Yann Demange was the hottest ticket in Tinseltown after his movie ’71 became the darling of the film festival circuit in 2014.
Critics, industry execs and fellow directors could not have spoken more highly of the movie, which starred Jack O’Connell as a British soldier fighting for survival in Belfast during the Northern Ireland conflict.
Soon enough, Hollywood had beckoned the French-Algerian filmmaker from London to cross the pond for his next project where he turned away several open assignments before settling on his sophomore feature, White Boy Rick.
It tells the true story of poor white teen Rick Wershe (Richie Merritt) who was exploited by FBI agents to become a drug informant, during the 1980s drug epidemic in Detroit. The director felt a personal connection to the story, and the real Rick himself, but admits that the story was a “biopic nightmare” to make.
“For me it was a nightmare because it was a big exercise,” Demange tells Yahoo Movies UK. “I learnt a lot, I made a lot of mistakes. It was a really humbling experience because in many ways I bit off more than I can chew.
“It’s the biopic nightmare,” he continues, “it felt like there were three films fighting for the space of one and there was the one that I really wanted to tell, but there is a responsibility because [Rick] is alive and [in prison], I couldn’t just dismiss it.”
There are certainly a lot of issues and themes going on in the story; Matthew McConaughey plays Rick’s father Rick Sr. who sells illegal guns but defends it because of the second amendment while his daughter and Rick’s sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is a crack addict.
It also hits on the fact that white and black people are treated differently in the eyes of the criminal justice system. As the black crime boss Johnny Curry (Jonathan Majors) puts it in the film, “there’s white time and there’s black time,” and they are discriminatorily different.
“Even though [Rick] is poor and exploited there is still an element of white privilege at play because were he not white would he have even made it to jail?” Demange says. “The truth is this film isn’t about mandatory sentencing because you would have an obligation to talk about the African-American community.
“I’m not a polemicist in that sort of respect but it’s not my story to tell. That’s a truly African-American story that needs to be taken on and I truly believe that people need to own and tell their own stories.”
For the director, Rick being an outsider was how he could relate most to the story. Demange was born in Paris to a French mother and Algerian father, then moved to England aged two, and was in a few foster homes before settling in West London.
“I naturally ended up with the black kids rather than the white kids but I was always an outsider, so I could tell the story of another outsider,” he says. “I could see the universality of that but in the landscape of where we live now.”
Now that the film has been released in the US, and in UK cinemas this week, there’s a sense of relief for Demange because of the pressure put upon him to live up to the hype of ’71.
“The cool thing with ’71 was that there was no expectation,” he explains, “I was really settled into doing just small European films but the way it was received was overwhelming, it was great, but all of a sudden the world opened up to me, and I’m very grateful for it, but I didn’t know what to do next.”
There was a time when he was linked to replacing Danny Boyle as the director of Bond 25 but he says that was more talk than truth: “I didn’t pitch. When I was in post, they approached me and we talked and that was it.
“I tried to look for something that I could make and felt personal, even though I’m not going to write myself or do a biographical film,” Demange recalls. “Now I feel relieved it’s out there.
“It was all hot and it’s gone all tepid on me, now I’m about where I should be.”
White Boy Rick is in cinemas this Friday