The James Bugler case still resonates today. It was the brutal murder of 2-year-old boy lured away from his mother and murdered by two 10-year-old boys. Director Vincent Lambe came upon the case as a little boy. He thought to give it a different meaning and view. Through curiosity and no contact with the families of John and Robert, Lambe breathed life into an impartial view of the case in his Oscar nominated film Detainment.
ATM: How does the cop’s interrogation with young boys strike emotion in them?
VL: The film is based on interview transcripts. I found it interesting whilst looking into this how differently the boys reacted during questioning. Robert wants to argue back with the detectives. He has a smart answer for everything. John is the complete opposite. As soon as the police suggest he might not be telling the truth, he starts getting nervous, up out of his chair, and he is crying. He buries his head against his mother at one stage. He throws himself into the lap of the detectives for comfort. They respond completely differently. They are also different boys. This is a big part of understanding the dynamic between them and what caused it to happen.
ATM: What were you expecting when first researching for the film? In what you expected was it proved right or wrong?
VL: I was 12 when it happened and grew up hearing about it. It has kind of always been there. It would come back in the news and like a lot of people I had heard about it for so long. I felt like I knew everything there was to know about it. A lot of people in the UK are like “Oh, the James Bugler Case.” They think they know the story because they heard and saw so many documentaries about it. I started looking into it because I wanted to try getting a better understanding of the circumstances that could have led to the crime. I started reading the transcripts. I realized I knew very little about the boy’s backgrounds, what happened in the day, and how they were questioned by the police. By the end of it, I felt I was seeing something that not everyone saw. I had a lot of apprehensions about making this story because it is so hugely sensitive over here. I decided to adapt it as a 30-minute drama. I wanted to make sure everything in the film was entirely factual and no embellishments whatsoever.
ATM: How did the family background give you a perception on each of the boys?
VL: I was always told these boys were evil, and this is why they did it. If you dismiss children as being evil, then it can lead to more similar crimes. If you do not understand why they did it, then the answer is really in their family backgrounds. It might not explain everything, but it will certainly give people a little bit more insight into what could have led them to do this. If you look at Robert’s family briefly – the mother was beaten mercilessly by his father who eventually left the family home when Robert was five. She could not cope, so she tried to commit suicide with two pill overdoses. This did not work, so she just became an alcoholic. As a result, the Thompson household was battling six brothers. The oldest one would beat up the older one.
Robert got beaten up by his older brother. Instead of taking it out on his older brother, he would take it out on his younger siblings. There was little Ben who was only three at the time. When they were in the shopping center on this day, Robert says “Let’s get a kid. I have not hit one in ages.” This is where it stems from. John was very different. He was quite a respectable, middle-class family. His parents were separated but still united in his upbringing. He would spend part of the weekend with his mom and the other with his dad. He had two homes. The thing that you have to understand about John is that he was very weak. He was desperate to impress his friend Robert. He did not want to look weak in front of Robert. Once the task is set on “Let’s get a kid.” John will not back down because he wants to look tough and impress Robert. Also, Robert feels he has this tough guy persona, which he created for himself. He has to live up to that and maintain this. This is kind of it in a nutshell. When you look at the family backgrounds and the dynamic between the two boys, it does not explain everything, but it does offer a lot more insight into what could have led to it.
ATM: Would you agree with the consequence of a lack of love could have been the cause of their irrational behavior?
VL: I would say so in Robert’s case. There were six boys in the house. They were pretty much left to their own devices. Robert would be out wandering the streets until 3 am on a school night. The neighbors would be more worried about him than his mother. Certainly, there was a lack of empathy and love in the family and upbringing. His mother just could not cope with these six boys. It just sounds like what it could only be described as a dysfunctional family. It is different in John’s case because he did get a lot of love from his parents even though they were separated. They were still respectable. John was weak and easily led. John probably did a lot more than he admitted to as well. It does not make him any less guilty. If either of the boys were there at the shopping center on their own, then it would not have happened. They would not have done it. If they were with anyone else, then it probably would not have happened. It was the dynamic between them of the toxic relationship that led to it happening.
