A Drop of the Good Stuff :: Paul Laverty on ’The Angels’ Share’
Director Ken Loach has built an impressive body of cinema, much of it having to do with the world's underclass: The oppressed, the marginalized, the exploited, the victimized. For his last dozen films, Loach has worked with screenwriter Paul Laverty who, like Loach, studied law before becoming a filmmaker. Their background in law has helped lend the pair's collaborations an urgent sense of needed justice, including gems like the 2006 Irish independence film "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," the 2010 film "Route Irish," a study on the effects of the American-led War in Iraq, and their first film together, 1996's "Carla's Song," about a displaced Nicaraguan living in Glasgow.
Not that Loach and Laverty have not also done more light hearted stuff, like the 2009 fantasy "Looking for Eric," or their latest collaborative effort, "The Angels' Share. This latest flick centers around a group of young people in Glasgow who, unemployed and left to the ways of the streets, have found themselves in trouble with the law. As restitution, they're remanded to community service, under the supervision of a kindly middle-aged gent, Harry (John Henshaw), who is the only one willing to lend an ear or take an interest.
Harry takes a particular interest in Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a tough kid with few prospects. Robbie knows he’s running out of options; his latest scrape with the law has brought him to a fork in the road, and he has to decide whether to continue on his slide toward long-term incarceration and ongoing violence, or to rehabilitate his life. He has a powerful incentive for reform: Girlfriend Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) has just given birth to their son. But none of Leonie’s family wants Robbie to have anything to do with either his own son or Leonie; whichever way he turns, someone is there either to block his progress or beat the living hell out of him.
That’s when Harry introduces Robbie to scotch whiskey, and a totally unexpected door opens. Robbie figures out a way to make a fortune in the whiskey business, but in order to do it he’s going to have to plan and execute a daring caper involving a fabulously rare cask of liquor. It’ll be a miracle if he and his friends can make the scheme work, but it’s a miracle he’s going to need if he’s to stand a chance of keeping his family together.
The long partnership between Loach and Laverty began with a sense on Laverty’s part that he needed the power of cinematic storytelling in order to do justice to the horrors he was seeing first hand as a young human rights worker in Central America.
"In the mid-eighties, when I was in my twenties, I went out to work for a human rights organization in Nicaragua," Laverty told EDGE during a recent interview. "I was an eye witness to that illegal war -- William Casey, head of the CIA, trained the contras to tear Nicaragua apart. It was fascinating to see the different levels on which the country was destroyed: It wasn’t just the contras attacking the civilian population attacking the Sandinista army, but it was more subtle pressure from the IMF and the World Bank not to give loans, the propaganda campaigns, the funding of internal opposition: Church, trade unions, human rights, media. It was a very sophisticated way of destroying a tiny little country, and it made a strong impression on me. And what is really quite interesting, too, is that many of the people who were involved in that war were involved in the war in Iraq -- the neocons who coalesced around George Bush, Sr. coalesced around George Bush, Jr.
"After the best part of two and a half or three years, being in Nicaragua and El Salvador and traveling to Guatemala, I decided I would like to write a script about it," Laverty recollected. "I was tired of human rights reports and journalistic work. I wanted to see if a more effectual response would be to be informed by what I’d seen.
"When I came back from Nicaragua, I just wrote to Ken [and told him] an idea about the story. He’s not a man who’s interested in CVs; he’s always open. He was interested in what I’d seen and heard. I had an outline of what I wanted to do, but he said, ’Go ahead and write some scenes, and let’s see if it works.’ " Writing a script was "a liberation," Laverty recalled. "To give someone a name, to give him a job, to give him a way of speaking, to invent characters.
"We got our first film made after a very long time," Laverty continued. That was the 1996 film "Carla’s Song," starring Robert Carlyle, who was starting a meteoric international film career. After that, "One project just led to another. There was no five-year plan."
Asked whether he or Loach tends to be the one to identify ideas for new film projects, Laverty indicated a much more democratic working process was the recipe for their success. "It’s much more organic than that," the screenwriter noted. "We’re very close friends now, and we’ve got many other interests beyond film: Life and work and politics and football. The important things in life."
After a bout of laughter, Laverty added, "He’s a magnificent collaborator. He’s very demanding intellectually, and very demanding on stories, but he’s also a very generous collaborator and great fun to be with.
