Adventures in the Screen Trade


Posted by in May's Magazine

That prick Michael Gove went ballistic…you see that gut Tory reaction, a mixture of vulgarity and viciousness…the school prefect, every time I imagine him he’s in short trousers.” Paul Laverty is in full passionate flow. Gove, writing for The Times had labelled the film Laverty had scripted, Ken Loach’s Irish Civil War tale The Wind that Shakes the Barley a work that would ‘legitimise the actions of gangsters’. “He wrote about it before he’d actually seen it and what infuriated him was that it won the Palm Do’r.” (At Cannes Film Festival.) The Telegraph’s Simon Heffer didn’t distinguish himself either, his inept reproach being ‘I haven’t seen it, any more than I need to read Mein Kampf to know what a louse Hitler was’.

Paul is aggravated at what he feels were unqualified attacks on the film’s historical grounding. “I think it challenged their view of history and their view of the grand narrative and this was why they became so furious.” He opposes Gove’s representation of Republicans of this era consistently choosing violence over peaceful options. “What Gove did was stand history on its head…he was a liar or he was ignorant and I suspect the former. So it was quite amusing to see Ken’s films being compared to Leni Reifenstahl.”

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Let me introduce you, it’s a shame that I might have to, but screenwriters are never quite granted the recognition they deserve. And that’s what Paul Laverty is, working principally with Ken Loach throughout his career. I’ll tell you, because I doubt he ever would (he refers to their work modestly as ‘our wee films’), but they’ve won countless awards, including Best Screenplay at Cannes, and film’s most respected trophy, the aforementioned Palm Do’r. This month sees the release of Loach’s rumoured final full feature, Jimmy’s Hall. A momentous yet sad occasion, arguably Britain’s finest ever filmmaker has called a halt to his great body of work at the age of 77. Paul discusses the new film via a roundabout tour of Glasgow, Ireland, Iraq and Nicaragua.

“I went to Nicaragua in 1983. I was working as a lawyer in Glasgow but I wanted to travel and sense this incredible world out there, I was very interested in doing that.” And also in politics – the Sandanista Government were being attacked by the US backed Contras while Paul was there as part of a human rights organisation:

“They [the US] brought the Sandanistas down through a range of activities but mostly terror, so it makes me laugh when they talk about the fight against terror… I met ex CIA who were involved in it, I spoke to Contra who were trained by the CIA. What they did was terrorise the civilian population, murder, torture, kidnapping; the most extreme brutality.”

Richard Perle
He decided not to return to law, working instead on a screenplay inspired by what he’d witnessed. “I felt if you get a film made a lot of people can see it…it’s very exciting, very immediate, accessible…it was instinct as well, I felt about it in images.” The catalyst was a letter to Loach who he’d never met at this point, detailing his story. “I just wrote to him with an idea which eventually became Carla’s Song.

“To see war close up is very…very…” he pauses, reflects, “…it’s fed into lots of screenplays I think. There’s a scene in Barley where Cillian Murphy’s character has to execute his friend. He says ‘I crossed a line there, this Ireland we’re fighting for better be worth it. I studied medicine for five years and now I’m going to shoot a man in the head.’”

This same pain surfaces in Paul’s section of the portmanteau film September 11, in which he compares Chile’s own 9/11 in 1973 with the attack on the twin towers. The actor speaking Laverty’s words, Vladimir Vega – who was himself a victim of torture under the Pinochet regime – addresses the audience (on the 29th anniversary of the Chilean tragedy and America’s 1st), “We will remember you. We hope you will remember us.” Vega committed suicide a year ago.

“What really killed me about the war in Iraq is many of the same people who organised the wars in Central America were the godfathers of it, Richard Perle, all the people around Bush senior.” He holds equal scorn for the Johnny-come-latelys of the Labour cabinet: Blair, Brown and John Reid, later Chairman of Celtic. “You go along to the game to forget about screenplays and looking after weans and then you get a fucking war criminal as chairman of your club.”

