Only nine directors have ever won the Palme d’Or twice. Francis Ford Coppola did it in the ’70s with The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. Ruben Östlund joined the club last year after following The Square with Triangle of Sadness. But this year, there is a very real possibility that, at 86, Ken Loach may go above and beyond that by winning a third Palme for his new film, The Old Oak. Loach first won in 2006 with the historical Irish drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, then doubled up in 2016 with I, Daniel Blake, a caustic study of Britain’s healthcare crisis. After that came Sorry, We Missed You, a no-less withering look at the punitive gig economy. Like the latter two films, The Old Oak is set in the North East of England and completes an unofficial trilogy, this time with a slightly more optimistic bent. Like all of Loach’s output since 1996, it was written by Paul Laverty, and the pair sat down with Damon Wise to discuss the film’s themes of humanity and social responsibility.
Ken, what persuaded you to go back into directing? Were you prepared to hang up your spurs after the last movie?
LOACH: Well, I think there was an essential story to tell. We did two films in the North East, and they were both very positive experiences, in terms of the people we worked with, their overall strength and cheerfulness and understanding of their own situation, and their warmth and humanity. But it was very clear that there were huge contradictions at work within the social pattern that had emerged over the last decades. And it was crystallized in the old coal fields of County Durham. I mean, the other old industries have gone too, like ship-building and steel. But you could see most acutely where the mines had been — the villages are very clearly identified because they were centered around the pits.
The pits closed, as we know, as a straight political decision. Not to do with environmental issues but to do with destroying the miners’ union and their strength and solidarity. The consequences of that have been accumulating here over 40 years, and the communities are devastated. They’ve been left to rot, abandoned. And it was the area in which there were more refugees from the Syrian war than any other place in the United Kingdom. So you have two communities, both devastated, one with the additional trauma of experiencing a war. How do they live together? And in the course of exploring that, you see all the different elements in the local community. Deprivation leads to anger, leads to alienation, and leads to people wanting someone to blame. And there is an element that will find scapegoats.
And so a sense of racism develops, and there’s a foundation for it, which is how the community has been abandoned. But on the other hand, you’ve got the tradition of the old solidarity of the mine workers and the strength of that. So there’s a struggle between those two elements within, refracted in many different ways and many different gradations within the village community. How on earth are they going to find a way of living together? Will they find each other’s weaknesses, or will they find each other’s strengths? It just seemed a story we had to tell.
Do you see it as the third film in a trilogy, or is it separate to the previous two films?
LAVERTY: That’s a very good question. We didn’t set out to make three films. But what was very, very clear was that they were intimately connected. I mean, look at the world of Sorry We Missed You. It seemed unimaginable that, all these years after getting the right to an eight-hour day, workers were totally fragmented and sometimes working 14 or 16 hours. So there was a seismic shift there. Those people were tied to an app and an algorithm more firmly than they were to the factory whistle, and it’s all happened stage by stage by stage. And it’s remarkable to see the journey from an organized trade union like the miners in 1984 to this fragmentation where someone’s life is measured in that way.
But not only that, it was in their minds. We talked about this in Sorry We Missed You. “Mind-forg’d manacles” [as poet William Blake wrote]. People believed they were entrepreneurs of the road, and they totally swallowed the free enterprise culture. They were even told, “You don’t get hired — you come on board.” The language had changed. Now, that’s a remarkable trip, from 1984 to the world of Sorry We Missed You.
We talked about austerity in I, Daniel Blake. Who did they target? They targeted — just like they do now with immigrants — people on welfare. They set out to make their lives unbearable. That’s not just rhetoric. The sanctions regime was absolutely remarkable: what you saw was a bureaucratic state indulge in massive cruelty. But how did we get to that stage? How did a man like Daniel Blake, a decent man who’d worked all his life, end up just being so isolated and treated so brutally?
