Gueros/Alonso Ruizpalacios

When student strikes shut down the University of Mexico in 1999, a lot of middle-class kids suddenly found themselves with time on their hands.  In this whimsical, charming, and spirited feature, director Alonso Ruizpalacios takes three of them on a road trip through Mexico City, in quest of a legendary folk hero who has been hospitalized in some anonymous place.   A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015, Gueros won Best First Feature prize at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival and has been nominated for 12 Ariel Awards, Mexico’s Oscars.  •Availability:  Opens nationally at New York City’s Film Forum, May 20. For local listings, go to Thanks to Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.

DT:  I was speaking with the Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra, and he said that sound design is the last place that a director can be truly original. Do you agree?


AR:  I don’t know what he meant by the “last place,” but it’s definitely a place where there are infinite creative possibilities. I do think that sound—the possibilities of making your discourse in film through sound— is still underrated. It’s one of the things I pay most attention to and that I enjoy the most.


DT:  You studied theater in London.  How did that influence your work on this film?


AR:  Through the respect I have for acting.  I’m an actor myself.  I don’t act anymore, but I trained as an actor and still do a little bit. Being with actors is one of the parts I enjoy most about making a film. Lots of my fellow directors are scared of actors.  They don’t like to spend time with them. That’s very common, at least in Mexico, but I’m the opposite—it’s the part I enjoy the most.  Being with them, talking to them, doing improv. I think I was influenced in London just in the freedom it has given me to try things with actors. I wouldn’t say I’m completely fearless, but I think I’m quite confident with directing actors and trying out new things and saying, This doesn’t work, let’s try something else.


DT:  Was there much improv in Gueros?


AR:  It was fifty-fifty.  I always knew I wanted to run this line between having really structured set pieces, scenes where you couldn’t move a line because if you did you spoiled the comedy or the drama, and other scenes I had in mind, where I knew I could have a lot of improv.


DT:  I read an interview where you said you shot in black-and-white because Mexico City is so often shot in color.  Is that true?


AR:  I think the choices you make photographically should be instinctive, and then you find justification for them.


DT:  So that also goes for using 4:3 ratio in Gueros?


AR:  Yes. When I was writing the film, I always saw it in black-and-white, and I didn’t quite know why. I started to ask myself, Why should it be black-and-white?  Then I thought, It’s a film about contrasts—social contrasts, economic contrasts, political contrasts—and Mexico City is like that.  It’s a city of high contrast, and black-and-white is perfect for shooting contrast. And there’s also that aspect you referred to. It’s often shot in beautiful colors, and we relate Mexico and Mexican culture to beautiful color. Taking the color out of it makes you see it in a different way. It makes you pay new attention, as does the 4:3 ratio, which we’re now unaccustomed to.  That ratio used to be the norm, and now when you see a film like that, it makes you pay more attention to the framing, because it’s now strange.


DT:  In the film, your characters go in search of a legendary folk hero. You based that on Bob Dylan’s search?


AR:  Yeah, for Woody Guthrie, the folk singer. Dylan made a journey hitchhiking and taking buses from Minnesota to New York partly because he read that Woody Guthrie was agonizing in a hospital in Brooklyn. I always thought that in itself would make a great film—that journey of young Bob Dylan before he was Bob Dylan going to New York.

I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. In his autobiography he writes that seeing Woody Guthrie was the reason he came to New York, so that quest of somebody going all the way to pay his respects to their idol was always something that stuck with me. Transposing that to Mexico and creating a fantasy Bob Dylan came naturally.


DT:  You did exactly that with [theater and film director] Peter Brook.


AR:  He’s one of my all-time idols. I went to Paris to see his Hamlet and hopefully get to meet him. After the show I waited for hours outside. It was raining, and all my friends left. They said, Come on, he’s not going to come out, let’s go. But I stayed there for hours in the rain, and finally he did come out. I had this whole speech in my head, but when I walked up to him, my whole speech just disappeared.  Inside my head I was saying, “Bluah blubh,” but to him I just said, “Thank you.”  Just “thank you.”  He looked at me, and he said, “Thank you.” Then he got in his cab and left.  It was a huge disappointment.  I think that’s how all these meetings are—they’re disappointing. They’ll never meet up to your expectations.


DT:  I did the same thing with Werner Herzog, and I couldn’t watch his films for ten years afterwards. It was horrible. So you were prevented from enrolling at the University of Mexico by the student strikes, which you capture with incredible spirit in the film. Is that really what the strikes were like?


