Interview: Jim Loach, Director of ORANGES AND SUNSHINE

Ken Loach may be the father of British social-realist cinema but he€™s also Dad to Jim Loach, whose debut feature Oranges and Sunshine, opens in UK cinemas on Friday April 1st. Whether it€™s nature or nurture, Loach the younger has inherited his famous Father€™s social conscience, choosing to tackle the extraordinary true story of the so called Children of Empire scandal, in which 130,000 children who€™d been taken into care during the 50s and 60s were illegally deported from Britain to Australia and turned over to Christian orders, where they suffered systemic abuse, including rape and enforced labour. Amongst the film€™s less harrowing revelations are the lies told to children as young as 8. They were told their parents had died and that a lifetime of sandy beaches and fresh fruit awaited them. Their parents were told they€™d been adopted and had gone on to better lives. Loach€™s film focuses on Margaret Humphreys, a Northampton social worker whose diligence and hard work uncovered the scandal, going on to play an instrumental part in reunited many families. It would take a further 23 years however, for the UK and Australian governments to accept responsibility and apologise. When I meet with Jim Loach to discuss the development of the film, it€™s relationship with reality and how those involved in the events depicted have reacted to it, I find him to be a quiet and unassuming man. It€™s not hard to imagine that he€™d rather let the film speak for itself rather than go through the grind of publicity. Nevertheless, in the interests of you dear reader, I started by asking him about the thematic connection between Oranges and Sunshine and one of his Father€™s signature pieces. OWF: Did it occur to you that this could be seen as a companion piece to Cathy Come Home?
JL: It did occur to me, yeah. Not in the sense of it being a companion piece, but I did worry about opening with a scene in which a woman has her child taken into care. We thought about it and we just thought about the film, about our story for the film and that character. It was the right decision so I banished any other thoughts from my head.
OWF: You started pre-production in 2002 and then, in 2009 just as production was gearing up, both the UK and Australian governments finally admitted culpability. Did you feel as though the fates were with you, as it were?
JL: It was coincidental what happened, I mean it was quite strange. We€™d first come across the story in 2002 and then we worked on it for about seven or eight years. It just so happened that it all happened at about the same time. We were just about to start shooting when Kevin Rudd apologised in Australia, and then when we went to Australia, Gordon Brown apologised, so it was just the way it happened. It was a huge moment, feelings were running very high. It was a massive moment for Margaret and the child migrants. They were completely knocked out by it. They€™d worked for it for so long. It was fortunate for us. I mean, we didn€™t set out to make a campaigning film. We didn€™t see it like an issue film. So, actually, that got that out of the way. It also gave a full stop to the story, which we thought was important €“ the audience gets to an end of sorts.
OWF: So do you think there€™s now the potential for the children to find closure some day?
JL: It€™s a really good question but I€™d be lying if I said I had an answer, plus I€™m weary of speaking for them. I think they would say that they€™ve found a way of living with it. Obviously some found their parents, so for them it was the start of a new chapter. Others are still looking. All of them still live with the damage done. We were fascinated by the fact that they never presented themselves as victims. To us they became heroic characters. There€™s this one guy who became the inspiration for the Len character in the film. What we liked about was that if you offered him sympathy, he€™d run a mile. He hasn€™t interested in an arm around the shoulder. He was full of great humour and strength and dignity, hence he became a heroic character to us.
OWF: The film plays with audience expectations, befitting its realist credentials. Len is introduced as quite an obnoxious character, Jack is quiet and conspicuously fragile. In a fictional piece you might expect Jack to find his mother and Len not to, but it fact it€™s the other way around. Can you talk about how you worked with the actors when thinking about introducing that realist element to characterisation?
JL: Hugo went to meet this guy in Melbourne who helped us a lot with the script. He was part of the inspiration for the character of Jack. David went to Perth and spent the weekend with this guy who sort of became the Len character. God only knows what happened during that weekend because David came back with a massive hangover, I think he€™d been pissed all weekend. They were really struck by them. I kind of expected that. When you meet the people you can€™t help but have an incredibly strong impression of them. Hugo and David were very diligent, they went away and did a lot of research. They did a lot of leg work, as Emily did, and then, when we started to talk around it, we went through the characters and the different aspects of the characters. We didn€™t go into long rehearsals or anything, I didn€™t really want to do that.
OWF: It seems to me that the film could have developed in any number of ways €“ Len and Margaret could have engaged in an abuse driven, though entirely fictional affair, the Christian Brotherhood might have begun a violent campaign of revenge and intimidation for Margaret€™s expose of their abuses. Thankfully it€™s enough in the film that she confronts them and raises her voice a little. Was it because of the way the film was put together that these entire fictional pressures that I€™ve just invented in my imagination for the purposes of this question weren€™t brought to bear on you as a filmmaker?
