The Angels’ Share – Interview with Ken Loach

Behind the scenes on the new Scottish movie from Ken Loach

Ken Loach’s latest film The Angels’ Share follows Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glasgow thug who tries to turn his life around when he narrowly avoids a custodial sentence. Ken Loach won the Jury Prize at the recent Cannes Film Festival for the film, and was at the press conference with Ken Loach, screenwriter Paul Laverty and lead actor Paul Brannigan. Check it out below.

Ken, it could be said that whiskey plays the same role in The Angels’ Share as the bird in Kes. Would you agree?

KL: Well, whiskey makes you fly, I suppose. I suppose it is through the whiskey that you discover that Robbie has a particular talent as you do when you see Billy train the bird, but I think there are big differences actually. Billy was in the 1960s and he had a job and Robbie in 2012 doesn’t have a job, so it is a mark of how far we have gone back in that time, but yes, it is a way of observing the lad’s ability and talent and wit and energy and determination to do something as well, so yes there is a connection.

Would you go so far as to call it a metaphor?

KL: Well, I think it is always dangerous to start talking about metaphors because we can get into pretention very quickly, but it has a lot of functions in the film, apart from being a good tipple. It’s a skill, it’s a craft and people take great pride in making it, so consequently the enjoyment of that craft and the way that people define themselves through work is something that is important. It’s part of the tourist view of Scotland; the whiskey, the Highlands, Edinburgh Castle and the shortbread. The reality is Robbie and the rest of the gang, so we had a little fun in contrasting the two images of Scotland.

Was it going to be a comedy from the outset?

KL: We wanted to take a tragic situation and present it in a way that would make people smile, but not ignore the reality underneath.

Paul Laverty: The last film [Route Irish] was very rough and it was a terrible tragedy – somebody coming back from Iraq – and we wanted to be truthful to that premise and imagine the life of someone coming back to Liverpool. You have to breathe in what’s around you and you would have to be blind not to recognise this massive crisis – not only in Scotland, but all around Europe – 75 million 15 – 20 year olds are unemployed. Now, that doesn’t make a film, but what we wanted to try and do was tap into that and go into the life of one young person. What is very interesting too is when someone has a kid it changes your whole perspective on the world. You are actually projecting into the future. It is not just about trying to build a life for yourself, but for the next generation. I met young men who had children and they are often stereotyped and criticised and seen as feckless, but they are actually determined to build a full life for them and their child, but it is simply impossible. What struck us as well is that there are graduates without hope now, so what happens to people like Robbie. We wanted to go in very personally, not tell a tragedy, but realise the wit, the personality, the fun, the determination and just the joie de vivre and the determination to build something. We felt there was lots in that, to do that truthfully and to throw in whiskey adds a lot more mischief. What also fascinated me was talking to a lot of young people in Scotland and how many who had never tasted what has been under our nose, how many had never been to the countryside and that’s not a metaphor, that’s true. Sometimes when you tell a story that’s very particular and very truthful you can tap into many levels and that’s what we tried to do.


What is your view of the working class in the current economic climate?

KL: I think our attitude to the working class doesn’t change, which is that they are the agents of change. If there is going to be change, it will come from the working classes rather than come from a gift from on high, and for that you need strong political leadership. This may be very traditional, but I think it’s still true. What we do notice as the economic crisis gets harder, the vilification of the working class gets more intense in that people like you see in the film are seen as feckless, idle, with their hand out for benefits so one of the things we wanted to do in the film was to turn this on it’s head and say ‘no, this isn’t the case’, but I think there is no escaping the political argument that if the system that is bringing destruction to us and to our lives has meant that for us to ask for a secure job, a house to live in, somewhere to go when you are old, to be looked after when you are sick, security for your family… These are now revolutionary demands. To demand this is now a revolutionary act because nobody now speaks of that, no politician speaks of full employment as a right, so I think it is very important that we realise the scale of what we now see as impossible and what we thought, 50 or 60 years ago, was the basis for a civilised life. That is not an act of nature that is the world we have created and I think the young people must demand back those original requirements for a decent life. We have got to remake them, because we have allowed them to dissipate.


