Jim Sheridan's interest in making his documentary series Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie began with an invite from an old friend. In 2010, composer Maurice Seezer persuaded Jim to tear himself away from the frenzy of the Cannes Festival and visit a local film festival in Schull, County Cork. Ironically, it mirrored the journey taken by film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier to her holiday home in Schull before her death in 1996. In a wide-ranging interview, Jim told Ray D’Arcy that the 10-hour trek from Nice to Schull got him thinking:
"Out of that small seed, of travelling in her footsteps inadvertently, I start travelling in her footsteps on purpose."
Sheridan’s past also informs his preoccupation with the story, he says. Losing his brother Frankie at the age of 10 left a deep impact on his family, and Jim says when a loved one has been murdered, it just adds to the unanswered questions to those left behind:
"I think grief is a very complex emotional arrangement in the head and when it’s compounded by murder, it’s really difficult. Because it’s as if God left the stage and enter justice, in a cloak, to replace him. And unless you get justice, you’re feeling there’s no meaning to life or the world."
Fast forward to 2015 and Jim Sheridan says his first encounter with Ian Bailey was by chance in the canteen at Dublin’s High Court. Bailey is the former journalist whose name has become associated with the West Cork story in many and varied ways; from reporter on the scene back in 1996, to his conviction in an in absentia murder trial in France in 2019. Jim says he was on the hunt for a cash machine when he spotted Ian Bailey and his then partner Jules Thomas:
"I saw Ian Bailey and Jules, amongst what I call lay litigants, who remind me of the people in Dante’s Inferno, walking in a circle in the least oppressive zone of Hell, or Purgatory. Because they are trying to act on their own behalf and everybody laughs at them."
Jim says his initial feeling towards Ian Bailey was not so much empathy as sympathy with someone else who was navigating the Irish legal system:
"I know what it’s like to be in the Kafka world of the Irish legal services. It is a Kafka world with punishment and I just feel for anybody involved in it. And that’s how I initially got involved in it."
Ian Bailey denies any involvement in the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier and he has never been charged with the murder in Ireland. Jim Sheridan explains that in his approach to the story, he wanted to start with as clean a slate as possible; leaving aside assumptions that have been expressed elsewhere:
"Until you forget that 'Ian Bailey is the murderer’, or until you let it go, you can’t come back to it. In other words, if you stick with what we have now, it’s going nowhere."
Ray asks Jim if his opinion of Bailey has changed over the past number of years working on the documentary, and Sheridan says that it hasn’t:
"Probably not much. Because I don’t have that, whatever it is, that somebody goes, ‘Oh he’s a murderer’. That’s a very interesting character. And in a way, if you take that off Ian Bailey’s shoulders, he becomes much less interesting."
Sheridan says murder has its own mystique and that people can be drawn to writing about suspects in a way that draws on this fascination, but he feels it doesn’t serve him as a film maker:
"Everybody’s invested in him being the murderer, if they’re writing about it, because it’s more interesting than, do you know what, he didn’t do it and we have to look for somebody else. It’s much more interesting. There’s an aura off killers. There’s an aura about murder."
Ray wondered if Ian Bailey is "nothing without the story", and whether he has become defined by it? While he agreed that could be partly true, Jim Sheridan has reservations:
"The sound I always hear in that question in the wind, is: ‘does he deserve his fate?’"
Ever the storyteller, Jim Sheridan returned to his school days to illustrate his stance on the documentary. He recalled his childhood belief in limbo, and the Catholic Church’s promise that praying would release souls trapped in purgatory. Jim thinks old beliefs need to be shed, before a new narrative or truth can be revealed:
"So you have to let limbo go. [...] That has been, or that was the world view until about 20 years ago. Until you let that go, you can’t have new spiritual or renewed spiritual values. So what I’m saying is, even if Ian Bailey did it, you have to let it go. You have to let it go and you have to put another potential face on the murderer, so that you can re-investigate this."
Sheridan hopes that ultimately there will be justice for Sophie, although it’s not clear how and when this might happen. When asked about the request of her family to remove their contributions from his series, he says:
"I can’t really comment on it because the last thing I would want to do is damage a hair on their head. They’ve suffered enough."
He says he hopes that whatever comes out, it doesn’t increase their pain:
"If I was a praying man, and I pray in my own way, I’d pray that the truth prevails and doesn’t damage the family."
Jim Sheridan talks about the decision to put himself in the film, the power of filmmakers to create heroes and villains and how he hopes modern technology may improve the taking of witness statements as well as his reaction to the success of the series in the full interview with Ray D’Arcy which you can listen to here.
Jim Sheridan’s 5-part series Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie is on Sky.