So, in a way, rooted in The Old Oak is the notion of the past. Where have we come from? How did we get from there to the world of I, Daniel Blake and that brutality, and the free-enterprise mega culture of Sorry We Missed You? So the three of them really, really tied up together. And those two films were brutal and we had to be true to that premise. But, for this film, the notion of hope — where do you find nourishment and how do you find human connection again? — was absolutely central.
How would you describe The Old Oak?
KEN LOACH: The story that Paul wrote is about a pub named The Old Oak. It’s a name that has resonance for national identity, and the landlord who owns the pub, T.J. [Dave Turner], is a man who embodies the history of the past few decades. He began as a young miner in the [1984-85] miners’ strike, fought as hard as anyone. In the following years, he did various jobs and then, after his father was killed in an accident, became the landlord of the pub. All the other public spaces have gone around the village, so there’s only the pub left. And it’s falling apart. The customers are dwindling and he’s struggling to keep it going.
Those struggles have taken their toll, and he’s a man with personal difficulties. He doesn’t really see a future for himself. And he meets a Syrian woman, Yara [Ebla Mari], who’s bright, imaginative, positive, worked in the refugee camps, has learned English, and is determined to make a go of things. He can’t help but be captivated by her enthusiasm. It’s an entirely platonic friendship. But she’s also got her struggles.
PAUL LAVERTY: Another key thing for us was that when we went to these villages [to research the film], what was really, really apparent was the sense that distant forces were dictating people’s lives. We’d seen that during the miners’ strike, the effect that had in the community, and that was now magnified in a very personal way for many of these people. Especially when it came to their own houses. Because of the crises in these communities, property prices dropped like crazy. So, the past was implicit. You could see everything closing all around you. And what was very painful for so many people was to find out the only asset they had left was their home.
When we were there, houses were being sold for as little as £8,000 ($10,000). Some were bought online at auctions by people the locals didn’t know—sometimes by a company registered outside the U.K. — so anybody could arrive. Many times, the people who arrived were lost souls who had been dumped there either from prison, from another local authority, or from another area. The locals had no control over it, and that only magnified the sense of hurt and also the fear that they were being dumped upon. They were not consulted. In other words, things were being done to them instead of them having agency in their own lives. And that was palpable.
It’s a really massive issue for so many people, still. And the right have used that fear, they’ve used that lack of agency to say, “Find another scapegoat.” And who do they blame? The Syrians. Who did they blame after austerity? They blamed people on welfare. It’s a hymn we’ve heard before.
How do you build a project like this?
LOACH: It’s the writer who faces the blank sheet of paper there. As we’ve just done, we talk about the overall situation. Paul went around the villages, and then we went around them together for a bit. I’d worked in Easington [in County Durham] during the miners’ strike, and I did a Labour Party broadcast there when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, so I knew the area quite well. We talked about the overall situation, but Paul wrote the characters and the story. We talk at every level, but it’s Paul’s pen that he licks the end of.
LAVERTY: It’s a very organic process. But throughout all the films we’ve made, I suppose what is key to us is trying to examine the notion of hope. Even if it’s absent in a film, that’s a really, really important question. And you have to be truthful to the premise to each film. But for this one, we felt there was really unfinished business [in the North East]. We really felt that we had to try to examine that hope and see how those human connections can be made and nour-ished in a setting where you don’t have control of the most important things in your life, like the economy or housing.
When we start off, we don’t know what we’re going to find. You can’t copy a script from the street. But the more you talk and the more you think, you start to make connections. What was amazing was talking to the older people. There were people in their 90s who had lived there through the time when the mining communities functioned well when there were workers there. And there really was a sense of community, identity and pride. Even the way they dressed, how they looked after their hair. And then you’d go to another part of the same vil-lage, and you’d meet many, many lost souls. Literally lost.
