Paul Laverty

Tom Green speaks to screenwriter Paul Laverty about the reaction to his Palme d’Or winning film, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and ten years of collaboration with Ken Loach.

When Ken Loach collected the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year for The Wind That Shakes the Barley he made it clear that the award was for the whole team involved in the film. Chief among his collaborators on this and several previous projects was screenwriter Paul Laverty.

Tom Green spoke to Paul by phone at his home in Madrid and started by asking him how it felt to have written a film that sparked such a storm of media controversy.

Paul Laverty: I welcome the debate. If you end up making a film that asks how power really operates then you’re going to get a reaction. After the film won the Palme d’Or there was a string of vitriolic attacks from the usual quarters. They generalise to the point of parody and insult personally. Tim Luckhurst’s piece in The Times (31 May 2006) was a classic of the sort. How can anyone with any degree of intellectual rigour treat seriously the notion that Ken Loach is akin to Leni Riefenstahl?

What do you think gave rise to these extraordinary statements?

Well, without exception these so-called journalists hadn’t seen the film. But that’s the key point. They will insult personally to avoid dealing with the content and complexity of the story. In The Times on the same day as Luckhurst, Tory MP Michael Gove wrote: “The truth is that films like Loach’s that glamorise the IRA give a retrospective justification to a movement which used murderous violence to achieve its end, even though the democratic path was always open to it.”

The ‘truth’, that most abused word, is the exact opposite. In the last all-Britain all-Ireland election of 1918 Sinn Fein won 72 out of 103 seats in Ireland giving it a democratic mandate for complete separation from Britain. Britain ignored the result, crushed the democratic Parliament, censored papers and imprisoned those who opposed them, thereby cutting off all possibility of a peaceful solution. This demonstrates why content matters, and why the Murdoch press will do anything to avoid engagement with the film itself. Nothing new. All we can do is be rigorous with our own work and trust that the discerning reader can read between the lines.

Did you find the attacks upsetting?

No. You can see where they are coming from a mile away. We have to keep a sense of perspective with all this right wing poison. It’s all relative. I briefly met Lou Ye, Chinese director of Summer Palace – also in the official section in Cannes. The last I heard from his distributor was that he was not going to be allowed home! Imagine someone being cut off from their family, language, and entire culture. By one wag of a politician’s finger. We didn’t hear Mr Murdoch & Co address that little contradiction at the heart of the new capitalist dream. I wonder why!

You’ve got a great record at Cannes (including winning the best screenplay award for Sweet Sixteen in 2002) – what do you like about the Festival?

What I love about Cannes is hat it really is a festival of world cinema. For films with a modest budget to get the platform it provides is fantastic. There’s great passion for film at Cannes and a real hunger for story. And, while you have to have a certain perspective about winning prizes, the Palme d’Or meant that the number of prints of Wind ordered in France increased from 150 to 300. In Britain, incidentally, there were only 40.

Your writing career has been mostly spent in collaboration with Ken Loach – how did that first come about?

It was all an accident, really. I started off my working life as a lawyer and I ended up working for a human rights organisation in Nicaragua. I was fascinated by what was going on there – America was making statements about defending human rights while at the same time people were living in terror because of what the Americans were doing. I witnessed a tiny country being torn apart. Barbaric.

After two-and-a-half years I got tired of writing reports and decided to write a screenplay. I’d never written one before and knew very little about the film industry. But I wrote to various people, including Ken Loach, and he was interested.

He was very open and encouraging and suggested I write a few scenes and once I’d started I found it exhilarating – like a drug. The first half of Carla’s Song just popped out.

How do you choose the subjects you write about?

I’ve only ever written about things I can feel passionate about. I don’t think I’d have the stamina if I didn’t really care about the subject matter.

Can you describe your working relationship with Ken Loach?

We’ve been working together now for over ten years now and it’s always been very organic. We’re constantly kicking ideas around.

I often prefer to put something down on paper as soon as possible so that it stops being abstract. It could be anything – a rough notion, a premise, a snatch of dialogue or a character idea. Sometimes it’s mostly questions. Somehow on paper it can begin to live, and it’s much easier to talk about something concrete.

We might then spend time talking about the best way to tell the story – there are always so many choices to be made – but when we feel we’re on the right track I’ll go away to write the first draft, though even then it often changes. It’s important to feel free in the moment, and Ken respects that space. If it lives the story should surprise me too.

How much involvement will you have once the script is finished?

I’ll have done an enormous amount of research so I’ll often I introduce Ken to relevant people and places that might be useful. Because Ken shoots in sequence there’s always the possibility to change the script as we go – although, in practice, it doesn’t change too much.

Often it’s more a change to suit a specific location, or in Bread and Roses for example, to suit an actor’s real nationality. We usually see main actors together. By meeting various actors it helps us talk about character, and define even to ourselves what is most important. We talk at length, but I would hate to interfere unduly. It is a real talent to spot (in fact, guess) what someone is capable of. Quite magical. Ken’s sensibility in this regard really intrigues me.

Do you have aspirations to direct yourself?

In the future, who knows? Ken, Rebecca (O’Brien, producer) and the gang – and there are lots of them – are like family now and I would miss the collaboration too much. On the whole I think it’s best to stick to what excites you most – and there’s still nothing quite like the initial spark for the story. I love that feeling and the sense of exhilaration it brings.

Do you have any plans to work with other directors?

Cargo (2006) was directed by a terrific documentary film maker, Clive Gordon. I’m working with another director at the moment but I hope always to have a project on the go with Ken. There are lots of things left for us to have a crack at. We’re always keen to be at the next one.

This interview of Paul Laverty is reproduced by kind permission of Tom Green and the Writers Guild of Great Britain. The article originally appeared in the Autumn 2006 issue of UK Writer, their quarterly members’ periodical.