Wed, 16 Jun, 2021 – 12:14
“As a filmmaker, many stories fascinate me, but this story compels me,” says Jim Sheridan in the opening moments of his new series on the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.
For the Irish filmmaker who has followed the case for more than two decades, bringing the story to screen became a challenge that he was determined to realise.
Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie, beginning on Sky Crime and Now TV this weekend, unravels the details of the investigation. But crucially, it gets to the heart of the tragedy that Sheridan says has left “a scar” on West Cork.
“I just think that once you start into it, it draws you in,” says Sheridan of the unsolved murder of the Frenchwoman, who died in violent circumstances near her West Cork holiday home on December 23, 1996.
“I started with a mundane idea of: ‘I wonder what was going on down there?’ I knew Schull from the [Fastnet] film festival and I was at the very first film festival, because [Schull-based musician] Maurice Seezer had done the music for my movies, and they asked me to come down.
“Around that time, I started to get interested in the story, because it had left a kind of scar on West Cork. And I met Bailey by chance in the Four Courts.” Jim Sheridan with Ian Bailey in Murder at the Cottage: The Search For Justice For Sophie.
‘Bailey’. of course, is Ian Bailey, the West Cork resident who was found guilty of the murder when tried in absentia by a court in France. The English ex-pat has always maintained his innocence, and has never even been charged in relation to the case in Ireland. Irish courts have also refused his extradition to France.
Sheridan’s five-part documentary series goes into forensic details about the facts of the case, the witnesses and suspects involved and media reports – including from the Irish Examiner – from the early days of the investigation.
It features interviews with key investigators, Sophie’s brother and son Pierre-Louis, who was just 15 when he learned of his mother’s murder.
Bailey, who covered the case as a reporter for some media outlets before becoming a suspect, also features.
Sheridan’s ability to get to the heart of a story has made him one of our most celebrated filmmakers and as well as featuring widely in person in the documentary, he powerfully brings home the impact the murder has had through the memories of local people.
As publican Billy O’Sullivan, who served Sophie a pot of tea the last time she was seen alive puts it: “I was shattered when we found out it was her”.
It also struck Sheridan that even people in the area he knew well didn’t want to talk about the murder.
“That’s very difficult for the locals, and I understand their pain. And I never wanted to trod on that. In fact, I was trying the opposite, which was to just get to the bottom of the story and try and see if there’s any exorcism of this evil deed.
“In the initial stages, I went down thinking, can I trip Ian Bailey or Jules Thomas up if I get embedded with them? Will there be a chink in the armour? I spent a long time with them, and I didn’t get any chinks.”
Sheridan, who lost his younger brother to a brain tumour when he was just a teenager himself, also hoped he could bring some positive outcome. “It was to try and end the grief of the French family because that’s where my parents lived, in grief, because my little brother Frankie died when he was 10.
“They were in such pain. I started talking to them, saying: ‘Dad, I know I had a sibling who died, but what’s it like to lose a son?’ And he said to me, he’d drop his voice and say to me: ‘I have to build cells against tragedy’. In other words, they have to become a different person to the person I was to be able to live.”
The series features moving contributions from family members including Sophie’s son Pierre-Louis and her brother. “They were amazing. They were really welcoming. The family, they’re full of dignity and full of grief.”
Given that he was speaking to figures on different sides of the case, was gaining people’s trust a challenge?
“Last night I was out the front of the house and the girl next door came along with her greyhound. The greyhound came up to me and started licking my hand and she said: ‘Oh, he never does that to anybody’.
“So I employ the greyhound technique of being relaxed and not have an agenda and not trying to be catching anybody out. When I say action on a set, I’m trying to give people life, I’m not trying to bully them, or make them hit marks or get in the right light. I’m just trying to give them the most freedom I can give them on that day. It’s as simple as that.”
Sheridan’s project has been many years in development and he initially wanted to tell the story in the format of a feature-length documentary. He says he originally approached the BBC, who wanted to do it, but it was a challenge to raise the finance involved and that territorial broadcasters in contemporary storytelling can find it difficult to compete with the big streamers. Incidentally, Netflix launch their documentary series on the case a week after Sheridan’s.
After reformatting the project, he got on board with Sky. “They’ve been very helpful and very behind me doing it. I think I’m lucky in that they’re closer to the story than if I was dealing with an American company.”
Always a creator, Sheridan is currently developing several other projects. They include a film about the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, when terrorists blew up a Pan Am jet over the Scottish town, killing 270 people. The story will focus on a search for justice from the father of one of the women on board.
Other projects from the director of In America and My Left Foot include a personal story about his own family, and a feature about Standing Bear, a Native American and civil rights campaigner who won a landmark case in 19th century America.
This series about the tragic events in West Cork have taken up much of his time in recent years. What did the process of making it bring to him creatively?
“Realising how deep the idea of belief is, a belief system of religion, and a belief system in the law and a belief in the guards and a belief in human nature. If Psycho is the movie that removed God from the screen, the death of my brother was what removed God from my life. Ever since then in ways I’ve been searching for God and hoping I might catch a glimpse. And it was in that spirit that I started this story.
“I suppose if I ever thought my prayers would be answered, I would pray to the God I don’t know, to come down and show his face and let justice be done.”
- Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie comes to Sky Crime and Now TV from June 20
One of the dramatised scenes in Murder at the Cottage: The search for justice for Sophie, on Sky Crime. Sophie Toscan du Plantier, killed in 1996.