Interview…’The Angel’s Share’ Screenwriter Paul Laverty

(Note: this is late. Way, way late. This is the downside to not having deadlines- sometimes you just don’t get things done, and sometimes life is just really busy, and sometimes a slacker movie critic will fire off any number of excuses to avoid responsibility for failing to finish something when he should have. In any event, tardiness aside, this is the most fun I’ve had interviewing the talent- Paul’s about the nicest guy you could hope to talk to and he had a lot of insightful things to say about the film and the elements that inspired it. Read on.)

Last month I had the chance to talk over the phone with Paul Laverty, the writer behind the screenplay for The Angel’s Share, which remains one of the more delightful, charming films I’ve managed to see this year. For Paul, who practices law when he’s not writing scripts, the film represents his 11th collaboration with Ken Loach (of Kes and The Wind That Shakes the Barley fame). It’s unusual to see a filmmaker work so closely with the same screenwriter for so many different projects, which makes the picture something of an achievement on its own merit. If the frequency with which they work together is rare, then Paul’s involvement past the writing process is almost unheard of; he’s almost as much a force in production as Ken himself.

Sitting in my car on a rainy Boston day, I picked Paul’s brain about The Angel’s Share and the real-life stories and ideas that influenced it. Anyone who thinks of the film as a frothy trifle might have their minds changed hearing what he had to say about it; there’s a great deal of authenticity brought to bear in its plot and narrative. But you’ll have to check out the interview below to find out more:

Go, See, Talk!: To start off, I’m curious about what drew you and Ken Loach to the story initially and where the idea for the movie came from?

Paul Laverty: Well, the film we did before this was a very dark story about a man coming back from Iraq. You have to be truthful to the premise, and it was a bit of a tragedy, so in this one we really needed to do something with a lighter tone. We were both very interested in all these young people who never seem to find work- you know, the Robbies of this world- and I’d come across the community service, the community payback…you know what I mean by that?

GST: Yeah.

PL: These kids skip prison and they have to do service in the community. It’s a lovely kind of situation to get a group of people together, quite light, you know, and it was just stuck in my mind from God knows where. I just wondered if I could mix these kids with the world of whiskey. It was a very unlikely collaboration, really, and whiskey’s got all sorts of levels, too- it’s a big, huge industry, $4.2 billion in sales each year, and the rich and the sophisticated buy it as projected, as a drink of the sophisticated business class. A lot of these people, you know, they buy whiskey and they don’t appreciate it- well, some do and some don’t- and that has to do with them projecting their own power and wealth, but many of the kids that you meet have never tasted Scotland’s own national drink. I mean, allegedly they haven’t tasted whiskey and they’ve never been to the areas where it’s distilled. So there’s lots of little contradictions there that were useful to us.

GST: There’s definitely a strong sense that you guys made this movie because you do have that appreciation. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are those where Robbie comes into his own appreciation for the drink…

PL: Oh, yes.

GST: …but beneath all of that stuff there’s this undercurrent of social justice. Maybe you can clarify, but there’s a sense of discontent or frustration toward the circumstances that young men like Robbie face and what he’s put through. Could you speak to that a little bit? 

PL: Absolutely, Andrew- these kids are all desperate to work. Contrary to the right wing’s stereotype that they’re lazy and don’t want to work, they’d all love to have work. Everybody’s desperate for a project so they can plan their life, and the problem is when a job is advertised, hundreds of people go for this one job. So there’s a crisis among these young kids, they’re frustrated and they’re angry, because, well, you can’t plan your life, and you can’t have a future project, you can’t rent a family, you can’t have a family. So obviously this is more concentrated in Robbie’s case, because he’s about to have a child and the birth of a child pushes you into the future. You want to try and look after your child, so what Robbie wants to do, of course, is to not let his child have the same terrible, violent life that he’s had, so he’s trying to break from it.

