A Fable Amidst A Crisis – Paul Laverty (The VH Interview)

I had the opportunity to talk with screenwriter Paul Laverty. We discuss how he got his industry break, his previous work, the reaction to I, Daniel Blake and his latest work, a Spanish language mythical road trip, The Olive Tree.

How did you become a screenwriter?

I used to be a lawyer in Glasgow after the time of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a little country that kicked out the American backed dictator called Samosa.
The CIA-funded Contra’s attacked civilian’s murdered people in a campaign of state-funded terror organised by the United States.

There was an organisation called “Scottish Aid To Nicaragua” that sent doctors & nurses to work; I was the only non-medic who went out and I worked with a human rights organisation. Out of being an eyewitness to the war in Central America came my first film, Carla’s Song.

Anna Castillo & Manuel Cucala / The Olive Tree / Picture courtesy of Eureka Entertainment

Can you tell us about the story and themes present in your new film The Olive Tree?

What I love about a story is when it’s multi-layered there’s all sorts of things going on. When there’s a sense of history. I read articles about the sale of 2000 year old olive trees that where planted at the time of the Romans.

The idea that this ancient olive tree could be dug up because a corporate company liked the shape of it was a nice symbol. It served as a little taste of our times all wrapped round an intimate story of an olive tree; its long standing connection with a family and the fractious relationship it causes within generations of people when it’s sold.
The selling of the olive tree in market terms made sense but it didn’t to the soul of the grandfather and her love for him is why Anna Castillo’s character goes to Germany to retrieve the tree and hopefully bring her family back together after this dispute.

We had a fantastic non-actor Manuel with his sun-burnt face that played the grandfather. Myself and the director were really keen that we wanted someone who knew the land, the sound of the birds- he knew the insects that lived off the trees and actually talked to the trees.

I didn’t want to demonise the people that sold the trees but I talked to some older people who did. There was one older farmer who was so devastated, that he couldn’t stand in the space it’s where I got the idea because it was so upsetting to this rough farmer that it was doing damage to him.

The local community shared a symbiotic relationship between the olive groves and the people who live with them. Many of the trees were sold and shipped to the Middle East, China, the Vatican- the Santander headquarters in Madrid bought 200 of them.

The character of Artichoke, the son played by Javier Gutiérrez, served as a symbol of how Spain as country turned out pre/post boom & bust. He was a lorry driver working like a dog, 18 hours a day, in these big lorries worth €200,000 when he goes from millionaire to impoverished when the crisis happens.

He could have easily been a clown but I wanted him to be more than that. He’s a man that doesn’t understand the real world in which he lived and that people lie to each other. There’s still a sense of loyalty, trying to figure things out, feeling guilty and really caring for his niece by tagging along for this fable-like journey across Europe.

How much involvement did you have The Olive Tree‘s Production?

I work a lot with Ken Loach as the process is similar with my wife, The Olive Tree director Icíar Bollaín, and I’m very lucky in the sense that they’re both very collaborative talented directors.

I live in these communities and you have to be rigorous and ask questions and be informed by what you find. The Olive Tree was set on the East coast of Spain, so it’s out of my immediate experience. You have to go there and try to understand what’s happening. One half of it is journalistic and the other is creative hoping to find the magic of the characters.

The writing of the script is a very private thing and you try to be your best critic.

Anna Castillo / The Olive Tree / Picture courtesy of Eureka Entertainment

I was involved with the casting and we were very lucky to get Anna to play the lead role. She was a real live-wire; really intelligent; and it’s great when you get someone who could be mad enough to go off on this adventure. You also needed someone who could be credible and vulnerable as she’s a character hurting inside. We were so lucky to find her after doing a lot of casting and she’s now been doing musicals. She’s going to go somewhere. It’s no wonder she won ‘best newcomer’ at the Goyas.
I would best describe it as a very organic process. We’re all filmmakers coming together with no big egos kicking about.

If you listen you learn. It’s really important, especially with a film. You’ve got to be joined at the hip, otherwise it becomes a misery. It’s great fun; you are nourished by the people and by what you discover in the journey of turning it into a story that hopefully it rings true.

The Olive Tree and I, Daniel Blake where produced in the same year. Do they share anything in common?
The way that they’ve came out- The Olive Tree was completed 18 months beforehand and it’s already been released in Spain and France and are both post-recession movies.

Dave Johns / I, Daniel Blake / Picture courtesy of eOne

What struck us after the recession hit in the UK- there were huge cuts to welfare and disabled people suffered six times more proportionally than anyone else in society, so there was a political decision to hammer those on benefits.

As part of my research for Daniel Blake, I spoke with DWP whistle-blowers who are appalled by what they were asked to do. They showed me a print out of the names of colleagues in a job centre; those who didn’t carry out enough sanctions would be put on something called P.I.P (Personal Improvement Plan). It’s amazing Kafkaesque language. In other words there was great pressure by the managers for the workers to carry out more sanctions on citizens. In Liverpool, I spoke with a guy who worked in a job centre; he refused to sanction people was placed on a PIP.