"The last film we made was very, very tough and uncompromising; it was called ’Route Irish,’ it was about nurses coming back from Iraq. This time, I wanted to try a different tone. I remembered these kids who were on community payback" -- what we call community service here -- "and that’s a nice little situation [for a writer] because you get a nice little group of kids together, you know? And I thought if we could mix it with the world of whiskey we could end up with a nice little comic tale that would reveal the talent and anger and frustrations and poignancy of their lives."
The stars, not to mention the available raw talents, seemed to line up for this movie. "Sometimes [when working on a film] you’ll meet people along the way who you think might fit -- like Charlie McLean, who’s a whiskey expert," Laverty said, referring to a crucial part of the film in which McLean plays himself at a scotch tasting and sets the wheels turning in Robbie’s mind when he tells the participants about a long-lost cask from a now-defunct distillery that’s headed to auction. "Or Paul Brannigan, a young lad who had recently been released from prison; I thought, well, he’s a very interesting character."
So that scar everyone points to as a badge of Robbie’s criminality? Is that real?
"It was a real scar, slightly lengthened," Laverty revealed. "Paul had an incredibly tough childhood; it’s a miracle he’s come through it. It’s a great credit to him that he has come through it, really."
That’s not to say that Laverty tailored the part to Brannigan. "I had the part of Robbie already written," the screenwriter said. "What you try to do is find the person who can give the character as written flesh and blood. It wasn’t Paul’s story, but as it turned out there were many parallels between Paul’s story and that of the fictional character, Robbie.
"He knew that world, and he trusted his own instincts," Laverty continued. "He’d never acted in his life before, but he knew that world and he’s a very, very smart lad. He was also very determined to try and change his life. He’s also got a sense of vulnerability about him that you see, I think. You know, in the scene where the friend of the family tries to give Robbie and Leonie use of her flat -- you see him looking puzzled, asking, ’Why are you doing this for us?’ He wasn’t used to kindness. He’s a great lad and I hope he gets the chance to go on and do many more films. He’s done several parts already."
Laverty is known for the meticulous research he puts into his films, and while it might be fun to think that his research for this movie had mostly to do with bottles of different scotch whiskies, that would be selling the film, and the art of attentive imbibing, far short.
"That’s for sure!" Laverty agrees with vigor, when EDGE makes the observation. "I was kind of fascinated by the levels to the whiskey. First of all, scotch is a wonderful drink, and there are many, many varieties. Appreciating scotch is like appreciating good wine or good food. What also interested me is, whiskey is this multi-billion [dollar] industry, more than two billion pounds [over 3.5 billion U.S. dollars] last year. It’s enormous. People are spending fortunes on it -- you know, it’s like these people using their pension funds to buy art because it demonstrates power and wealth. Some might appreciate the whiskey in and of itself, and some might not. And many don’t! We poke fun at that in the film."
There’s a sense of fun -- fish out of water and into whiskey, if you like -- to the idea of making a connoisseur out of a street tough. In real life, as it happened, there was something of a parallel happening when it came time for the cast to take their first sips of the good stuff.
"Many of these kids had never tasted whiskey," Laverty recalled. "Literally, never. None of them had been to a distillery. Very few of them had been to the beautiful countryside where we filmed on location. Their horizons had been very narrow." This plays right into the film’s sense of discovery and surprise; after all, as Laverty noted, "You can go on a little journey with Robbie. There were lots of things to play with [from the whiskey world], and mixing with these young touaregs who’d never expected to appreciate whiskey, but who can appreciate if given the chance."
That, of course, is an enduring and central meme in movies of the sort made by Ken Loach, or Mike Leigh, or others of the British "kitchen sink" genre, movies in which all a smart, talented, scrappy person needs to better his life is the chance to do so. It’s a tenet of faith in humanity that’s sometimes derided by ideologues as mere "liberal" wishful thinking, but which, in the real world, stands as a genuine symbol of hope.
"Yes, in the same way Paul did with this film," Laverty said. "Paul really grasped this chance: When I first met him, he couldn’t find work. You talk to these kids, and many of them believe they will never find meaningful work in their lives, and for very good reason. Every time a job is advertised, you’ll literally hundreds and hundreds of applicants for that one position.