AR: Once the strikes started, there was no activity for almost a whole year. A lot of what’s in the film is fictional, of course. You have to make it work for film, you have to make it a bit more dramatic, but a lot of that stuff actually did go down. I did a lot of research on the strike.  I wasn’t in the movement myself because I left the country, but I did experience it through my friends, and I did go to the university a couple of times.

Every little detail you see is based on actual stories from the 1999 strike: for example, the way they used to sleep in the classrooms and split them into dorms and make names for each dorm.  All that is true. There was a point in the assemblies where the arguments got so violent that they placed barbed wire on the podium to keep others from taking over the podium.  So everything you see in the film is based on fact.


DT:  You’ve said that you were so enamored of the U.S. that you didn’t really know your own city, Mexico City.  How does that happen, and how does that translate into the film?


AR:  The people from my generation grew up with a strong American influence.  We consume American candies, American movies, American TV shows, American clothes.  So basically you grow up and you don’t really know your own city, your whereabouts. For middle-class kids from my generation, the city is very ghettoized, and you don’t really go outside your neighborhood. Coming of age at that period when you’re going to university sort of broadens your horizons, and that’s when you start cruising the city.

Another part of the film is based on my friends’ experience of the strike.  The ones who were in the university had to stop going to classes because of the strike. They used to spend their days getting in their cars and just driving to wherever, without any purpose or destination. They used to do that almost as a gag, just to see where they’d end up. I came along with them several times, and we ended up in strange, unknown places.  It’s a very vast city, and in the process of growing up, I really got to know Mexico City more, and learn to really love it.  I always felt it deserved its own road movie because it’s such a big, crazy, wonderful place.


DT:  You say your influences were Fellini and the French New Wave. Do you trace any of your influences to Mexican cinema?


AR:  There’s one Mexican film that me and my cowriter watched a lot. It’s called Los Caifanes [de Tepito]. It’s a wonderful ’70s film. It was written by Carlos Fuentes, the famous Mexican writer, and it’s a beautiful film.  It’s a road movie in Mexico City as well, and it’s also about class and contrast.  It’s hard to watch now because the cinematography is awful and there are so many cheesy things about it that haven’t aged well, but if you go beyond that, it’s a fantastic film. That was probably our strongest influence in how they dealt with class and traveling. It’s a night in Mexico City, a very rambling film without a three-act structure. We always knew we wanted a rambling film…it’s not a narrative that holds you to your seat. It goes in different places.


DT:  Are you going to continue making films this way?


AR:  I hope so. I think so. I try to make films like the ones I like to watch myself. There’s a lot of stuff I want to keep investigating.  I think that’s the point for me.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Reality/Quentin Dupieux

In Rubber, a psychotic tire goes on a killing spree while a group of spectators watches from the sidelines…until they become characters in the film.  In Reality, a young girl finds a videotape in the belly of a slaughtered pig.  When she finally gets to watch the tape, she discovers she’s part of someone else’s universe.  One of the smartest, funniest, and most imaginative filmmakers working today (and possibly ever), Quentin Dupieux has the rare ability to make us think and laugh at the same time.  Click here to watch the trailer. A highlight of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.  Availability:  May 1, exclusively at the IFC Center, New York City.  Available on demand and via digital platforms.   Thanks to Sara Sampson, Sara Sampson PR, for arranging this interview .Thanks to Ben Myers and Dennis Myers for suggesting questions.


DT:  Cinema is the perfect language for telling the stories you want to tell.  Is that a happy accident, or did you fall in love with cinema the instant you saw it?


QD:  Yes.  When I was fifteen, I basically watched movies all the time, especially B movies.  I was really excited by them. Then, when I started playing with video cameras, the feeling was always exciting, too. It has always been my element. I did tons of short films when I was young, so this has always been in my guts forever. I don’t know about the stories I’m telling; I just know that making movies and having ideas and filming and writing dialogue and editing—all of this is a huge part of my life.


DT: At the Q&A at Lincoln Center, Elodie Bouchez said that you made Rubber after having a bad experience with actors.  Is that true, or was that a joke?


QD:  It’s half true.  Let’s just say the idea was to make a movie without counting on actors.  The idea was to create a character using a stupid object, so yes.  On my first movie, dealing with the actors’ egos and the actors’ feelings was boring to me.  So that’s why I decided to do something like this. The funny thing is, when I did Rubber, I was interested in something else, but the actors on Rubber were so amazing that I instantly connected again with them. I did these Levi’s commercials at the end of the ’90s with a yellow puppet, and that was one of the highlights of my career, because a puppet has no feelings.  You have an idea and the puppets do it. So I was trying to do this again with a tire, which worked perfectly, but at the same time I had a really good experience with all the actors.  It was exciting, and they were all very connected to the movie.  They were all involved, and suddenly I realized, The tire is boring and the actors are amazing.  That’s what happened.


DT:  Your movies are really fun, but in fact Reality changed the way I look at life. I recently dreamed that I was in someone else’s dream.


QD:  Wow.


DT:  It was really weird.  How do you tread the thin line between comedy and philosophy?


QD:  I think they’re exactly the same.  I don’t think humor or fun or jokes are away from the brain.  When you laugh, it’s a stupid reaction to something, but it’s also part of your mental situation.  Sometimes you’re not able to laugh just because you’re not in the mood for it and it’s hard to explain why you’re not in the mood, and sometimes you just laugh at everything because you’re in the mood but it’s hard to describe why you’re in this mood today and not yesterday.  So to me it’s the same, and that’s why I have a problem when a movie is just trying to make me laugh—when the premise is You’re going to laugh. It’s harder to laugh for me because they are trying to make me laugh.


It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s like that in real life.  Everything is mixed up.  You don’t decide, OK, today is only about the fun, and today I’m only going to laugh. You can’t do that.  Everything is mixed up.  You have your real life, you have your problems, bills to pay, you have to argue with someone, but at the same time you can laugh with someone else.  Everything has to be happening at the same time, just like in real life. It may sound strange and even stupid, but that’s what I’m trying to do in my movies.  Of course, I’m trying to make you laugh, but it has to be more complex.  It has to contain some other elements.  Otherwise it’s just a long joke. There aren’t many pure comedies that are really good. It’s very dangerous to go there. That’s why a lot of comedies end up with the characters getting sentimental at the end, because you can’t watch something that’s just supposed to be funny. You need something else, just because as human beings we are more complex than just one [type of] information.

We need more. As a writer, as a filmmaker, it’s the same.  When I’m just filming funny stuff, it’s not satisfying.  I know something’s missing, so that’s how I usually build my stories and my scenes.  I always need to find something else.  Not just one element. It was the same for Rubber.  A lot of people told me, It would have been better if it was just a horror movie with a tire killing people—forget about the spectator scenes. And I said, That’s not interesting. Just one idea—that’s not enough.


DT:  What do you like about B movies?


QD:  You feel closer to B movies in a way because they’re more human. They’re charming, because you see the intentions and the filmmaker trying to create effects. You can feel it.  The reverse is Spider-Man. It’s perfectly done, and everything is so finished, so sharp, that you don’t feel the filmmaker. Of course I know it’s a different kind of entertainment.  You’re not supposed to feel the filmmaker when you watch Spider-Man, but that’s why I’ve always been more attached to B movies—and when I say B movies, I’m also talking about John Carpenter, for example. I’m also talking about the good B movies, not just the bad ones.

In B movies you feel the human beings behind the movies, whereas Spider-Man is more like a movie made by a computer.  There’s no accidents, no surprises.  If you compare the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the recent remake, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.  The first one was really charming and more scary just because it seems to be happening in real life.  It’s more disturbing.  The remake looks like a generic movie, and even the actors are like computer-generated characters.


DT:  I know exactly what you mean.  What does the violence in Rubber and Reality accomplish?


QD: I honestly don’t see violence in my movies, because the violence I’m shooting, like these stupid head explosions or rabbit explosions in Rubber, I don’t see as a violent scene.  I see it more as a guilty pleasure. I’ve seen kids watching Rubber, and they’re not scared of the rabbit explosion.  They think it’s funny because they know it’s fake and they know it’s impossible, and the way it’s filmed, there’s nothing shocking about it. I’m not a violent guy, so the violence you see in my movies is just for the fun.  I would not be able to do a real horror movie, because when you do a real horror movie, you have to dive into the horrible stuff, and I’m not attracted to horrible stuff.  To me, Rubber is like a cartoon.


DT:  The second time I saw Reality, I tried marking where the music came in to see if it signaled a shift in reality.  As you’re both a filmmaker and a musician, can you talk about the role of music in Reality and film in general for you?


QD:  It’s always different. In Reality, I decided to use only piece of music. It’s always the same piece. The idea was to create an hypnotic feeling. Basically I used the music every time the movie was slowing down. There’s always new information in the movie, but at the same time it’s a giant loop.  You see some things twice, sometimes three times, so the music was there to help everyone be focused.  It was there to keep you excited and interested, because if you remove the music, the movie is going to be superflat and almost the same. Nothing tells you to enjoy. The editing was to help this process of the giant loop and help people understand the mass of my movie, because this movie is really logical, in a way. If you watch it ten times, you’ll see that everything is right on time.  There’s no random stuff.  These days I think there’s too much music in movies in general. Back in the ’70s or ’80s, music was a character in the movie. Music was really important.  I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino’s, but the way he uses music is incredible, the way he strikes with old pieces of music.  It’s hard to explain my process, because of course I  make music, too.  I would love to stop using my music in my movies only because I think I’m doing too much.  I’m writing, I’m shooting, I’m also editing.  I think at the end of the day it might be annoying for other people. They’ll say, Oh, this guy is doing everything. It’s a little boring, I think.


DT:  What do you like most about making movies?


QD:  Honestly, it’s to stay close to my childhood.  I don’t want to be a professional, because suddenly it’s not about the fun anymore.  It’s about being smart. I honestly have no idea what I’m doing; I just want to stay close to my childhood, when I was trying to make short films with a bad video camera.  I want to keep on feeling this.  That’s what I’m looking for when I’m writing, that’s what I’m looking for when I’m shooting. I always make sure what we shoot is exciting.  It needs to be exciting every time.  Even the stupidest shots …everything has to be exciting.  Like I said, just like a kid playing with Legos.  That’s what I’m doing.


DT:  When is Rubber 2 coming out?


QD:  [laughs] We don’t know…maybe I’ll do it one day.



Copyright © Director Talk 2015


Viaje/Paz Fabrega

Over the course of a weekend, two young Costa Ricans share newfound love, laughter, and light-heartedness as they explore their country and each other.  In luminous black-and-white, director Paz Fabrega has fashioned a modern fairy tale for anyone who embraces romance. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015.  Availability:  Check Tribeca Film Festival schedule.  Thanks to Christine Richardson and James Moore, Tribeca Film Festival, for arranging this interview.


DT:  Costa Rica is so glorious in color.  Why shoot black-and-white?


PF:  For that exact reason. Because this place was so green and so lush, it took on too much importance. The film looked like a nature documentary. This is a story about characters and relationships, their gestures and their interactions, so we needed to put the landscape behind. I also think that landscape in black-and-white is very interesting.  It’s unusual.  It’s something different. This place has some mineral, I don’t know what it is, that makes things white. It’s not white-white, it’s a dirty white, so in color it just looks muddy, but in black-and-white it becomes something.



DT:  So you also tried it in color?


PF:  We were already thinking about shooting black-and-white, but we shot both when we went scouting. Then we decided to shoot it straight on black-and-white, which is something you should not do normally. It was great for us, because on the one hand we didn’t have color monitors, so we were just looking at the screen on the camera. That allowed us to find interesting black-and-white compositions right away, because we were working very fast and very improvised.  It also made color corrections much easier, because normally you would have all the color information and then you would take the greens and do separate corrections. It made post very simple because there wasn’t that much we could do.  And I liked that. When I went to film school, it was still film. With film there’s not that much you can do in post, and that’s the way I like to work.  You have what you have, and you have to commit to that.  You can’t change everything around once you’ve finished the film.


DT:  What camera did you use?


PF:  The Canon 5D Mark II.


DT: Neto Villalobos [Costa Rican director of Por Los Plumas {All About the Feathers}] also shot with a Canon 5D [Mark I]. How do you shoot an entire feature with an SLR?


PF:  We weren’t sure it was going to be a feature.  We were just going to see what we would do with the material.  It was three years ago when these cameras were coming out, and I loved that you could use photographic lenses on them.  I guess now there are more options, because you have the Blackmagic. That would probably be better, but I bought this camera because we could have the freedom to shoot whenever we wanted. We didn’t have to think about rentals or borrowing from someone, and that was what I could afford.


DT:  How did you do sync sound?


PF:  We recorded sound with an H4 recorder and a boom mic.  And then we used a clapboard to sync it up.


DT:  A little old-fashioned way of working.


PF:  It’s a pain in the ass.


DT:  You established a production company in Costa Rica.  What’s the film industry like there?


PF: It’ not much of a film industry. It’s hard to get projects going there. When I finished film school in London, I went back to Costa Rica. In London it was easy to find people—sound recordists, editors—who were working on different projects and would come to yours.  Even if it was a low-budget project, they’d do it for less than their usual fee. I knew lots of people who had well-paying jobs, and then they had their personal projects.  In Costa Rica there’s not so much of this. Because there just aren’t that many people working, it’s harder to bring together a team of people to work on your film.  That’s the one hand.  On the other hand, it’s all independent filmmakers.  There’s no structure. I think that’s very good for us, because nobody’s wasting time trying to get a job or trying to get into the industry.  Everybody’s just going out and shooting their films. It’s the way I want to keep working for a while.


DT:  So you’ll keep working in Costa Rica?


PF:  I want to make a few more films there.  I can apply for a fund and get together a group of people and just go out and shoot a film.  I’m still exploring.  Unless there’s some amazing script that I feel is exactly right for me, I don’t see myself going into a structure where I have producers and investors and all this apparatus.


DT:  So what does it mean to establish a production company there?


PF:  It’s just a legal thing you need to have in order to apply for funds.


DT:  Local funds, government funds?


PF:  Local funds, but when I established my company, my first film [Agua Fria de Mar] was a five-country coproduction with Europe. A lot of films are made as Latin American or Latin American–European coproductions, and for that you need to have an established company.


DT:  How developed was the script when you gave it to your actors?


PF:  They never got a script.  I had a structure—the man and woman meet, they go away together, and at one point she reveals she’s in a long-distance relationship with someone else. I knew she was leaving, but I wasn’t sure about the ending.  I just wanted to see how it went.  Initially it was more about a girl that has decided to leave and starts sabotaging her own decision, but when I saw my actors together, it was so much more interesting. They were so great together.



DT:  They were adorable.


PF: I just loved filming them. The stuff where she was on her own just wasn’t as interesting as the material when they were together, so the film became more about that.  That’s very much what I wanted to do with this project.  When you’re making a film, you have to plan everything beforehand. Then suddenly you get your actors and there’s this amazing thing going on, and the script is saying, Look this way, but you’re saying, No, this is great, let’s just go with this. That’s what happened with Viaje.


DT:  Do you plan on working that way in the future?


PF: I’d like to work that way, but you can’t do that on every single project.


DT:  Not if you have producers.


PF:  Especially if you have producers.  People want to know what you’re going to do before you do it.  But as I said, because in Costa Rica we can work with funds and do our own sort of thing, we have a little bit more freedom in that sense.  But I also think that if you want to be more well-financed and have producers, you can do that process beforehand.  You can get in touch with the actors, do some previous work, write a script, then hand it to your producers so they have some assurance which way it’s going.  You know which way it’s going because you’ve already seen it.  Mike Leigh sort of does things like that.  He doesn’t ever hand over a script, but by the time they shoot, everybody knows what they’re doing, which helps when you have producers.


DT:  It also helps if you’re Mike Leigh. What’s your next project?


PF:  It was meant to be a documentary but couldn’t be shot as a documentary. It’s about a group of kids, like a soccer team that came here for second division or minor league soccer. They played three games and didn’t score a single goal. They lost sixteen to zero, then thirteen to zero, then eight to zero. Then they disappeared, and nobody saw them again.


DT: This is a true story?


PF:  This is a true story. It turns out it was a group of kids that intercepted an invitation to a real team so they could immigrate to the States. When they got here, even though they didn’t play soccer and didn’t know each other well, they had to go and play with semiprofessional soccer players.


DT:  Great story.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film.


Copyright © Director Talk 2015

The Angels’ Share/Paul Laverty (screenwriter)

Screenwriter Paul Laverty and his longtime collaborator, director Ken Loach, address the economic crisis in Europe with The Angels’ Share, a dark comedy about a gang of young men and women facing chronic unemployment in Glasgow.  When their mentor introduces them to the tony world of whiskey, the gang decides to strike it rich by stealing a rare vintage and selling it off. •Availability:  In theaters and VOD April 12. Thanks to Matt Mazur, Donna Daniels Public Relations, for arranging this interview.  Thanks to Keith Gardner for making his vast knowledge and collection of films available to us.


DT:  Paul, you have a degree in philosophy, you trained with Scotland’s most prominent lawyers, and you practiced law yourself.  You worked with a human rights organization in Central America, where you saw the war in El Salvador, and you received a Fulbright to study filmmaking in the U.S.  How do your experiences affect what you write?


PL:  It’s pretty hard to be objective about your own experiences, but curiosity has been key to my work.  In a sense I was indoctrinated through the Catholic Church.  I was taught by Jesuits; I left home at the age of twelve and studied at seminary until I was twenty.  Many of them were very kind and very, very warm, but they saw things in exactly the same way, and they presented the world in black-and-white terms.  I remember studying Marxism to undermine Marxism.  I should thank them for my ability to enjoy the contradictions in life and my curiosity for seeing people who have a different experience from me.  And, I suspect, curiosity is probably human nature, especially for the child.  You know, somebody tells you, This is what you must believe, and you say, Well, why?  Also I saw power and hierarchy in a very obvious way there, and that made me curious, of course.   In Nicaragua I wanted to learn another language, see the world from another perspective.   It was interesting with Thatcher dying today, because she was a great supporter of Reagan supporting the contra, which destroyed Nicaragua.  That was an incredibly important experience, because I really saw how raw politics operated in the most brutal fashion.  I was an eyewitness to how William Casey, head of the CIA, financed the contra to sow terror in Nicaragua.  I’m not speaking with a rhetorical flourish about how they tortured and murdered people:  They did that.  So it always makes me laugh when I see so-called liberals making a film like Argo, which I saw on the plane yesterday.  They want their cake and they want to eat it; they set up at the very beginning how cruel the dictatorship was, yet at the same time they tap around and the heroes are once again the CIA.  The very last thing  in the film was a quote from Jimmy Carter saying, We pulled this off, we protected our country’s integrity and we did it in a peaceful manner.  On that particular occasion, yes, they might have, but there’s a humor about it when progressive liberals think they’ve made a liberal film when once again the CIA, which has sowed torture and murder throughout the whole world, are turned into such wonderfully humane characters.


DT:  And you have the Academy patting itself on the back.


PL:  Yeah, and then The Hurt Locker before that, which was even funnier.  According to Lancet magazine, over a million people died in that war, not directly from the invasion but as a consequence of the invasion—internecine battles and all that.  In Fallujah, children are still being born deformed because of pollution with uranium dust.  And right in the middle of it are these two lovely bomb disposal experts coming out with a good old joke, and they’re funny, and they’re poignant, and they’re fragile but rounded individuals in the middle of this misery and murder and systematic cruelty.  It’s just mind-boggling.  The idiot who writes for the Guardian said the great thing about Hurt Locker is that of course there wasn’t a lot of politics in it.  But with the premise of the film, and the main characters being such wonderful, well-rounded people obviously doing good in Iraq, and people calling that nonpolitical, it really is kind of laughable. By the premise and the choice of characters and the narrative you always reveal a deeper kind of politics.


DT:  Absolutely.


PL:  Of course it was no surprise that these two American propaganda films have won the Oscars.  And we’re supposed to treat it seriously and bend the forelock before these geniuses.  It’s hilarious.  You couldn’t write it.  All the contradictions…you would really struggle to put it into a screwball comedy, wouldn’t you?


DT:  Well, there’s your next screenplay.


PL:  The problem is that when Kissinger wins the Nobel Peace Prize, you kind of give up on irony, really.  It’s so beyond what you could possibly imagine.


DT:  There’s a lot of improvisation in your work with Ken Loach.


PL:  Not as much as you think.


DT:  What happens if your characters come up with something that you really want to use but it throws your script off story?


PL:  It’s much more organic than that.  One of the great things about the way Ken directs and works is you don’t hear the lines of the script; you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time. It doesn’t feel like a script speaking back to you; you feel like these people are actually speaking and talking.


DT:  I really felt that in My Name Is Joe.


PL:  Exactly that. I do many, many versions of the script, so it’s very, very tight when we come to actually do it.  Ken gives the actors freedom, and oftentimes things will develop or not, but usually when we get back to the edit again, and I’m quoting Ken now, it usually gets back to about 90 percent script again.  So it’s much closer to the script than some people think.


DT:  You have a script editor.  What does he do?


PL:  The wonderful Roger Smith. It’s another voice, another one to throw awkward questions at you.   He’s an old colleague of Ken’s, the same generation, and Roger often asks the tough, difficult questions, so we have great respect for his opinions.


DT:  At what point do you bring him in?


PL:  When we’re writing the script.  I’ll put something down on paper to test it, see if I feel it’s secure, a good premise, because you’re asking talented people to spend two years of their lives involved in this. If I feel it’s good territory and it’s really what we want to do next, I’ll do an awful lot of research, which is very journalistic. Not to copy things off the street but to get underneath and find out what’s going on.  Just listening to people.  You don’t copy, again, but it informs what you’re going to write.  Then forget all about it and go and write the fictional piece. I write the script by myself, then I’ll meet up with Ken again and we’ll try and be our own toughest critics.  Ask our tough questions of it: Is this the best option?  Is this the best choice?  We have always seen kind of eye to eye on that, and then you try and make the script tighter, more organic, and then you look at the locations and the actors again, and you might chop and change things a little bit.  And then you have a very, very tight script. Ken shoots in sequence, so the actors get the script in sequence, and they love it.  Sometimes if it’s a surprise we won’t give them the script.  We’ve got it planned out, though, so maybe the actual lighting and the actual words might not be used, but you’re true to the scene that you’ve imagined.  Other scenes are just exactly as we’ve scripted.  It’s all very organic, and I’m involved all the way through the process with Ken on the shoot.  We do the casting together, we often do the locations.  For Angels’ Share I met Paul Brannigan, the protagonist, when I was doing the research.