I steer the conversation back towards film and sense Paul’s disdain at leaving political discussion for such trivial matters. We settle on middle ground, his acting part in the Spanish Civil War drama Land & Freedom. What might seem unusual casting is in fact typical of Loach’s ethos. “I suppose he was looking around to see what kind of people might have joined international brigades, so he went to anarchist squads in Barcelona, and then he picked up stray dogs like me…in a way Nicaragua was our generation’s Spanish Civil War.”

“Ken’s starting point is always the script. How best to give flesh and blood to these characters as written, and then you try and find the best person to do it, not the biggest star.” Although prestigious names have often breathed life into Laverty’s characters he’s not a namedropper, but I am. Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Peter Mullan (“a mercurial quality”), Robert Carlisle (“sharp, bright and talented”) Cillian Murphy (“a dream to work with, very modest”).

Bread & Roses
Of greater importance to Paul are the opportunities afforded young performers. “I could see when I met Martin Compston (Sweet Sixteen) that he had fire in his belly; it’s been a delight to see him grow. Paul Brannigan (The Angel’s Share), he’s a really special kid.” Their development is not simply part of a socialist philosophy it pays dividends. “Paul understood the world of Angels Share, he’s had the most remarkable type of childhood and Martin knew the world of Sweet Sixteen because it was round about him, although he hadn’t lived it himself.”

Indeed, Compston’s is a brutal and truthful debut performance, impossible to pull purely from trained thespian skills. The same could be said for Pilar Padilla in Bread & Roses, the story of a Latina led Cleaners Union in LA. “We took her down to the factories on the Mexican border and you can see she feels it, knows it, smells it.” He deflects praise from his writing onto these performers in characteristic fashion: “It’s not the screenplay that makes it work on film, it’s when you look in an actor’s eyes and you believe them. If you don’t believe the actor or are unconvinced by them, you are sunk.”

The authenticity of these voices occasionally makes for uncomfortable listening, Sweet Sixteen was punished with an 18 certificate, denying access to the youngsters it would benefit most. “It’s hilarious really…it’s street language you know, again I think it’s a great class prejudice.” He smiles mischievously, “they got very upset with the word cunt.” He feels there’s a grand plan at work, marginalising working class youth, or at least misunderstanding them. “Angels Share is a magical tale but because it’s set in Glasgow with working class accents, suddenly it’s social realism, it’s just another way of putting it in a cul-de-sac.” In other words, keeping the stories of the disenfranchised out of the mainstream and Multiplex.

I seek his opinion on the referendum and he responds in typically non-binary form. “It’s not enough to change the accent of the powerful, we have to have a much more radical change for the people at the bottom.” A simple Yes/No fails to tackle the complexities of the issue, the possible outcomes of either result. “I hope there will be a Scottish Parliament but the people in grassroots organisations will have to be super organised to curb the power of corporations who simply want a business advantage for themselves.”

The grand narrative
It is timely then that post independence Ireland is where Loach and Laverty’s new film, Jimmy’s Hall, takes place. It tells the story of Communist leader Jimmy Gralton who ran a dance hall in the 1930s where he would espouse his political views to the anger of the establishment and the Catholic Church. “It’s a really remarkable story buried in history, Gralton was the first Irishman to be deported from his own country without trial. All the paperwork is still missing, we went to the national archives, it’s all gone.”

Reports suggest it will conclude Loach’s feature film work, with the Berlin Film Festival honouring the director with a lifetime achievement award this year. That’s a secondary consideration for the filmmaker, according to Paul. “Ken is the last person in the world who made films to earn lifetime achievement awards, it comes from a different part of his soul.” This description befits Laverty too. A man who has worked tirelessly to give a voice to those marginalised people forever denied the stage and the oxygen. To write tales which reclaim the ‘grand narrative’ from those who presume to own it.

“The stories that you choose, the premise, the point of view, it reflects how you see the world and what stories you think are important. I think it’s important to see ordinary people who are articulate and smart, who can use their brains and are not defeated, on screen. That how I see the world really.”

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