Interview: The World Is An “Endlessly Fascinating” Place – Screenwriter Paul Laverty Talks About New Film “The Olive Tree” & How To Find A Great Story
Best known for his work with Ken Loach, multi-award winning screenwriter Paul Laverty talks to Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens about his latest Spain-set drama The Olive Tree.
Screenwriter Paul Laverty, fresh from triumphing at Cannes having penned Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning I, Daniel Blake, is a man who never appears far away from his next job. Indeed, an enviable body of work since 1996’s Carla’s Song is significant for its consistency but perhaps more striking for its volume. Every other year Laverty seems to find another unique story to tell, often through his collaborations with one of British cinema’s true contemporary visionaries Ken Loach. The relationship, spanning more than two decades, is one founded upon a leftist persuasion and enthusiasm for championing the inter-personal dramas of their working class participants and an urban stage.
As Laverty prepares for his latest Spain-set film The Olive Tree to debut, you might expect some anxiety given the expectations of an audience only recently indulging in the power and presence of the critically acclaimed I, Daniel Blake. But typical of his work, I find Laverty at home in relaxed mood, his Scottish charm and good humour punctuated by both a worldly understanding of the human condition and an intimate acknowledgement of its wonderfully diverse fabric. As I say to him, it’s the humanity he finds to permeate the central conceit that makes his work so fascinating.
“It’s beyond the tale itself, that’s why we tell stories isn’t it?”
“It’s beyond the tale itself, that’s why we tell stories isn’t it?,” he says. “Whether you actually get it or not is another story, but it’s lovely when people do get it. There was an old African actor that said, ‘Stories are the palm oil by which wisdom is swallowed’ and in a strange way, if you tell stories and if they are multi-layered, they can resonate both in a very intimate fashion, but also about what we value.”
His latest effort The Olive Tree is directed by his partner – on and off screen – Spanish director Icíar Bollaín (who he met on the set of Loach’s Land and Freedom in which she was acting). It’s a film that he hopes captures his fundamental ambition as storyteller.
It’s a very intimate story, he explains, one centred around the character of Alma whose volatile familial relationships shape a journey of self-discovery. “We were very lucky to find such a brilliant, fiery actress like her [Anna Castillo plays Alma]. She’s so smart, but Alma has got a terrible relationship with her father, but a brilliant one with her grandfather. There has been abuse in the past, but she is also brave and she is gutsy, and you have got to believe that she is mad enough to go on this adventure.”
Bollaín and Laverty previously collaborated as screenwriter and director in 2010 with Even The Rain. It was the Spanish entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011. In The Olive Tree, the spirited Alma embarks on a cross-border journey, taking her from the east coast of Spain to Germany to find an ancient olive tree her grandfather, old age having taken its toll, holds dear.
It’s another unique route into Laverty’s favoured themes, at once familiar and wholly original. The cherished olive tree and the regard it is given in the film might, however, be a strange concept for some. But as Laverty explains, there’s something very special about them, particularly how the story of their uprooting ties into a globalised, corporatised world negatively impacting community cohesion, identity and history.
“A long time ago I’d read this remarkable article about these ancient trees, over 2,000 years of age, being dug up and being sent off to all sorts of places, some as far as China, some even went to the Vatican. 200 of them went to Santander Bank in Spain. They have got them all around the VIP lounge there, and I suppose everybody is fascinated by these old millenarian trees.
The olive tree was the “symbol” of a much bigger story
“Before the big economic crisis in Spain, they were building more houses per year than they were in Germany, Italy and France put together. So, there was this over-heated economy. There were people building all these holiday homes in Spain, there was massive corruption and of course right at the heart of the boom people were buying all these trees, because they liked the shape of them, for outside the restaurant or outside the factory, or wherever it was. I loved the idea of, what do we actually value?”
Some of these trees had been in the same place for two millennia, possibly planted by the Romans. Laverty admits he was interested in the idea that a rich institution which simply admired the aesthetic qualities of these trees could commodify them, starting a market that saw trees shipped off all over the world.
“It caught my imagination and I just thought, ‘What is going on there’,” explains Laverty. “There are some things beyond a market, that are just too sacred, and I started thinking of some of these older people who generation after generation had looked after these trees, and I just wondered if I could tell a little tale of the times, all wrapped around one of these great millennium trees.”