Paul had a very tough life, but he was very talented and very smart, and Ken’s really open to taking on the possibility of a young lad who’s never acted in his life. He’s also open to what you’ve discovered in the process beyond the script. I feel we’re filmmakers first. I write, Ken directs, but we meet in the middle as filmmakers and we try to help each other out.  We’re not in opposition.  Our loyalty is to the story, and sometimes you’ve got to change the script to make it possible, so it’s a complete working relationship.  Ken’s a very, very smart, tough collaborator who’s open.  He’s not a man who’s scared of ideas.


DT:  When you start out writing a script, do you know where you’re going to end up with it?


PL:  That’s a good question.  You can’t just start a script on page one and go.  In the process of doing all the research and thinking about it, characters form in your mind, the premise, the little puzzle you’ve got to unravel, the narrative.  Things are happening, so I do have a rough idea of where it’s going to go. I’ll write that out, but I also like to leave space to be ambushed by the characters, because in the process of writing things sometimes you think you’re heading here and they’ll take you over there because the character in the moment brings you there.  I think it’s quite good to leave space for that, but I think every writer has to find their own way.  I believe that a lot of the Hollywood gurus want everything worked out perfectly before you write the script, but I always like to leave space for the characters to speak to you, to bring you into parts that you might not know. I think it’s a balance of having some structure so the whole building doesn’t fall down but at the same time not creating something that’s so organized it’s sterile.  Everybody has to find their own way.  I like to have someplace to aim for, and that’s part of what’s going on in my head in the preparation, because I listen and do a lot of research, usually beforehand.  So things form in your head, you steal bits from here, there, and everywhere, and then when I come to write the script I usually write it very, very quickly.


DT:  Your collaboration with Ken Loach began when you wrote him on your return from Nicaragua.   Why did you write Loach in particular?


PL:  He was one of the few political filmmakers around.  I’d seen some of his films and loved the sensibility.  And to be honest, they weren’t exactly queueing up to go and make a political film in Nicaragua with somebody who’d never written before.  I wrote a lot of people, but Ken was the one who responded, and true to the man, he’s had that tremendous curiosity all his life.  He’s interested in what people have seen; I’d never written a script before and didn’t know much about the film industry, but that didn’t interest him—what interested him was what I’d seen in Nicaragua.  And he said, It’s a very long shot that we’ll ever make a film there, but I had a sense that we were just going to do it.  He told me to go and write a few scenes. Actually writing scenes, as opposed to just talking about it…it’s one thing to write a treatment, it’s another thing to write a script.  It felt tremendously liberating to actually give a character a name, how he should speak, and a job. I’ve been writing ever since.  It’s a drug, to be honest.  There’s a great kind of rush.


DT:  It’s like you’ve brought someone to life.


PL:  (Laughs)  Yes, it’s an instinctive thing, isn’t it?  You focus in on something, and you just feel that if you can tell the story of this person, you’ll capture the contradictions of something much bigger.  It’s always like trying to find that little premise of those characters.

Angels’ Share is  a little story about a young lad who’s trying to find a job.  He’s got a kid, but it’s the story of millions of young people around Europe at this time.  In Spain, where I’ve spent a lot of time, 60 percent of kids under twenty-five years old have no work.  Greece is similar.  Ireland, Portugal, tremendous crisis.  And these are people who are well trained.  They’re students.  So you can imagine people like Robbie, who’ve had no chance, who haven’t finished their education.  What was a great shock to me when I spoke to them was that many of these young kids think they will never have meaningful work in their lives. That’s a huge existential crisis, which is a huge political crisis.  If you took your work away from you, or if you took my work away from me, my life would be in a crisis.  Can’t look after your kids, can’t organize a place to stay.  It’s affecting the demographics in Europe.  Fewer and fewer people are having children. Older and older people.  Less workforce.  And what you see is this deregulated, precarious work economy.  It simply will not work in a sustainable fashion. Now, the film doesn’t go into all of that, but the story in a strange way shows the story of one kid who wants what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wanted in 1948 after the crisis of the war:  to have a dignified life you’ve got to have the right to work.  All of these other rights come from that, because if you have meaningful work you can plan your family, you can have a house, you can have some autonomy in your own life.  So although it’s a dark little comedy, hopefully by revealing that life you raise all these questions we’re talking about.


DT:  You also use the world of whiskey to show that someone like Robbie can enjoy the same thing as the prince of Saudi Arabia.


PL:  Probably a lot more because he’s got a better palate.


