Interview: Ken Loach and Paul Laverty | Living North

Interview: Ken Loach and Paul Laverty

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Ahead of the premiere in October last year, the director and writer of the critically-acclaimed and Bafta-nominated I, Daniel Blake talked about 21st century poverty, Newcastle as a cinematic city and the poetry of Geordies

When you were doing your research in communities affected by cuts and austerity, were there any narratives and perspectives you wanted to work in but couldn’t?

Ken: There were lots of stories and points that people made – and they made them to Paul even more than me, Paul did more research. You would hear extraordinary stories, and one big thing is that disabled people have suffered more than anyone else. The cuts have hit disabled people six times more than the average person, and some of the disabled people spoke to us so well, and told such extraordinary stories, that at one point we were tempted by the idea that the central character should be disabled, to bring these stories in. But then, on balance, it seemed that we wanted someone who you would not expect to be caught in this trap. So Paul made the character a 59-year-old carpenter. But that was one area. The other big area that we thought of was seeing it from the point of view of people working in job centres, because again people hate doing this. They are not the bad people in this story, most of them. They’re caught as well. So we thought maybe we should explore that. But in the end, just telling the basic story of the relationship between two people seemed the most effective one.

Paul: What also attracted our attention was this massive gap between what was perception and what was reality. There were all these YouGov polls that demonstrated that people thought 25 percent of the welfare budget was fraudulently claimed; in fact it was less than one percent. It really does make you ask the question, ‘Why is there such an effort to stigmatise the most vulnerable people in our society?’ It’s a political decision, you know? A great deal of the cuts have fallen on welfare and, most particularly, people who are vulnerable and disabled. So that was the thing that drew us to the territory. And the reality is, we could have told much tougher stories, because the stories we heard, if you had them on screen you’d hardly believe them, really. We went to the food banks and we were struck by the people choosing between heat and food. So it was very elemental, very very raw. And I suppose that informed the story right from the very beginning; it goes back to time immemorial, trying to get secure housing, food, shelter. And here we are, fifth richest economy in the world, still struggling. People finding it hard to cope and make ends meet. We met mothers who were feeding their children biscuits to keep them fed.

You’ve said that you want to agitate with this film, so where do you see the hope in the narrative, if there is any? It seemed very, very bleak to me.

Ken: I think the hope is in the solidarity. It’s in the solidarity of the people running the food bank, the woman in the job centre who goes to the funeral, the lads who live nearby. But I think we didn’t want to mitigate the harshness of the story by any kind of false optimism. The other side of the drama, really, is not on-screen. It’s the political project to humiliate and demoralise and blame the poor. The hope should be in the anger people feel. That’s the hope.

Paul: There’s great delicacy and great friendship across the generations between Dan and Katie, the two main characters, and even with the lads next door – they’re a pair of scamps. There’s friendship there, you can see Dan’s friendly with his workers and they want to help. But I think, especially for men of that generation, there’s a problem of dignity and oftentimes, people are so ashamed of what happens with these bureaucracies that they feel they can’t admit it. And again, there’s a complexity between these two worlds of solidarity and friendship, but also your shame being hidden because what they try to project is that if you haven’t got a job, it’s your fault, you know? Or you’re an inconvenience if you’re sick. And there’s been no surprises to find that, given the rhetoric, many of our most vulnerable people, people who are disabled, crimes against them are actually on the increase.

The children, though, seem like a hopeful centre to the film.

Ken: Yeah, in a way. I think we were trying to do it so they were just true to themselves; not to carry them as emblems or symbols, but to just be who they would be. I think that the reality is the hope’s in politics. We thought the best way of engaging people was to tell the very simplest story; while respecting the complexity of the characters, tell the simplest story we could, in the sharpest way we could, and then say: ‘Look, this is happening – now what are you going to do about it?’ On the widest front, the hope is in Corbyn’s Labour Party – they will scrap all assessments, and then as Paul’s said on other occasions, they’ve then got to reexamine the whole sanctions issue. That’s got to be really rethought.

Paul: And I think it’s really important to remember too that the government has lied about sanctions. We should be very, very clear about that. Experts have given evidence saying that there’s no such thing as targets, but Ken and myself have been shown letters within the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] – one person showed us [a letter showing] his or her name, I won’t say which, and a list of all their colleagues, how many sanctions had been carried out that month, and then a letter from their area manager saying that only the top three had carried out sufficient sanctions. They’re being specious – they say ‘Well, maybe there’s not x’ – but what is clear is that there’s tremendous pressure from management to sanction. At one point, at the height of the sanctions regime, they were carrying out over a million a year. As one expert said, it was 500,000 times what we saw in Daniel Blake. It’s thrown families into turmoil. So it’s not abstract.

Ken, you’ve always been keen to have characters and actors speak in their own dialect – what particular qualities does Geordie have, and why does it suit I, Daniel Blake?

Ken: Well, it could really have been any city outside of London – we heard the same stories everywhere – but I think Newcastle’s got a particularly rich culture. It’s a language for comedy as well as seriousness. There’s a strength to it. It’s not only the dialect; the whole culture is rich and funny and strong, and built on generations of people in the old, tough industries like ship-building and coal-mining. There’s a long history of working class organisation, so there’s a folk memory of working class dignity – protest, but also self-respect and dignity. And the key thing about that is self-respect. That’s here. There’s a pride about being a Geordie, and being from the North East, for all those reasons.

Paul: All the way through the whole film, people on the screen – in the food bank, many of the people who work in the DWP – are local to here, and they give you so much. We found the same in Glasgow and Liverpool as well. There’s a kind of vibrancy and a self-confidence which is very attractive. And it’s a great city, there’s lots of variety as well. So we found it was a great place to come and shoot.

I did notice in the production notes that you referred to Newcastle as a ‘cinematic’ location, but apart from one shot down Grey Street, there isn’t a very grandstanding look to the city in the film. 

Ken: Yes. Well the thing is, something you begin to realise when you do the research and talk to people is that poverty limits where you can go. People have their little beaten tracks they use – Dan is in what would have been council housing flats, and he’s got the places he walks to, and that’s his area. I think you could do another film here, and see the spectacular side of the city, and we did try to get in other shots but actually it was twisting the story. The golden rule is you’ve got to stick to the story, and not drag something in because it’s a nice shot.

Published in: January 2017

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