At an empty, canopied bar to the rear of the Residence Lounge on Stephen’s Green, I meet Lenny Abrahamson and Jack Reynor, director and lead actor, respectively, of What Richard Did, a psychological portrait of a young man from the privileged suburb of Blackrock whose life is transformed by a sudden act of brutal violence.
Abrahamson is known for directing the feature films Adam and Paul and Garage, and the RTÉ miniseries Prosperity, all winning deserved acclaim as unique and conscious representations of those inhabiting the margins of Irish society.
What Richard Did is Reynor’s lead-acting debut, carrying the weight of an intimate, if muted, character study on his shoulders with aplomb.
Our interview takes place just before the two are set to fly to Canada with Element Pictures for the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Please beware spoilers, particularly towards the close of the interview.
With rather different subject matter to your previous films, which focused almost exclusively on marginalised figures in Irish society, do you see What Richard Did as a departure for you, as a director?
LA: For me, I think I wanted to make sure I didn’t just become that director, and my first two features and TV series did have those similarities, as you point out, between the characters, but another thing worth saying is that while the starting point of What Richard Did is quite different—we’ve got a quite privileged character at the centre of the film, from a very established world—what happens him does have some similarities to what happens to my other, previous characters. The rug is pulled from underneath him, his sense of who he is and where he fits evaporates, which happens in Adam and Paul and also, particularly, happens to Josie (Pat Shortt’s character in Garage): so there is that link. But I’ve never seen myself as a director who primarily tackles social issues. And while all my films up to this point have taken place in, say, a similar world, I think my interests within that have always been more fundamental to the human condition, and not in addressing specific social problems.
How did you approach, as a team, the film project as one more humanist than, perhaps, social realist?
JR: From very early on, we knew that this wasn’t going to be any sort of societal exposé, but a more in-depth examination of this guy’s head, before and after the event. I had my ideas about how that was going to be, Lenny and I agreed on that, and I guess I was lucky enough that he trusted me with it.
LA: I suppose we have a similar basic sense of, you know, whether someone empathises with other people or not, and Jack definitely does that. We talked a lot about the character of Richard together and I think we both felt that even though he does something terrible and that he fails in huge respects, we still felt very deeply for him. So the film’s not satirical or, as Jack says, it’s not exposing anything. It’s not a look at the dark heart of middle-class Ireland, ‘cause this same story could be told across the social spectrum. I think we both shared that idea that we were making a really humanistic film.
JR: It’s a really universal theme, you know, it’s something that applies anywhere in the world, in any society. It could happen to anybody, and the film is more about this guy’s individual morality, and how he relates to the people around him.
LA: Probably the reason why his class has a function in the story is that his background has given him a set of expectations about himself that he feels he has to live up to, and his failure to do so early on in the film is really what begins to create this pressure inside of him that comes out then, later on. So his background as a successful, attractive, gifted kid — in a strange way, that’s the sort of background that hasn’t prepared him for the usual failures and disappointments and knocks of adolescent life.
At one point in the film, Richard’s father (Lars Mikkelsen, of TV’s The Killing) reminds him that everyone has to fail sooner or later. Do you think this statement reflects something fatalistic about the film itself?
LA: I’m not sure that it suggests anything preordained about life, necessarily. I don’t believe, you know, that “everything happens for a reason”, but I do think that it is an inevitability in anyone’s life that they will fail sooner or later, and that healthy attitude towards failure is an essential part of a successful life. If you can’t fail, if you don’t know how to fail without it causing a catastrophic loss of your sense of self, or collapse of your self-worth, then you’re in serious trouble as a character. And What Richard Did is a film about a boy who is forced to digest a lifetime’s worth of self-disillusionment in one go.
I thought it was interesting that, in appealing to Richard to come forward about the incident, his father tells him that loyalty can only go so far and yet, later on, he becomes implicit in sheltering Richard from justice or facing up to what he’s done. To some extent, these institutions of which Richard is a part: his family, his rugby team, and even then the church, become incapable of delivering him to justice. Was this a conscious statement on your part?
