Michael Inside brings a first time prisoner's experience to the big screen

Michael Inside star Dafhyd Flynn. The movie's scenes of incarceration were filmed in the old Cork prison.

Sourcing his material from former prisoners, director Frank Berry wanted to get the experience of a first-time inmate on to the big screen, he tells Esther McCarthy

The Cork Film Festival screening of new Irish drama Micheal Inside is set to be a sort of homecoming for its cast and crew, who spent a number of weeks shooting in the city.

It may be set in Dublin, but the former Cork Prison proved a perfect location for the powerful drama, almost half of which was shot within its walls. The prison also recently doubled as Belfast’s H-block in the hit political thriller Maze, starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor.

With home-grown movie The Young Offenders becoming a bona fide international smash - and the forthcoming spin-off TV series recently wrapping in the city - it’s been a buoyant period for film and TV production in Cork.

For Michael Inside writer/director Frank Berry, filming in Cork was a positive experience, and he’s excited at the prospect of bringing the completed film back to be screened at the Festival. “We’re looking forward to bringing the film back to Cork, and that’s going to be very special for us,” he said.

“When we started to go into pre-production, the big question was where could we find a prison for this film. We contacted the Irish Prison Service who were really very welcoming, very encouraging. We talked about how this is a story that is an expression from real people’s lives and, that we’re looking at the penal system from the point of view of real experiences.

They were keen to help us, and John McDermott in the press office said: ‘Well, Cork Prison is currently in the process of closing down.’ They were in the process of transferring prisoners across from the old prison to the new prison.

“Around that time I heard there was another production taking place. I visited the prison a number of times in pre-production. But it was great to go down and see Maze in action. And we were allowed to go in after them.”

An emotional drama with terrific performances, and one of the Festival’s must-sees, Michael Inside centres on its titular character (an outstanding Dafhyd Flynn), an impressionable teenager who lives with his grandfather in a housing estate. When he is caught holding a bag of drugs for another, and is sentenced to three months in prison, Michael must learn how to survive within the tough circumstances in which he finds himself.

Berry, who worked closely with young people for his last film, the acclaimed I Used to Live Here, again took an unconventional approach to developing his story, working with former prisoners on the Pathways education programme to give the film a strong sense of authenticity. Some of them even feature in speaking extras roles in the film.

“I was working with a lot of former prisoners in an educational environment, basically, for people who have gone to prison and may have started an educational course in prison,” he said. “When they leave, Pathways is somewhere they can go and talk about how they continue on the path that they started.

“For me, it was always a case of shooting in a real prison, and I very much wanted it to express a feeling similar to Mountjoy Prison (where the film is set). I wanted it to be a real location. I wanted to show what the men I’d researched the film with had gone through and to be as faithful to that as I could. The very first time I took a load of photographs and showed them to the former prisoners. They all agreed that it had the same feel, because it was built 50 years earlier than Mountjoy, it had the same atmosphere.

“That’s very important to my approach, to try and make it as close to the experiences of the people I’m working with as I can. Working with the former prisoners we just evolved the story and used a lot of their experiences. We bonded, really, over a period of 18 months, and made a film that I hope is an expression from them.” A number of Cork’s filmmaking community joined the crew and were fundamental to the success of the film, he added.

“The final two weeks of the shoot was in Cork. Our first assistant director Niall Owens, from Cork, was absolutely wonderful and was my right-hand man for the whole of the shoot, and we had various members of the crew who’d worked on Maze.

“Niall had worked on Maze so he walked in and had the plan and the whole prison in his mind. He was very instrumental in transferring what I’d written into this particular facility. We definitely wanted to engage with people who had local knowledge.”

The idea for Michael Inside first came about while Berry was shooting I Used to Live Here.

“During that time, obviously, I worked with a lot of young people and I felt it would be an interesting story to look at how a young person growing up in a disadvantaged community could get involved in illegal activity, purely because of the environment that they’re growing up in.”

While making his last film in the Tallaght suburb of Killinarden, Berry would notice how some young people were vulnerable, even if it was not their intention to consider criminal activity.

“Out in Killinarden you could see a lot of young people not engaged, who’d left school early, sitting around. Not necessarily have any interest in criminal activity, but get involved purely because of the frequency of that activity around them. They could be asked to hold a bag of drugs, or perhaps they start taking drugs. The trajectory of their life changes.

“I took this idea to former prisoners, and so many of them nodded and said: ‘That’s my story, really. I just did something once and it set me on a certain path and it’s very difficult to go back.’”

Michael Inside will screen at the Cork Film Festival on November 16 and will be released in cinemas by Wildcard Distribution at a later date.

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