Brief Review: I, Daniel Blake/ Ken Loach

We’ve all seen them—the desperate young woman who talks back when the unemployment insurance agent turns nasty, or the intransigent old man who refuses to fill out a fourth irrelevant health insurance form. We chide them, thinking, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere by behaving this way. Just do what you’re asked and get your benefits.’ But sometimes, doing what you’re asked is simply too high a price to pay.

In I, Daniel Blake, Daniel has just had a heart attack, so he can’t work. After a 40-year career of steady, full-time employment, he knows nothing about the social services system that has suddenly become his sole provider. All he knows is that trying to get his benefits is making him feel like crap, and he doesn’t like it.

Neither does Katie, a single mother with two small kids who’s got dreams of going back to school so she can leave the crummy flat she’s been assigned and buy her own food instead of relying on handouts. When Dan sees Katie being harrassed in the social services office he comes to her aid. A beautiful friendship develops between Dan, Katie, and her kids—the family none of them ever had. But this is no Cinderella story, and this bright light remains the only one in a tale that goes from painful to impossible.

With I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach returns to his pre-Wind that Shakes the Barley days—to a time when he made My Name Is Joe and Kes, films that convey the angst, the irony, and the despair of England’s lower classes in a rough, handheld manner. I, Daniel Blake has the higher production values of Loach’s later films, but it’s his darkest film yet, filled with a despair that is fundamental, all-encompassing, and brutally real.

Many of the people who work with Loach speak of his ability to bring out good, strong, natural performances by giving his actors an unprecedented amount of freedom. Jim Norton, who starred in Jimmy’s Hall, said, “Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken [Loach] and Paul [Laverty, Loach’s longtime screenwriter and screenwriter for I, Daniel Blake] are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, ‘Let’s go this way.’ It’s a very interesting way to work.”

And work it does in I, Daniel Blake. One never knows where the director’s input ends and the actor’s skill takes over, but in I, Daniel Blake, Dave Johns (Daniel) and Hayley Squires (Katie) play normal folks on the edge with such compassion that it’s almost too heartbreaking to endure. They capture the humiliation of their situations with such agonizing familiarity that it’s impossible to remain apart from them. And this is the point: However much we are not like them, they are us, and we are them. Denying so would be artificial. And artificial is one thing Ken Loach never allows us to be.

I, Daniel Blake opens December 23 in New York City, at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and LA, Laemmle Royal, with a national rollout to follow.

Jimmy’s Hall/Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Jim Norton (actors), directed by Ken Loach

Actors Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, and Jim Norton pop off the screen in Ken Loach’s fictionalized account of the life of social activist Jimmy Gralton, the only Irishman to be deported from his own country as an “illegal alien,” without trial, in August 1933. Gralton’s crime: running a social hall where Irish men, women, and children studied Irish literature, painting, dance, and Gaelic, to the growing horror of Church and State. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015. Availability: Opens nationwide July 3.  Check local listings for a theater near you.  A Sony Pictures Classics release.  Thanks to Julie Chappell, Falco Ink and the Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT: Ken Loach is known for not giving his actors the script in advance but rather giving out each scene the day before it’s shot. How did that work for you as actors?


BW:  It’s very conducive to good, strong, natural performances. I’m all for it.


SK:  You don’t get to overthink it, and you don’t worry about it. You don’t come in with this load of knowing where it’s going. You can only play what you know, so there’s a lightness about it.


JN: I once said to Ken, It would be nice to know more about where this character is going, but he said, In life you don’t know where you’re going.


DT:  But in life you know who you are.


BW:  No, you don’t. That’s an illusion.


JN:  You know who you think you are.


SK: Before we started filming, we spent a couple of weeks researching and going around Ireland. Barry and I got to see our characters’ houses, and we all did a lot of research into the politics of the time, so we knew where the country was at, and then we had to make decisions about where our character’s heads were at. So you come having made a few choices, then, when you get your scene for the following day, you make choices as you go along.


JN:  Often the way you play a scene decides what the next page of the script will be. Ken and Paul are watching and seeing what the actor’s offering up and in what direction you’re intuitively taking the character on his journey. Then they’ll say, Let’s go this way. It’s a very interesting way to work.


SK:  He casts very carefully as well. It’s a really thorough casting process, where he takes on people who he thinks have a natural affiliation with the characters they’re playing, or a leaning toward the character they’re playing. For Jimmy’s Hall, he cast people who were real community players. Nobody was a diva.


JN:  No time for that.


SK:  He casts people who are quite like-minded, I think.


DT:  Jim, let’s go back to something you said. I interviewed Paul Laverty [screenwriter, Jimmy’s Hall] for The Angel’s Share, and he said that the script is actually quite tight and there’s not a lot of improvisation—that it’s about 90 percent scripted.


