myself yet more Northern, but I’ve always been on the belief that my region isn’t really susceptible to cinematic coverage at all.
Gregory: It also proves that tribal conflicts are everywhere, there’s fault lines wherever you look, if you look hard enough.

Gregory, the film isn’t heavily bogged down in politics. When you were writing it, what made you decide to treat it as a sort of thriller?
Gregory: Well I’m not particularly interested in writing a film about Northern Irish politics, number one because I’m not Northern Irish, but also, I just wanted to do it from a squaddies point of view, because I thought that it was a thing that hadn’t really been covered. When I wrote Black Watch (Burke’s play about the conflict in Iraq) I found that there was this thing, particularly in drama where if you’re in a uniform, you’re either this poor little boy who is being lead to his death by his superiors, or you’re a robot-like thug who’s just there to kill people- but the Army isn’t like that. People join the Army for a myriad of reasons. Mostly they join for a job, but there’s lots of different reasons. It also contains lots of different types of people, it doesn’t just contain thugs or lost little boys. There are elements of that in Jack’s character, he’s absolutely looking for a home and a structure, and the Army know how to push those buttons on young men. They absolutely use these boys for a purpose that’s destructive. That’s the reason why I wanted to do it from a squaddie’s point of view, and of course there’s the back drop of the Troubles which I felt was relevant to our times that we’re living in now. Armies don’t fight armies anymore, armies fight civilians.

When writing from Gary Hook’s (Jack O’Connell) perspective, do you ever get worried about getting embedded in one point of view?
Gregory: Well in 1971, as the conflict went on, the British Army became more and more entrenched on the loyalist side but in ’68 when they first went, they went to protect the Catholics from loyalist paramilitaries. So the Army were at a pivotal point anyway on the early ‘70’s, kind of going from the initial role they were doing. The Army didn’t really know what they were doing at that point either, there wasn’t an infrastructure in place, and they didn’t really understand how to fight that kind of war. It was quite easy to steer clear of the politics, you don’t have time in 90 minutes to go back through the history anyway. Gary Hook is on the middle of it all, we just about wanted to get enough of it in so that we weren’t glossing over it and saying ‘that wasn’t happening’ but at the same time we couldn’t get bogged down in that.

When you’re writing, do you feel aware that you’re telling the story of a conflict where people who lived though it are still around?
Gregory: If I had made it a film about a soldier who had actually been killed in Northern Ireland, that you’re going to have that soldiers’ family saying ‘That was my son, you have no right to do that’. It’s about fictionalising it enough that you’re not actually telling someone’s story. It’s like any situation where you’re telling a real-life story, it has to be fictionalised enough to make the drama work.

Jack, as an Irishman yourself, were you happy with the way that the Irish people were portrayed?
Jack: It was key for me that neither side of the divide was depicted with any form of bias or prejudice I never once felt that the story had tried to sway my opinion. I read what is happening as the truth because to me, we’re in a real-life premise. I think it’s a credit to the casting too, but we didn’t only have the opportunity to tell their stories, but also to work with some of the most exciting young actors in Ireland.

It’s a really tense film to watch, was it that tense on the shoot too?
Jack: It’s even more tense, I’d argue. One thing you don’t have to experience in the cinema is how cold it was, and then they obviously spray me down with cold water to make me sweaty; I’d have been much happier providing my own sweat. If I wasn’t cold, I was extremely hot shooting the pursuit sequences in the middle of a fucking heatwave in Blackburn in March. I don’t deserve any extra credit for that, I knew what I was getting myself in to, but it’s a prerequisite for me; if you’re going to feel exhausted watching it, then something’s got to give on set.

Do you enjoy the more physical roles?
Jack: Yeah I suppose, there’s a lot I have to do between things to keep up that sort of level of stamina and that’s not so exciting. And so I probably do feel myself overdue a little bit more of a relaxed role but that’s unambitious you know? I’m actually craving the sleep deprivation and the hurt again. If I’m portraying people like Gary and Louis Zamperini (his role in Angelina Jolie’s ‘Unbroken’) I’m never going to hurt as much as they do and they made it through so I’m always dwarfed by their example a lot of the time, and that gives you a kick up the arse. There’s an emotional exhaustion too, so when you’ve got both of them to contend with, you’re really being made to work for your money. But I don’t feel like I’ve been pushed to my absolute extreme. It was hard enough, ’71, but it didn’t break me.

You considered joining the Army, was that something you brought to the role?
Jack: Yeah, it areas that go unnoticed you know i.e. the shape of my beret was taught to me in the cadets, and little things like that help me feel like a soldier. There were times if it was getting boring on set where I would just go and do some drill somewhere just to help stay in that sort of mind-set. But I haven’t looked back since becoming an actor I can tell you that much.

How deep to you go when preparing these roles?
Jack: As deep as you can really, but sometimes you’re battling against the elements too. Something like ’71, you’re filming on a residential area so you have the reality of 2013 constantly hindering your illusion of 1971. So I’m not sure how beneficial it is to be super rigid and strict about becoming method in that role but it does benefit me, certainly.

Gregory, did you have Jack specifically in mind when you were writing it?
Gregory: Well I probably didn’t went I was writing it initially, because I don’t really have time to think about anybody, I just think about the character, but actually it became quite obvious as I was I was writing it that if we weren’t going to get Jack then we’d be struggling.

There were some amazing young actors in the film, what was it like working with them?
Jack: I’m really susceptible to adopting youngsters on set! I remember a similar thing happening to me when I was a youngster and I really appreciated that leadership that was on offer and I don’t mean being nurtured either, sometime it was very effective for me when people were quite mean to me, and that would sometimes be more beneficial to me than feeling welcome. I try to steer away from that a bit, particularly in young Harry Verity’s case, I could sense him envisaging me as a bit of a brother by the end of it, and it’s tricky as well because these things finish and then you go your separate ways, and I’m only just getting comfortable with that and this kid’s around 10 years old. And then there’s young Corey McKinly too. I’m just in constant awe of these kids, and it does a lot for me, it educates me too. We had a strong cast there and as much as Yann had to keep the pace and had to make this exciting, it also relied on performances to make it human and I feel very flattered and fortunate that I was in there amongst the likes of Sean Harris and Killian Scott.

Are you both happy with the final film?
Gregory: I’m delighted actually, at the time of writing it I thought it was the least promising thing I was writing! But as it developed it was the quickest of all and it was quite a painless experience as writer. I think it’s brilliant, and it’s down to Yann and Jack, and so many people. And I’m chuffed with the reaction it’s had so far.
Jack: It was important for me that the same things that attracted me to the script were going to be the things that I celebrated as well. We are just depicting the truth and displaying the costs. Because someone is profiting from what we’re portraying here, making money out of that shit, and I think we’re duty-bound to portray that sensitively.

Originally published on Hey U Guys

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