Yann Demange is drinking English breakfast tea in Soho House. The Los Angeles branch, of course. He’s trying to iron out his second movie, inspired by the LA riots of 1992. Last week he was at the Sundance film festival, the month before, he was at the European Film awards, before that he was simply ubiquitous. His first feature, ’71, a visceral study of a British soldier caught in the chaos of peak-Troubles Belfast, took him to every prestigious film event on the calendar bar Cannes, and the 38-year-old is presently a good bet to win outstanding debut at the imminent Baftas.
The journey started almost exactly a year ago, when the film premiered at the 2014 Berlin film festival. “We had no idea what we had,” admits Demange. “I was still in the thick of making it – I’d only finished the sound mix two weeks before the premiere. I was incredibly nervous. Just shitting myself. There were 1,500 people in the cinema and I was overwhelmed – and scared.”
He vividly remembers those final moments. “While we making the film we were always being told that it wouldn’t travel, that no one would care. My producer and I were slightly broken, and at one point we looked at each other as if to say, ‘Is anyone even going to fucking watch this thing?’” It so happened they were.
Before that, Demange was best known for TV shows Dead Set and Top Boy, and his first press conference was unnerving. “It’s the part of the game that no one prepares you for,” he says, “and you don’t really understand that it’s part of the game until you’ve made a film. When I was in television I was anonymous.”
The French were especially curious – Demange is a French passport holder. “They couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that I’m half-French, half-Algerian – legally French – but raised in London. No one did a hatchet job on me, but some of them tried to lead me to say that I wouldn’t have had the same chances in France, that I went to the UK because I’m Algerian. But that wasn’t the case.”
Indeed, Demange’s family moved here when he was two (“to start a new life; the usual immigrant story”) and he grew up in west London. At 18 he landed a job as a runner on a dance-music video being shot in Ibiza, which led to a full-time assisting job.
“I realised then that all the other runners had been to university, were essentially middle class and well-educated, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should do a degree’.”
After years of knockbacks he got into an arts foundation at the London College of Printing, then made observational documentaries for an anthropology company – “I was in Chicago for eight weeks filming evangelical Christians for General Electric”.
Then Demange applied for the National Film and Television School. “It’s hard to get practice as a director because it’s so expensive,” he sighs. “I was applying to all these schemes and getting turned down. Then I applied to the NFTS and got a place but I couldn’t afford it, so the school helped me out – they got me a full scholarship from Disney, of all things. And once you’re there, you can start shooting. You don’t have to raise the money, you can finally practice.”
His graduation film, Incomplete, a “loopy dark comedy” about “a guy whose penis disappears and who talks to his girlfriend’s vagina at night”, got him a deal with ICM in London and LA, and the TV series Secret Diary Of A Call Girl followed.
He doesn’t like to talk about it much, saying only that he wanted to make it darker. Afterwards, he says: “I went to Amsterdam for nine months to write what I thought would be my first film. Funnily enough, it was about civil war in Algeria, and a lot of the themes exist in ’71. The script I wrote wasn’t good enough to make, but I put a lot of what I wanted to talk about into ’71 – or it was already there. I only came back to London because I was offered Dead Set.”
After Dead Set, Charlie Brooker’s violent zombie satire, there were a couple of big-screen projects on the horizon, including one with Working Title about the Iranian embassy siege. “But they weren’t really popping,” he says.
So he went for Channel 4’s Top Boy, a Hackney-set gang drama starring Ashley Walters. “As a Londoner it was almost like a personal thing. I cared about the kids’ stories – not so much the drug dealers. That was what I was aspiring to: instead of it being an urban drama watched by urban kids, it would have a universality to it. A posh mother from Hampshire could watch it and feel that it had heart.”
While touring the film circuit, Demange has taken time out to talk to inner-city kids who are having a hard time making it, like he once did. “A lot of people have helped me out, done favours, and I think it’s important to give back,” he says. “It’s important to demystify the process. The industry is too homogenous – it’s too middle class, it’s too white, it’s too male. These are things we all know. So if people give a shit about what I have to say, then fine, I’ll go and talk to them.”
In the meantime, the rollercoaster ride that started 12 months ago is finally slowing down. He says: “I’ve just had one big gap year, haven’t I? An adult gap year. But it was a good experience. It’s like a gift – you never know if it will happen again. You never know if you’ll make a film that’s gonna be ever fucking good again.” He pauses. “Well, you never know if you’ll ever even make another film again – it’s not a given. It was a moment to be savoured in my life and it’s coming to an end. It’s time to get back to work.”
• ’71 is released on DVD, Blu-ray and Steelbook on 9 March
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