Ken Loach talks work, politics, and the importance of ‘scruffy festivals and creative energy’ with Jason Solomons, as Raindance Film Festival presents him with its first ever Auteur Award
On Tuesday 27th September, legendary director Ken Loach walks in alone off Regent Street and onto the stage at Vue Piccadilly, to receive his most recent accolade: Raindance Film Festival’s inaugural Auteur Award. Neatly, but unremarkably turned out, Ken takes a seat opposite acclaimed film critic and author Jason Solomons, moderator for the evening.
Festival founder, Elliot Grove, introduces Ken as his personal friend and embodiment of Raindance’s commitment to independent film; a man who has done the world an invaluable service as cinematic enfant terrible. Over the course of the conversation, Ken takes us back through his mythologised filmmaking process, and, with the help of several clips, looks back over some of his most iconic projects.
But first, we need to reset the game
“What is it to be an “auteur”?” Jason asks as a starting point, and, already, Ken is squirming, his eyes glinting. Clearly, he’s not going to take this title at face value. Contrary to the idea of a singular, directorial vision, Loach has two essential understandings of film: one, filmmaking is collective, and two, the director does not need to be, and in many cases shouldn’t be, the writer. Unlike the English translation of “auteur” as “author” suggests, Loach argues that it is one of the ‘heresies of modern filmmaking’ to blend the roles of director and writer. They should be complementary, but not the same, he states, quietly but firmly.
Through his collaborations with writers such as Paul Laverty and Jim Allen, recurring cinematographers, namely Barry Ackroyd, and a stunning “company” of actors including Cillian Murphy, Loach has reached the heights of directorial success through a strong sense of working relationships. As he goes on to express later in the evening, it is the relationships between cast and crew that create the alive moments in his work life. Shaping the team’s various contributions into one unified vision is, he allows, what he considers to be the aim of a director or “auteur”. From the beginning, then, Loach asks us to re-define, or critique, what we assume to be non-negotiable – he is accepting the award on his own terms.
‘If they don’t go after you, you’re not hurting them.’
At a 24th Raindance Film Festival characterised by its social and political consciousness, through the pre-eminence of LGBT+ stories, and the opening night film, Problemski Hotel, that addressed the experiences of asylum seekers, Loach makes himself at home. Talking censorship, media misinformation, and discontent at home, Loach pronounces a powerful statement in the heart of London: ‘the political enemy – they’re not to be negotiated with, they must be beaten.’
As we see in his soon-to-be-released, Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake, Loach has not lost the political charge to his work, and, certainly, he is not afraid to speak his mind. Loach asks a crowded theatre audience to look around at a Britain of food banks, unaffordable heating, underemployment and modern homelessness, whereby people in their late 20s and 30s still live with parents, city-workers are forced to commute from distant homes, meanwhile flashy new apartments stand empty. This director, who has, almost without exception, stayed within Britain to find his subject matter, reveals that, while cinema can, and often does, show us a world that is distant and exotic, there is in fact a great need to tell the stories taking place on our doorsteps.
However, despite his legendarily sharp political-mindedness, and his unmistakable passion for the politics of daily life, Loach is keen this evening to stress his first and foremost dedication to cinema itself. He insists that there has to be love for the medium, not simply as a mechanism to produce political argument. His love for cinema comes first, and the politics follows naturally, as a result of his depiction of the ins and outs of a character’s life.
Realism is in the precision of the observation
In a revealing, and perhaps unexpected moment of insight into the creative process, Loach tells us that he has never worked in the metaphoric, but has always remained committed to the practical. Using the example of Kes, after we have watched that iconic scene of the boy standing on a rough hill, guiding the kestrel through the sky, Loach explains that they didn’t overthink the contrast, and its symbolic weight, between the boy on the ground, and the bird in the sky. To himself and the writers and creators, they based the script and its meaning in the practicalities of what he ate, how he slept, what he did for work…
‘It’s the precision of the observation. You can never make a film about a thesis, or a campaign, or a broad idea. It’s got to be precise, absolutely precise and detailed. Because that’s what brings it to life.’ And Loach’s films, absolutely make that ‘visceral connection’ he strives for – through the natural dialogue, taken from what Loach explains could ‘loosely [be] called research but is actually just chatting to people’ and the actors’ un-self-conscious inhabiting of the roles. Loach says he looks for simplicity and economy, in the script and in the acting, by concentrating on the present and practical, and not searching for some metaphorical “truth”.
‘[Your actors’] instinct is the most valuable tool to work with…
If you can work, like a painter works with an open edge of paint, sort of fluid… If you can work with an actor’s instinct, just flow with it, connect to it – just let them be in touch with that.’
Having directed many iconic performances, such as Carol White’s in Cathy Come Home, David Bradley’s in Kes, and now, Dave Johns and Hayley Squires in I, Daniel Blake, to name only a few, Loach seems to have hit upon the key to directing a strikingly genuine performance. Famously, he withholds the script, allowing the actors to only see the story unfold bit by bit, as if they are truly living it in real time. He explains, ‘if you’ve read what’s going to happen six weeks in advance, you don’t get that shiver down the spine’. He calls us all to ‘Shoot fast – nervous energy is what you need.’
Giving us a tantalising glimpse of what a Loach set looks like; he reveals that he never has any caravans, personal assistants, or private cars on his shoots. He avoids all the things that break a cast and crew apart. Instead, he encourages a true community spirit by holding them all together, believing, ultimately that ‘it’s hateful to be sent off on your own’.
A Ken Loach-ian “call to arms”
Asked by the audience why nobody seems to be making films with his style of political bite anymore, Loach is quick to temper this fatalistic outlook. Speaking in sympathy with young filmmakers of today, he believes that his luck in finding the minimal support that would fund his career is not accessible to everybody. In a welcome turn towards optimism, Loach assures us that there are filmmakers out there pursuing work with the same, if not greater, passion and anger that has become associated with his career.
At the end, before he is ushered off the stage, Loach stands to dedicate the award to ‘scruffy film festivals and creative energy’. He also asks that British filmmakers, in the audience on the night or reading reports like this one after the fact, turn to face homeward, rather than be lured across the Atlantic. He asks that cinema be encouraged to take root again in Britain. Let film look around at our cities, our streets: ‘Let it come from our culture. It’s rich enough.’