Acclaimed British director Ken Loach lets his socially conscious guard down in his latest film about a bunch of young Scots stealing old Scotch. He spoke to Peter Calder.
Whatever else you might say about the British master of social realism, Ken Loach, you can't fault his persistence. In a directing career of almost 50 years, and 27 feature films (plus a mountain of television work) Loach, now 76, has sought to shine a light on the lives of those at the bottom of the social heap. In the process, he has earned 11 nominations for Cannes' premier prize the Palme d'Or (he won once, in 2006, for the film about Republican rebels in Ireland The Wind That Shakes the Barley) and a host of other accolades and plaudits.
His new film, The Angels' Share, written by his long-time scenarist Paul Laverty, uses everything from explicit violence to slapstick humour to tell the story of a group of young jobless Glaswegians, who hatch an unusual money-making scheme involving a barrel (more or less) of the world's rarest Scotch whisky.
This film seems a lot lighter in tone than much of your recent stuff. It's a caper flick.
Well, yes, I suppose it is, but we never saw it in those terms. We just began with the idea of the million or so kids who are neither students nor in any kind of work and any time you read about them they're involved in criminal activity of some sort. We just wanted to tell a story in which you get to know them and see them in a positive way, a rounded way.
It's not new territory for you in the sense that many characters in your films are from Struggle St.
These are kids who are just kicking their heels. The world offers them nothing. It just tells them they're worthless - both by implication and directly. A lot of the discussion we have in [Britain] is how we can cut their benefits, how we can force them to work, how we can starve them if they don't take the crappiest job on offer. It's a very punitive time to grow up in and from the time they were children they've been told they are to blame, they are the problem. And if you've been told that since you could walk, what does that do to you? But our economic system demands a level of unemployment as a discipline to those who are in work and a disincentive to seek better wages.
It occurred to me when I was watching the film, that the kind of people whose lives it depicts probably don't go to an arthouse cinema and watch Ken Loach films. Who do you hope the film speaks to? And what are you hoping it is saying to them?
Well, I hope it's speaking to anybody with an open mind - not an empty mind which is what the media largely encourages, but an open mind. And what does it say? Well, it seems to have a happy ending for [the main character] Robbie but the other three are going to go back into the mess they were in before the story began. Why is that mess there? That's the big unspoken question that runs through the film.
But it is a happy ending and that's not common for you. Looking for Eric [in which dozens of Manchester United fans in Eric Cantona masks defeat a gangster] had an outrageously triumphant climax but you're not big on happy endings. Are you going soft in your old age?
[Chuckles] I might be. Who knows? I'd be the last one to know, wouldn't I? When you take a wide view of what's happening, it's a tragedy. But in tragedy there are all sorts of things that make you laugh.
There are some pretty gritty and violent scenes early in the film and then a substantial shift in tone when Robbie and his mates cook up their plan.
Well, that's true of those kids. Their lives are full of violence and yet they are funny. But we don't want to underplay the severity of what's going on because then it's sentimental. Robbie's on the edge: when he pulls a knife on someone we know he could do that, and his whole world would come toppling down. He'd lose his child, he'd lose his girlfriend and he'd be back in prison. That's what happens to a lot of people in his world.
How do you think the media encourages empty-mindedness?
Well, by the constant headlines against immigrants and scroungers, against benefit cheats. That's a phrase that has passed into the language, "benefit cheats", so there is this set of prejudices that the press creates and people respond to it. That's why the right wing does well and you've got the danger of fascism now in Greece. What the popular press don't want is for people to direct their anger at those who are responsible, which is the big corporations, because the media are big corporations.
You cast Paul Brannigan after looking on the street for weeks, day in day out, and holding auditions.
You want to cast the net wide and give lots of people a chance. There are a lot of young kids who are very good, very talented because they're still open.
You often cast non-actors. Is it hard to teach people the process of acting?
Not really. It's easier than working for people who are set in their ways. And you get something that is spontaneous and original. Most of the kids in the film know that world even if they're not part of it. Paul certainly knows it. He doesn't have to act.
Well, he has to act to be a new father, to show that sudden tenderness that steals up on him and almost frightens him.
Yes, you've got to make the fiction credible. In that sense he does act, but that's the point of long auditions. We saw Paul maybe 10 times and each time we would try something different so when you come to shoot it, you know it'll be all right.
Who: Ken Loach, director
What: The Angel's Share
When: Opens at cinemas Thursday