JN:  That’s partly true. It is scripted, but from my own experience, when I get to the end of a scene, Ken is standing behind the camera. Your third eye is watching him, and he’s going, “And…. and….” [indicating you’re to continue]. Often what you then add at the end of the scene is what he uses. I did a film with him years ago, called Hidden Agenda, and I played the head of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Belfast. This man was going to a funeral, because some of his people had been murdered. He was wearing his whistle and the kind of special uniform he wore for these occasions, and I said to Ken, “Can you get me an expert and tell me how to do this properly so it looks like I know what I’m doing?”  Ken said, “Yeah, he’s coming tomorrow.” This went on for four or five days. I finally said, “I’ve got to get this guy—I don’t know how to button this, and where does the whistle go, and what hat do I wear, and how do I hold the baton?”  Ken simply said, “Let’s shoot it.” So they shot it. I was really upset because I didn’t know how to do it properly, but afterwards Ken said to me, “The man is going to a funeral. He’s lost five of his men. He wouldn’t remember what his name was.”  So that’s the kind of genius that he brings: using the actor’s terror to let him present something really truthful.


KN:  Or seeing where the wee flaws are and making them work, because that’s interesting. We watched him cut the film together.


JN:  He had that old-fashioned cutting machine…a Steenbeck.


SK:  They ran out of sound tape. Nobody makes it anymore, so Pixar sent them reels and reels. I went in about three or four times, and one day they were cutting the scene where Jimmy was in the hall, then comes out and sees everybody standing outside. Ken had about four takes and that was it. I thought that each take got more polished and looked better and better. Ken said to me, “Which do you prefer?”  I said probably the third or fourth, and he said, “The first.” He said the later takes were too polished; it was too like actors by the time you got to the fourth take. He said, “In the first one, Barry [Ward] can’t quite get the door open. He has to push a little bit.”  And I had thought it was so raw, where everybody’s making little mistakes and backing into each other.


JN:  Mistakes are good. He loved Barry’s hesitation.


DT:  It’s much more like his earlier films, like My Name Is Joe or Looking for Eric. Ken [Loach, director] and Paul [Laverty, screenwriter] and Rebecca O’Brien [producer] have worked together for a very long time. How was it working for a well-established team?  You guys were sort of walking into a preestablished method.


BW:  I thought it was confidence-inducing, and his method of depriving us of the script was less terrifying owing to the fact that this team has made such brilliant movies using these methods. I felt totally confident and in safe hands from day one, going on the movies that they’d made. I mean, there’s no bad performances in any of their movies.


SK:  But they’re also the friendliest, most open sort of family. It’s not like there’s this little clique in the corner of people who know each other really well and you’re outside it. It doesn’t feel like that at all. They’re really open. They have great fun. Paul and Ken take the piss out of each other all the time. It’s really fun to watch.


JN:  A huge generosity of spirit, and you’re included. I’ve just done a movie where after each take there were three producers on the floor as well as the director, and they would cover their mouths with their hands and whisper, and you think, They don’t like me. That would never happen with Ken and Rebecca and Paul because they’re just open. They’re wonderful. There’s no sense of being excluded from their coven of brilliance.


SK:  And they’re really crazy about each other.


DT:  How did Ken’s direction differ from other directors you’ve worked for?


SK:  Hugely.


JN:  He gives the actors so much freedom. Even though the script is tight, he encourages you to stretch it and play with it. In the end, he’s the sole arbiter; he will decide what he wants, but he gives you great freedom to, as he says, “offer things up.” Of course we all trust him and we all love him, so it’s a lovely experience.


SK:  He also shoots everything in sequence, which is such a gift. I asked him at one point if it was really hard to do because you need to shoot everything in one venue at one time, and he said it’s not hard at all—there are just a few little things you have to work out, but it’s really not that difficult, and if people tried it more often, they’d find that they could do it. For example, there’s a scene in the hall where Jimmy’s being asked to speak on behalf of one of the local families, and my character can’t really speak because she doesn’t want him to do it and she’s too emotional. The night before that, we’d shot the dance scene in the hall, so we were doing the scene where the day before we had spent eight hours dancing with each other. It’s so much easier as an actor to do that. You don’t have to “play” a scene… I just did a TV show where we shot the fourth episode while the second and third were being written, so we didn’t even know our own history. With Ken, it’s completely different. Ken teaches you your past.


SK: …but you never know your future.


BW:  The script for Jimmy’s Hall is structured quite conventionally. It’s dramatic realism, it’s social realism, but when I’m watching Ken’s movies I’m just never, ever aware for a minute that I’m watching a movie. They’re seamless and very realistic and very powerful for that, and I was curious how he would accomplish that, because each scene as Laverty writes it is conventionally structured and written. They have beats and climaxes and dips, and it became apparent quite early on that Ken doesn’t go in for emphasizing these beats or these dramatic moments. For instance, in the script there’s a scene when Jimmy first goes back into the old hall and it’s all dusty. He’s blowing the dust off, and in the script there’s this big moment of decision making. He flips open all the windows and it’s a grand statement and the light pours in, and Jimmy comes out and says, “We’re going to reopen the hall!” I did it as it was on the page, then Ken said, “No, just go over there and maybe have a look out that window.” It just became much more real.


