BEST OF 2017: Sanctuary championed the rights of people with intellectual disabilities to enjoy full sexual relationships, whilst also making us howl with laughter!

Director Len Collin spoke to Stuart Clark about breaking the taboo, and his flatulent claim to EastEnders fame...

And the winner of the 2018 Oscar for Best Deployment of The Violent Femmes in a Film goes to…”

It’s highly unlikely that the 90th Academy Awards will include a new alt. rock-inclined category, but if they do the statuette would undoubtedly go to Sanctuary, the debut feature from Anglo-Irish actor and director Len Collin, which tells the story of how Larry and Sophie, two people with intellectual disabilities, fall in love.

“I had a ‘eureka!’ moment in the bath when I heard ‘Blister In The Sun’,” the affable 51-year-old laughs. “Up till then I wasn’t sure what kind of soundtrack I wanted for the film. I spoke to my editor, Julian, about it and he agreed that that spiky attitude of the Violent Femmes’ was perfect. I shouldn’t be revealing trade secrets, but I approached Alice Nutter from Chumbawamba about using ‘Tubthumping’ for the scene that takes place on the bus. She said, ‘We love the film and given what it’s about you can have it for free.’ I was delighted, but our music supervisor, John, went, ‘No, let’s pay them a thousand for the music rights and a thousand for the performing rights, which is quite low, so we can go to Sony or EMI or whoever and say, ‘That’s what a number one single is costing us…’ We duly approached the Violent Femmes’ people and got ‘Prove My Love’, ‘Gimme The Car’ and ‘Good Feeling’, which closes the film for under ten grand which in cinematic terms for a soundtrack is half-nothing.”

As funny as it is touching - I was snorting tea out of my nose one moment, boo-hoo-hoo-ing into my hankie the next – Sanctuary has been doing brisk business around the country.

“It’s blown me away to be honest,” Len resumes. “Given the subject matter, I thought it’d be perceived as art house, but people are picking up on the fact that it’s actually a really entertaining film you can take your date to! It helps that 1). We’ve been having this big debate about diversity and human rights in Ireland and 2). Independent cinema here is enjoying a golden age with the likes of A Date For Mad Mary, Cardboard Gangsters, Twice Shy and Young Offenders, which is the funniest film I’ve watched all year. It’s brilliant to see the public here supporting Irish movies.”

And so say all of us! Sanctuary started life as a Christian O’Reilly-penned two-act play performed by Blue Teapot, a Galwegian theatre company, which puts people with intellectual disabilities to the fore. “I saw the play, which starts in the cinema and ends up in a hotel room, in 2012 and was blown away,” he enthuses. “I loved the fact that it had a message but wasn’t desperately trying to be ‘worthy’. For the film version, we’ve added characters and lots of different locations around Galway, which is itself incredibly photogenic.”

The romantically entangled Larry and Sophie are played respectively by 31-year-old Kieran Coppinger, who has Down’s Syndrome, and Charlene Kelly, 27, who’s epileptic.

“Of the nine cast members with intellectual disabilities, five have Down’s, three have autism and, as you say, Charlene has a severe form of epilepsy that has affected her learning over the years. This is not Dustin Hoffman playing Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man or Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump or even Pat Shortt playing Josey in Garage. When you watch our actors, certainly to begin with, it’s not what you’re used to. You might even think the performances are stilted. Once you immerse yourself in their world, though, you realise what brilliant, instinctive actors they are.”

Asked whether he approached Sanctuary differently to the shorts he’d previously directed, Len nods and says, “Yeah, you had to be aware of the different levels of ability within the cast. Patrick Becker, who plays the character of Andrew and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs, is a very visual comedian so rather than giving him lots of lines I focused on that. When I couldn’t get Kieran to stop rocking on his feet during a scene, I mimed hammering his feet to the ground with nails. It sounds a bit cruel telling the story now, but he laughed and when the cameras started again he didn’t move! One of the most rewarding things about the film is seeing how much the guys are enjoying its success.”

Part of Christian O’Reilly’s motivation for writing Sanctuary was that, at the time, Larry and Sophie’s sexual relationship was deemed to be unlawful. While the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has thankfully changed that, it’s still regarded by some as taboo.

“Previously, it was considered ‘non-consensual sex’, which by any other name is rape,” Len proffers. “The new law contains a passage saying that if people with intellectual disabilities know what they’re doing and are aware of the consequences, they can have a sexual relationship. I think it’s a victory. As for it being taboo, I challenge anyone to watch Sanctuary and tell me afterwards that Larry and Sophie’s relationship is wrong or damaging or immoral or whatever their pre-conceived notion of it might be.”

Collins’ adeptness at handling sensitive subject matter comes from almost 20 years of writing for the likes of Casualty, London’s Burning, The Bill and EastEnders.

“People sometimes think of those shows as being a bit soapy, but the plots are actually quite hard-hitting and sophisticated,” he reflects. “When you’ve 10 or 11-year-olds watching storylines about, say, terminal cancer with their parents, you need to pitch it right. That said, I have on occasion disgraced myself. I’m famous – or infamous – for writing the only episode of EastEnders in which people get the shits!”

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