On Film – Conversations with Paul Greengrass & Ken Loach

On Film – Conversations with Paul Greengrass & Ken Loach

The moving image has been with us as long as we have made art. From prehistoric shadowgraphy, through to shadow puppetry and camera obscura– we have been fascinated by creating and observing moving depictions of culturally and socially significant aspects of life. It was not until the mid 1800s as technology became sufficiently advanced that we started to see film as we would recognise it being produced as inventors and artists started to not just document life but create narratives to tell stories.

There is something primal and comforting about how we connect to moving images; perhaps as we are hard-wired to detect and respond to motion in our environment. That direct connection from moving image to emotional response perhaps explains why film and cinema dominate culture.

In these exclusive interviews, I speak with two of the world’s most remarkable and accomplished film makers. Ken Loach (Noted For: Cathy Come Home, Kes, Land and Freedom, Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Looking for Eric, The Angels’ Share and I, Daniel Blake) and Paul Greengrass (Noted For: Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne, United 93, Green Zone and Captain Philips)

Q:  How did you find your career in film?

[Ken Loach]:  I started in theatre- which was something I’d been enthusiastic about since I was a young stages-struck kid.  I had this obsession with theatre, and after being a student I worked briefly (unsuccessfully) in theatre and then got a job in television.

In television, you have to start thinking in terms of images- and understand how drama changes from its theatrical to cinematic form.  I also started to come-across people with the same ideas as me, politically and otherwise- and who I wanted to collaborate with.

Q:  What is the aesthetic of your work? 

[Ken Loach]:  Aesthetic is a rather pretentious word, but for me – I take it back to those still black and white photographs from earlier days, a form of photography that observes people, and explores the ways of observing them. Contemporary photography is quite exploitative – and looks at people as objects in a display-case rather than as individuals with whom we have a shared common humanity, connection, and solidarity.  Photography has gone from I am part of this, to look at this.

Working class life has been important to me; it’s not a question of pity or disaster- but of enjoying the comedy, warmth and generosity of spirit that you find there – alongside the use of language, dialects, and the stories of childhood and old-age.

The look of a film indicates the relationship you have with characters.  You don’t pick an aesthetic in abstract – you need to have a core point, a core reason to make a film, and the form of aesthetic springs from that necessity.  Everything has to relate to that core intention.

Q:  How do you approach the process of a film?

[Paul Greengrass]: When you’re young, you’re trying to earn a living- that’s the most important thing.  But alongside trying to earn a living, you’re trying to find a voice and make films about things that interest you- you have an intentionality to your work.  As you get more mature, gain trust and success- you get more freedom to make what you want- but those first-principles still apply; you are making a film that speaks to the things you’re interested in.

I think it’s always good to find a film which is a question and an answer. It’s hard to do – and often, when you’ve already decided the answer before you make the film, you’ll find the film is less successful.  In a funny way- if you can frame your question accurately as something that you don’t know the answer to- and use the film as a way of finding the answer- you’ll get a more complex and engaging film.

Q: How do genre and intention connect?

[Paul Greengrass]:  You have to be clear about the purpose of what you’re making. If you’re making a film that’s going to cost a lot of money- inevitably it will be a commercial endeavor by a studio or financier- and you have a responsibility to make that investment worthwhile; certainly, if you don’t, you won’t be working in the industry for very long.

Cinema also exists within a framework of genre- and that can be challenging as genre can often flatten storytelling.  It can also be a strength- when you play inside a genre- take the case of John le Carre for instance, he’s a great novelist but works within the genre of spy-fiction, and transcends the usual narratives.  His characters are universally understood, even though he stays true to the genre in which he operates. In film, you have Scorsese who makes films in the gangster genre, but his greatest works transcend the genre with a sense of locality and universality.

The greatest film-makers have an ability to work beyond the genre. Kubrick, Scorsese and even the great Ford who made Westerns, but transcended them. There’s something about the vision of these film-makers that can use the supporting framework of a genre but create something which appeals to a wider story and audience. That’s why they are the great masters.

Q:  What is the role of the actor? 

[Paul Greengrass]:  Great actors have the ability to play the role, but disappear inside the character. I prefer natural, non-showy performance styles- but that fits well with the subject matter of the films I tend to make where there is a tension between the naturalism of the performance and the heightened world the character exists in- whether that’s a hijacking off the coast of Africa, or the Bourne world in Berlin.

Q:  How have changes to the techniques of cinematography impacted your aesthetic?

[Paul Greengrass]:  You’re always marked by your background and for me that was coming-up through documentary television, and shows like World in Action. That documentary aesthetic began to migrate to the mainstream with the birth of social media and mobile phones.

The old traditionally constructed image was essentially stable- but that was not where I started. My world was one where people grabbed handheld cameras and started filming.  At the turn of the 90s and early 2000s camera phones allowed everyone to start making their own images- not in the constructed Hollywood sense, but more akin to news media, or the free cinema of the 1960s. As that (camera phone) generation came to fruition- they looked to cinema to see reflections of the images that they- themselves- were making, and that’s where I came in.

The sort of images I’d created naturally- which I thought were quite old fashioned and conservative- harking back to the birth of the British documentary movement- were suddenly seen as cutting edge in the commercial sphere. The first time I noticed this was when we were shooting Bourne Ultimatum, we were filming that first sequence at Waterloo and I noticed that wherever we were shooting- people would pull-out their phones and shoot us too.  I realised that I was much closer to them, than the industry I’d joined.

