Screenwriter Paul Laverty was on top form at the Glasgow Film Theatre where he answered questions about his most recent collaboration with Ken Loach, Jimmy’s Hall, and even brought along his own mother for moral support.
Jimmy’s Hall tells the true story of Jimmy Gralton, an Irishman who was deported from his home in County Leitrim in 1933 for suspected socialist rallying and for building the Pearson-Connolly dance hall, against the wishes of the church.
What attracted you to the story of Jimmy Gralton?
I was fascinated by Jimmy when I found out that he’d built this hall with voluntary labour, and then I found out in the national archives, that all the papers relating to his arrest and deportation had mysteriously gone missing. Now of course, that kind of vacuum caught my attention. It’s always interesting when, they not only try to crush someone but they try to crush the memory of someone. It was also hearing that not only did he challenge the power of the church, but he challenged the direct action committee of landed estates, all with his secret weapon – the gramophone record!
In many ways Jimmy’s Hall can be seen as a partner piece to The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), how would you compare them?
The Wind That Shakes the Barley was epic in its material – it was about the war of independence, it was about civil war, it was about the whole country at war. But what I loved about this was, it was such a concise, tiny little premise. After the civil war, the hall was one of the few free spaces in Ireland, because the whole country had actually turned into a theological Gulag. In fact, there was a line from one of the land owners in The Wind that Shakes the Barley when he was executed, he said; “If your type ever gain power then God help us, it’ll be nothing but priest-infested backwater”, and in a strange way I think that’s what came about.
Were you conscious of being historically accurate?
In The Wind that Shakes the Barley, we studied the history because we knew fine that we were really going to be attacked (by historians) as we were, but we were very glad to say that they couldn’t get us for anything that was factually wrong, because they could use that to crucify us. But what we said was that we’ll try to be truthful to the times, but all the characters will be invented, and they were. It was true to the times, but you weren’t getting massacred by biographical details. With this one it was more difficult because we know quite a lot about the public Jimmy, we know the day he left, the day he came back, so we studied the newspapers, we read a couple of leaflets.
What was a very good source was the Gralton family, because stories about Jimmy had been passed down through the decades. There’s a lovely old man called Jim Gralton, who took us to the estate, for example, and it was very interesting to know that descendants of the family are still living there! That gave me some satisfaction.
I was talking to a woman in the area and she said Jimmy would’ve been a great catch – he’d spent ten years in New York, he was a fiery, charismatic character, and there was a great mischief and fun in him, although, I’ve seen photographs and he wasn’t quite as handsome as Barry there (Barry Ward). He was quite short and bald, although I wouldn’t hold that against anyone.
Can you explain what you meant by the “LosAngelisation of culture”?
Some critics have criticised us for talking about the ‘LosAngelisation of culture’ but you would never make that up, the priests actually talked about that. Some of their speeches were just unbelievable. Ten times more crude and ten times more brutal than ones Father Sheridan (Jim Norton) made.
It was remarkable as well that there was a great attempt to control everything. The first record I could find was about joyriding or ‘company-keeping under the stars’, but not long after this they passed legislation so that halls like Jimmy’s had to be licensed so that this couldn’t happen again. It’s very hard now looking back to understand the power that they had. I mean there was a line in there that “if you allow your horses to bring sand to the hall they will die” so there was tremendous fear that they (Jimmy and co) had supernatural powers. People were frightened of them because the priests really were controlling the public’s imagination.
How much of the film is improvised, because I’ve heard that Ken uses it quite a bit, is that true?
There’s a great myth about that actually, I think it’s a technique that he uses. The script is, as you will see here (holds up the screenplay) very carefully worked out, but what Ken noticed when he was working at the BBC on The Wednesday Play many years ago is that the first time you sit down to do the reading and the actors look at each other and hear the words, it’s great, but then he noticed that they had just rehearsed the life out of it, so what he would do is shoot in sequence and give people the script bit by bit, or have group meetings, and he’ll maybe not even give them the script and he’ll just blend in lines one at a time, so most of the time it gets back very close to the original script, maybe 95% when you edit it. I mean, there is space to throw in lines, but it is one of these urban myths that it’s kicked around a lot really.
Did you visit the shoot at all?
I was there for all the casting and all the shoot. He’s not one of these directors who’s, you know, I mean he wants people around. It looks like quite a small, contained film, but there was actually a massive amount of work that went in. There was a big Scottish gang in this film too, a lovely bunch, there’s a Glasgow mafia in his team! But yeah, he wants people around, a lot of directors don’t want that but it’s very organic with him.
What inspires you to write screenplays?
I think the first question you always ask when you’re writing a screenplay is “where does power lie?” and “why this story?” I remember with Bread and Roses (2000) it took about 6 years because no one wanted to tell a story about Latino cleaners who were women and spoke Spanish and it was going to be subtitled and it was being organised in the trade unions. So with some films like that you have to work 20 times harder to get it made whereas when big Eric (Eric Cantona, Looking for Eric) storms in and they’re all throwing money at it. So each story comes from a different source. Sometimes it’s luck and sometimes it’s an obsession with the subject matter.
Are you interested in social injustice on a wider scale?
Yes, actually, it’s funny you should mention that because when we were in Cannes we were talking to journalists from Latin America and from Greece and Turkey in particular, and they were the ones who really got the idea of a safe space. The Greek journalist was very interested in the Golden Dawn (the fascist group) who knocked on his door – this is the same group that threatened to cut the ears off teachers wo continue to teach immigrant kids. But there was also a young woman from Turkey who said she was scared about what she was going to write so I tried to give her quotes so that she could say ‘that was him and not me’. The day before the screening two people that she’d known had been killed in a demonstration, so this idea of a safe space was even more important to her. But even if you think about what’s happening in Iran, where some of the filmmakers are under house arrest, or Ai Weiwei in China, who built the crow’s nest. He was a high profile celebrity until he started challenging the communist party. So it’s to do with power and impunity. I think there are all sorts of Jimmy Gralton’s in the modern world. People who are questioning power and how it operates. I think when you challenge power and you’re effective in challenging it, that’s when they try to crush you. We have to celebrate these people. They’re the ones who try to keep the libraries open, and try to keep the hospitals open or the football club open, they’re the fabric of communities. You find them everywhere but they are often unheralded.
Although a couple of months ago the media was rife with reports that this would be the final film from the pair, Laverty was keen to quash the retirement rumours and even added “Ken’s a bit like Jimmy Gralton, he’s got the energy of a whippet!” We can’t wait to see what the future brings.
Jimmy’s Hall is in cinemas now.