Interview with Writer Paul Laverty on The Olive Tree and his Creative Process

This week for HeyUGuys I caught up with talented screenwriter Paul Laverty, the man who gave life to so many memorable characters and stories. In an extremely fascinating interview Paul talks about the latest film he wrote, The Olive Tree, directed by Icíar Bollaín. He also talks in depth about his creative process, what it is like working with Ken Loach, and Irish History.

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One of things I have always appreciated about your writing is that it often has undertones of very socially relevant themes, such as the environment, poverty and recession – as indeed we see in The Olive Tree – but your characters never feel like just mouth pieces for these issues but rather fully fleshed out, real people that, through the audiences observation, become a window into these problems. How do you strike a balance between the themes you want to talk about in an overarching sense, without taking away from the authenticity of the characters?

Well I think you put your finger right on the great challenge of writing really, I mean, you just put your finger right on it, it is the hardest thing to do. The characters and the story has to come first, you know. But that is nourished by the richness and the layers around the story and there are so often times you come across films where there is really quirky characters, or maverick characters, or just very strange characters. But what I find interesting is when you meet interesting characters or an interesting premise, but some how there is an echo or a resonance against this society in which these characters live. To me, that’s why I watch films, that’s why I read books, it’s why I like short stories. I mean, a psychopath by himself is not very interesting, I don’t really care; I mean, they are freaks of nature but if you understand how we operate and live together – I think it is a very hard thing to do well because you’ve got to have interesting characters but you’ve also got to weave that into the fabric of the story and I suppose you follow your own instincts really. It’s the hardest thing to do though because if you feel they are mouthpieces you’ll say, ah fuck off, give us a break.

Well yeah, that’s the thing with your dialogue and your screenplays, I never feel there is a line spoken that I’m like, ah this is what he is trying to tell me. It kind of creeps up on me that these are the issues that the film is about but at the same time I’m following characters that feel real and feel flawed in all their glory.

Well that’s good, I mean, when you read (John) Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath there is a wonderful character in there, there is a really confused minister whose given up his faith. He’s such a confused character but he’s so human and so flawed and in a strange way you kind of get a sense of the great crisis that they are living through, and I love it when you get a character like that. In a strange way with Alcachofa, the uncle [in The Olive Tree], you’ll understand this too especially in Ireland, where people were working like dogs during the boom years and then somewhere there is a crisis and you’ve been working 16 hours a day and you’ve earned all this unclaimed money, you’ve all been pushed with this thing and then suddenly there is absolute chaos everywhere.

Ireland and Spain were very similar in that regard, there was a great boom and there was one point just before the crisis when there were more buildings being built in Spain than Italy, France and Germany together. There was this incredible boom, everybody was on the gravy train and there was corruption and everybody was caught up in it and then suddenly the whole thing just collapsed. It was even bigger in Spain than it was in Ireland, but then the families are left crushed by it and nobody knows what’s going on. So what we want [in The Olive Tree] is a little tale of the times really, but for people who understand the culture and the politics, you have a sense that this kind of great big enterprise has just totally blown itself apart, and then there is a family in the middle of it all. The father has to go back to the house, there is 2000-year-old olive tree, something sacred which is sold for money so they can get a restaurant by the beach and pay off the mayor and everything is all tapped into tourism.

So, I mean, underneath there is lots of layers and for people who don’t get that, well, hopefully they will enjoy the characters. But underneath it there is a lot of different layers about corruption, and family break up, and what is scared to us, and history, and what we value, and at the end of the day what do we value? Because these trees are just remarkable things. 2000 years from the times of Rome there has been a symbiotic relationship between the community and the tree itself, one giving food, the other one giving nourishment; you have to look after it and this has been going on for generation after generation, and then suddenly we live in a market-orientated time where people can say I like the shape of that I’m just going to buy it.

I know you are a well-travelled man, and you have penned films that have been in other languages before. What would you say are the biggest challenges in getting across your vision for something as nuanced specific as language? Do you approach your writing differently when it is going to be spoken in Spanish like in The Olive Tree, as opposed to your other English language-based films?

Well, that’s another really good question. In a way it is a much bigger challenge, you know, we did Even the Rain in Bolivia, we did Carla’s Song in Nicaragua, we did Bread and Roses with Mexican workers in Los Angeles. And because it’s not my direct lived experience you just have to work harder because I want to understand how that society works, those characters where they live. So I just went to these little communities in the east coast of Spain – and I do speak Spanish – and I just spent time listening and talking to people. I was travelling around the country and I went to the harvest of the olive trees, and then when I was there I noticed all these chicken coops around all over the place, and then what I really loved was it was just implicitly – you take your 2000 years for an olive tree but these chickens are now being pushed for the market and they try and grow them in less than 33 days.