I don’t want to stereotype them, but a lot of people were really struggling. There were big stories of addiction. Many stories of hopelessness. I found some marvelous people there, working in church groups, and they told us about some people who had recently committed suicide. So, we saw both extremes. And the more we talked about it, the more it became apparent that the past was a real character in this film. But how do you give that life? Then we noticed that so many of the public institutions were closing down: the places where people met were closing down. We thought, what if we put The Old Oak right at the center of this community? And, dramatically, that really helped us make the past not just something that’s added on or stuck on with bolts but absolutely integral to the story.
LOACH: One thing that was very much in our minds was that these circumstances were consciously created. This was not some accident; this was not an act of god. It was a conscious political decision by the Thatcher government to destroy these communities. And that was endorsed by Blair’s New Labour governments. They were left to rot. Tony Blair was an MP for Sedgefield in County Durham. Peter Mandelson was the MP for Hartlepool, just at the edge of the mining area. And they consciously allowed it. They consciously allowed it. That’s the wickedness at the heart of the political decision. Knowing. And [the government], and their friends in the media, create the scapegoats. It’s part of the same politics. So this isn’t some accident, this is a calculated determination to undermine the strength of those who could oppose it. And I think as a society, as a political discourse, we never nailed that. These situations are caused, and they take advantage of them in the most malicious way they can, to keep the class division alive.
This is a slightly leading question, but do you ever feel like you are the only people in the U.K. willing to tell these stories? Because they’re becoming increasingly rare.
LOACH: Well, it depends on where you listen. My skills don’t extend to social media, so I miss a lot. But I mean, there are events on social media where people are saying exactly this. I mean, look at the whole movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn. Although it arose by accident, suddenly, the Labour Party went from 250,000 or so members to over 600,000. There’s a huge wealth of information that is totally bypassed by the mainstream media. Absolutely bypassed. You don’t hear a whisper of it. I’ve got a pal called Crispin Flintoff who has a Sunday morning program that you subscribe to called Not the Andrew Marr Show. And the brilliant people there, week after week, are laying this down, but they’re totally excluded from the public discourse. So yes, there are people there. And yes they have a voice. But the manipulation of consciousness is what we’re talking about.
Paul, do you have anything to add to that?
LAVERTY: Everywhere you go, there are activists on the street trying to join up the dots. There are some absolutely brilliant community activists who understand that the crisis is even more acute now, after the crisis of living standards. The people that we talked to way back in 2019 while we were researching for this film, I’ve been in contact with some of them recently, and they said, “There’s actually a bigger need now. There’s more hunger, there’s a bigger crisis in housing, and there’s more racism.”
So, some people are saying that there has to be a joined up, coherent plan to deal with systematic poverty. And all the figures show us, objectively speaking, that poverty and the very fabric of life itself, is now worse than it was when we made the film. All you have to do is speak to people who will tell you their stories. But, again, it goes back to what Ken was saying previously. Unless this is part of a joined-up, systematic plan, nothing will change. Because you have to change how power operates. You have to change the grand political system so that housing, economy, work and direct employment — all those big, huge issues affect people’s standard of living — fall into line.
And unless we do that, if it’s left to the free market — and as we saw, these communities are a living expression of free market policies — it’s just a disaster. So that is the great challenge: how will all those brilliant activists come together? And unless that happens, we’re going to be in the same shit 10 years from now. There’s no doubt about it.
LOACH: Many of these activists are in the film. Claire Rogerson plays a big part, and a wonderful woman called Heather Ward is in the film too. She organized the food kitchen during the miners’ strike. The actor who plays T.J. himself, Dave Turner, was a trade union official. And there are many more, in the village and in the film. They’re there. People who actually understand the struggle, but you never hear their voices.
When you first started working together on Carla’s Song in 1996, did you realize you’d be working together for so many years and on so many movies? How did you first meet?
LAVERTY: To cut a very long story short, I was working in Nicaragua for a human rights organization. I suppose you could say I was an eyewitness to the war in Central America. I got pissed off writing human rights reports and giving the same interview again and again, so, in my innocence, I thought we would try and make a film about it. When I came back [to Glasgow], I wrote to Ken, and I was more gobsmacked than anyone winning the lottery when he got in contact and said, “Let’s have a cup of tea.”