The olive tree was the “symbol” of a much bigger tale he tells me. “I love it when you have a story where it is absolutely multi-layered, you know where you can tap into the innermost secrets of someone’s heart. But it’s also about the community, where they live, where they work, what is going on.”
Certainly noteworthy within Laverty’s work is the diverse nature of his characters, their environments, the time periods in which they live, and even their language. The Olive Tree is a Spanish-language film, for example. Laverty admits that while he has a good grasp of Spanish, he writes in English and then Bollaín translates. It’s an interesting way of working and indicative of his eagerness to collaborate closely with directors.
In fact, he says he couldn’t work any other way. It is a very organic process that begins from the get-go with Laverty often present on set during filming and eager to discuss the development of the edit during post-production. It’s a fortunate position to be in, one Laverty acknowledges, and he’s glad he remains a creative part of the process after his work is commissioned.
Perhaps these relationships inspire the courage to tackle stories as varied as a comedy-drama about a postman who has an imaginary friend in the form of Manchester United footballing legend Eric Cantona (Looking Fort Eric), and a hard-hitting drama set during the Irish War of Independence in the 1910s and 1920s (The Wind That Shakes The Barley). He even wrote Loach’s brilliant The Angels’ Share, a Scottish pseudo heist movie about Glaswegian layabouts turning over a new leaf by way of stealing very expensive whisky. He’s also tackled religious, cultural and racial prejudice in romantic drama Ae Fond Kiss, post Iraq War trauma in subtle thriller Route Irish, and the challenges of immigrant life in Britain in It’s A Free World.
“The world is fascinating…”
Laverty turns my question on me: “Well, the world is fascinating Dan, isn’t it?” He continues: “I always find I am like a little boy when I start a story. You just go, ‘Wow, how does that work?’. It is endlessly fascinating, and talking to people is endlessly fascinating. You can’t copy a script from the streets, but the more you talk to people, the more you can build connections.”
For I, Daniel Blake, Laverty went to food banks and was shocked to see a mum feeding biscuits to her children after being sanctioned for being a few minutes late. It wasn’t the only tragic sight he saw or heard about. Indeed, he discovered fundamental failings within the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
“There was a story here in Edinburgh that I came across. A man was dying of cancer, he had three major illnesses, and was still deemed fit for work by the Department of Work and Pensions. They had all these reports and I talked to the doctor, and he was furious at them, but you are going, ‘How did that happen?’
“And, then you have got to try and say, ‘Is it just bureaucracy, or is it a conscious cruelty?’ I spoke to Russell Bloores, inside the DWP, and you see how they are bullied and the pressures put on them by management, and then you see letters saying, ‘You haven’t carried out enough sanctions’ and then you begin to build up a picture, and it is like doing journalistic work and you think, ‘Well, it is actually a conscious cruelty, to stop people signing on and to keep people scared’.
“That information is not lying in a book somewhere. You have got to go out and find a lived experience of it, and that is always a very exciting process. You have got to keep one eye as a journalist, because you are sifting the evidence. But, another part is the creative side, you are trying to make the connection and I think that is the grand challenge.”
For The Olive Tree, Laverty not only had to get a better understanding of nature’s impact on local Spanish communities but capture the colloquialisms, humour and community spirit of a land both foreign in experience and language.
Of course, it does help that director Bollaín is both a native speaker and a personal inspiration. “I write it in English and then Icíar translates it and tries to capture the vitality and the nonsense and the mischief and the jokes and all of that. But, I go to these communities, I did the harvesting with them, I do all the interviews myself. I speak Spanish but it’s kind of a Glaswegian Spanish – Glaswegian Spanish with a touch of Nicaraguan in it, because I learnt in Central America.”
Laverty spent time in Spain, got involved in the harvest and even got first-hand experience of chicken farming. “The territory and the geography and the situation and the politics helps you define the characters, and it gives an organic feel to it. I don’t like to write until I can have a sense of where everything is, everything has its place, and I think that gives you the possibility of having a multi-layered story, as opposed to something that is very black and white.”
Written by Dan Stephens
The Olive Tree, starring Anna Castillo, Javier Gutiérrez and Pep Ambròs, is released on dual format Blu-ray & DVD by Eureka Entertainment on May 15 2017.