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.
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