A couple years into his supposed retirement, the 80-year-old Ken Loach showed up at Cannes with I, Daniel Blake and proceeded to win the Palme d’Or (his second, after 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley). The film follows an aging carpenter (Dave Johns) with a heart problem and a young, impoverished unwed mother (Hayley Squires) who struggle to navigate the mindless bureaucracy of Britain’s welfare system. But even though it’s a social drama — in the vein of such Loach classics as Cathy Come Home, Family Life, My Name Is Joe and Riff Raff — it’s also shot through with a bitter sense of humor; Loach’s vision encompasses both the absurdity and tragedy of life on the fringes of society. We spoke recently about how he finds his subjects, how his films have changed and (of course) cinema in the age of Trump.
You’ve no doubt been following the aftermath of the American election.
Yes, absolutely. I’ve been following for some months, I should say. I was very sad to see that the Democratic candidate who had the best chance of winning was excluded, and I think that was a serious mistake by the Democrat party. Bernie Sanders was a far more credible candidate, and likely to be far more popular — at least, judging from this side of the Atlantic.
I imagine that after Brexit, a lot of people in the UK looked at the US and began to get familiar feelings about what was happening.
Yes, but I don’t think there’s an exact parallel. The left in Britain had a very difficult choice. It wasn’t like the good guys were voting to stay and the bad guys were voting to leave. The EU is an economically right-wing organization that prioritizes the interests of big corporations. So there’s a large section of the left saying we have to reconstruct the European partnership from the ground up. Now, do you do that from the outside or from the inside? And that argument wasn’t really heard. It was only seen in terms of immigration and bureaucratic control, and the right-wing agenda was heard. But the left wing wasn’t.
Since the election, people have said to me, “I can’t really think about cinema anymore — it feels pointless and frivolous now.” But then I’d think of you and your work. You’ve always been so politically engaged, and you’ve essentially been making films of resistance and confrontation for about five decades now.
I think that cinema is medium of communication. It’s as valid as novels or fine art. You can relate it to journalism as well, in that you’re telling stories and saying, “This is happening, what do you think?” I think cinema can play a part without feeling embarrassed for playing a part. On your side of the water, Michael Moore is trying to do that, in a very idiosyncratic way. But nevertheless, it’s serious filmmaking, and by someone with a good sense of humor. So cinema has an important place.
Also, history is dynamic, which is to say it’s not fixed. There’s always something to play for. The old saying is “The struggle continues.” The struggle does continue. There’s always an area where you can work, an area where you can tell stories, an area where you can get organized. And, as always, the struggle needs analysis. What is the state of capitalism of the moment that demands Donald Trump? Where does he come from and what were the forces that produced him? So there’s a huge amount of work to do. That’s the challenge, and that gives you hope. The worst thing is when people stand around and say, “There’s nothing to do.” Well, there’s sure a hell of a lot to do now.
Your films have tackled a range of topics — some political, some social, some personal. How do you find your subjects? Does it come from wanting to make a film about a particular issue, or does it come from finding a particular person or story, which then leads to an issue?
It’s a mixture, really. For me, it comes from having a conversation with the writer, Paul Laverty. We’ve worked together now over 20 years. We just exchange messages every day. We’ll send stories backwards and forwards. Paul lives in Scotland, and I live down in England. The couple of films before this one, Paul had some stories and he passed them on, and we were like, “That would be a good story to tell, because it brings a lot of ideas together.” In the case of I, Daniel Blake, we both kept sharing stories about people whose emergency money stopped. Whether they were late for an appointment, or hadn’t filled out a form correctly, or filled out a job application wrong — all of a sudden, their money stops.
And when their money stops, they can’t eat. And we’d hear stories of families feeding their children biscuits. The stories just kept coming and coming, and so, in the end, we said we should just go around and hear people talk and just see if there’s a film in this. We went to six different cities and towns together and sat with people and said, “Okay, what’s going on?” After a bit, Paul did more research on his own, and then he wrote the two characters, and then the first draft.
When you are working with these characters, do you take different things that have happened to other people and create a sort of patchwork for them? I know that’s how you worked on some of your early films, like Cathy Come Home and Family Life.
Yes. Paul is quite a sophisticated writer, so you do take things from different stories, but the beginning point is a character with a background and their personality. And then it’s finding things that fit into that, otherwise it would be very mechanical. It’s very much about creating a rounded character whose life corresponds to some of the things we’ve heard. It’s not this mechanical thing of this event, and that event, and that event, otherwise you wouldn’t really have a real person.
Rewatching some of your early films, I was struck by the almost Brechtian approach, where you’re constantly contextualizing the story through factual voiceover, statistics, documentary insertions and so on. The conventional wisdom is that an approach like that would never work for a wider audience, but Cathy Come Home, for example, was enormously popular at the time. Your most recent films seem to be more cohesive as stories. They’re more conventional, if you will.
