Screenwriter Paul Laverty has become something of a household name at the Cannes Film Festival over the years. His films, which are directed by longtime collaborator Ken Loach, have almost all premiered there and have earned several awards including the Palme d’Or (The Wind that Shakes the Barley, 2006) and the Best Screenplay Award (Sweet Sixteen, 2002). Despite such remarkable success, both Loach and Laverty have resisted working for large studios with access to higher budgets and instead been content with making small, important films.
The pair’s latest effort is The Angels’ Share, a comedy about a young criminal named Robbie who is trying to turn his life around after becoming a father. When Robbie, played by first-time actor Paul Brannigan, discovers he has sensitive palette and can identify obscure types of whiskey he sees his new found talent as a potential way out of poverty. The film tackles some important social issues including youth unemployment and the cycle of violence in impoverished areas, however it maintains a light tone and sometimes surprising wit.
Recently Paul Laverty made his way to Minneapolis for a talk back following the local premiere The Angels’ Share at the Minneapolis – St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF). I had the chance to speak with the Scottish screenwriter to discuss his work with Ken Loach and the importance of social messages in his films.
PAUL: Yeah, probably even longer than that. This is our 10th feature together, and we’ve done a couple of shorts.
ALEX: What is it about him that makes your collaboration work so well?
PAUL: I suppose on the big issues we feel some sympathy, otherwise it wouldn’t work. If you saw the world differently, if you weren’t interested in the same things, weren’t curious about the same things, angry about the same things, I suppose it would never work. Also it’s a mix of skills. I suppose I would consider us filmmakers with different jobs. I’m a writer and Ken’s a director and we meet in the middle as filmmakers. A lot of writers simply hand over a script, our work is a lot more organic.
ALEX: Are you very involved on set?
PAUL: Yes, uh huh. Also in casting and looking at locations because I’ve done the research properly. You often meet characters that might work in the film. In this particular story I met Charlie MacLean who was a whiskey expert who actually plays himself and I met Paul Brannigan, lovely young lad, who plays the main part Robbie, I met him when doing research and I was very keen that Ken should meet him. I’m very glad that worked out because he’s a great lad who comes from a very tough background, and I’m only saying this because Paul has talked about this in public himself, but he’d been in prison himself and was trying to turn his life around, so for him to get a part and to carry a whole film was remarkable.
ALEX: I read that you really like to get immersed in the subject you are researching for a script. What type of research did you specifically do for The Angels’ Share?
PAUL: Well, I talked to a lot of young lads who were doing community payback…do you have that in the United States?
ALEX: Yeah, we call it community service.
PAUL: Ah, it’s good to know that. Anyway, I spoke to supervisors and young people doing it and they live in difficult circumstances, but they’re full of mischief and plans and anger and frustration and I wanted to capture some of that mischief and wasted talent, really. There is a real crisis in many parts of the world with youth unemployment. It’s a really existential crisis for them because if you don’t have work, how do you organize your life? Then it’s magnified if you’re going to have a child because you project into the future and it becomes very dramatic. So there are many people in Robbie’s position who are faced with an absolute crisis about how they’re going to organize their lives. We wanted to deal with that. I mean in Spain, 60% of under-25 year olds don’t work.
PAUL: Which is absolutely remarkable. Greece is the same. Italy and Portugal are in crisis, so is Ireland and many other countries. These are oftentimes well-educated graduates, so you can imagine what it’s like for kids who have not finished school or come from tough families. We were keen to examine all of that. And then of course, I had the great burden of researching the whiskey.
ALEX: Ah, tour many distilleries?
PAUL: Yeah, that was a lot of fun; learning how whiskey was made and going to these beautiful spots. It’s Scotland’s greatest export, it’s the whiskey of the elite and the sophisticated and the powerful and the wealthy. At the same time many of these kids who had lived in Scotland all their lives had never tasted whiskey and never been to the beautiful areas where it’s distilled. So there were lots of little contradictions there that were useful to a screenwriter.
ALEX: The Angels’ Share dealt with some pretty heavy subject matter, however it didn’t come across as a cynical film. It had a lighter tone than you would expect for something so deep into social politics. How did you manage to emphasize the lightness?
PAUL: We did two films before called My Name is Joe and Sweet Sixteen, both shot in Glasgow, which were very tough and, you know there are comic elements, but they were primarily tragedies. Quite easily [The Angels’ Share] could have ended in tragedy, given the circumstances of these kids, but like I said we were attempting to tell almost a fable-like story with a lighter touch that would make people laugh. But, there are also some very tough scenes like the flashback where we see Robbie was violent before. We didn’t want to short-change the audience and show that this isn’t just slapstick. This boy has damaged himself and damaged other people and there are consequences of that. I think that raises lots of interesting questions about the type of society we want to create. When societies do break with that, there is no work, they become dangerous and mean and Margaret Thatcher really created that. She recently died of course. God rest her soul.
ALEX: Do you have a dream project or story that you really want to tell, but haven’t had the opportunity yet?
PAUL: Every story has to be a dream story in a way, because it’s such a huge effort. I think the next one is always the dream story. There are many obstacles to overcome primarily finding an original and good, strong screenplay and I never take it for granted that we’ll do that again and again. So, I treat each story with great respect and some trepidation and then try not to repeat ourselves.
ALEX: Do you have an idea for the next one?
PAUL: Yes, it’s been written and I’ll hopefully do it in August with Ken Loach. I’m hoping to do another story with Icíar Bollaín, a Spanish director who I have worked with in the past. So I’ve got two stories planned.
ALEX: If you could give one word of advice to a young screenwriter today, what would it be?
PAUL: Oh, I’m not very good at giving advice. I think people should be wary of experts and try to find their own voice. Certainly one lesson that I’ve learned is that listening is greatly underestimated. You don’t copy things from the street, but in essence when you’re writing a story you’re trying to get into the shoes of other people. So if you listen to people and try to see the world from their point of view, perhaps then you’ll avoid cliche and find interesting stories.
The Angels’ Share is currently playing in limited release and it expands to additional theatres tomorrow.