ATM: Through the boy’s polarity of their family backgrounds and with each other in personality, what do you believe these boys value in each other with their friendship? Analyze their friendship.
VL: They had a few things in common. They were both held back a year in school. Even though they were both outcasts, this is what they had in common. John moved from school because he was bullied from his previous school. He got held back a year when moving schools. Robert was also held back a year. They were not the best of friends. They met on the playground when they got into a fight. Robert was impressed with how John stood up for himself. John used to have a terrible temper, and he would fly into rages. This settles it, and then they became friends. They would leave school and go to the shopping center ever so often. They used to get off to mischief. They would go to the shopping center to steal the stuff. It was not that they wanted what they stole, a lot of the things they would steal, the would discard. The fun part was stealing. It was just for something to do. They had a lot of things in common even though they had different personalities.
ATM: Do you think these boys at any moment used the stereotypes of naivety or being impressible to their advantage? Do you think they were aware of these stereotypes that are put on their ages?
VL: At ten years of age they had a basic understanding of right from wrong. This is interesting because it became a major focal point. There was a journalist named David J Smith who wrote The Sleep of Reason. He was in the courtroom when they were soliciting evidence to the boys saying they were they naive or did they know what they were doing. He thought the decision of whatever they were going to be tried as an adult was going to go on for weeks or at least days. It was all done very quickly, maybe in 40 minutes. They had two schoolteachers and a neighbor who came on to testify to say they know it is wrong to lie, kick, steal, and hurt people. Then they said ok we are going to try them as adults. It was all done in a very short space of time. At ten years of age, they had a basic understanding of right from wrong, but I do not think their brains were formed to understand the full consequence of their actions. In the UK, the age of criminal reasoning is now ten years of age.
At ten years of age, you are not old even to drink, smoke, have sex, or old enough to get a tattoo. The governments feel your brain has not formed enough to make these permanent decisions. If you break the law, then you know exactly what you are doing. I do think they understood right from wrong, but I did not think their brain at ten years old was formed to make their own decisions. There is a reason we do not have juries of 10-year old trying murder cases. It is for the same reason they do not have a full understanding of right from wrong. They did know what they were doing was wrong at the time. In the film, you see their lack of understanding. Robert misunderstood when he hears he has gone to the hospital. He says, “You have taken him to make him alive again.” Small moments like this remind you they were ten years old. They were barely ten years old. They were a few months into their 10th birthdays.
ATM: What did you receive in your childhood or around their ages that these young boys lacked?
VL: I grew up in Dublin. This is a very different area than where they grew up. Liverpool has a lot of very underprivilege areas. There are not many places to play. There are not much green or flowers, which is why when there are flowers left after James’ body was where there was an out pouring of sympathy. I remember reading John was amazed when seeing these flowers. “Look at all the flowers. There are millions of them.” I certainly grew up in many different circumstances compared to these boys. It is the whole question of were they just born evil or were they victims of the wrong circumstances. Monsters were made and not born. If you look at their family backgrounds, then it does give you a lot more insight into what led them to do it.
ATM: It is the notion of nature vs. nurture.
VL: Yes. The reason there is a controversy is these boys were born evil, and this is why they did it. Anyone who suggests an alternative reason or tries to understand why they did get criticized and attacked for being sympathetic to the boys. The film is in no way sympathetic to the killers. It does not attempt to make excuses, but it does humanize them. It shows them not as these monsters of popular imagination. It shows them as these two ten-year-old boys who committed an imaginable crime.
ATM: Did you at any moment reach out to communicate with them to help with your preparation?