So if you do your research, well, it gives you ideas. It means just talking to the people, listening to them; it’s always a bigger struggle for me. And then what I do is, I just try and steep myself in those communities and try to understand what’s going on, and then you have to forget it and then write the script. I am very lucky to work with my partner Icíar (Bollaín), she is Spanish, her first language is Spanish – it [the script] will be translated and she will polish it and we will talk about it and then we just try to make sure that it just sounds like the people who live there and as much as possible. But if it is the west coast of Scotland, I don’t even think about it, I just hear it. Whereas if it is Spanish, you’ve got to just work harder at it, that’s all.

It worked very well, your writing translated very well into Spanish, not that I can speak Spanish, but it just felt very natural.

And the casting is good too because, I don’t know if you know the young girl, she just won the Spanish Oscars there, they call them Goyas. A young girl Anna (Castillo) won it and what was lovely about her was she was just so bright, she was just so intelligent. She had a great range and so I was glad she was recognised. But, you know, she just understood it, she was full of contradiction and energy and anger. But you have to be smart and you’ve got to have courage, but she was vulnerable as well. I love it when you get such a good actress that can encapsulate all that. And the uncle, to play that kind of part where you’re silly but at the same time you have great insight into life, Javier Gutiérrez managed to do that, he’s another really really smart man. He does make you smile – at least he did to me. He plays that line very very well. He could easily have turned into a clown, which I didn’t want. He could easily have been melodramatic, which I didn’t want. And Javier had the intelligence just to kind of carry through that line where you feel like he is an everyman, really.

The character he plays just worked his fucking bollocks off and he’s screwed things up but somehow you feel he’s trying to understand and do the decent thing in this absolute chaos around him when he doesn’t understand, you know. That’s why I love going up to Germany, it’s efficient, it’s the powerful, it’s the big, it’s the strong. The Germans went through the Spanish legislation in government and told them in budgets and told them what should be in and what should be out, so there’s been a massive intervention in their economy. So they’re like a giant in people’s minds, you know, and some people will get that and some people won’t. But you hope it kind of taps into stereotypes too, and of course a wee bit like the way Ireland sent immigrants all around the world, Spain sent factory workers up to Germany, they lived in big dorms, all of that is a historical memory between Spain and Germany.

Writing characters and stories are a very personal thing, but by the very nature of the collaborative elements of filmmaking, when the director and the actors interpret what you have written, it ultimately becomes something different than your mind’s eye might have conceived. How simpatico is the evolution of your screenplays to the films that they become, in your eyes, and are you often amazed how something you have written has become visualised in a way you hadn’t imagined?

I’ve had the great fortune to work with Icíar, I mean, I have to say, she is my partner. But I met Icíar on Land and Freedom many years ago. The way we work is very similar because, unfortunately, a lot of writers, they write a screenplay and then hand it over to a producer, and a producer gives it to another writer, and another writer, and another writer, and then it goes to a director and blah blah blah. Whereas I’m involved in the process right from the very beginning to the end.

I mean, obviously if you are going to ask people to spend two years of their life on something you have to make sure they want to do the same one, whether that is with Ken (Loach) or with Icíar. And there is a process of investigation and that’s lot of discussion and you try to say, well these are the themes that you are interested in and these are the ideas. And then eventually you have to get down to the characters and the screenplay. But what we always do is we are involved in the casting together, and then of course you are there for a lot of the shoot and the preparation. Then, also, we have the same discussion, sometimes in editing.

So, you know, it is absolutely brilliant when you see marvellous actors just give life to it in a way that you hope for, but you know sometimes fear will not be matched. They have to bring their talent and insight into it. I mean, there is that scene when you see them laughing outside the energy companies headquarters in Dussledorf, they are furious with each other, they are angry with each other, they love each other, they are saying how fucking stupid are we but we still did the right thing. There are so many levels to that. But you when they do it and they do it right because it could easily fall flat on its face, so that’s a tremendous tribute to the director and also to the actors to make it live like that.

There is a tremendous alchemy there which I never take for granted and that’s the beauty about film, finding that collaboration, I mean, it is right at the heart of it and I never take it for granted because it is so hard to capture. Especially when you’re up against time and light and permissions, everybody is running around and you’ve got a tight budget. How they capture it sometimes just always stuns me and you feel elated when it works.

I think your partnership with Ken Loach is one of my favourite partnerships in film and in the case of Icíar Bollaín, after The Olive Tree and Even the Rain, this will be another fruitful partnership as well I think, it translates very well.