This eventually led him to be kicked out and then ended up at a food bank himself. It gives you a sense of how hard the Tories decided as a political priority to make things more difficult for people.
I, Daniel Blake was a very modest film, set in contemporary times, so that made it easier to make. The most difficult aspect was getting your head around the welfare system understanding it; it’s very complex simplifying it into a narrative without it being simplistic.

The DWP secretary Damon Green condemned the film in parliament and then admitted that he hadn’t seen it. He even stupidly said he’d seen a lot of trailers for it and as far as I know there’s only one so maybe he’s seen it again and again.

I held him to account when he came to give evidence at the Scottish parliament and I heard him lie about the link between sanctions and people committing suicide; he said there was no proved connection.
There was a case in England where the coroner wrote that the trigger for a man in Middlesbrough, Michael Sullivan, had been the decision to deem him fit for work and he killed himself by hanging, after suffering from severe depression that was diagnosed by three doctors.

They are just cynics. They know what’s going on but they don’t want to listen to the evidence. It suits the government to have people frightened and controlled, and if you are scared to go to the DWP you’ll accept a zero hours contract. It’s much easier to control people and systematic cruelty keeps people in their place.

What feelings did you have about the reaction to I, Daniel Blake had on its release and what kind of reaction has The Olive Tree had so far?

It’s very funny because you never know the effect a film is going to have and it’s very hard to judge beforehand.
I remember going to New York for a festival screening of I, Daniel Blake along with 900 people. You could just tell after people were blown away by it; as was the San Sebastian film festival crowd, where it won the audience award with people saying it was the movie of the crisis.

We were stunned that a film so steeped in the British welfare system had such resonance and it’s been the same all around the world. I received emails about activists in South Korea using the film plus there’s also been a strong reaction to it in Japan and Russia.

I think it’s just that people think just by the grace of God ‘what if things went wrong for me? What if I got ill? or I lost my job?’ and appreciate the fight for dignity up against bureaucracy.
At the weekend I spoke with 500 teachers in a community screening set up by the distribution company eOne, who have organised many screenings.

The idea was that if you were on the dole and there’s no way you can afford a ticket, you can see the film in a community and have a discussion about it afterwards.
This has been very rich experience, attending these discussions organised by trade unions, grass roots organisations, church groups and local communities and the debate has been absolutely fascinating.

It’s also being viewed by social/health workers, senior NHS professionals and there’s even been screenings for DWP workers. I, Daniel Blake‘s being used by lawyers as a teaching aid at tribunals for the appeal structure.

There was a good review in Variety of The Olive Tree from a urban festival in Miami and a great screening in the Glasgow film theatre I couldn’t attend, but my partner was at with a documentary filmmaker Lucinda Broadbent.
She just asked everyone to say one word in the cinema and remarkable words like ‘forgiveness’, ‘love’, ‘liars’ and ‘hate’ where shouted by audience members. It’s nice when a film like that can be read on different levels and get a generous response.

I hope The Olive Tree gets a decent run in the UK but its hard for a subtitled film.

You’ve worked with Ken Loach several times. What kind of relationship do you have with him?

He’s very generous and it helps that we’re both fascinated by the same themes; if you didn’t have that I don’t think you could work together. He’s a very funny man and a friend, before we were collaborators, that makes life much simpler. Ken is a renaissance man who’s interested in many things and he’s very English too with his love of cricket. Whereas I’ve no idea what that funny game is about.

Robert Carlyle & Oyanka Cabezas / Carla’s Song / Picture courtesy of Universal Pictures

As a fan of both your earlier films Carla’s Song and My Name is Joe do you ever wonder what happened to the characters that Robert Carlyle and Peter Mullan played in those movies?

Sometimes people send you a question or they come up in Q&A sessions. I do daydream especially about My Name Is Joe. Peter Mullan’s character from that film was very complex and I wonder if he would take to drink? Whether he would give it up? Or if there was any possibility of a relationship with Sarah?

These characters become real for you and penetrate your imagination. You do wonder what might have happened to them- how they’ve changed from their experiences.

Robert Carlyle was very kind to Oyanka Cabezas from Carla’s Song. It was her first time acting and she was struggling with English. I’ll always respect him deeply for that.

Bobby is very smart with great range and has got great instincts when it comes to his work.

I also often think about the Liam character from Sweet Sixteen because he was so young but he’s gone off to prison. What would he be like now outside? He’d be at an age Martin Compston could actually play the character again.

What are you currently working on at the moment?

It’s very early days. I’ve been so tied up with the community screenings of I, Daniel Blake and doing stuff with The Olive Tree. I’m planning to do something with both Ken and Icíar; two different stories; if we can keep our marbles together and everything doesn’t fall apart.

That’s the master plan but it’s too early to talk about.

The Olive Tree is in cinemas now.