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Having become one of the hottest new directors on the circuit in 2014 thanks to his gripping debut ’71, Yann Demange swapped the Troubles of 1970s Belfast for the depression of 1980s Detroit for his follow up, White Boy Rick, which had its world premiere in Telluride and was introduced in Toronto over the weekend.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason-Leigh and newcomer Richie Merritt, the crime drama (being released this week by Sony), tells the true story of Richard Wershe Jr, the son of a small-time hustler, who at 14 became the FBI’s youngest informant before being turned on by the system when it had no further use for him. At 16, Merritt was locked up for drugs possession and is currently the longest-serving non-violent juvenile offender.
Speaking from Chicago, where Demange has just wrapped the pilot for HBO’s Jordan Peale- and J.J. Abrams-produced Jim Crow-meets-monsters “genre mashup” Lovecraft Country, the France-born Brit describes enjoying his “buffet moment” and, of course, the wild, endless Bond speculation (he’s among the favorites again, btw).
You must have had a few options after ’71. How did White Boy Rick come your way?
I had plans to do a Battle of Algiers film in L.A. on the riots, and then I came aboard [Sony’s cop drama] The Seventy Five. One of those was going to be my next movie. But then I got sent a spec script, old school style. I’d actually read an article about White Boy Rick a couple of years previously but didn’t really connect the dots — didn’t see a movie in it, just a fascinating story.
How did the script change your mind?
I loved the relationship between father and son, and could see the opportunity to make a relationship drama against this backdrop that thematically felt very current. I moved to America just as the elections were gearing up and Brexit was kicking off back home. And here’s this story about a guy selling guns on the black market, a guy who believes that this time next year it’s all going to come good. And it’s in Detroit, which was the picture postcard for the American Dream, and then overnight became a symbol of how capitalism could go awry. There were race riots and the place become an apocalyptic landscape and there were these families with a lack of choice. It’s about poverty really — people facing a lack of choice, a lack of options trying to survive a country that says the American dream is possible. But is it possible for everyone? Can you transcend your lot in life when you’re born into abject poverty?
When you starting shooting, was there ever a moment of “holy shit, I’m directing Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey” or did you manage to keep it cool?
I was alright. I wouldn’t say I keep it cool. I shit myself on a daily basis. You just get through it. It’s forever overwhelming and you’re thinking, “Fucking hell, how am I going to get through this?”
Did it feel like a significant step up from ’71?
Yeah, you could feel the difference. I’ve got Matthew McConughey, Bruce Dern, I’m dealing with a studio… I’m getting to grips with the way you do things [in the U.S.]. You can’t impose a culture onto them. They’ve got their own way of doing things. The beast moves at a different pace. It definitely felt like I was stepping up a gear in dealing with more elements that I was used to. But it’s still just filmmaking, the same challenge, but you add in a studio and stars. After ’71 there’s this weight of expectation I felt for a little while, but you’ve just got to for it.
Is Wershe Jr. going to get to see White Boy Rick while he’s in jail?
I’m hoping we’re going to get permission to go in with a laptop and screen it for him.
After ’71 you were hugely in demand. What’s it like being the hot new director in town?
It’s like going to this amazing buffet and stuffing your pockets before you get chucked out. I had a bit of fun, I went to a few parties I never used to get invited to. I don’t anymore. It was alright. Part of me, maybe that’s the European bit, just didn’t take it very seriously. If I did, I would have been overwhelmed.
This time last year were you considered the frontrunner to direct the next Bond. Was there any truth to the rumours? Did you even meet with Eon?
It’s all wild speculation! Everyone is so obsessed with gossip and rumors. And that’s all it was, honestly. I was in post-production and if it had been more than just a rumor, I wasn’t the one in the know about it.
With Danny Boyle now having exited, you’re back among the favourites again. Is it difficult to keep away from the endless speculation?
Not really. I’ve been in Chicago, shooting nights in the woods and getting bitten to shit by mosquitoes, and the furthest thing from my mind is gossip about a job that I’ve not even heard about.
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