In the ‘60s, I mean, we all read Brecht plays. And there’s another person — a playwright named Joan Littlewood, who was more populist than Brecht, but used some of his ideas. She was the one who first did Oh! What a Lovely War on the stage. The film of that didn’t work that well, but the stage play did: They’d be making jokes about the war, but then on a screen they’d be telling you how many people had been killed. And we used similar elements in Cathy Come Home, where you’d see the fictional things onscreen, but then you’d hear a documentary voice explaining the context.
This kind of conjunction of fiction and documentary, I always found quite interesting. But Paul is a different kind of writer. His characters are more profound. I think it’s more difficult to do that when the narrative drive is much stronger; it can’t handle an interruption. It’s an interesting dilemma.
I’m always impressed by the naturalism you get from very often unknown actors, or in some cases, nonprofessionals. I was interested to read that Dave Johns is a bricklayer-turned-comic. How do you find these people?
Well, we just look. We’ve got a very good casting director named Kathleen Crawford. We see a lot of people right at the beginning, and we find the idea of what we’re looking for, and then she just goes out and finds people. We see some regular actors, but we also see comedians, musicians, maybe in this case, just men or unionists who’ve got a good way of presenting things. We just see people from all over. I think Dave was a bricklayer very briefly, like three years. He had done stand-up for almost all his life.
When you do find the right actor, is there a process then of working with them to sharpen the character, to fuse the character and the actor more?
We do a few things. Like in this film, Daniel has had a wife who is dead now, so we cast someone to be the wife, and they went out together, and we took the photographs, and he had the memory of her. And with Katie and the kids, we did things to make them a family. We went on long trips together, so she could get used to being with them. Like if they were naughty, she would tell them off. It’s very simple things like that.
I love these almost biblical overtones in the film, when they talk about how he has to meet the Decision Maker, who is this elusive, unseen figure, almost like God.
It’s real! This is what the person is called! It’s not an invention. It is like Kafka, this mysterious bureaucracy you can never understand. You can never get to the bottom of these people. You’re told to phone a number and then you’re left waiting for maybe an hour and a half. And your phone runs out. People talk about a faceless bureaucracy. But this is faceless in an absolute way. You never know people’s names; they’re not allowed to give you their names. They have these arbitrary and extraordinary depersonalized descriptions — the Decision Maker, the Assessor. It’s extraordinary. And deeply frustrating for someone who is used to talking to someone face-to-face. Massively frustrating.
And the worst thing is that the government knows about this inefficiency: They’re constantly inefficient, they constantly make you wait, because the aim is to drive you out of the system. There’s another management expression: “foot fall.” The aim is to reduce the “foot fall.” Again it’s depersonalized language. “Okay, you’re going to go hungry today because we say so.” And it’s put in place by very rich people in the government who have never had to experience this or have no idea what it means to go without food. It’s a political agenda. What they’re saying is, if you’re poor, it’s your fault. If you haven’t got a job, it’s your responsibility. And the State has no responsibility. There’s a political agenda at the center of it.
That facelessness, that anonymity, allows people to be cruel to others.
Yes, absolutely. The aim is to depersonalize so that that someone doesn’t know who they’re deciding about. They don’t have to confront a physical person who is being thrown out of their house or who doesn’t have any food or who can’t feed their children. It’s not fascist, but there’s an element of the fascist mentality in it — in that you create people that you don’t have to consider as fellow humans.
Do you feel that I, Daniel Blake is having an actual, tangible impact in terms of effecting any kind of change? I’ve read a number of pieces from the UK press saying, “Well, this could be like Cathy Come Home in that it could actually lead to some real progress being made.”
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It’s interesting. In Parliament, they’ve been discussing changes to this system. They were going to make further cuts to the money that the very poorest people get. And while we think there are still cuts that will be made, I don’t think they will be as grave as they could have been a few weeks ago. I can’t say this is due to the film, but the film has been part of the conversation. Who knows if it played a part or not? Even if it did, they would never admit to it playing a part.
I recently read a quote from you, I think from the 1980s, where you said, “I’ve spent as much time defending my films as I have making them.” Which film of yours have you had to defend the most?
In the 1980s, I had a lot of films, documentaries for television, which were about why the trade unions had failed to organize resistance to Margaret Thatcher’s plans. And they were banned. I had to fight for those films. And there were several other films in similar situations, back in the 1980s. But back then it was very apparent. Now, they manage it so these things don’t get made — they censor the ideas. In those days, they didn’t censor the ideas, they censored the progress. We just learned how to be defenders. And I loved to fight. I’ve had to defend I, Daniel Blake as well. To the UK politicians and, interestingly, to the Labor right wing. Which is not unlike the right wing of your Democratic party. So it’s interesting, the parallel.