Interview with Screenwriter Paul Laverty

Paul Laverty isn’t your conventional screenwriter. With a degree in philosophy from the Gregorian University in Rome and a career which began in human rights law, his transition to film is one that began after he witnessed countless atrocities whilst working in Nicaragua during the civil war. As he recalls, “I got sick and tired of writing human rights reports, talking to delegations, and in my innocence, I thought perhaps I’d like to try and right a fictional story informed by what I had seen.” The following result was Carla’s Song which marked the beginning of his long-term friendship with director Ken Loach.

Looking through Laverty’s filmography, much of what he has written illuminates various social and political issues by exploring real life incidents from a fictional point of view. Yet despite the powerful backdrop at which he sets many of his films, he is keen to mention, “Good issues don’t necessarily make for good films, but good stories do…You could have the most interesting landscape in the world and make a boring story out of it, and then other people can make shopping interesting if they’re skilful enough. It really depends on the skill of the story teller, but great issues in themselves don’t make for great stories. You have to find great stories.” Although he does mention, “if drama is well done, it has a great capacity to illuminate, raise questions, and to look at contradictions.”

A patron of the Take One Action Film Festival, which saw the UK première of his latest film Even the Rain last week, it is clear that Laverty recognises the importance of giving films that don’t necessarily appeal to the commercial market a voice. As he notes,“unfortunately the distribution of film is generally a capitalist endeavour where they want to make lots of money. Many of the films being shown at this festival would never get a screening in public if it wasn’t for organisations like this. People get a chance to see complex, difficult, and more controversial films that will not be shown on the commercial circuit and which are not just about special effects or sentimental love stories.”

"Drama has a great capacity to illuminate"

With their ninth feature film The Angel’s Share currently in the editing process and a number of award winning films under their belts, it is clear that Laverty and Loach have a unique bond which is rarely seen within the film industry. “We are very close friends,” says Laverty. “We share some sort of similar sensibility and also have very different skills. I write, Ken directs, and hopefully we meet in the middle as film-makers. It’s marvellous fun working with Ken, he’s a very demanding partner but also a very generous one .”

Laverty’s latest film, which sees him working with his wife, esteemed Spanish director Íciar Bollaín for the first time, has proven to be a particularly hard project to bring to life. “This has been a 10 year obsession,” says Laverty. “It’s been a very very difficult film to make and it’s a miracle how it actually ever got made because it is not commercial in any general sense and doesn’t fall into any particular genre.”

Following an idealistic director (Gael García Bernal) who is in Bolivia trying to make a film exposing Christopher Columbus as an imperialist who exploited and destroyed the indigenous population of South America, Even the Rain originally had a very different intention. Initially it was a historical drama that focused purely on the Columbus story but this concept never took off and so Laverty needed to change his idea considerably if the project was to succeed. “Many years later I decided to re-conceptualise it, and see if I could mix it with something much more modern and combine two time periods, modern and historical.”

He became fascinated by the Bolivian water wars in the year 2000 and so used the contemporary crisis as a backdrop to capture a parallel that can be seen between Columbus and the Cochabamban authorities. “You see the same indigenous communities with their own indigenous languages. It’s sticks and stones up against a modern army. 500 years ago they are fighting about gold and 500 years later they are having water being taken from them.”

A writer who seems drawn to the way humans interact and treat each other, often with no regard for the negative consequences that can follow, Laverty is not one to cite particular influences that have affected the way he creates a script as a whole. Yet he closes with a sentiment which is applicable to anyone regardless of their profession. “We are obviously creatures. We are like magpies I think, stealing and robbing from whatever source: from what we see, from what we imagine, and even subconsciously I think.”

Taken from The Student, published Tue Sep 27th 2011.

Interview with Director Jim Loach and Screenwriter Rona Munro at GFF

The friendly reception with which I am met in the press room of the Glasgow Film Theatre, gives rise to an unexpected feeling of equality between interviewer and interviewees that doesn’t appear justly deserved. It seems strange that I should be of any interest given that I am just a student. However, Loach, who initially had aspirations to become a print journalist, recalls being a film reviewer for his student newspaper where he was constantly criticised for never giving a film a good review, whilst Munro recounts how her first ever interview was conducted by a student.

Despite Glasgow not having the glitz and glamour of other film festivals, for Munro, it seems to be somewhat special, as she notes, “It’s funny but you care more.” It seems evident that for her, releasing a film on home ground creates far more apprehension than to a foreign audience.

Loach’s debut feature, Oranges and Sunshine, which has Munro as its screenwriter, tells the true story of social worker Margaret Humphries, a woman who exposed the abuse of more than 100,000 children who were forcibly relocated to Australia from 1869 up until the 1970s with the promise of a better life in the underpopulated colony.

A project lasting almost a decade, it began after Loach read Humphries’ book Empty Cradles which lead to numerous meetings involving lots of tea and talking, “She just talked and talked and I found what she was saying completely inspirational.” However, it was only through the help of Munro that he was able to transfer this unbelievable story to the big screen, “Rona unlocked it as a narrative, the question was always: it’s a brilliant story but how would you tell it?”

A deeply moving tale, especially given the fact that it is founded on truth, seems to have slowly developed a certain sentimentality and connection with the subject for Loach, “Objectively, I saw it as a fascinating contradictory story centred around a woman who demonstrated incredible courage in the face of huge odds. As the years went by and we wrote the script and met the real people, through that process, becoming completely immersed in it, you don’t see it objectively and instead feel very much part of it and inside the story.”

One of the difficulties in exploring such a sensitive topic is how to convey the story without it appearing distasteful. Loach seemed to stress the importance that it was not an ‘issue’ film as the themes play for everyone. Having had Humphries watch the film, he remarks that she felt it was a faithful representation, whilst those whose pasts had been effected by the history saw it is a fair portrayal.

Featuring a strong cast, the choice of Emily Watson to play Humphries seemed obvious, “She has a very special combination of compassion without any sense of sentimentality. She is also a very determined woman, very intelligent and takes no prisoners.” This is exactly what the role requires as it features one woman against everybody else, making Watson the perfect person for the role.

Facing the inherent difficult of having an esteemed director for a father in the form of Ken Loach, making films seems to be something that the younger Loach has sidestepped for a while, “I walked around it for a very long time. You have an idea that your first film has to be perfect but until you start doing anything, it is perfect, because it’s in your head and it’s completely untarnished.” He does, however, stress that for him, having a famous dad wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, “We were just brought up to be very inquisitive, read voraciously and be open-minded and I was very lucky in that respect. But it’s not that hard having my dad as my dad because he’s just my dad. To me it’s really not that big a deal.”

In terms of the effect his father has had on his work he mentions “We talk all the time: He helps, we swap ideas” and on the subject of inspiration, merely remarks “I think all fathers are an inspiration to their children.”

It is interesting to see who both cite as their influences. For Loach, the cinéma vérité of John Cassavetes seems to have made an indelible impression from an early age. In particular, A Woman Under The Influence providing the motivation for one of the scenes of the film.

For Munro, her influences seem difficult to pinpoint, as she mentions, “the films I love, tend to be different from the films I write.” She does, however, point out the role Loach played in shaping her style, “Ken was a huge influence on the way I write because that was my first experience of writing (in Ladybird, Ladybird) a feature film and learning what the difference is between doing that and doing TV, radio or theatre.”

With work in progress for another film, part set in Glasgow, Munro and Loach look set to become a productive pairing, particularly in light of the reception that Oranges and Sunshine has already received.

 Oranges and Sunshine will be released 1 April.

Taken from The Student published Tue Mar 1st 2011.