GST: That’s so difficult, too. How do you have that life when the entire social structure seems so bent on you not having that? There’s that scene where he’s talking to Psycho Balls, Matt, and Matt says exactly that- what kind of life can this child have, look at you and look at where you come from. No one gives him a fair shake until Harry reaches out and offers a hand.

PL: That’s just reality for young people. We went to a junior prison quite recently and asked the kids to put up a hand if they thought they’d be able to obtain decent work, or just work, when they finish, when they get out. There were three hands that went up. So without meaningful work, it’s a tough future for these kids. Of course, it’s not even just for those that come from tough backgrounds- there’s a whole crisis in the world. I mean, in Spain, 60% of people under 25 don’t have work and they’re even often graduates who are well-trained, so what chances have the Robbies of this world? So I think the question was a little tale of comedy, but I think it does raise some questions about our lives.

GST: Yeah, I agree completely, and that’s a lot of what I read out of the movie.

PL: I’m very glad you got that, Andrew, because that was the main reason for writing this story- this terrible crisis. At the end of the day, it looks like a little fable; he actually obtains a job, he’s got a car, he’s got a girlfriend, and he’s got a child. But in the Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 after the second World War, this is seen as the minimum rights for a dignified existence, and yet it’s almost like an abstraction now, like a daydream.

GST: It’s a fantasy.

PL: Yeah. You have to reclaim that document and reclaim those rights, make them real rights and not just abstractions.

GST: And you know, even though the film is very funny and there’s a heist caper that gets worked into it, too, there’s never a moment where you lose sight of that crisis you’re talking about. That’s always the central focus. How did you, as the screenwriter, approach balancing all of those different elements? I feel like that would be kind of a challenge. 

PL: Sounds like you’re a screenwriter yourself, Andrew, you write any scripts yourself?

GST: No, you know, I’ve never tried my hand at it. I wrote some fiction in college, but never screenplays.

PL: Well, you’ve put your finger on the most difficult part, really, and that’s balancing all of these things out. That’s why I never really worry too much about genre, I think for some people it’s an excuse to find lazy criticism. In our lives we cross into all sorts of contradictions, don’t we? We have different parts of our lives. So Robbie’s got his child, and his past, and people from the past, and his close friends, and his new friends, and what he wants for the future. So I was really kind of concerned that you have a sense of this wasted talent. By having a little whiskey adventure in the middle of it, it shows him excited by an adventure, and it’s an excuse for a laugh that works narratively.

But at the same time you realize as well that it shows their worth and how astute they are to have this victimless crime, so to speak. It’s a question of instinct, and you just have to try and nurse it along. There are bits that kind of clash, but I don’t mind that, especially when we see Robbie and his violent past. I almost think it’s almost pornographic when you have cheap violence in a film and you don’t see the consequences of it. We do show violence, but the key is you see how it hurts. And not just the victim, but often the perpetrator. You see that Robbie really doesn’t want to have that life for his child.

GST: Yeah, that really came through a lot in Paul Brannigan’s performance; it’s where he comes from but it’s not where he wants to be anymore. I thought he showed that very, very well. How did you guys get him involved in the project? If I’m not mistaken, this is his first major acting role, right?

PL: This is the first time he’s ever acted in his life, yeah. I’m only saying all this because Paul talks about it publicly himself, but Paul has spent time in prison himself, as a young offender in a junior prison. I came across him when I was doing the research for the film. The film wasn’t based on Paul’s life, but a lot of Paul’s life was very, very similar to Robbie’s, and that’s essentially what you do in casting, try to get his life and blood into the story. So there was an initiative called the Violence Reduction Unit run by Glasgow police which was copied from an initiative in the United States, Chicago I think, where they’re trying to gangs and guns off the street. In Glasgow, Friday nights people would get drunk and carry knives, you know, gangs, neds, with devastating results for these young people.