LA: Most of the themes of complicity were centred into the character of the father, as someone who experiences the impulse to protect his child. There’s that really tearing scene of his speech to Richard, with a preamble that’s just a cack-handed attempt of working himself up to asking if he was involved in the incident, that’s ultimately very poignant, talking about him having been a remarkable child. And what he’s assuming is that Richard is just protecting someone else and so comes this plea about loyalty, but then he himself becomes involved, of course.
To speak about the first half of the film in particular, I thought most of the more poetic moments, in terms of the camera’s expression as well as in terms of character, came in the period when the story was basically about Richard’s romance with Lara (Roisín Murphy) and jealousy of Conor (Sam Keeley).
JR: I was trying to portray Richard as naturalistically as possible, as believably as possible. And there’s that scene where Lara is chatting with Conor in the park and Richard’s reaction is, understandably I think, a sort of discomfort. Not that he’s going to express it out loud, maybe, but that is, I think the starting point for the breakdown in their relationship, which is itself very important in terms of what happens later on.
LA: It’s interesting how Jack plays it, because it’s not just his reaction to her talking to Conor, but his reaction to feeling like a bit of a dick for having gone over to them while they were talking.
I suppose the nature of Richard’s character is that, at least around other people, he’s quite understated, and the camera is what adds the high-drama or the psychological reality to those scenes, like the light glaring off the camera in the park when he’s got that jealousy or anxiety about Lara, and that scene in the party where the audio feels as though it’s been submerged underwater.
LA: That’s very well observed, in that the style I tend to go for allows people to play it real, and in subtle elements of the filmmaking, you create the subjectivity. I think that puts the audience in a situation more directly similar to real life, because then you notice something. And what you notice is always more powerful than what you’re told. Lawyers will say: “try to make the judge finish your point for you, don’t finish the point yourself.” So if someone finishes the point in their own head, then they own it, and it’s a similar experience to watching a film, I think, that you want the audience to feel that they’re penetrating the image, even though you’re constructing that image in order to be penetrated. That’s the subtle tension to filmmaking.
It’s interesting that you would use the judge/lawyer analogy to talk about a film which, ostensibly, is not making any moral pronouncements about its content.
LA: [laughs] Well, my father’s a lawyer, so it’s something he always talks about, but I know what you mean. The thing is, if you provide fertile material for the audience to think about, then it’s all already there, so if they make judgements, then those judgements are not confirmed or undermined by the film. That’s an uneasy position, but I think a healthily uneasy position, for a viewer. This is a film that’s not trying to help you decide whether this is a good or bad person, the film is trying to be as vivid and rich and truthful to the texture of life so that all the ideas are there, but the audience are allowed to make, I suppose, those final connections.
What do you think is the function of privileging Richard’s perspective in making a film like this? I’m thinking specifically about the public reaction to the Annabel’s case a few years ago, in which the general tendency would not have been to empathise or engage with the perspective of those charged.
LA: From the outset, I think it’s important to say that the film is a fiction and there are no character parallels to real events! We took a book (Bad Day In Blackrock, by Kevin Power) which was itself fictionalised, although resonant with real events, and we took that even further. But I think the privilege of art, and my luxury as an artist, is having people not have immediate, knee-jerk reactions to things. In other words, it is right to feel moral outrage when you’re dealing with a real court case, it is right to think about culpability and it’s right to judge, but at the level of trying to understand what it is to be a person, which is at least in part what this film is about, those judgements will just stop you going deeper. So, Richard’s a fictional character and then, for me, it’s okay to allow an audience to really care about him. And, then, only care about him based on the truth! I’m not trying to manipulate them into caring about him, or to make him more attractive, which is maybe what a smart, black comedic treatment sometimes does. It’s a bit like how, you know, the reason we have institutions in society, to deal with how people are treated if they do terrible things, is so the state does not have to feel an emotional desire for vengeance, it can try to do things based on making clear decisions for the general good. So, to reiterate that while in real cases it is right and understandable for people to have visceral reactions to the players involved, the intensity of those emotions can be so overwhelming that the deeper, more detailed nuances of character and event can get blotted out.