JL: I was left to make the film I wanted to make, I couldn€™t pretend otherwise. It€™s not a typical narrative structure in a way. We didn€™t want to give the audience an easy out, where there€™s a big thing and there€™s tears and then things are basically okay. We didn€™t want to do that. That€™s how we came by our narrative, by trying different things.
OWF: How do your responsibilities change as the director of a drama rather than a documentarian?
JL: Approaching it as a drama you have your eye on a bigger truth, thematically speaking. With a documentary you focus on exactly what€™s in front of you, the ins and outs of exactly that moment €“ you have to be truthful to that moment. The events in Oranges and Sunshine happened over a period of right years and some of them happened in a different order. That€™s life, it€™s chaotic. Everything in the film is €œtrue€, whatever that means but the truth we were honouring was the bigger, emotional truth. That was our objective. €˜Based on a true story€™ can devalue what you mean by true but all the events in the film happened in someway, but it€™s the bigger truth we were driving at.
OWF: So there€™s more separation between you and the subject? A creative distance perhaps.
JL: Yes, I think so.
OWF: You talk about compressing the timeline of events. I wondered about the order of events depicted and how they followed in quick succession, namely Margaret being initially approached and then, conveniently, hearing a reference to a deported child in Australia the following day. I take it those events were compressed?
JL: Yes, they were compressed. The real events took place over a long period of time. Not hugely longer, I mean the time narrative in the film is two years and in real life it€™d probably be five to six. What we tried to stay true to was the spirit of what Margaret€™s experience was at that time and how those events were impacting on her. Of course in real life events happen in a random order don€™t they, but you don€™t do that in a film because it€™d be incoherent, that was our feeling.
OWF: The listening component of Emily Watson€™s character is interesting €“ it€™s a very quiet, very measured performance. Can you say a little more about how you worked with Emily in developing her portrayal?
JL: We talked a lot about it but Emily did a lot of research, talked to a lot of social workers. She watched a lot of social workers in action. By the time of shooting I€™d known Margaret myself for a long time, so had done a lot of work myself. One of the reasons I wanted Emily was because she€™s a really great listener. She totally understands that aspect of the part. She got it from day one, so that was very heartening. There were many other attributes she could bring but I knew that would be one of them. We were always fascinated by the idea that this woman has a big interior life, but she can€™t ever say, I mean there€™s no scene where she goes to the pub and says €œI can€™t do this, this is a nightmare, no one person can do it all.€ She had to communicate that in the smallest moments. In that environment, professionals don€™t show that much, so we really wanted to be truthful to that. We hope people will get that through Emily.
OWF: They say listening is the essence of good acting anyway and when I say they I mean me, just now.
JL: Yeah.
OWF: There€™s a scene in Sleepers for example, where De Niro€™s character is told about the abused boys and music plays while we study the reaction on his face €“ so you know, in that sense.
JL: Well she€™s a good listener. She€™s genuinely interested in other people. For me, the crux of that part was a combination of strength and empathy. We didn€™t want it to be sentimental. Expressing empathy without sentimentality is a challenge. I knew that Emily had that in her locker, so to speak. Also, she€™s a lot of fun. We wanted that in the character too because the real Margaret€™s a lot of fun.
OWF: They didn€™t meet prior to shooting did they? Did that surprise you?
JL: No, well, we talked about it a lot. I€™ve since been questioned a lot about it. Both Emily and I came to the conclusion it would be better if they didn€™t. Emily had played real people before, for a start. I think she would say that she€™d, well y€™know, she€™d been around the course on that. She€™s aware of the problems that can bring. Also, there€™s no point getting bogged down in a narrow impersonation. She was aiming at a wider truth. The real Margaret creates a very strong impression because she€™s quite an impressive woman, someone we found very inspiring, but for me there was no point in Emily getting distracted by things that weren€™t relevant. They met after a screening a couple of weeks ago and they got on very well.
OWF: What does the real Margaret think of Emily€™s performance?
JL: She really likes it a lot. I really didn€™t know what Margaret would think of the film, I had no expectations. Good or bad I just didn€™t know what she€™d make of it. Social workers generally have really responded to what Emily€™s done, which is really gladdening. People in Margaret€™s family and her friends can€™t believe they didn€™t meet before hand, it€™s quite odd.
OWF: Did Margaret have any comment on the depiction of her family and the impact the events had on them?
JL: We talked about it a lot at script stage. For the first few years Margaret was quite weary of having the film made. She€™s very private for a start and she just didn€™t want to put her family up for discussion, which I can understand. I think she wanted to know what the film was going to be and that€™s really difficult to answer, I mean, truthfully, you really don€™t know what the film€™s going to be before you€™ve made it, do you? You have strong ideas but nothing€™s been actually committed to film. What changed was that she started to read bonus drafts, she knew we weren€™t going to just make stuff up, so her opinion changed gradually over the time I got to know her.
OWF: Just returning to the issue of authenticity, there€™s one scene in particular I wanted to follow up on, namely when Margaret and Merv meet with government officials for the first time. As they€™re leaving, a woman chases Margaret and questions why she€™s bothering. Now I heard her say, and I made a note of it, €œthese are the children of degenerates.€ Is that an actual quote?