So they decided to run a football league at nighttime, so instead of fighting each other they were playing football, and Paul was helping to run one of the football teams. I was doing research, meeting the young people in these different gangs, and then I came across Paul. He struck me as a lad who’s really smart, he had presence about him, people listened to him with respect, and I made a mental note for when Ken did the casting.

Unfortunately, he never turned up for the first meeting. And then we managed to trace him, and he never turned up for the second meeting. Eventually we found someone who knew him and knew his phone number, and fortunately for us and good for him he did turn up for the third one. He really grew in confidence when we started doing improvisations with him, and you could see he’s a smart kid and he got on well with Ken and relaxed and he was a great professional all the way through. He’s done a couple of other films after this and a soap opera in the UK.

GST: Talking about the confidence, I think that’s the key. When you watch him, he looks and acts like a much more veteran performer. 

PL: I think it says a lot about Ken, too, he’s fantastic with people who haven’t acted before. Andrew, I don’t know if you saw Sweet Sixteen ten years ago, you may be too young to have seen that one, but it’s a film that’s set in the west of Scotland as well. There’s a young guy named Martin Compston, it was the first time he acted, too, and he really blossomed as well. Now he’s been acting for ten years. Ken’s great, he spots talent and gives them a chance, and that’s a good thing because it keeps the budget low, relatively low, so we can decide. We do the casting together and nobody tells us what to do, so we can take a chance on a young man like Paul. He’s a terrific lad, so I really wish him well for the future.

GST: I like seeing non-actors used in these roles. As an outsider, that seems to give a production more flexibility, whereas if there’s someone more established that may make things a bit more rigid and that person is harder to work with. Talking about Ken, this is your tenth collaboration with him? 

PL: It’s the tenth feature film, and we’ve done a couple of shorts, yeah. Quite a long time then.

GST: What keeps drawing the two of you together to work on these projects? It is, as far as I’m aware, fairly unusual to see a screenwriter and a director work with one another as many times as you guys have. 

PL: Well, it’s hard to be totally objective about it- we’re very close friends now. But I suppose we can get angry, and laugh, and be frustrated, and be curious about similar things, otherwise it wouldn’t work. You know, we both try to make things easy for each other. We both have very different jobs but we meet in the middle as filmmakers and try to support each other. And I suppose the secret to it is that we both like football, so we talk about football, life, and politics, which is all much more interesting than film.

GST: I can understand getting a little sick of talking about film when you work in the business. Once you’ve crafted the final draft of a project,how involved are you in the rest of the production, or is that the point where Ken takes over? 

PL: It’s very organic, because we’re always talking beforehand about things I might look at, and I usually start by putting on paper that’s caught my eye and try to build it up from there really, and then you test it. And then if you feel there’s life to it, do a lot more research, not to copy things but just to be informed of the world of the story. After that I write the screenplay, and then it’s up to me to be my own toughest critic to see if these are the best decisions that I’ve made. Then eventually I get the final draft made, we raise the finance, and start looking at locations.

For example, on this one, I know Glasgow very well, it’s a city I know well. So sometimes you actually write in real situations, or in the course of the film you meet people who might be in it. Like Charlie MacLean, who’s a whiskey expert, someone who understands whiskey- he played himself and it’d be very hard to get an actor to do that with the same authority. And of course, people like Paul. Then we discuss it and talk about the final cut, so it’s very organic and collaborative. I think there’s few actors who have had the same luck I’ve had, really. There’s so much experience, but there’s also someone who’s not scared of ideas, not like some directors who don’t want writers around.

GST: That’s kind of a blessing, I would say- it’s a great match-up. 

PL: Oh yeah, you’re there the try and support them, not to make life difficult for them.

GST: Right- you’re there to perform in your roles and hold each other up.

PL: Exactly. That’s what we try and do- life’s short!

(At this point time ran out, but we still chatted about Boston, Glasgow, Scotland’s west coast, and whiskey for a few minutes more before ending the call.)

(Thanks to Allied for putting the interview together, and most of all to Mr. Laverty for generously offering his time for the discussion!)