Paul Brannigan, it seems you were very familiar with the world that Paul Laverty describes?

PB: Yes I am very familiar with it and to be honest there are thousands of kids in Glasgow who are familiar with Robbie. My background was pretty rough, I came from a rough area, but in all honesty, there are thousands of kids like Robbie in Glasgow. Same situation, same people; unemployed, got kids. Some people, as Paul said, are without education and can’t get employment. After this I am unemployed, I coach football four hours a week.


How did you get involved with the film?

PB: I was working in a community centre and working with kids and Paul came and spoke to me on day and then came with Ken and saved me. They saved me. I didn’t go to the first or second audition. I wasn’t up for it and things were tough; I had no money, it was around Christmastime and I got a loan, which I wanted to pay back and I thought ‘If I make a couple of hundred quid, that will see me through’. Hands up, I would say that they saved me life. I had no money, got a kid, who knows what I would have done for money.


Ken, what did you see in Paul that made you cast him?

KL: It’s the same with all the cast; you look for people who will bring the characters to life, tell the story and the audience will care about, will understand, will cry when they cry, will be angry when they are angry, will just share their feelings, be touched by them and embody the script so that you care about it. That’s what you look for, you look for people who will bring it to life and who you will care about.


Paul Brannigan, what do you hope to do now?

PB: After this I am going to keep trying to build my career, but keep doing the football coaching and the voluntary work that I do in the community.


…And you have already made a film with Scarlett Johannson?

PB: What happened was, after I finished this, the casting director gave me a call and asked me to go and meet the director. It was very much like Ken’s auditions; relaxed and laid back, and I got the part. We had a few scenes where I was chatting her up and I took my clothes off. She didn’t take her clothes off… It was fun and she was a fantastic girl; I was quite nervous but when I got to talk to her she was fine and I was nice and relaxed.


What is the film you worked on together?

PB: Scarlett’s got the lead; it’s a film called Under The Skin. Andrew is just a guy who is out on the pull and chats her up and she seduces him. That’s all I can tell you [laughs]


The Angels’ Share is co-produced by Belgian filmmakers, the Dardenne Brothers, do you feel that you and they have something in common?

KL: I think we share an enjoyment of daily life, finding drama in daily life, the comedy of daily life and the importance of the lives of ordinary people. I think their films are really subtle and strong and precise and we are really lucky to be working together. They are equally important as fellow football fans, so we talk about football when we meet.


Is it true that you had to cut some of the swear words in the film to get a 15 certificate in the UK?

KL: I think we were allowed seven ‘cunts’, but only two of them could be aggressive ‘cunts’ [laughs]. You get into the realm of surrealism here in terms of language. I don’t know if it is the same in other countries, but the British middle class is obsessed by what they call ‘bad language’, but of course bad language is manipulative language and they are very happy with that, but the odd oath – a word that goes back to Chaucer’s time – they will ask you to cut. The manipulative and deceitful language of politics they use themselves, so I think we should re-examine what is bad language and have respect for our ancient oaths and swearwords, which we all enjoy.


Ken, you are not known for your comedies, how challenging was it to direct a comedy?

KL: I think comedy is quite difficult to be honest. I think our attitude was that you don’t direct for comedy in the sense that you cut for the laugh or you over play it or you put in music to trigger the laugh. You just tell the truth about the characters and about the story and then funny things happen and they should make you smile as in life. I think when you tell any real story there are things in it that make you smile, that’s the way we are. In moments of deep crisis there will be things that will make you have a giggle inside. We don’t live in a mono-emotional world. Our whole experience is part comedy, part tragedy. You could take the same characters and tell a tragic story very simply, and you could find another moment in their lives that is funny. From our point of view, as filmmakers, you try to tell the story of this moment and the criterion isn’t ‘will we get a laugh or will we get a tear?’ the criterion is ‘is it true?’. That was our approach.

Words – Brogen Hayes

THE ANGELS’ SHARE is now showing in Irish cinemas