JN:  He’s a great believer in the old adage “Less is more.” He doesn’t give you any direction if he’s happy with what you’re doing, so I once said to him, “Just give me a direction—if you wanted to give me a note, what would it be?”  And he said, so gently, “I’d do a lot less.”


BW:  Other directors are always emphasizing moments—“Hit these beats!”—and I find that the more low-brow a project, the more oomph and dramatic they try to make it. It goes against every grain in my body.


DT:  Barry, you do a lot of theater.  I imagine that theater acting is much bigger than film acting. Was it hard dialing down for you?


BW:  No, the opposite. It’s hard for me to drum it up for theater.


SK: Irish theater is not as big as Broadway, or even London West End, where things are very skilled looking and technical, like when actors get to the point of doing their big cry. Irish theater is actually a bit more subtle than that.


JN:  Plus the theaters are smaller, which helps. More intimate.


SK:  You don’t have thousands of people every night to play to.


JN:  But there is a difference. Richard Burton once said film acting is the maximum possible effect with the minimum apparent effort, which sums it up.


DT: As I understand acting, you have to become someone else in an honest way, which strikes me as an oxymoron.


JN:  Acting is the great emotional leap you have to make in order to become somebody else. That’s really what it is.


BW:  It’s almost like a leap of faith.


JN:  So we spend our lives leaping. At least some of us do; there are actors who play off their own personalities, stars who would never do anything but play themselves, but then there are actors who love taking on the persona of another person. Sometimes they’re more powerful doing that than they are in their own lives. Alec Guinness you wouldn’t notice in the street.


BW:  Or Peter Sellers.


SK: It’s about finding your own empathy with somebody else’s story and trying to really, really understand and empathize—no matter who the character is—with what they’re going through; to try and tell other people from inside their skin what they’re going through. It teaches you empathy. If you see somebody behaving badly, you look at them and ask, where are they coming from?  Why are they behaving like that? You try to question it and study human behavior and understand why people are doing and saying the things they’re doing—especially for a character like Jim’s [Father Sheridan, an archconservative priest], who he wouldn’t agree with at all.


JN:  He’s someone I’m diametrically opposed to in every possible way, but you have to try to find a way to believe in him.


SK:  Find where he’s coming from.


JN:  I justified it by saying he was doing the best he could from what he knew. Sadly, what he knew wasn’t very much.


BW: It’s amazing what you find yourself being able to justify—even with the most heinous crimes, you kind of say, I understand why somebody might do that.


SK: But for Father Sheridan, I imagine he absolutely believes he’s doing the right thing.


JN:  There’s a wonderful book by the psychologist Scott Peck called People of the Lie, which I read when I had to play a very bad person. It was fascinating, because he said people who are truly evil don’t believe they’re evil.


BW:  No, of course not.


JN: His conclusion was that if someone like that comes into your life, get out of the way, because you’re not going to change them. It’s terrifying.


SK: To play a character that’s greedy and cowardly, you find those little flaws within yourself. Then you blow it up a little to play somebody whose go-to place is to be really greedy or really cowardly.


JM:  But in the end it’s just pretend. We’re just pretending.


DT:  How did you prepare for the roles?  Do research, watch Ken’s previous films, read Donal O’Kelly’s play about Jimmy Gralton?


BW:  I’m a big fan of reading around subjects. Some actors use music to get into the mood of scenes; I read. I read a lot of fiction set in Manhattan in the ’20s to get an idea of where Jimmy Gralton was coming from at the beginning of the movie. We all read some Irish history books and books about the politics of the time. Not knowing a great deal about Jimmy Gralton, because not a great deal of biography exists, I found a lot of similarities between him and James Connolly, so I read loads of James Connolly’s writings and biographies.


SK: Ken recommended books, and my grandparents and parents grew up on farms in the west of Ireland, so I could ask them questions. When we were in Sligo a couple of weeks before we started filming, I met my on-screen husband and kids, and we got to do some improvisations with each other about when he asks me to marry him. We also did some family improvs, where we took the kids out to lunch. Ken and the children’s father sat at another table in the café, while the four of us—the “family”—sat at another and I picked cheese out of the kids’ sandwiches, just getting the vibe of this family. And Barry and I learned to dance for a few months together, so we got to build a relationship with each other as well. The preparation on every level is quite good. Everything you want is available to you.


JN:  They provide a huge amount of information. I would get sheafs of sermons given by priests at that time, which were the most terrifying things I’d ever read—far more terrifying than what Father Sheridan does in the film. A lot of that information was fed daily into my computer, so by the time you arrive you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want. Ken is very meticulous in the information that he gives his actors, but he still leaves that space for something, hopefully magically, to happen.


DT:  While you’re acting, do you consider the historical context? For instance, when the two of you were dancing alone in the hall, were you just dancing and being in love, or were you dancing and thinking, OK, it’s 1932 and…


BW:  It’s information you have. When you do the research, the information is there. You don’t necessarily use it in a scene, but it’s good to have it there. For instance, you’re sitting here now and asking questions. You’re not thinking of where you learned to interview people or what you studied in college, but it’s all there, so it’s all feeding and informing how you go about doing anything.


SK: During the first couple of days of filming, Ken would have a word in someone’s ear and they’d start improvising. The very first day, when we were building the hall and Michael Murphy was up the ladder and starts cursing at the journalist, I started laughing. I thought it was really funny, then I sort of quickly realized, I don’t think Oonagh would laugh—she cares too much about the hall. I sort of realized pretty quickly that I had to be on top of it…but it was never hard to do either, because Ken never puts you in a scenario where you’re battling against yourself, thinking, I’m doing this but I’m supposed to be in 1930s Ireland. There was a scene at the end of the film where I come to see Jimmy in the barn. I had to go to the top of a rocky hill and cycle the whole way down even though they never used it in the film. Ken wants you to start from your starting point. You don’t just say Action and then start talking. Everything he does helps you as an actor to not have to act too much. To just go from your gut and your instinct.


JN:  So when you arrive at the door you’ve made the journey. You know where you’ve been and why you’re there. The man is a genius. He creates wonderful situations.


DT:  Rather than use a set, they actually built a hall on a crossroads in Ireland. Ken said that the actual size of the hall imposed a discipline that you can sense as an audience. Did the actual size and the fact that it was in Ireland make a difference to you as actors?


BW:  Just as you were saying, it’s all there. It’s all salutory. You have to pretend less, use less imagination and just be present. It all amounts to people simply being on camera rather than people trying to act and force things. I think it’s all conducive to very natural performances.


SK: You’re not sitting in a corner of a massive studio with loads of lights…it was the natural light coming in the windows. We loved that hall. We had some great nights dancing there.


BW:  And as a film crew, his methods are so unobtrusive. Ken usually uses long lenses, and he’s on a tripod, out of the way. There’s no boom ops in sight, there’s no lighting guys in sight. You’re doing the scene with a gang of people dancing for real, with real musicians.


DT:  Where was the crew?  They had to be there.


BW:  In the corners, so quiet you can’t see them. If there’s an outdoor shot, they’re miles away.


SK:  With those big dance numbers, you actually had to look around. There are all these people and we’re all dancing, and you’re kind of looking and you see someone on a ladder in the corner with the camera. They’re so far back.


JN:  I’ve never heard anybody on a Ken Loach film say, Where is this shot?  Am I in it? You wouldn’t dream of asking. You trust him totally. He’d be very surprised if you said, Are you here on me? You don’t talk about those technical things.


SK:  He would say, Why would you want to know that?


DT: You’re all so charismatic on screen. In fact, that was one of the things I loved most about the film—how you just popped from the screen. How does that work?


BW:  Maybe because they were very forceful characters, quite simply. Each of the characters we’re playing is very principled and forthright.


SK:  It’s easier to be charismatic when you’re someone else.


BW:  I’m not that strongly opinionated, whereas Jimmy Gralton had an agenda, and he had a way of life and a generosity of spirit that I simply don’t have.


SK:  We all loved the story so much as well.


JN:  I think what you’re describing is absolutely the genius of Ken: To catch. We just do it, and he, being a master of film, catches the moments. When he’s in the cutting room, he selects those moments, and that’s the magic. We’re not consciously aware of trying to pop or trying to affect anybody or trying to play the truth. He takes what we do and makes it into this beautiful tapestry.


SK:  And Ken, as Jim was saying before, is so quietly spoken when he comes over…. Barry and I were playing a scene together, and Ken came over and very quietly sort of whispered, “You know, this is a very dangerous relationship,” and then snuck off. So we sort of brought everything right down as well and ended up playing something really, really intimate. Ken then shows it this size [stretches her arms wide], so that’s probably where some of that energy comes from as well.


JN: And also he listens so intently to you. He rarely gives instruction, but when he does, you want to listen. We did a scene where my character [Father Sheridan] is having a drink with his young assistant. We did a few rehearsals, and Ken said, “How much do you think he’s had?”  I wanted to play it drunk, because I wanted to show this priest in all his terribleness, so I said, “Maybe he’s had four or five glasses of whiskey,” and Ken merely said, “I think that’s maybe two too many.” In other words, don’t go with the easy choice.


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