Well that’s very generous of you Andy. You never know when you make a film, so fingers crossed it works for people. I mean, certainly in Spain and France, there’s been a very warm response and people seem to have got a lot out of it and been touched by it. I’m glad people are drawing different things from it, it is about recovery, the environmental question, the massive unemployment, then there is the delicacy of family and forgiveness. So people seem to be drawing lots of different things from it and it’s terrific when people can pull different things from it, which is always lovely and you hope for that but you never know if it is going to work.

It is very multi-layered, on the one hand it is a road trip, on the other hand it is a family drama, there is so much symbolism about the EU and the financial crash, I wonder how the film will play in Germany?

Well apparently it has played very well, I mean, all our films are not a big huge Hollywood thing, but Icíar has been over and she has done a lot of questions and answers in Germany and the response has been terrific. It’s been very warm and I know the distributors are very very happy as well, and I think they quite like to laugh at themselves too, which is nice to hear [laughs].

Do you ever write characters with certain actors in mind, and who are your favourite actors that have read your dialogue and why?

It’s funny, I always try to avoid that, it would be a distraction for me. I mean, what I try to do is, you operate from the gut and the intellect. It is a mixture of things, isn’t it? Then sometimes what I find is, hopefully a character just comes to mind and I purposefully try not to imagine someone playing that man or woman. You know, Ken always says, “Well what we try to do is just find the person that can give best life to this character as written.” So the casting process is massively creative too, we have had great luck with I, Daniel Blake, for example, Hayley Squires. When you meet someone like that you just feel she’s got a real range to her. When you are watching her you have a sense of many things rather than just the immediate image.

I love it when you can find an actor like that and finding someone who has tremendous range, so we’ve been very lucky with some of the people I’ve worked with. Also, it takes courage as well, for example, we did a little film called The Angels’ Share and there is a young lad called Paul Brannigan – Paul had never acted in his life. I mean, I am only saying this because Paul has talked about this in public himself. Paul was released from junior prison, you know, like a young offenders. I mean he couldn’t even get work anywhere and gradually seeing his confidence grow to carry a whole film was a tribute to Paul’s courage and also his talent. But also to Ken, who took the chance and gave him confidence. And I love it when you’re involved with brave people like that who take a chance.

Many of your films are about communities and people rallying together. One thing that struck me about The Olive Tree, as opposed to I, Daniel Blake, was in how technology seems to be a much more positive thing in The Olive Tree, and is a way of bringing people together to fight a cause, which is quite a contrast to I, Daniel Blake, where the forms and computer systems are the face of cold-hearted bureaucracy. Do you think the ways in which we interact now have ultimately enhanced this sense of community or have slowly eroded it?

Well, it’s a good question and I think it is multifaceted too, I don’t think it is binary. I mean, I think technology, you can use it for the good and you can use it to exploit. So I think it is multifaceted and I think there is a whole great debate about that, isn’t there. Look at how using metadata now, we are building algorithms and technology and information systems and communication to absolutely screw people. But, at the same time, it has a possibility to unite people in solidarity to resist, so it is a tool and I don’t think it is neutral. I mean, corporations have great power, they have great influence, they can higher smart people. So it is not surprising that it can be used to exploit and I think we have to find ways of making sure that we are up for the fight and be competent. For example, they have apps just now which can exploit people to the nth degree, so you have to find other apps where we can collaborate, so I think that’s a massive challenge.

You’ve explored the Irish War of Independence in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and the film Jimmy’s Hall is set in Ireland in 1933. Are there any other areas of Irish history you would be particularly interested in writing a screenplay about?

I mean, Irish history is totally fascinating and also it is a great place to shoot in as well. Both projects were particularly satisfying because we just had such collaboration from the local communities, we’ve got a lot of support within Ireland and there is also amazing talent, I mean, really amazing talent. From the young kids who danced, and the musicians in Jimmy’s Hall, to Cillian Murphy and all the gang in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, you just felt like everywhere it just nourished you – you know, there are some places you go and you feel nourished? – and Ireland was like that for us, and also because of the history too, it is so conflictual and so full of conflict.

I mean, there are just some amazing stories there, you could spend your life telling stories in Ireland, to be honest. The history itself is remarkable and also there is a great vitality to the language and the culture, I think, and that makes it very very attractive. I mean, there are some cities that just give you, like the Geordies were fantastic in I, Daniel Blake, you know. Glasgow gives you something, Liverpool gives you something. We felt that same energy when we were in Ireland. The only problem is we just need a few more lifetimes to explore them all.

Originally published on Mar 14, 2017 for HeyUGuys.

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