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Working class life, two Erics and teamwork
Interview by Martin Smith, June 2009
Director Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty talk to Martin Smith about their new film Looking for Eric and looking for a new left
I was really happy when I received an invitation to a screening of director Ken Loach's new film, Looking for Eric. And I couldn't believe my luck when I was offered the chance to interview Ken Loach and scriptwriter Paul Laverty. But I have to admit that I was very apprehensive about talking to Loach. I haven't spoken to him since the split in Respect. In the break-up things were said by both sides that probably shouldn't have been. What was I supposed to say if I didn't like the film? Luckily I didn't have to confront that problem. The film is top drawer, up there with Loach's very best: Land and Freedom, and Kes.
Looking for Eric is in fact the story of two Erics. The first is a depressed, middle-aged postal worker and Manchester United football fan (played by Steve Evets). Eric's life is disintegrating in front of his eyes. He is alone and struggling to cope with life, his stepsons add to his worries. They are drifting into serious crime and use his home as a place to store their stolen goods and a place for their friends to doss out.
As Laverty explained, "Stevie, who plays Eric Bishop, had to show tremendous fragility to the point of cracking up. He's also got to show courage too. So to grasp that breadth of interpretation is really terrific. It's very hard to get every note right. He really did seem true in every single scene."
Each day is an uphill struggle for Eric; he is alone in every sense. He only survives because of the friendship and support he receives from his workmates and the love that is reignited in him when he takes his grandchild round to see his first wife Lily (Stephanie Bishop).
The second Eric of the film is none other than the legendary ex Manchester United player Eric Cantona, who basically plays himself. He is a ghost-like figure, who is a figment of Eric the postal worker's imagination.
Cantona is by any definition a truly amazing character. During the film, Loach cuts back to a series of goals scored by Cantona - even if you hate football you can't fail to appreciate the artistry of the man.
He is also someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. During a match against Crystal Palace in 1995 Cantona was sent off for a foul. As he walked off the pitch, Matthew Simmons, a Crystal Palace supporter, yelled racist abuse at him. Quick as a flash, Cantona delivered a kung-fu kick and a few blows at Simmons.
It was revealed later that Simmons had previous criminal convictions, including an attempted violent robbery in 1992 when he had attacked a Sri Lankan petrol station worker with a spanner in Croydon, and that shortly before the Crystal Palace incident he had attended a National Front rally.
Cantona's reputation as a philosopher was enhanced by his remarks to the press after the event. He said, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea." He was certainly loathed by the authorities. He was banned from playing football for nine months and did 120 hours community service, yet he was rightly loved by anti-racists everywhere.
Today Cantona remains just as philosophical about life. At the Cannes film festival he laughed at reporters who asked about his career saying, "I stopped football at 30 because I lost my passion for it. So long as I feel a great passion for the cinema, I'll continue to shoot films. And if I get bored I will move on and do something else."
As Loach pointed out, this film is not about the superstar: "We wanted to deflate the idea of celebrities as more than human. And we wanted to make a film that was enjoying the idea of what you and I would call solidarity, but what others would call support for your friends really, and the old idea that we are stronger as a team than we are as individuals."
But as you watch the film you can't help but wonder how a radical filmmaker and scriptwriter hooked up with Eric Cantona. Laverty took great delight in explaining how it happened: "When Ken told me Cantona wanted to meet up, I thought he might be winding me up.
"Ken's a Bath City fan, so I thought he might have been fantasising. But it was true. Ken is like a superstar in France. All his films have a tremendous following and Cantona made it clear that he loves Ken's films. Eric came to us with an idea based on a real story about a real fan who followed him from Leeds to Manchester. It might very well have been a very good story too, but it wasn't something I could really grasp on to.
"But afterwards I had a lot of discussions with Ken and I came up with this idea that instead of having a real relationship with a fan, we have an imaginary one. Not a real fan, but a guy like Eric Bishop, a grandfather - someone who has gone through many chapters in his life and now is at kind of a breaking point.
"I went over to Paris to see Eric. I had no idea what he'd make of this. Also the tone of the film. I'd just written The Wind that Shakes the Barley and It's a Free World. Both are quite tough stories. We just felt it would be good to have a change of tone. There would be a real sense of comedy, it would be very much about private lives, but also echo into the world in which they live, but less ostensibly political, more kind of a relationship story. But every story is political because you have to choose your characters and your setting and how you treat it and the values you portray in the films."
Loach put forward another reason why Cantona was interested in working with the pair: "I think he is very wary of being drawn into overtly political organisation, but I think in a general sense he is in favour of the interests of ordinary people. His roots are in the working class culture of Marseille. His grandparents, of whom he is inordinately proud - and rightly so - fought for the Republicans against Franco in Spain. His family comes from Spain, hence the name. He is very proud of his Spanish Republican heritage."
Apologies for the pun, but this is a film of two halves. The second takes the viewer into much darker territory. Without spoiling the story, the film switches from life-affirming comedy to a near catastrophe for Eric and his family. It's an emotional rollercoaster of a movie. It captures the contradictions of working class life and has within it lots of infectious, subtle moments.
Laverty hopes that at the end of the day "this film is a little ode to loyalty and friendship". He adds, "Only 50 percent of the project is our work. The other 50 percent is what people bring in their minds and their imagination and own experience. So we always hope that people will enjoy it, but if they don't I won't beat myself up about it because you've just got to respect how people have got different experiences and different takes on life really. Filmmaking is a much more fragile process than many people think."
Loach and Laverty have now made nine films together, including My Name is Joe, Carla's Song, Bread and Roses and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Loach told me, "I'm really lucky to be working with Paul. I am the Ernie Wise and he is Eric Morecambe."
Laverty's journey to become a scriptwriter is in itself an interesting story. He was born in Calcutta and his family roots lie in Ireland and Scotland. "I studied for the priesthood in Rome when I was a teenager until I was 20," he told me. "I did a philosophy degree in Rome, so it was a very claustrophobic Catholic upbringing really."
Later he studied law at Strathclyde University and became a lawyer in Glasgow. "I did a lot of civil and criminal court work, so I did see a massive amount about the human condition - divorces and housing and assaults and murder cases. That was a very rich experience for me."
During the early 1980s Laverty became politicised by the Nicaraguan Revolution. Laverty takes up the story: "I saved up some money and went out to work for a co-op in north Nicaragua, in the war zone. That was a real eye opener for me, I saw what the US were doing there, funding the Contras. I saw the systematic planned violence against the civilian population of Nicaragua. I visited El Salvador and Guatemala during their wars as well. In three years I saw how the US tore countries apart in a much more sophisticated way by cutting off loans to the IMF and World Bank, putting pressure on other countries to not deal with them.
"Many of the same US politicians involved in the wars in Central America - Richard Perle, John Negroponte and a whole host of other shady CIA figures - were later involved in the Iraq war.
"I was sick of writing human rights reports, sick of writing journalistic reports. I'd seen how the whole thing came together and that's when I decided I really wanted to try and make a film about it. I got in contact with Ken, who was remarkably open and we talked about that. So Carla's Song was my first script and my first trip into filmmaking. It was more of an accident really. It was more done out of bloody-minded fury at what I'd witnessed."
As you would probably expect with an interview with Loach, the discussion soon turned to politics and his visible anger at Gordon Brown's Labour government.
"Well, where do we start?" Ken begins dryly. "This government has consistently pursued policies of aggressive capitalism. From its very beginnings in 1997 it has turned on the vulnerable and exploited. It has betrayed the very people that put so much hope and optimism into it.
"What is just as depressing is that every aspect of our life that we used to have collective responsibility for is now ordered by the interests of private capital - whether it's housing, whether it's health, whether it's transport, whatever it is. I think the Britain that's emerged is the same as any country that has lived by those rules. It's the consequence of 1979 - the Thatcher election and all that followed.
"Sadly I don't think the left has responded well enough to the challenges we face. Of course I think a lot of people do their best, and a lot of people work hard, but if you stand back and think that we don't have a unified movement we can all subscribe to that has the basic principles of the left, then we have failed.
"Obviously I had big hopes of Respect, but the split happened. We are our own worst enemies really in the way that we constantly fragment. We have all got to learn the lessons from Respect. I really hope we can start to all work together in the near future. Don't you?"
And of course I agreed. We continued to talk about the economic crisis and our fears that the fascist British National Party would do well in the Euro elections.
We both came back to the question of the left working together. Loach argued, "My feeling is that we need to think of the regroupment of the left in Britain in terms of the European left now. The European left is a project obviously bigger than any one group. I am very encouraged by the events in France right now and the development of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste. The European left, which is so big, will just swallow up the differences between the different groups on the left over here.
"I've been in meetings where we've talked about this for 45 years, and organisationally are we any further forward in all that time? If you want to be depressed, that's the depressing thing.
"On the optimistic side the need just gets more and more intense. It was urgent after the Iraq war, but now even more urgent with the collapse of the banks and increasing unemployment, industries closing down and so on, and the environmental disaster that's awaiting the next generation. The pressure to unite just gets bigger and bigger.
"Every left meeting I go to is based on the fact that the crisis is about to engulf us all. It's not in the distant future. It's unfolding before us now. We've got to get together at some point. Living in separate tents isn't going to solve anything really."
One memorable line in the film is when Cantona turns round to his struggling friend and says prophetically, "He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six."
With the European elections now past us, maybe it's time to pick up the dice again.
Looking for Eric is out on general release on 12 June
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