Saturday 25 December 2021

"Everybody has to do the work they feel they have to do" - Part Two of Tom Ryan’s conversation with Ken Loach about the British cinema and working in "an absolutely collective enterprise".

If there’s one thing that distinguishes your work from that of your contemporaries in Britain at the moment – I’m talking about films like Billy Elliot (2000) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) –  it’s that they deal with the exceptions while, as I see it, you deal with the rule.

Well, yes. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s probably true.


What do you think about those other films?


Oh, well. It’s hard enough to make them without somebody coming along and knocking them really. I mean everybody has to do the work they feel they have to do. I mean, if you go so heavily for comedy or sentiment or whatever, I think inevitably you coarsen the subtleties of the way things are. 

You know, the result is you steamroll around the nuances of behaviour and the subtleties of relationships that reveal a lot because you’re driving hard for the comedy and you have to play it in a certain way. So I just find them less interesting. I don’t want to knock them because it’s tough enough to make them anyway.


Can I ask you another way? If you were making a film like Billy Elliot, what changes would you make? How would a Ken Loach Billy Elliot be different?


Well, first of all, it was set during the miners’ strike and I did a documentary during the miners’ strike [Which Side Are You On? (1984)] and met a lot of people there at the time. And the one thing that was apparent was that it was a very culturally-aware time. I mean, the mining communities had creative writing circles. They exchanged poems, particularly the women who were involved, with other mining communities and people who supported them. There were concerts, people came to perform. And the idea that a group of people who were doing that would force a man to cross a picket line for the sake of the 10 or 15 quid it would take for him to get to London is just false. It just wouldn’t happen. I’m not saying that you wouldn’t find one or two idiots who would jeer at what he was doing – I’m sure you would – but, as communities, they were the most artistically aware group of workers I’ve ever known. 

Loach (left) filming Which Side Are You On

And the evidence is there. It’s a matter of record; it isn’t my romanticism. So I just don’t believe it. Although it would feel it was being quite progressive, there’s some very reactionary, ill thought-out, ill-researched work and ideas behind it.


I actually expected the issue you would call attention to was that the father might suffer far more than he does for his betrayal of his union principles. I was accepting that on face value.


He wouldn’t go through it. He wouldn’t have to. I can’t imagine circumstances in which that would happen. I just don’t believe it.


I also felt you would have ended the film with Billy driving away in the bus. He wouldn’t have got to leap around in the West End.


Ha-ha. I dunno. I think the whole premise is flawed. That’s the problem.


I can imagine a Ken Loach film about an older Chantelle [Liam’s sister in Sweet Sixteen, played by Annmarie Fulton]. Maybe you’ve already made it, Ladybird, Ladybird [in 1994])…


Um, yes. That’s an older woman who didn’t have Chantelle’s strength in the crucial years of her life. I mean, Liam’s mother is more in the vein of Crissy Rock [in Ladybird, Ladybird], except that Liam’s mother isn’t a fighter like Crissy Rock. She would take on all comers; she would fight the world. And that was part of the problem, whereas Liam’s mother is defeated and she just has to cling on to whatever support she can find. They’re different responses to similar situations. 

Ladybird, Ladybird


Would you ever consider making a film about the Stans of the world and what’s led them to where they are? [Stan is played in Sweet Sixteen by Gary McCormack]


Um, yeah. Stan was a kid once. He comes from somewhere. He’s learned the world’s a tough place and you’ve got to be pretty tough to survive. He’s a man of limited intelligence and limited ambitions and he’s useful to the bigger guys. His vanity is one of the major features of his character. 


I was thinking more of whether you might consider placing him in the centre of things and making an audience deal with this character. I mean, I’m talking about a very “uncommercial” kind of film.


Yes. He loves the idea of himself as a gangster, that kind of guy with street cred and style and all that. And the sad thing is that he’s nothing of the sort. He’s another guy who’s full of illusions about himself. And that’s the kind of myth he’s built around himself. So, yes, Stan’s an interesting character.

Martin Compston, Sweet Sixteen


What do you think about the fact that Sweet Sixteen was given an MA rating in Australia?


That’s OK. That’s OK. In Britain, it was 18! And that was ludicrous. It wasn’t because of any violence or story. It was just because of one word in the dialogue which they said was used aggressively. I mean it’s pathetic. So I think 15 is what we were expecting. I mean, it’s not a film for young children, obviously. But kids the age of Liam should be able to see it because it’s their world.


How do you go about finding young actors like Martin Compston? You find them all the time.


Well, you just look and look, you know. Try them out and look again. We must’ve seen several hundred, I suppose. There’s always a lot of talent around, really. I mean, again, that’s axiomatic. Every school you go into you’re gonna find half a dozen kids who’re quite bright. So you just keep looking and looking until you get a shortlist and then somebody emerges as the one who’ll really make it work. It’s not so difficult, Tom. It’s just a question of using your common sense really.


Behind the camera, you tend to work regularly with the same people. You know, Barry Ackroyd, Rebecca O’Brien and the others. How important is this kind of collaboration (a) to you and (b) to your working methods?


I think it’s very important because we sort of work out things together really and it relies on everybody’s craft to carry it through. I mean, Rebecca is very important, Barry, Martin Johnson, the designer, the editors, the sound recordist. Everybody’s contribution has been honed over the years. Take them away, I can’t do anything. 

I mean, it’s an absolutely collective enterprise which is why I hate it when it says, “A Film By…” and then the name of the director. I suppose you could say “A film by Kodak” and that’d be about as accurate as you could be, but it’s certainly not “A Film By Me”. I mean, it’s a film by a bunch of us really.


Yes, but everybody always has to blame somebody and it’s always easier to pick on an individual.




Thanks for your time. 


OK, it’s been nice to talk with you. All the best and thanks for not speaking about the cricket.


Ha-ha. Well, India has New Zealand on the ropes at the moment.


Oh, do they? I haven’t heard the scores.


Yes, they’ve got them three for 30-something.


Yes. India look a good bet to me. I mean they’re the only ones who might challenge Australia. 


Yes. And I was politely avoiding the cricket too. 


Ha-ha. OK. All the best.


Editor's Note: This is the second part of an interview with the director Ken Loach. It was recorded by Melbourne film critic Tom Ryan as the basis of a feature article for The Age when the film Sweet Sixteen was first released. Part one can be found If you click here  The Previous posts in this series have been devoted to conversations with Colin Firth (Part One) Colin Firth (Part Two) Lawrence Kasdan (Part One)Lawrence Kasdan (Part Two) Costa-Gavras Jonathan Demme (Part One)  Jonathan Demme (Part Two) Click on the names to read the earlier pieces

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