Wild Atlantic ways: writer/director Peter Foott on hit Irish comedy film The Young Offenders

Inspired by a true story, low budget comedy The Young Offenders has been a €1m hit at the Irish box office and won awards and rave reviews on the US festival circuit. As the Peter Foott-written and directed film opens in the north, David Roy spoke to the Co Cork movie maker about its unexpected success

Chris Walley as Jock and Alex Murphy as Conor in The Young Offenders
Chris Walley as Jock and Alex Murphy as Conor in The Young Offenders

THE 'road movie' has been a cinema staple for over 50 years, probably because it's such a flexible genre for filmic expression: everything from crude comedy car chase classic Smokey and The Bandit to the angsty minimalism of Two Lane Black Top falls within the diocese of its broad church.

Irish writer/director Peter Foott's flick The Young Offenders is a particularly oddball addition to the genre, not least because the low budget crime caper features bicycles rather than traditional automobiles.

Shot entirely in Cork city and west Co Cork, it stars two first-time film actors, Chris Walley (21) and Alex Murphy (18), as a pair of teenage tear-aways who set off on a two-wheeled mission to the remote coastal spot where a massive cocaine shipment has just capsized.

Best friends Jock (Walley) and Conor (Murphy) fantasise about getting rich from the 1.5 tonne spillage – based on a real incident in 2007 – which seems to offer an escape from Leaving Cert boredom and their less than satisfying home lives.

However, the loveable Leeside louts haven't bargained on being hotly pursued across the county by bike-crime-obsessed Cork cop Sergeant Healy (Dominic MacHale) – or that an actual drug dealer like the maniacal nail-gun-wielding Ray (PJ Gallagher) might also be on the lookout for the water-logged gear, which is estimated to be worth €7 million per bale.

The film offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments via a skilful mix of crudity, slapstick and character-driven humour, but it also has a big heart too: these 'young offenders' might look like they'd mug you as soon as look at you, but Murphy and Walley curry audience favour by conveying their characters' underlying vulnerabilities and unwavering mutual devotion.

All these elements combined with stunning cinematography maximising the natural beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way helped The Young Offenders become the joint winner of the Galway Film Fleadh's Best Irish Feature Film award – it tied with A Date For Mad Mary, directed by Foott's friend Darren Thornton – in July before propelling it to the top of the Irish box office upon general release in September.

It's now the highest grossing Irish-made film of 2016 and it was even a hit on the US festival scene, winning over audiences and film juries alike at Fantastic Fest and the LA Comedy Festival (it won Best Feature Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the latter) despite the strong Maysfield Leesider lilt of its central characters.

Impressively, no subtitles were required – as Foott explains:

"We spent a lot of money getting them done and then ended up not using them," reveals the Monkstown man, whose previous credits include directing RTE's Republic of Telly comedy show and the video for The Rubberbandits' hit song Horse Outside.

"At every festival screening I asked the crowd if they'd been able to understand the accents and they all told me it wasn't a problem."

As well as drawing on the real life treasure hunt which sprang up around Ireland's biggest ever cocaine seizure for inspiration, ("I just loved the idea of all these people searching for drugs that they wouldn't actually have a clue what to do with," he tells me) it seems The Young Offenders is also partially drawn from the youthful misadventures of its writer/director while growing up in the area where the film is set.

"Jock and Conor came from me and my friends growing up," reveals Foott.

"Myself, my friend Colin and others used to go on these silly little trips and get into crazy adventures. We did so much stupid stuff when we were teenagers – we were very, very naive and just up for fun.

"When you're older no-one says 'yes' to things any more, whereas in your teens you'd pretty much die for your best friend. I just love that kind of intense relationship between kids of that age.

"If you have two adults doing stupid things in a film, it's very hard to relate to them – you just think they're idiots. Whereas teenagers can get away with it because we accept that they haven't quite figured out the world yet. They're 'just kids'."

The 'kids' in question are Alex Murphy and Chris Walley, who were cast from open auditions before being groomed for their big screen 'bromance' as the People's Republic's most dysfunctional dynamic duo via intensive rehearsals.

"We spoke to basically every young person in Cork," explains the director. "Not just actors, but kids who were interested in becoming actors.

"Once we'd paired off Chris and Alex, we did a couple of months of rehearsals with them where we sent them off on 'man dates' so they could get to know each other. They really clicked and by the time we started shooting, they actually were best friends."

The pair have since gone on to great success: Walley was accepted to RADA while making the film, while Murphy is off to Dublin's top drama school The Lir.

Indeed, it seems that everyone involved in The Young Offenders (including Foott's wife, Hilary Rose, who was actually pregnant during some of her scenes as Conor's long-suffering mother, Mairead) got on brilliantly – so much so that they're planning on working together again as soon as they can.

"At the moment, we're in the process of putting together a Young Offenders TV show," explains Foott.

"We're in talks about doing a UK/US co-production, which would mean getting the gang all back together again – so everyone's quite excited about that."

Hopefully, it won't be too long before Conor and Jock ride again.

:: The Young Offenders is released in the north on December 9.