VL: They have been given new identities, and their names were released. Some people would kill them if they knew who they were. Even at the time, people were calling for them to be killed at ten years old. So, nobody knows who they are and have been given new identities. Getting in touch with them would be difficult. Also, when making the film, I purposely did not want to contact any of the families of the film. We wanted to make a film that was impartial and entirely fact-based. This relied solely on the factual material that was available and the interview transcripts that were already public records. We decided not to contact any of the families. If we did, then there would be pressure to the tell it in the ways they wanted it to be told. It would have defeated the whole purpose of making the whole film. The only way was to make it impartial and to rely on the factual material.
ATM: It would have been done subconsciously through their eyes and not your own.
VL: I did not want to put an opinion on it. At the same time, the film is not me trying to express an opinion through the film. The film challenges my own opinion and the opinion I have always had growing up. It goes against this. It challenges most people’s opinion in the UK. This is why there is a lot of controversy about it. People are outraged. I understand why they are because so much that has been reported about the film is not true. The tabloids in the UK has reported lots of misinformation. A lot of the information that has been reported is not true or misleading or purposely misleading. People are reading it and believing it hasn’t seen the film. They did not want to see the film because they think there is violence in the film. There is no violence in the film whatsoever. It does not depict the murder at all. People think it is a different type of film. This is what has caused so much anger about it.
ATM: Is the crime reasoning law in Ireland perceived the same way as in the UK?
VL: It might be slightly different in Ireland. People have similar opinions in Ireland and the UK. In Ireland, we have not been subjective to the same level of tabloid journalism as the UK. It has been a bit stronger for the last 25 years. The tabloids have been calling these boys evil monsters. Some of the articles you would read in Ireland would be a little bit more nuanced than them. In the UK, people like to think of this case as being black and white. They were simply evil. I understand where it came from. People could not cope with the idea that these two 10-year-old boys when it happened at the time. The way they could make sense of this was if they were evil. This is all people have heard even since. It is very understandable why people have this opinion and why they have an issue when they are seeing them as two 10-year-old boys again and not the monsters they have imagined.
ATM: When you sit in the Oscars’ comfortable seats this Sunday, as an Ireland native, what does it truly mean to be nominated for an American Academy Award?
VL: It is a strange feeling. I always grew up making terrible films. Since I was maybe ten years, I have been making films with my dad’s super 8mm camera. Casting my poor parents in roles. They knew I was always obsessed with film. They would let me stay up late to watch the Academy Awards live as a boy. We did not get the channel over here. It was scrambled. I do not know if you remember this is what they used to do. You could not see the picture. You get all these cords scrambled together, but you could still hear it. I would stay up and listen to them. I always had this obsession with the Oscars. I would imagine what it would be like to be there. I would say “Someday I am going to be there.” It always seemed so far away. No one ever really believed me. Now that it has happened. It has taken my breath away, and it is still all surreal. I have been imaging it since I was a little boy.
ATM: What do you think this little boy inside of your is saying right now?
VL: As a little boy, I was so sure I was going to be at the Oscars. I would go around telling everybody. They did not believe me. You realize how hard it is when you grow up and leave film school. It is very hard to get pay to direct. I almost gave up because it is so hard. I would wake up every day asking myself “Why am I not done making a film?” It is such an expensive hobby because I was putting my own money into making films. It was like the opposite of a job. It is was costing money to do. The thought of actually getting paid off doing something I want to do is pretty amazing.
ATM: Now that your dream as a young boy has come true, how do you currently look at the phrase “Anything is possible, and the sky’s the limit?”
VL: People used to say this to me before and I never really believed it. I thought it was something they said. I am starting to believe it. It is hard as well with this film. There is so much controversy surrounding it. There is a campaign around the film. I think it is misdirected because it is done by people who have not seen the film. On another level, it gives the film recognition. I hope people would be able to watch it with an open eye. There is also this. I made the film with an honest purpose. We have a responsibility to try to make sense of what happened. It is not just about me achieving my goal as a director. I would hope the film affects social change. Thanks, so much Gabrielle. It was nice talking to you.