Thatcher had just deregulated all the buses, so I got on a bus for a fiver, came down to London, and I met Ken for a cup of tea. I have to thank Margaret Thatcher for that, really. Anyway, we met, and he said, “Well, this is a very long shot. I don’t speak Spanish. There’s a war on in Central America. There’s no film industry there.” He says, “But try and write a few scenes.” And that was my very, very, very lucky moment. So, it’s just been a long conversation since then.
What keeps you going as a unit?
LOACH:Mainly an interest in football, really. We exchange scores of an evening. [Laughs] No, I think we see the world in the same way, we understand the structures that create the situation we’re in, and this ongoing struggle. It’s a view of history, it’s a shared sense of humor, and a friendship, really. I mean, I must say if it hadn’t been for his lordship here, I think I’d probably be mowing the grass more frequently than I do now. So I’ve got him to blame for the brutal treatment of pensioners. [Laughs] We keep pottering along and giving each other a giggle now and then.
LAVERTY: He’ll be glad to see the back of me, I’ll tell you that.
When did you first go to Cannes? What was your first experience of the festival?
LOACH: It was in 1970, I think. Kes went. That was in Critics Week, and we’ve been going for-ever since. It was very exciting; it’s always been very exciting. Cannes is full of contradictions. But at its heart, there are people who care about film. There’s all this stupidity of the yachts in the harbor and the parties on the beach. All that goes on.
But if you’re there with a film, you’re just basically doing what we’re doing now: talking to people who care about cinema, journalists from across the world, and the conversations are really rewarding. You’re there for, say, three days, and if there’s any interest in your film, then the reverberations carry on for some time. It’s the most important film event in the world, I think, for that reason, because it covers films from across the world.
What’s your most striking memory of Cannes?
LOACH: Oh, there’s so many. The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the film Paul and I and [long-time producer] Rebecca O’Brien did together, about the Irish War of Independence. Winning the main event for that was fantastic. Went and had a cup of tea with the French distributor afterward. He was a lovely man. And then [we won] again with I, Daniel Blake. It was extraordinary. But it wasn’t always like that; I mean, I went once or twice in the ’80s when we were desperately trying to raise money, staying in the cheapest hotel near the station. I made a fruitless attempt to raise money and then had to borrow some to get back.
LAVERTY: I remember you running out of money, Ken [laughs]. But, going back to what Ken said earlier, we’ve been lucky to be here. I mean, I know Ken’s been here many more times than me, and so has Rebecca. But we’ve been very lucky to be here 11 times. What is absolutely remarkable is that every time you go, you meet someone amazing. And they’re all dreamers. They’re all trying to do something.
Do you feel pressure for a third Palme d’Or?
LAVERTY: Nah. We don’t think like that. You can’t think like that.
LOACH: As Paul said, the enjoyment of it, and the excitement of it, is just meeting people. And seeing the film on a big screen like [the Grand Théâtre Lumière] is immensely gratifying. It’s extraordinary because you spend six weeks running around with a small crew in a little village in County Durham, and suddenly there it is, on probably the most impressive screen you could ever imagine.
LAVERTY: That’s true. When you’re in the middle of it, it always feels very, very fragile. Will the script work? Will the casting work? Will we raise the finance for it? It all sounds very simple when it’s all done, but it’s not when you’re in the middle of it. I learned this from Ken right at the very beginning: you never know what’s going to happen. You just don’t know. All you can do is enjoy the journey.
Ken, do you see yourself retiring any time soon?
LOACH: Yeah, it’s a certainty until the coffee every morning. And then the revival kicks in [laughs]. I don’t know. I think it’ll be a bit difficult to get around the course again for a future film. But maybe other kinds of filmmaking are still possible. I don’t know. You just live day by day. But the time goes very quickly, and the more you do, the faster the bloody world turns. So, seize the day comrade!