Paul Laverty is best known for collaborations with Ken Loach, such as Looking for Eric, My Name is Joe and the Palme d’Or winning The Wind That Shakes the Barley. We caught up with Paul at the screening of his latest film, Even the Rain, starring Gael García Bernal (pictured), at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London…
You’re a qualified lawyer – how did you end up becoming a screenwriter?
I used to work as a lawyer in Glasgow but in the 80s, fascinated by what was going on with the Sandinista revolution, I went to work in Nicaragua for a human rights organisation and was there for three years. I was sick of writing human rights reports and wanted to see if I could write something inspired by what I’d seen, but fictional, so I made contact with Ken Loach and we made Carla’s Song.
You’ve since worked extensively with Ken Loach – what’s the key to a collaborative relationship between screenwriter and director?
I consider myself a filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker and I write and Ken’s a filmmaker and he directs, and we meet in the middle, with different skills but united by the one project. He’s a wonderful collaborator. You never see “a Ken Loach film” – you always see, “directed by”, “written by”, “produced by”, “sound by”. A lot of directors will say, “film by” and that’s all right if you’ve made the whole film yourself, but they haven’t.
Where do you find ideas for new projects?
You have to keep your eyes open. You’ll maybe see something or hear something and imagine a character. Each film has had a different moment of inspiration. [With] the one in Nicaragua, I was an eyewitness to the very vicious war conducted there by the United States – that was the starting point. But if you’re working so closely with someone you have to find ideas that are inspirational to both of you, otherwise they won’t work.
Your films are often inspired by real situations – how do you go about researching them?
When we made The Wind That Shakes the Barley [which is set in early-20th-century Ireland], it was talking to the children of people [who were there], [reading] newspaper reports, books, visiting the place, going and seeing the country, trying to understand it, listening to the songs, seeing the uniforms they wore, all of those things.
And then with [Even the Rain], the film’s set 500 years ago so I had to spend a lot of time studying in the library and then I had to find out what’s going on in Bolivia so I went there and spoke to people. Listening to people is very underestimated.
What should you bear in mind when writing a politically engaged film?
The choice of material and character and the story you tell give it the politics. In the majority of Hollywood films, most of the people are very individualist and usually rich – there’s a celebration of wealth. The films we do celebrate the possibility of people coming together. They’re people with less power in their lives who use their imagination to overcome corporate power, as in Bread and Roses; sometimes they’re isolated because they can’t get a job like in Sweet Sixteen or My Name is Joe. Route Irish is about soldiers coming back from Iraq or It’s a Free World… is about immigrant workers. So we try to find out what their experience is like. I spend time with ex-soldiers or immigrants or kids in children’s homes – not to copy their life but to be informed by it.
What’s your advice for young screenwriters?
Watch great films, like The Apartment by Billy Wilder, and see how they’re structured – but I think the most original writers listen to their own voice, use their own experience and imagination. Be rigorous in making sure you avoid cliché. In a strange way you’re looking for a conflict. You’re looking for the premise for a story, which has got contradictions and is complex.
Even the Rain is released on 18 May 2012.
Main image: still from Even the Rain. Second image: Paul Laverty by EIFF on a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
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