‘Michael Inside’ – how prison affects a teenaged first-timer
‘A lot of the former prisoners said the story of the film is very much their story’
Having scooped various five-star reviews and major awards at Galway, Cork and the IFTAs, Michael Inside is the hottest ticket in Irish cinema for years. Frank Berry’s prison drama follows the naïve 18-year-old of the title (Dafhyd Flynn) as a small, low-level criminal act lands him in prison. While Michael’s grandfather (Lalor Roddy) tries to do his best to help him on the outside, the teenager has little option but to co-operate with a volatile fellow prisoner (Moe Dunford).
“We didn’t want to make a glamorous film or a crime film or a violent film,” says writer-director Berry. “I was very much into the idea of telling the story of somebody who might be an extra in one of those films. Somebody on the outskirts. He’s not at the centre of the crime. He’s not that type of dynamic character that you often see in those dramas. He’s somebody caught up in a ripple effect.”
Much of the film was shot in the old Cork Prison, which closed in early 2016. Berry, Flynn and the rest of the cast and crew were required to sign-in to the facility on a daily basis. The same prison doubled as Belfast’s H-block in last year’s political thriller Maze, starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.
“Cork prison had just closed down so at first we were excited about having the whole prison to ourselves,” says Berry. “But after we couldn’t wait to say goodbye. It’s a strange atmosphere inside. You notice people move more slowly. I was researching in Wheatfield Prison – and I didn’t do much that day – but I remember I was exhausted by the end of it. There’s a term from criminology that somebody mentioned during the research stage of the film. The idea of depth. The deeper you go into the building, the harder it is to get out. Somewhere in your head you’re aware of how many doors have closed behind you.”
Frank Berry’s pioneering style of community film-making was first showcased in Ballymun Lullaby, a 2011 feature length documentary portrait of music teacher Ron Cooney and the youth choir he runs from the high-rise estate.
“I was teaching full-time and I started to make community videos at Jobshare,” he recalls. “I funded a lot of those partly through the community links programme in DIT. They were charity and educational videos, or about community initiatives. Some were dramas, some were documentaries, but they all involved meeting a small group of people and listening to whatever they wanted to put across on a DVD and just trying to express that. I loved that work. Ballymun Lullabies started out as a little DVD for Ron Cooney to help him to raise funding for the music programme. That was a turning point for me. Because we were making a feature film but working in our own way. That gave me real confidence.”
Berry’s acclaimed sophomore feature, I Used to Live Here, was inspired by an article that appeared in The Irish Times in 2011 under the heading “Breaking the Ripple Effects of Suicide and We Must Give Young People a Reason to Live”. The writer was Dr Tony Bates, the founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health. The film, which starred Jordanne Jones and Dafhyd Flynn as teenagers impacted by a local suicide, was workshopped with the Killinarden Community Council Youth Project in Tallaght.
“My friend asked me to come along to be an extra at the local Centra,” recalls Flynn. “And then Frank asked me if I wanted to audition. I had never thought about acting. But from that I got a scholarship to Bowe Street. And Frank has been my friend and mentor ever since. All the way through to Michael Inside.”
Michael Inside utilised the same community-based methodology as I Used to Live Here, in consultation with Pathways, the outreach programme of the education service to prisons. The film was workshopped for 18 months with former prisoners, some of whom appear as extras.
“I had the idea of making a film about the penal system from the point of view of one of the prisoners while I was making I Used to Live Here,” says Berry. “I approached the prison service and they directed me to Pathways. I won’t say grilled but I had a long meeting with Tom, the manager. They were very, very careful about letting somebody spend time there. I spoke a lot about I Used to Live Here, and all the people that I met, and my motivation for making the film. And I started popping in every now and again get to know the prisoners. A lot of the former prisoners over there said that the story of Michael Inside is very much their story. They were holding drugs or they started taking drugs. Something happened that altered the course of their life. They would think about that moment every day. We’d sit around a big table at Pathways and do script readings. I didn’t make anything up. The life comes from real life stories. If someone asks you about a detail you can tell them the whole story behind it.”
That level of realism and detail carried over into every department of the film. Visiting Pathways on an open day, the costume designer Louise Staunton learned that the track-suit bottoms prisoners are issued are often ill-fitting. From there, the team realised that Michael, in common with many prisoners, would get a better change of clothes after the first visit from a family member.
“I never had to talk the HODS (heads of department) around,” says Berry. “We were all much making the same film and working in the same collaborative way.”
This verisimilitude is echoed in DOP Tom Comerford’s long fluid takes. Flynn’s on-screen vulnerability is the result of a terrific performance and the element of surprise.
“I didn’t get a look at the script until we started filming,” says the young actor. “Frank has an amazing way of making things realistic. You never know what’s going to happen next. I’d only get my scenes on the day.”
The look of terror on Flynn’s face when he first encounters Moe Dunford’s prisoner kingpin did not, he notes, require any acting.
“My first scene together with Moe: I’m not going to say what he said,” laughs Flynn. “But he messed up a line – and a few words were screamed in my face when I was standing right in front of him. I may have been sweating after that.”
Michael Inside’s protagonist has to negotiate a vicious cycle in prison: either be a victim of violence, or a perpetrator. His options outside are equally limited. Once Michael is sent down for holding a bag for the brother of a friend, his grandfather is repeatedly menaced by thugs seeking to recuperate the cost of their loss. As with the social realism of Ken Loach, Alan Clark and Mike Leigh, there’s an implicit critique of the class system underlining the drama. The events depicted in Michael Inside wouldn’t happen, one suspects, to a family that had access to better legal representation.
“When we were making I Used to Live Here I remember one of the kids saying if you see something, say when you’re walking to school, you’re suddenly nervous that somebody saw you,” says the director. “The circumstances and the environment you grew up in is a huge factor. A lot of young people I met were very vulnerable. Some of them had left school early and with all the activity going on around them, it’s easy to get trapped. That’s something that’s obviously more prevalent in disadvantaged communities. Working on Michael Inside, I realised that a lot of the young men I met didn’t have legal representation.”
As with I Used to Live Here, the primary aim of Michael Inside, says Berry, is to start a conversation.
“The aim is for the film to be purposeful,” says Berry. “I love the idea that it’ll create discussion, that it’s a character we care about who does something naive that lands him in prison. I’d love to start discussions about the penal system and its effectiveness. We did go to great lengths to put something on the screen that felt real, so that, in one way, it communicates the dangers of situations where you feel not making a decision, but when you are, in fact, making a decision. If you’re involved in a group of young people and there is something going on and you’re just going along with it, then you’re making a decision that’s potentially enormous.”
- Michael Inside opens April 6th