After collecting awards all over the country – Best Irish Film (Galway Fleadh), Best Feature (IFTAs), Audience Award (Cork International Film Festival) – Michael Inside is now set for general release. It tells a sobering story of how a young man’s misdemeanours lead him into crime, and the flawed prison system that helps him get there.
Frank Berry wants to make work purposeful work. He has a clear view of the stories he wants to tell and how he will find them. Fascinated by the “lesser told story”, he has written and directed Michael Inside, a searing critique of the cycles of deprivation that feed into hungry justice system machinations. For him, Michael Inside is “a story about the penal system and it’s a story about how a young person gets involved in crime purely due to the circumstances and the environment he grows up in, in a disadvantaged community. A young lad. Slightly innocent, slightly not.”
Berry generates his ideas by thinking of the stories of individuals living on the periphery, and it was no different for Michael Inside. The aim for him was “to make a film about someone who is not necessarily at the centre of criminal activity, but maybe on the outskirts.” He finds stories in places that don’t initially seem dramatic but provide, as he describes it, “a different type of drama.”
Commonly, depictions of criminality are a glamourisation of gang culture or they use a narrative in which “the nucleus of the story is the nucleus of the crime.” But this approach would ignore what Berry sees as the reality of most incarcerated people. Berry wanted a film “that would be an enjoyable film, but also would have a purpose where you could screen it and people could look at life in the big picture.”
During two years of workshops with young people from Tallaght, Ballymun and Coolock, Berry noticed that many of them “weren’t engaged really in much, and they didn’t see really a life or a path for themselves, and because of the circumstances and the environment they were growing up in, they were left vulnerable.”
Berry was drawn to the communities in Tallaght as he had worked on community video projects there years ago. He is comfortable in that environment, in community centres with people who had something to say. The transition to feature films came organically and Berry naturally found himself making bigger films but with the same ethos. His objectives are still the same – to allow communities speak for themselves. “I’m really happy to have arrived at this place to be making films that make sense to me. I’m not necessarily trying to forge this huge career in it, I just want to keep making films that don’t necessarily have to be bigger than the last ones, I just want them to be better.”
Purposeful work requires a purposeful creative process. “I’ve always evolved a little bit the process, so in the next film I want to evolve even further.” In his 2014 film, I Used to Live Here “each scene was done in one shot, so it might have the power of realism as you are inhabiting the same time frame as the people on the screen. It’s not cut up by editing.” The seamless flow and gritty realism of Michael Inside is a progression of this technique, where most scenes are only one shot, “there isn’t a lot of chopping going on.”
Dafhyd Flynn who plays Michael explains how he experienced Berry’s directing: “Frank wanted to get realism into the film, so I didn’t see the script. I got my lines on the day and learned a few minutes before we shot.” While Flynn delivers a magnificent performance, a lot of what he portrays is genuine reaction. His first time on location in the prison was when he was shooting his scenes.
Berry hopes the increased sense of realism in Michael Inside will create a connection between his films, and “at the end of my career I’ll be able look back on this sequence of films that were connected in some way.” The next link in the sequence is in its early stages – a love story set in Direct Provision.
As a screenwriter and film director, Berry feels he has found his path, though it was not always direct. “I did a little bit of television, short films and that, but I didn’t really feel like I could see myself in the work.” The draw of photography, writing, and editing meant Berry could have gone in any direction, but having “always loved films, that’s basically where it started.”
Flynn was drawn to the film by chance. A friend brought him along to be an extra in a piece Berry was filming on a street in Tallaght. Flynn recalls, “Frank approached me later that day and said, ‘Would you like to audition?’ ‘Yeah, yeah alright!’ I never ever initially pictured myself as an actor.” At thirteen he started work on I Used to Live Here. Now at 18 and in his Leaving Cert year, acting has moved from being just a side project to something he wants to focus on professionally.
It was the screening of Michael Inside at the Galway Film Fleadh that made him say, “yeah, that’s it. I’m doing it.” From the beginning, it was Berry’s intention to have Flynn play Michael. “Because it was a lead role we did some workshops and then I took the video of those workshops to my producers and the Irish Film Board and said this guy is great, you know. And thankfully everyone agreed.”
In order to portray life in the prison system realistically, the making of Michael Inside required extensive research. The first step was to contact the Irish Prison Service with the idea of a film about the Michael character. During these discussions with people in the prison system over eighteen months, listening to their stories and learning about their experiences, Michael’s story took form. “It all started by saying this is my idea, let’s talk about it. And they all said about the film, it’s very real and they’re very proud. We’ve made a film that might start a conversation.”
The ‘invisible decisions’ that Michael makes – not really even making decisions at all – lead him into the prison cycle. This really resonated with the people Berry had spoken with. “A lot of the former prisoners felt there were moments like that in their own stories.” For added realism, many extras used in the film were found through the Pathways Centre, and had been in prison themselves.
Research was less formal for Flynn. The world of Michael wasn’t closed off to him. He wasn’t in it directly, but he knew of it and saw a lot of what happens in the film first hand, growing up in Killinarden. His experience has given him strong opinions of the justice system. He has “never seen eye to eye with guards… every time I see a uniform, they’re the last person I’d want to go to. There are flaws in the system, not accidental in my opinion either.”
Michael Inside is released by Wildcard Distribution on April 6.
Words: Sarah Taaffe-Maguire
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan