His name is synonymous with social realism in cinematography. His films about the unemployed, the struggle of workers for their rights, residents of urban slums, and in general, about people with hard lives have been well-known since the mid-1960s. In 1966, BBC showed his TV drama Cathy Come Home in which the protagonist, a young mother, loses her job and her flat and then her children are taken away from her. The film stunned Britain so much that it led to parliamentary hearings, amendments to legislation and two foundations being established to help the homeless.
However, Loach would have never achieved this much prominence if he had been concerned only with the direct social effect of his films. Artistic goals have been more important for him. The British Film Institute listed his drama Kes (1969), a story of a boy who tamed a hawk, among the best achievements of British Cinema. The film Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), another story of a defenseless mother, won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin Film Festival and earned Crissy Rock the Silver Berlin Bear as the Best Actress. Both viewers and critics were greatly impressed by the film My Name is Joe (1998) with the unforgettable Peter Mullan as the protagonist. The screenplay for the saga It’s a Free World… about illegal migrants won the Golden Osella Award at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. Finally, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a historical film, became a true breakthrough when it won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2006. All these works are marked with a strong social and political emphasis, but, above all, they involve masterful directing, intricate drama (a co-product of Loach and screenplay writer Paul Laverty) and, of course, lively, emotional and precise play by actors.
As a reporter of The Day, I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend Loach’s master class at the latest Berlin Film Festival and take part in a conversation with the film director.
What does the work on your films usually start with?
“The biggest question in film-making is what film you are trying to make? What is the story, what is the central idea, what is worth spending a year or two of your life working on? And is the central idea valid? Is it worth sharing the idea with the audience? Those questions are the biggest questions that we have to deal with. Even though the film you are doing may be a comedy, nevertheless, there are always implications in the characters you choose, the story you tell, the place which it has in the world, the significance of it. They all relate back to the fundamental view on how the world is. I can’t imagine working on something with a writer when you don’t share that view. Because it determines everything. It determines the whole essence of the project.”
What other qualities should a writer have to work with you?
“The importance of the writer is capturing characters and dialog on the page. That when you start realizing it on film, it absolutely lives, it really lives. And it gives the actors who played, it gives them life immediately. That’s why I have huge respect for writers always. And I feel that they are very undervalued in our business.”
Actors in your films are very natural. How do you achieve this?
“Everybody reaches a method of working by trial, endeavor over the years. And you say, for this kind of film, it should seem spontaneous, it should seem as though it just happened. When we came to doing films, we started doing a number of things. First of all, we abolished the read-through completely. And then we started the shooting sequence. You shoot the last bit first. We start the beginning in the order the events would have happened, not necessarily in the order you cut them together, and they started on the first day at the beginning, and finished on the last day at the end. And the accountants complained about this and said, well you have to keep going back to the same location. But I’d sooner have a simple location and shooting sequence than have a very expensive location and shoot the end of the film at the beginning. So, it’s a question of priorities. Because that way you take the actors through the story, and they can develop. And what we film today is the rehearsal of what we are going to film tomorrow. And you don’t have to talk a lot about the state of mind you’ll be aiming to do at the particular scene, because you’ve done the preparation, which is the scene we’ve done yesterday. You don’t have to intellectualize it, it’s simply an emotional memory and it doesn’t have to go through the brain. And another key point is that you play each scene for the value of that scene at that moment. You don’t play thinking, ‘oh God, I can’t respond full out here, because I have to save my tears till week five.’ We’ve developed a method of not giving the whole script at the beginning. So, the important thing is that the performers have got to know everything about the past of their character. You can’t surprise them by something from their past, because that’s not helpful. For something they have no control over in the future, if it’s a surprise, then you have to shoot the surprise, you have to shoot the shock. Even the most talented actor will have trouble being shocked twice, because the timing of that is so instinctive, that to reproduce it is almost impossible. If it’s a surprise, you have to shoot the surprise, which means you can’t show the whole script before you start. Because I think the best weapon, the strongest element you have as a director is the actor’s instinct.”
It must be very hard for your actors…
“It’s very difficult to act a different social class from your own, because upper-class people have things that they just get accustomed to, that they do without thinking, that is absolutely instinctive, they are not born with it, but it’s learned from the very early age. Just a way of dealing with people, they have been rehearsing this for their whole lives. Same for working class people, same for middle-class people. It is very hard to transcend class. You can put on a different voice, but it’s not true. Also, the place. It is very difficult to reproduce an accent or a dialect. You can do it phonetically, so it sounds okay. But it’s the choice of words, it’s the human, it’s the rhythm of speech, it’s the attitudes that they contain within language. And you can do it phonetically, but absorbing that whole attitude is difficult, if not impossible. So, I always choose people from the place and from the social class.”
I hate the mechanical immediacy of the working class on the move, with a fist in the air. It doesn’t touch us as humans. It’s a kind of mechanical awe, which I absolutely reject. And the political is always human, and it’s very dangerous. Contradictory, as people are. The political tradition that I came through when I was young, was the opposite of Stalinism. It was socialism, but anti-Stalinist. And we have always been very opposed to that sort of false glorification.
In most of your films you have children playing main roles. How does working with children actors differ from working with adult actors?
“Well, I think it’s the same, but very, very worksome. Make the shot very simple, and the camera setup very simple, so that you could cope with whatever they do, and get a nice shot. So just put the camera in the corner of the room, put on a nice lens, give them the foot space. Well, they will get tired, you know, so allow them to get tired, then they will work. Key thing: don’t spoil them. I mean, sometimes film crews fly in with sweets and they give the kids chocolate: pay food. Don’t do that. And don’t be that intimate. There has to be a certain distance. So when they are working for you as a director, they still are on their best behavior. If you’re like their mother or their father, it’s too intimate, and they don’t get the energy to perform for you. And just very simple shots, very simple lighting, so they came naturally through lighting, and they just come and respond to what’s inside them, in a natural way.”
Your last documentary The Spirit of ’45 tells about the political situation in Great Britain after the war. Are you often inspired by politics? What is your source of inspiration in general?
“I don’t remember much of the politics of 1945 from that time because I was nine. I remember at the end of the war, people were coming home, but I don’t remember the politics. The things that have inspired me I’m sure inspire everyone here: it’s the people who fight back. It was the working class in my own country that fought across centuries, across decades. It’s the people who stood up for our independence, it’s the miners who fought the general strike, it’s the women who led the spirits. It’s the winning side on the move, that’s what’s inspirational, whether it’s in Spain in the Civil War, whether it’s the Irish in the War of Independence, whether it’s partisans during the Second World War, whether it’s the Nicaraguans in the Sandonista revolution. It’s the people who’ve gone through it. And you find them in every society and every time, they are always there. They are the ones who inspire. We went to Spain and made the film about the Spanish Civil War and met a woman who was working in the market and she had fought with the Marxist group the POUM in Spain. We talked to her, and she told us extraordinary stories of fighting the Fascists. To begin with, she wouldn’t talk, and then finally she talked about fighting the Fascists, and she still blazed with anger, when she remembered how all the women were ordered back from the frontline, because they had to do the cooking instead of doing the fighting, and she was still bitter about not being able to shoot Fascists some sixty years later. And you walk away from that meeting and you think, my God, we have to do justice to their struggle and they are the people who inspire you.”
And speaking about plots, what serves as impetus?
“What truly interested me and the writers and the producers I worked with, is to find the microcosm, to find the detail that describes a much bigger picture, so a lot of what we’re telling is quite domestic. But we’re just trying to find a little story. If you just tell that story well, and accurately, then you reveal something about the whole society. It didn’t start out as an ethic, but just as a small, little detail. Like in Raining Stones it’s simply about a guy who is unemployed; he has a daughter who is seven, and she can have her First Communion (it’s a Catholic family), and everybody in the neighborhood, when they have their First Communion, they have a new dress. And he has got no money for a dress! So how does he get it? He needs efforts to get the money, he needs efforts to retain his dignity, and then the borrowing of the money from a loan shark, and the consequences of his borrowing the money for the family, that is the story. But you know, a little girl needs a dress for Communion – this is a tiny, tiny thing, but you hope that in telling that story, it says something about the loss of dignity for the people who are unemployed, and a bigger question: why are people without work? So we tried that, but then sometimes there are big stories, that determine the way we’ve all developed, determine the way the world has changed.”
But you also have quite private stories. For instance, in 2009 you directed Looking for Eric. How was it, directing a man such as Eric Cantona, who is not a professional actor, however, he is a great icon outside cinema?
“Eric Cantona, great man! I had much fun with Eric Cantona, and it was a delight to work with him. And he played football with great panache, and great style, and great charisma… He was a great challenge. And I didn’t love it that he varied, I didn’t believe he was a good actor, he just became popular. They say in my country ‘There’s no I in the word TEAM,’ you don’t spell ‘team’ with an ‘I,’ you don’t play individually in a team. And he was a good team player.”
You have merited fame as a director-realist. I’m from the former Soviet Union, and we had a lot of social art, and I have this post-Soviet question: what is your method of balancing social and esthetic in films?
“I hate the mechanical immediacy of the working class on the move, with a fist in the air. It does not touch us as humans. It’s a kind of mechanical awe, which I absolutely reject. And the political is always human, and it’s very dangerous. Contradictory, as people are. The political tradition that I came through when I was young, was the opposite of Stalinism. It was socialism, but anti-Stalinist. And we have always been very opposed to that sort of false glorification. So I agree with you, the test always has to take place, ‘Is it true in human terms?,’ as well as ‘Is it true in political terms?’”
What would you say to inspire the young filmmakers today?
“You make a film, you’re one small voice in a great cacophony of voices from the press, from the politicians, from the media, from the acute public discourse. We shouldn’t exaggerate the effect we have. It’s nice to leave people with a question, it’s nice to leave people with a challenge, with some energy, when they leave the cinema to perceive some ideas that you and I already have. I think that’s the way to play, it’s to support those who we would want to support. And maybe to touch people that would not be touched otherwise. To tell them stories they wouldn’t know otherwise.”