The scene where Richard confesses to his father is one in particular where it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral reaction. It’s extremely painful, in that despite it being the wrong thing to do; you want him not to admit it.
LA: It’s interesting because he doesn’t confess in the script!
JR: It happened on the day, during shooting. We sat down in between takes and decided that we had to do something. It was just such a painful scene as it was that we felt we had to push it further to get it where we wanted to go, so we put the admission there. We didn’t want to dance around it, so there’s a moment where Richard’s father has been reassured, and he has that sense of security, and then it happens and he tenses and there’s a genuine, unspoken feeling of “my God, this might be the last time he ever hugs me”. And we had all agreed that this is how it needs to be, and the breakdown of that relationship between father and son is, in some ways, the real tragedy of the film.
LA: What I tend to do is to just work and work and work a scene. Not to improvise, but to work it as much as possible within the script, and we kept raising the intensity of the scene up to the point that it just felt that this had to happen. It’s amazing, it’s not something that happens very often on set, where it just works and the crew feel like it’s hard to watch, but then they really did.
It was the one moment in particular where I was almost squirming in my chair. I think it has that universality that you’re talking about where, I suppose, ninety-nine percent of people watching won’t have ever killed someone or admitted to it, but they will almost all have disappointed their father in some deep way.
LA: Yes, exactly. I’m often sceptical of scenes which are powerful on the day; they don’t always translate, but that one did, and becomes really central to the film, which I think would have been much weaker without it if we hadn’t made that call. That’s exciting, as a director, and as an actor as well, because you’re not just mechanically recreating the script, you’re trying to discover the script and interrogating it.
JR: Trying to find the truth in it, whatever that is.
Do you feel that you’ve progressed as a director with this film? I thought there was more intensity here than in your previous work. There was certainly a more affecting sense of claustrophobia to it.
LA: Yes, absolutely. Not to make comparisons to my previous films, which I still love, but I consciously worked in a looser way with What Richard Did, and I took more risks in shooting, too. I think I know more what I can achieve technically now, which comes with experience.
JR: Being able to work with that sort of freedom on the day, having had so many months preceding working on the script, to know that you have that breathing space and that everyone trusts each other, is just an amazing way of working. It really enabled us to make something truthful, that works together as a whole.
There’s certainly a sense of foreboding to the film’s first half, like the film is anticipating itself, not least because it’s called What Richard Did.
LA: Oh yeah, the title’s important!
JR: There are loads of nice little tricks in there. One thing that I love is that it always looks like it’s going to rain.
LA: That was a gift of last summer.
JR: It was beautiful though, and it really adds something to the film. It has that look that’s just ominous. And I think there’s something that’s quite dark about Richard, even from the beginning, there’s something sad about him as a character.
I have to ask the mandatory, probably infuriating, question that is: to what extent to you consider this an Irish film, and to what extent is that a useful means by which to read the film?
LA: I decided very early on in my career as a filmmaker that . . . I’ll put it this way: I think Irish film became interesting when it stopped worrying about what an Irish film was. There was a phase when everyone was absolutely obsessed with it, and it’s fair enough if not that many films are being made, every time you make one you go “is this Irish Cinema? Is this Irish Cinema?”. The answer is: it is a film absolutely rooted here, about characters that are absolutely of our society, but because it is true to them, it becomes a universal story, and it transcends that. I think all my stuff is very much rooted here, but I’ve never worried as to whether it’s “Irish Cinema”. I would think of myself as coming from a European filmmaking tradition, to some extent.
As far as the European tradition is concerned, one thing I enjoyed was Richard’s father, who is Scandinavian, sends him to a beach house wherein he loses grip with his sanity, to a degree: something which quite clearly evokes Bergman . . .
LA: Bergman, yes! It’s absolutely not lost on me, at all. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Bergman. And the beach house breakdown is Swedish cinema’s equivalent of our dodgy priest.
What Richard Did premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to warm critical reception, and opens in Irish cinemas on Firday 5th October.