Special Feature: Paul Laverty, BAFTA Lecture Series

Running alongside the Ken Loach season at the BFI, Paul Laverty, one of Britain’s most respected screenwriters, looked back on his career transition from human rights lawyer to scripting films, how his political background has influenced his work, and how his collaborations with Loach all boiled down to a cup of tea.

A serious tone was set immediately, as the hushed audience were confronted by images of contorted, deformed children in their infancy, a side-effect of a war-torn world ruled by ‘fifty men’, Laverty’s anti-capitalist metaphor for the wide-spread oppression and suffering inflicted by the small group of people at the heart of every privatisation. Having spent an eye-opening period of his life in Central America, he wrote a letter to Ken Loach upon his return to Glasgow, and was stunned to get a response inviting him to London ‘for a cup of tea’. They met, they talked, and are now on their tenth collaborative effort, all beginning with the critically acclaimed Carla’s Song (1996).

When asked about his decision to pursue film, Laverty recalled how he felt compelled to tell the stories he’d encountered through a platform that offers many levels that reaches lots of people, and advised that the key to being a good script writer is being a good listener. He reasoned his and Loach’s ‘propagandist’ reputation was due to the fact they both love to explore the complicated, and referenced Oscar Wilde by quoting, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. A stand-out piece of advice offered in how he manages to write such believable characters is his acknowledgment that people are full of contradictions, and that the intricacies of natural-sounding dialogue was far easier to develop than creating ‘people you swear you know’ (as Loach once observed of Laverty’s characters).

Laverty’s work is not only well-known for its political edginess but also his humour, its source revealed by his fondness of his fellow Glaswegians. He recalled how Bono had once started to clap slowly on stage in Laverty’s home town, saying, “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa needlessly dies”, to which a Scotsman shouted, “Well stop doing it then, ye evil bastard”.

The strength of the human spirit is a great source of fascination to Laverty, and claimed a person’s humour acts as a fantastic defence mechanism, playing an important part in creating a relatable, real character. We were shown excepts from My Name is Joe (1998), Bread and Roses (2000), Even the Rain (2010) and Looking for Eric (2009), films all written by Laverty and all examples of the prevailing human spirit that so inspires him.

Time crept up on us and we didn’t get to see all the clips lined up, but afterwards I was lucky enough to catch a chat with him, and asked him what advice he’d offer to first-time writers trying to get their screenplays out there. He acknowledged that the meeting extended to him by Loach is rare and that you cannot rely on people to take a chance on you, so emphasised the importance of building a talented team around you who all want to work to the same goal with the same ideals, and who are willing to push the project now it’s harder than ever to get funding.

I for one can’t wait for Laverty’s 2012 venture The Angel’s Share, and am hugely grateful for his cinematic contribution so far.

Sophie Kingston-Smith