DT:  It’s interesting to me that the gang’s mentor, Harry, is a lot like the character of Joe (My Name Is Joe) and the character of Eric (Looking for Eric).  You have these men who are broken themselves but protecting these kids who are in these desperate situations.  The tension and the irony of having this imperfect mentor is so interesting.


PL:  Well, we’re all imperfect, and I think that for a lot of kids who’ve come from broken families, with tough experiences, if you have just one reference like that, who can see a talent in you and give you a chance, it can turn your life around.  It happens again and again.  You spend time with Paul Brannigan and listen to his life, you find he’s had a chaotic life, a very violent life.  I’m only saying this because he’s talked about it in public himself.  His parents were drug addicts, so Paul grew up in the street, very violently. Most people would be crushed or broken by it, but Paul’s an exceptionally intelligent boy, very sharp.


DT:  You see it in his face.


PL:  You see it in his face, yeah. But you can also tell that he’s distrustful, because life’s been very tough for him.  We wanted to try and find that in the film as well because of the life story that Robbie, his character, has.  But Paul’s life story is actually much more traumatic than Robbie’s.


DT:   How did you meet Paul, and how did you get him to open up on screen?


PL: We found Paul, but it was his talent that spoke.  It was a thing in Glasgow organized by the police called the Violence Reduction Unit. People were usually fighting on a Friday night—Friday’s a flashpoint—so the police organized a football/soccer league.  Paul was running that after coming out of prison, and I went along just to speak with him and all the group. I saw the way he handled himself, and it was a little like the way Harry handles Robbie in the film.  Paul looked interesting and very smart.  He’s quite distrustful, sure; why should he trust anybody from the film world?  Just all good common sense.  And the more I got to know him, the more I became interested in him.  I just thought, When it comes to do the casting, we must see this kid.  Not even thinking he’ll be able to get the main part, we just thought we want people like that who are smart and bright.  But he never turned up for the first two appointments, so I had to chase him all over the place to find him, and eventually got him to come along.  The beautiful thing about Ken is that he gives people confidence.  He allows talent to express itself.  He creates an environment where people have confidence, and I think that was very, very important.  Then Paul got the part through his own talent. And you never know, and that’s the thing I love about Ken; he’ll take the chance.  It takes bravery to cast someone who’s never acted in his life and who’s come out of prison, and the whole weight of the film is carried on his shoulders.  But Ken doesn’t make him feel like that.  He just makes him feel like one of the gang.


DT:  I was reading an interview with Jasmine Riggins, and she said the way Ken works—giving actors the script only scene by scene the day before they’re shooting—they don’t even know what their function is in the film.  They don’t know if they’re playing a main part or a walk-on.


PL:  Yeah, Martin Compson in Sweet Sixteen had no idea either.  The first day of the shoot he wasn’t going to turn up because he had the flu, and he thought he had just a small part.  But he carries the whole film, too.  I think it takes the pressure off people, and they just love it, day by day.  It depends on the scene; sometimes we’ll have two or three days in advance, depending on the scene, and also on the actor.  You just use your judgment. There’s no fixed and fast rule, but Ken shoots in sequence.


DT:  Tell me about Sixteen Films.


PL:  I’m very privileged to work with a wonderful director, Ken, and Rebecca O’Brien, who doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She’s a wonderful producer; we can spend our time doing our jobs because Rebecca’s so good at hers.  She creates the framework in which we can work.  And also what’s very, very important is the films are of a modest budget.  That means we have total creative freedom and make our own decisions.  We decide together what’s important; we’re not being told what to do by financiers who say you must cast such a such person because the film is so expensive to make.  We also have my colleagues who help us do the research or organize things…it’s just a wonderful atmosphere.  It’s very, very small, four or five people who work together with Ken and Rebecca, so it’s a wonderful working environment.  To work with friends is a great privilege.  All your energy goes to the work.  There’s no politicking and no other agenda.


DT:  You’ve worked with other directors, including your wife.


PL:  Yeah, working with Icíar [Bollaín] and Juan Gordon and Morena Films, that was a very nice experience, too.  We worked very much the same way.  It’s a good model.  I worked with another director, Clive Gordon, who was very nice as well.  The problem there was that the script wasn’t very good, so I blame nobody but myself for that one. Clive was a good guy.  Very nice, warm director.


DT:  When you were writing the script for them, you wrote in the same fashion?


PL:  People have asked me to write scripts for them, but I’ve never done that.  What’s nice is to choose what you feel is the most important to you in the moment.  That’s coincided obviously with Ken and the things we talk about together, but we’ve always chosen our stories because we feel these are the best ones to tell at the moment.  It’s great to have that freedom.  Not everybody has had that.




Copyright © Director Talk 2013