Ahead of the premiere of ‘Looking for Eric’, Ken Loach’s light-hearted comedy drama, Susan Daly talks exclusively to the director about the benefits of casting relative unknowns, surprising his actors and working with French football legend Eric Cantona.
Susan Daly: So Eric Cantona originally came to you with a story idea…
Ken Loach: Yes, he was interested in doing a film about his relationship with the fans, and Paul Laverty [the writer] and Rebecca O’Brien [the producer] and I were very intrigued by that idea. The thing is, you have to actually find some real content to make it work. So we sort of scratched our heads for a bit and then Paul wrote this character Eric Bishop, and that was the starting point for him.
Eric said he finds it hard to trust people – as you can imagine with his experience and his career. How did you build up that trust with him?
Well the question never really arose. When we first met we were hugely pleased to meet him because he’s such a fantastic footballer and a great guy, but I think it was important not to just say ‘Oh yes! yes! we’ll do it, we’ll do it!’ There had to be a real good idea at the heart of it and I think he respected that. Obviously, once Paul had written the script and we were all happy with it, we showed it to Eric. I don’t usually do that with actors, but in a way it was okay because he is a figment of the other guy’s imagination. It was a bit different and he was very happy with the script.
Some of the aphorisms that come out, they just sound just so close to something Eric Cantona might say. I wondered if he had any hand in the script at all? Did he suggest any particular tongue-in-cheek ones himself?
No, they’re all Paul’s. Though certain things Eric said to Paul – like his greatest moment in football wasn’t a goal it was a pass – are really at the heart of the film. And that’s really what I think part of the film is about. It’s not about individual brilliance, it’s about a pass you give to a team mate, it’s a gesture acknowledging that we are stronger as a team than we are as individuals. If you reduce it to one sentence it becomes a bit trite, but if it’s implicit, which I hope it is, then it’s okay. Paul was very naughty in writing things like ‘He who sows thistles shall reap prickles’ because he knew damn well Eric wouldn’t be able to say it! The French can’t say ‘th’, so he was a bit mean in that respect.
How did Eric cope with that?
He chuckled really, he has a great sense of humour.
People spoke of you as an odd couple, but it sounds very much like there was a lot of team work, which is quite similar to the way you generally treat your film sets anyway.
Yes, well it’s very easy really. People have to feel secure and confident in a situation so they can be reckless. They feel they can be adventurous, they can just try something out and that know they are not going to be exposed. One thing early on that I was very concerned about was that we didn’t put Eric in a situation that would put him in a bad light or that would demean him in any way. So to do that, whilst allowing him to join in the fun about his public persona, was quite a balancing act. On the one hand he does make fun of the philosopher footballer in a very warm affectionate way, but equally he is very affirmative of his amazing skill and grace as a sportsman.
With Steve Evets [who plays the main character, a postman called Eric] there is a moment where he is looking at the poster of Eric and he conjures him into his bedroom. Steve turns around – he didn’t know that Eric Cantona was going to be in the film, did he?
No, he thought he was just a producer at the front.
And Steve’s reaction when he turns around, is that the moment when he clocks Eric Cantona stepping out?
Unfortunately, it was the second take because there were some Belgians on the crew and Steve thought I was getting the Belgians to speak as if from the poster. But then, when he did turn around and Eric had moved up, we cracked up. But we went for another take and it worked quite well, the adrenalin was still very high. But it was definitely a surprise when the police raid. They didn’t know that was going to happen.
That seems very obvious when Lilly is on the ground. Her hands were shaking so uncontrollably, it seemed clear this was not something you could fake. She had absolutely no idea that was going to happen?
No, none of them did really.
Is that something that happens in a lot of your films? I saw My Name Is Joe recently and Peter Mullan [who plays the central role] talks about not seeing the script from day to day. Is that to get more authenticity from your actors?
Yes. I mean, they have to know everything about their character about how they would react and about their past, but if there actually is a surprise that the character doesn’t generate, to act that surprised is very hard. I don’t think they could have acted that police raid like that if they had known six weeks before that it was going to happen.
And how did they feel after that? Did they feel emotionally fragile? Do you ever feel bad about putting them through that?
No, because it’s within the context of the film, it’s part of the given. You just live the moment, really. So yes, they are shocked, but it’s within a safe area.
There is a scene where a house is being smashed up. Was that done in one take?
No, what I tend to do is do a take and stop just before they get to the mass destruction. Then I’d another take and it goes on a bit further and so on. You couldn’t do it all in one because you just might not get it all. You stage it so that you leave the actor with this destructive act until you are happy with what you have got up to that point.
If you’re stopping and starting it must be very difficult to manage a scene like that, especially where a lot of the people were extras from FC United.
And some Manchester United supporters…
Is that right?
Well, I didn’t want to be sectarian about it so we had some from both, and some City fans as well. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s just a balance all the time. It’s like cooking isn’t it? You’ve got to keep all the pots boiling at just the right temperature. The pacing of the day is very important and where you take the breaks is very important.
How did they react to having Eric Cantona, ‘King Eric’, among them?
Well, when he came down to see the shoot that day everything stopped – it had to stop. We had to take a picture of everybody with Eric in the middle of them, it took about 20 minutes you know. Their enthusiasm for Eric overwhelmed their enthusiasm for the film! [Laughs]. But that was okay.
Did that go against a lot of what you do? In general you don’t use actors who are well known, with Cillian Murphy being one exception. Is that for that particular reason?
Sometimes, but certainly not in the case of Cillian Murphy [who starred in Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley]. Sometimes well known actors come with great baggage, but also you just want the best person for the part, regardless. And that was the case with Cillian, he was the best person for the part. And Eric Cantona plays himself so there could be no other. I think in general you want the audience to believe in them without referring to what else they’ve done, the difficulty would be with somebody whose face is very well known.
It’s a very light-hearted film – I wasn’t expecting quite such a resolution at the ending. Is this a new departure for you? Is this Ken Loach from now on?
[Laughs] No. Well, they aren’t walking off into the sunset, they are only having their photograph taken. It’s just an indication that the weather is favourable really, I think it’s the first sign that maybe things are not totally lost.
For Eric the postman, at his lowest point he is quite an oppressed character and he does manage to resolve that. I’d see that as a common theme that you have throughout your work. Would you still be looking for that universal theme in future films?
[Pauses] Well, I don’t know, every story is different really. Comedy is only tragedy with a happy ending, as the old saying goes. Eric’s life could have taken another turn. He does see a way through it and it is quite light hearted, but it could take another turn really.
Political themes have always being very important to you. Will they continue to be?
Well you can’t walk away from it. I wish you could sometimes, but you can’t walk away from it when it’s in your brain, I’m afraid.
Absolutely. And in your work outside of films, you are still very involved in political issues, of course.
As much as possible, again it’s a fine line. Paul and I both try to do what we can but if you do too much then people only see the films through that. You really want an audience to come in with an open mind and not think ‘Oh God, here is some old lefty stuff again.’ You want to keep the audience having an open mind. If you are too outspoken politically then you lose that. So it’s another balancing act, really.
Photo: Steve Evets and Eric Cantona
Looking for Eric is released on 12th June 2009