Q:  What is the role of talent in film?

[Ken Loach]:  I wouldn’t use the word talent, it’s an awful industry jargon to describe actors.  They’re just people in front of the camera- who have to be authentic and true. Commercial cinema has always sold its product on the basis of stars and personalities- you have actors who have tended to play the same part over and over again; the brave individual, the lawmaker, the ditsy blonde, the comic, the bad guy  You would watch a film with one of these actors, and you knew the character they were going to play; it’s a wholly different way of looking at the medium to looking at a story, situation or exploration of something where people have the same authenticity as the streets they walk in.

Q:  What is the role of censorship in cinema?

[Ken Loach]:  Cinema is commercial; and to an extent people can disguise their intentions by saying we can’t make money out of this or people won’t come and see it or no, this will not be popular.  In television, there was straight political censorship and that happened in the 1980s mainly, though it happened to others before that.  Peter Watkins famously made The War Game about nuclear weapons- it was forbidden by the BBC. Most of the censorship I had was in the 1980s doing documentaries about Margaret Thatcher and what she was doing to industries, trade unions and the working classes.  These documentaries were censored by Channel 4, it was a real struggle.

Nowadays- those challenging commissions never happen; you can’t censor something that isn’t made.  Television today is much more sophisticated in narrowing what can and can’t be shown, largely through the lever of commissioning.

Q:  How do you keep motivated in film?

[Paul Greengrass]:  You have to be hungry to do it- making films takes a lot of drive and energy- unless you love it, you can’t take the pace and challenges. Making films is more than a passion, it’s a conviction- you have to want to do it deep within your soul. Most directors believe that if they’re in pre, pre-production, shooting or in post-production- that they cannot die.  Immortality is yours, as long as you’re on a film.

You have to always look forward though- look back to learn lessons, but always look forward to the next subject, challenge an film – you have to keep moving forward, and keep improving.

Q:  How can we tell more real stories from society? 

[Ken Loach]: I’ve been very lucky with the group I work with; Paul Laverty and Rebecca O’Brien the producer.  We’ve been able to keep going for over 30 years- and so we’ve found a niche in the sense that people have seen our work, and thus we can raise the money knowing the work will get seen, and enough people will pay to generate a return.  It’s perhaps because of our small scale that we’ve been able to keep-going.

Today; many younger people- who haven’t been lucky enough to work for so long, and don’t have that record- will find it hard to get their films made, and that’s a problem.  We’re not necessarily special in any other way, we’ve just found our niche.

There is so much talent, and so many stories that should be told, and cinema is a wonderful way to tell those stories- but the people who want to make these stories can’t get the money to make them or the scale to showcase their work to a larger audience. It’s important to remember that the people who invest in cinema are the same people who invest in films – distributors – they have access to screens, and are the path that films must take to be shown.

Occasionally something will happen, occasionally a film will break through at a festival.  But by and large, people just can’t get their films financed.  And it’s not because they’re not talented, it’s not because they’re not good ideas, it’s just the monopoly of cinema screens by multi-nationals and the failure of small distributors to break through.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Ken Loach]:  I’m not thinking of legacy, I’m thinking of the next project.  I don’t look back- except to see mistakes that I must learn from.  You have to keep learning and be constantly vigilant about how to improve- hoping you don’t fall into the same mistakes you’ve made over the years.

Making a film is a daunting challenge- so I don’t know if I’ll get another one done, but when it comes to legacy? …I don’t look back.

Q:  What would be your advice to the next generation of film makers? 

[Paul Greengrass]: When I joined Granada Television in 1977, there was a 3 channel broadcasting system- we had BBC1, BBC2 and ITV  that was it.  Films were extraordinarily remote things that were made somewhere else nowhere near where we were.  Television was also remote, and extraordinarily hard to access as a career- it was a closed-shop, but we had strong trade-unions and young people. If you were lucky enough to get a break and come into the industry, you were well looked after, protected, and given the space to grow and learn your trade.

Today it’s a totally different world.

Film and television are rapidly converging because of streaming to become a type of content creation and delivery eco-system.  When I started, national broadcasters formed the entirety of the industry- today, they are the smallest part with the dominant players being people like Netflix, Apple, Disney, Amazon and others who control what we watch. There will still be a role for national broadcasters, but smaller- coexisting with these global players uneasily.

In the UK, there are many more jobs in media than we’ve ever had before. We are a well-recognised place, we have a lot of inward investment, and a lot of production happens here with international and national scope. That said, there are profound issues to deal with- it’s still an industry that is way too white and middle class- so we have a long way to go in terms of how this industry [film] operates and how we can encourage more diversity. There is a huge amount of casualisation of labour in the industry too, and that’s a problem. Young people find it hard to build a career and sustain a working life because of this- it’s ruthless and punishing in terms of the hours, protections, lack of training, time and conformity. Against that however, we have the reality of huge job creation, creative opportunity and more- it’s a mixed bag.

For those coming into the industry today- I’d say to you, travel with hope. Put your education first, don’t run too fast, be persistent, patient and watch the old masters before you challenge yourself. Watch content beyond what you would ordinarily watch and ask yourself what the contribution is that you can make to film. Making films is not about being the director or the star, it’s about being part of a team- and the person who claps the board is just as important as the one who picks the shots. You can’t make it without everyone being on their game.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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