"Youth unemployment is a crisis around the world. That has tremendous consequences, when communities break down and become dysfunctional. It’s the exact opposite of Margaret Thatcher, who said there’s no such ting as society; there is such a thing as society, and if you don’t do something about dysfunctional communities like [the one Robbie hails from], everybody pays a price. Even the ones who live in gated communities.
"We are our brothers’ keeper, I think," Laverty went on to say. "I hope some of these questions are left dangling, that audiences look at Robbie and say, ’What he wants is what we all want: Meaningful work that can support a relationship. Everything flows from that, because if you don’t have meaningful work to plan your life around, if you don’t have some autonomy, there’s a massive vacuum" that tends to be filled with drink, drugs, despair, and crime.
It’s surely a pointed and piquant comment, then, that this film -- made by two men with some knowledge of the law -- posits that, for some people, "playing by the rules" is futile because the game is rigged against them. The only option, then, is to break those rules. Laverty took on a mischievous grin.
"A lot of people say that there’s an immorality in the film, and it’s interesting how we’re programmed to look at morality in relation to the pedantic interpretation of the law," the screenwriter reflected. "I think it’s probably a bigger crime of somebody can spend a couple of million pounds on a bottle of whiskey. Where did that money come from? How can people spend that amount on money on a drink when there’s so much need in the world? That’s the more interesting question that we leave dangling there.
"We kind of poke fun at it, but that’s what’s actually happening: We have this incredible elite of people who don’t pay their taxes, and if they contributed just a little bit they would probably feel safer as well, instead of being wrapped up in their security guards."
In some ways, Laverty’s films might be seen as a career-long denunciation of the dehumanizing effects of colonialism -- or rather, the colonial mindset that has rn rampant in capitalism, which treats everyone but so-called "winner" with equal disinterest. Still, there is something colonial in the way globalization has brought huge opportunity to the few while neglecting too many others. Laverty was born in Calcutta; EDGE wondered whether this, together with his work in Central America, might have informed his world view.
"You have done your research, haven’t you?" Laverty chuckled. "I think it’s very interesting, isn’t it, to try and analyze the effect of power over our lives," he added. "I suppose that’s what we are doing, in looking at Robbie and the choices he has. I can understand that father who says to him, ’Who the fuck is going to give you any work? The fucking army won’t even take you.’ And as we were talking about, that’s exactly what happened to Paul: He couldn’t even get a job in the army. And then suddenly you see this kid, the talent he has once he’s given a chance. I don’t just mean Robbie, I mean Paul.
"I think it does beg the question: Who has access to these jobs? Who has access to education?" Laverty continued. "Usually the access to the best schools is ties to access to the best areas to live in, and that impacts your access to good schools [to send your own children].
"I’m not making this stuff up. In the United States it’s particularly brutal. The rich are getting richer much faster and the poor and getting poorer. There’s this tremendous dichotomy just now. The driver who brought me from the airport works 16-hour days just to survive. His life is brutalized by his economic situation. He has a young child he never sees because he’s working such long days. He told me it would cost him $800 for health care, so he doesn’t have any health care. He has it for his child, but what’s going to happen to that child if his father needs health care? It’s just bonkers. A little country like Ireland or Scotland can afford a nationalized health care service. Why can’t this powerful, wealthy country?
"The pople in power will say that it’s inevitable" that such a yawning schism will open up between a rich elite and a poor majority, "but it’s not inevitable. Frederick Douglass was confronted by people who said that slavery was inevitable, and he said, ’What man can make, man can unmake.’ Now, it’s not going to be easy, but I think we have to rearrange the system of power, or make it more transparent. That’s the principle; the detail will take enormous organizing. I think that’s the great challenge ahead of us."
Laverty has done some work with two directors other than Loach, including Clive Gordon ("a very nice lad and an exceptional documentary filmmaker") and his life partner, actress and director Icíar Bollaín.
"We did ’Even the Rain’ together," Laverty recalled of Bollaín. "I met Icíar on ’Land and Freedom,’ which Ken also directed [and in which Laverty himself had a small role].
"The way I worked with Icíar was very similar to how I work with Ken: Keep the film relatively modest, so we can keep control of the project, so we decide what the material is. That’s very important to us. Nobody’s telling us what to do."
But it’s Loach who remains Laverty’s principle creative collaborator, and the two are already planning their next movie.
"We’re going to do another film with Ken in Ireland, hopefully." Laverty said. "In August -- touch wood! We don’t want to tempt fate."