JL: Yeah, word for word. It was worse than that, actually. We shot the complete sentence, as it was said, but we cut one bit out because people would never have believed it.
OWF: What€™s the full quote?
JL: Erm, don€™t know if I should say now. (Laughs) But the part you hear was said.
OWF: In terms of building your relationship with Margaret, did your name help, the fact you€™re the son of Ken Loach who has a reputation for realism, etc?
JL: It never came up. Not once. In fact the first time we ever spoke about it was probably a month ago.
OWF: Had you been called Bay, she might have thought twice.
JL: Well, yeah (laughs).
OWF: Did it occur to you in the weeks leading up to release that the film could coincide with Route Irish?
JL: I think at one point both films were on the slate for March 18th. We laughed about it, y€™know. In some ways I was pleased about it because it€™s an issue and there€™s no point denying it, so you may as well face up to it.
OWF: Has he seen Oranges and Sunshine?
JL: Yeah. He saw it in the cutting room and having popped in, gave me a few ideas.
OWF: Let me ask you about the use of music in the film. The song €œWild World€ is used to great effect. After you€™ve heard it in that context you can€™t really listen to it the same way again for a while. Can you talk about why that particular song was chosen?
JL: In the script we went through lots of different songs. We wanted to use it in that particular scene because for us it€™s the moment where Margaret and Len realise that it could so easily have been each other and they had a shared musical reference, y€™know, liking the same thing. They could have been in each other€™s shoes. That, for me, was what the scene was about. Anyway, a lot of ipods came into the office, a lot of trying out different songs but we settled on that.
OWF: It€™s a deeply moving film for a general audience but have you noticed any difference between the way parents and the childless have responded to it?
JL: Yes, we have. We€™ve had lots of different sorts of reactions, because we€™ve done a lot of previews now, plus Q & As and stuff. Some have a very strong emotional reaction to it, others are quite angry afterwards €“ they€™re agitated, they want to talk about it. We€™ve been encouraged because for us it€™s an inspirational film. I mean, I know we use these words all the time but for me, I was genuinely inspired by Margaret and the story. Ultimately audiences have seen it as heart warming and uplifting because she doesn€™t walk away, leaving many of us to wonder whether we would have done at some point.
OWF: Ahead of the Australian release are you anticipating a different sort of reaction over there? Here, there may be an establishment sense of guilt, but perhaps more so there because they were the recipients of the children.
JL: I think it will taken quite differently there. Of course they€™ve had the indigenous story there. I hope they€™ll be ready to accept it as part of the nation€™s history. Emily and I may cop a bit of flak, the ol€™ €œwho are you come over here and tell us about our history?€ but we haven€™t had any of that so far. There€™s a real interest in heritage over there, especially the facts of where people have come from and when, so I hope they€™ll want to embrace the film as part of their history too.
OWF: What about the reaction of the children themselves? What does it mean to them? Has the inspiration behind the Len character seen it?
JL: Yes, he has. A lot have them have seen it. We had a screening a couple of months ago and it was incredible actually, an amazing afternoon. They watched the film and obviously they were really emotional afterwards. Then we sat around and talked about it and I got their feedback and I found they were really ready to embrace it. It was brilliant because you don€™t presume to know what their reaction was going to be. It was amazing, they really want to take ownership of it. It was very highly charged.
OWF: How did you go about the process of narrowing down the material, because obviously there are 130,000 stories.
JL: We met a lot of former child migrants. Honestly, any single one of them you could have made a film about. Every single one of them had an extraordinary story about being lifted out of this country, taken to another country, being sold a lie and the moment that they discovered that what they€™d been told was untrue and then trying to piece together their life, I mean it was extraordinary. So in the early days we were thinking that that might be a way to do it but we kept coming back to Margaret because we were interested in her central dilemma, namely that she€™s a woman battling against the odds, engaged in a heroic struggle against the authorities, trying to reunite families but at the same time trying to keep her own family together. We were interested in the working Mum thing as well, as a motive for her story, in the context of the wider story.
OWF: Have representatives of the Christian Brotherhood grown tired of apologising or is there a greater admission of guilt yet to come?
JL: It€™s been handled in such a cack handed way. A lot of what happened has been compounded by fumbled apologies and fumbled compensation. We wanted to shoot the real Bindoon , which we could have done and should have done, after all it is part of the history of that building, and we were ready to shoot but they kinda came up with a load of excuses, fobbed us off and eventually said no. At one point they said €˜you might have to go to the Vatican for a meeting€™, which I was bang up for but eventually they just gave us a blanket no. It€™s a shame, because it would have meant a lot to the real people that they€™d have acknowledged what really happened there.
OWF: Jim Loach, thank you very much. Oranges and Sunshine is released in the U.K. on Friday. Read our review, HERE Win a signed poster, HERE.
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