Ken Loach is a legend among us. Since the 1960s, the British filmmaker—famous for both his politics and his pared-down aesthetic—has been sticking to his guns: making honest, brutal films about working class life. His latest, The Angel’s Share, is no exception. The film follows Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glasgow thug trying to go legit after he learns he’s going to be a father. Almost everything is vintage Loach: from the clashes with social workers and judges to the accents so thick they have to be subtitled. What seems to be new—at least ever since Loach won the Palme d’Or for his devastating The Wind That Shakes the Barley—is a stronger dose of optimism to offset the bleakness. When Robbie, as part of a community service sentence, tours a local whiskey distillery, he discovers he has an olfactory gift, a kind of preternatural nose for scotch. The rest of the film, like the director’s most recent efforts, buoys you up to a place made all the more poignant for the hard knocks along the way. When I talk to the 76-year old filmmaker over the phone from London, I find a man who is as forthright, intelligent and as spirited as his films. Here, Loach discusses the state of British youth, the future of the political left, and why most Scottish kids can’t afford their own national drink.
I was just re-watching you early film, Kes, and it occurred to me that you return again and again to stories about young people. Whether in Sweet Sixteen or in this most recent film, The Angel’s Share. What’s the attraction for you in stories about youth?
I think it’s a very touching moment in a person’s life. It’s an age when people still have a sense of possibility but also of what’s in store for them—of how the possibilities are being closed down. And it’s interesting you mention Kes. The life promised to that lad [in the 1960s] was a life of manual labor. He would have a job, a secure job for his life. He could expect to work and he could expect a secure community to belong to—albeit a restrictive one. But at least there would have been a sense of security. What kids now have, and Robbie has in The Angel’s Share, is none of that. He won’t work. There is no job for him. You’ve got a million unemployed young people. If he does work it will be temporary, casual labor. He won’t have a job that would describe him. You know, you’re a writer and other people are joiners or machinists or railway workers or whatever, but he won’t have that. He’ll have no sense of identity through his work. And it’s a desperate situation that we’re offering the kids today. And that’s why we wanted to do the film.
I know you also just completed a documentary, The Spirit of ’45, about the creation of the welfare state in the U.K. in the years after World War II. It sounds like you’re rather pessimistic about how that social vision fared.
The politics of the years between 1945-50 was when the welfare state was created and that vision thrived. The decades that followed, the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, saw political failure, which didn’t develop this vision but actually undermined it. So when Thatcher came to town in ’79, she practically set the country in reverse. It was an ideological war against mutual support and working together for an ideology of selfishness. And that’s when the spirit broke. In a way we’ve lived with that worsening situation ever since.
What came first for you—politics or filmmaking?
Filmmaking. Well, drama in the theatre briefly, then television and films. But we all were active in the ’60s and that was a very political time. It was sexy to be on the left in those days. That’s where the ideas were. And there were big political upheavals. The events of 1968 were very important: the student protests but also the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which meant that people who came into politics on the left were very anti-Stalinist because of that invasion. So I think if you tended to be political, as many of us were, then you were drawn toward the anti-Stalinist left. I worked with writers who brought their experience into their work and it meant meeting lots of people I hadn’t met before and seeing life that I hadn’t seen before. It was really just living in the world that made me political.
How do you see the left in Europe today?
Well in Europe it’s very fragmented. There’s been a great deal of sectarianism with the economic collapse. Greece, Spain, Italy are all on the brink—Ireland, Portugal, now Cyprus. I think there’s a realization that things don’t work. The left has been doing well in many of these countries but in Britain there’s a real vacuum at the moment because the labor party, which ought to represent the left, is now very much a party of business. In other parts of the world, the left is doing better. The big advances are happening in Latin America, aren’t they?
How do you and screenwriter Paul Laverty collaborate? You’ve worked together on a number of films now.
We talk on most days: sending messages back and forth about everything from the state of the world to football scores. And out of it all comes an idea or a thought or a story that one of us has had or has come across. We first met when he had been in Nicaragua to work as a human rights lawyer. When he came back he wrote me and said “let’s get together,” so we did.
I noticed this film is much more optimistic than other films of yours—than The Wind That Shakes the Barley for instance. Do you think because the economy is so bad people need happier stories?
I think it’s just a sense of wanting to vary what you do. Everything can’t be on the same note. People will always be funny, people say these things that make you smile. Once you escape the stereotypes people are quirky and original and have a way with words. I think to be true to how people are you have to smile. I think a smile is built into most things. Even in The Wind That Shakes the Barley there were moments, just the way people are, that make you smile.
Your work is very moving emotionally. But that’s not always the case for leftist filmmakers who sometimes distrust melodrama and sentimentality to the point of distrusting emotion itself.
I think that’s how you connect to people, isn’t it? It’s how you recognize common humanity. Part of what we’re trying to say is that objective economical and political circumstances determine a great deal about people’s lives. They don’t live in a vacuum. But the consequences of these conditions are lived through people. It’s family relationships, work relationships that show the impact of society, for lack of a better word, on the individual. So I think that’s absolutely central. We try to avoid sentimentality but not be afraid to show the colorful emotions that people have.
How did you cast the star of the film, Paul Brannigan?
Screenwriter Paul Laverty, when he was doing his research was meeting lots of different people and said to me “I think you ought to meet this guy,” so we did. We had seen lots of other people and tried little things out and Paul Brannigan was always very good. We must have met ten, twelve times. I was thinking it over for a period of two or three months. And in each time he just got better and better. So in the end we thought, well, let’s go for him. He knows the life of the streets firsthand. He’s spoken about himself. I don’t want to break any confidences, but he did have a very difficult childhood and he did spend time in the young offenders center.
And the whiskey—where did that come in? Are you a connoisseur yourself?
This is Paul Laverty’s interest in the drink. It’s interesting because it’s the national drink, it’s very much the tourist image of Scotland, with the bagpipes and the shortbread and the kilts and all that. And yet it’s a drink that’s probably too expensive for most of the local people who can get a bigger kick from a cheaper drink. So we were kind of into playing with the tourist image and the reality underneath. But at the same time, I mean the lads behind the whiskey are very skilled. They’re good craftsmen, they do it like fine wine. You have to have a sensitive palate to understand it and appreciate it. And Robbie discovers he has this talent. So we just thought, well, it’s a way for him to get some financial support. Nobody suffers except the pretentious guy who spends a fortune on something he can’t taste. The story was a way of poking a little fun at it. All in good humor, of course.