TDF Interview White Boy Rick director Yann Demange
I’m meeting Yann Demange at the poshest hotel I’ve ever set foot in. A stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square and Westminster, its opulent lobby is the size of a football pitch, there’s a pianist tinkling tasteful tunes on a grand piano and an army of staff so immaculately – but identically – dressed, you wonder if they’re part of a cult dedicated to high fashion.
An odd mix of genteel Englishness and ostentatious wealth, it’s an incongruous venue in which to talk about White Boy Rick, the director’s 80s-set, true-crime drama concerning a dirt-poor Detroit kid – the titular Rick, played by newcomer Richie Merritt – who goes from 15-year-old FBI informant to drug kingpin seemingly overnight.
Demange’s Hollywood debut has had mixed reviews but boasts a great cast (including Matthew McConaughey, Brian Tyree Henry, and Jennifer Jason Leigh) and connects with the viewer mainly because it never loses sight of the fact it is first and foremost a story about family. Yes, the drug deals, crack houses and FBI shakedowns are all present and accounted for, but it’s the dynamic between Merritt's Rick, his father (McConaughey) and sister (Bel Powley) – as well as grandparents Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie – that truly elevates it.
You might not be familiar with Demange’s name but, chances are, you’ve seen his work. He directed TV shows – including Charlie Brooker’s zombie-themed Dead Set – before launching his film career with 2014’s critically-acclaimed '71, about a British soldier caught behind “enemy lines” during The Troubles. The French-Algerian filmmaker was also briefly in the running to direct Bond 25, after Danny Boyle dropped out back in August.
When I meet him, 41-year-old Demange – rocking a black beanie hat which makes him look like a member of Dexys Midnight Runners, circa Geno – is clearly tired but still good company. He gives detailed, honest answers to my questions and admits he hasn’t found the adjustment to Hollywood easy.
I’m guessing things went a little crazy after ’71’s positive reception…
It was very overwhelming, and I lost myself a little bit. I was going to move to Berlin, because I wanted some time away from London, but then, because of the way ’71 was received, all these opportunities came up in the States. So, I relocated [to Los Angeles] and it took me a while to decide where I wanted to work and what project I wanted to do next. I’m a very slow reader and suddenly had all these scripts to read. People were expecting answers and I wasn’t very professional. To be honest, I was overwhelmed and intimidated by it – I didn’t know what the right film was to do. I decided not to take any of the offers and develop my own projects instead.
So how did White Boy Rick come about?
I read the "spec script" and immediately found a personal resonance with the father-son scenes. I thought, if the film could be about the family then I could be interested. So, I went to meet the real Rick in prison and asked him questions about his dad, sister and mum, and I thought OK. I was never interested in the miscarriage of justice or drug-dealer element – there are much greater miscarriages of justice in America than this white kid’s story. The father-son story is what made it unique to me… the more details I found out, I was like, 'What, they used to sell drugs together and the kid wouldn't go to school?!'
It’s a hugely dysfunctional relationship…
It’s about a father so desperate to be friends with his son that he woefully neglected being a parent. They [the Wershe family] all loved each other but didn’t know any better – they didn’t have the tools. And that sort of resonated with me personally, based on things that happened in my own life. I could also identify with the kid as an outsider because I’ve always been an outsider. And the more I started wrestling with it, the more I wanted to make it. It was scary because really it should be a mini-series and I had no idea how to pull all these strands together – it was like three films battling to be in one.
Are true stories more difficult to adapt than fiction?
It’s a nightmare. There are things I would have loved to have done that would have made it a more exciting movie in many ways, but it would have done an injustice to the facts of why Rick is in jail. So, there was a moral obligation to explain certain facts. It has two halves and there was a certain sleight of hand involved in making it feel like one arc. Structurally, it’s a very strange film, but it has a throughline – the father-son relationship, which I treated like a bromance, albeit a tragic one.
White Boy Rick is a very American story – as someone who has lived most of his life in London, did that make it tricky for you to get a handle on?
Yes, it did. It can sound a bit pretentious, but Detroit is the mother in the film – the [family’s actual] mother is absent so Detroit takes that on. Every city has its own idiosyncrasies, characteristics and particular tone – I had to capture it and understand it, and it meant a lot of research because it wasn’t something I innately knew. Even on ’71, I knew about The Troubles growing up in London, so it was always in my peripheral vision, but none of this was. It’s probably why it took me so long, because I wasn’t going to shoot until I was ready and could represent it.
And there’s an important racial component to the film, too, because the Wershes were a white family right in the middle of Detroit’s African-American community…
They are like unicorns. Rick identified with African-American kids – he was completely immersed [in their culture], yet he’s still white and has white privilege. If he was an African-American kid, would he even still be alive, would he even have made it to jail? I doubt it. And why he got targeted by the FBI was because of his white privilege – [they thought] this is someone a) we can talk to and b) we can make him be an informant because we’ve got something on his dad. And there was no one else they could approach – they knew they could approach the white family. It was being the "unicorn" in that community that made him a target for the FBI.
Was Matthew McConaughey always in your thoughts for the part of the dad, Richard Wershe Sr.?
Yeah, he was always part of the conversation – he embodied the characteristics I was looking for. I always pictured Matthew as that kind of "True American" and I wanted a "True American" who believes in the promise of America, a real die hard. I wanted someone who could be deeply flawed but is still charming. He shares a responsibility for what happened to his son, but you still need to like the guy. So, I approached Matthew and he really committed to it, because he’s a father. He’s got three young kids and takes the responsibilities of being a father seriously. The story really struck a chord with him, emotionally.
White Boy Rick is in UK cinemas from Friday December 7.