Made in Scotland: Interview with Sweet Sixteen screenwriter Paul Laverty
by Anna Battista
"During Land and Freedom, for six weeks, Ken made us re-shoot scene after scene after scene. Ken is famous for his line 'Just one more time' and this can go on for twelve, thirteen, fourteen or even fifteen times," screenwriter Paul Laverty recounts to the people gathered at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a special event, a screening and debate of Loach's movie about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom (1995). "On the very last day of shooting, when we had to do a very emotional scene, we planned a little vengeance," he smiles and looks at Ken Loach sitting next to him, acknowledging him with a nod, "We talked to the cameraman and beforehand we bought 25 water pistols. We had pink, yellow and orange plastic guns, all these water pistols in dramatic colours, and we stuck them on the back of our pants. When we had to re-shoot the scene, halfway through it, we took out the water pistols! It was Ken's birthday and this war went on for 20 minutes!" People laugh, more anecdotes follow, then questions and comments on the film and on the Spanish Civil War.
"Court buildings are always good places for tabloid hacks to hang out. How many times have we seen the picture of a teenager accompanied by a burly police escort after sentencing? There's usually a tough swagger, but the shiny suit and tie can never make up for the pinched white face. I'm sure the old hacks are masters of the leading question that the judge inside would never allow. 'How does it feel, son, to imagine the next fifteen years behind bars?' Scowl, fury, expletive, and the obligatory 'two fingers' up yours. Snap! Snap! Thank you very much and here we have a spectacular full-page spread. Those two fingers, in response to the hack, are now spectacularly directed at the reader; at civilised society." Paul Laverty, Introduction to Sweet Sixteen - the screenplay
"The Glasgow premiere of Sweet Sixteen was very very warm," Paul Laverty explains a few days after the Land and Freedom event, before leaving Glasgow again to go back to Spain where he lives. He looks relaxed, he's just had an informal chat with a group of Ken Loach's fans in the local branch of Borders about Sweet Sixteen, the new Loach film he's written the screenplay for. Starring Martin Compston as Liam, William Ruane as Pinball, Michelle Coulter as Jean, Annmarie Fulton as Chantelle and Gary McCormack as Stan, "Sweet Sixteen" is the first Ken Loach Scottish film after My Name Is Joe (1998). "We wanted to do something very personal again, after the big trade union film Bread and Roses," Paul explains. "It was good to go back to do something on the home territory, in Scotland, I can understand it better, I feel much closer to the community and culture, so I wrote it much more easily. We actually also wanted to do something more intimate. I have always been attracted to do something about teenagers because teenagers have a tremendous courage and a tremendous energy and they have great plans, their emotions are all up and down, around and about. Being a teenager means living a very dramatic time, a critical time, because, during that period of your life, you might make choices that might affect the rest of your life. I was fascinated by some of the young people I met while doing other movies. When we were doing My Name Is Joe, I thought we hadn't examined properly Liam's character and other young characters, because Joe's story took over that film. I wanted to go back and look at the world of teenagers, because many of them seem to have to do a lot of hard choices, they have to go and work for pizza parlours, fast food shops or call-centres or they have to leave their home town and look for jobs or they have to sell drugs for a living."
Sweet Sixteen is the story of Liam, a Greenock boy whose mother is going to be released from prison on his sixteenth birthday. Liam tries hard, helped by his friends, to change his life style and help his mother escaping evil boyfriend Stan, but he seemed to be doomed from the start and to have to succumb to a cruel destiny. When the movie came out in Great Britain, the British Board of Film Classification, presided by Sir Quentin Thomas, troubled by the language used in the movie (especially by the use of the word "cunt") gave it an 18 certificate. The Inverclyde Council, the area were the film was shot, suggested to give it a 15 certificate. David Cairns, Labour MP for Inverclyde and Greenock, criticised the movie and suggested Loach to choose other locations, rather than Scotland and Greenock, as the set for such movies.
"A local member of the Parliament has been very critical about us," Paul explains, never mentioning the name of the MP he's referring to, "The wonderful thing about these new right wing politicians is that they absolutely have magical powers because they can actually tell what is in a film without actually seeing it. I always think it is an advantage to see a film before commenting upon it. This Member of Parliament accused us of 'swanning', of 'swanning down' in Greenock, of 'landing down' there, of shooting and leaving again. But we actually spent months and months and months there. When I write I use all my experiences. Usually I start with half a notion of what the film is about, then I try to examine that notion and see if that holds true. What I do then is put some ideas on paper and try to develop them. Then I dive and do a lot of research."
"For Sweet Sixteen I met a lot of kids in children's homes, I went to schools, prisons, clubs, street corners. I talked and listened to kids on street corners which were greater than a lot of other places: just listen to kids there, try to see the world from their point of view, that's the secret, ask them how do they see the world from their point of view and how do they see their own chances. I spoke to literally hundreds of kids, hundreds of different people who were very generous and opened their homes and shared their experiences with us. The film is not copied from them, but informed by them, and what is very nice is that the people who actually lived there opened their doors to their community and let us film there and shared so much with us. I'm delighted and pleased by this."
"The main actor Martin Compston is terrific, he is a great kid, he's got a great energy, he's bright and sparkling. He's got a fantastic mum and dad and he's very good at school. He's not really like Liam, but there are many of his friends he lived close by who have a similar life to Liam. He hasn't lived those terrible experiences Liam lives, but he has seen them around him and maybe that's part of the reason why he's very good at playing Liam's part. I think the MP I was talking about just jumped on the bandwagon and I also suppose that what he doesn't want to see is the truth really. The truth is that a lot of young kids in Greenock are now faced with very violent hard choices. Thirty years ago they would have had proper jobs down the shipyard, apprenticeships, they would have been paid at the end of the week and they would have been able to start living their own life in the community. They would have been able to work with friends and to have the money to plan their lives properly and build their future. Now a lot of kids don't have a lot of choices. Some of them escape to universities, but many of them will have the kind of jobs they call 'flexible', they are so 'flexible' that they have been turned into rubber which means that their employers can dump anybody they want to. Some of the kids have one day contracts, one week contracts or one month contracts, the bigger employers are call-centres. The local MP said we were giving the local area a bad name, what he really wants is cheap jobs coming in. I suppose that cheap jobs are better than nothing, but the idea that your only response to sort out problems is to try to invite people in because your place is cheaper than the rest, means that you're never going to build a sustainable workable community."
"I think that his accusations are very shallow in the end. People often say 'You're painting a very negative view of Scotland', but I'm just telling a story about Scotland. If someone wants to make a Woody Allen film about middle class people in Glasgow I'd be delighted, but I don't wanna do it, I'd love to see it and I hope it's funny and sharp and bright and tri-dimensional and good luck to them, but I don't tell people what to do, so I don't really appreciate people trying to tell me what to write. Sweet Sixteen is a very tough film, I don't think it will give 'hope' to those who go and see it, but I hope it will raise some questions about what kind of community we are building and about what kind of options we are giving to young kids, because young kids are demonised. That's why I'm furious it has been given an 18 certificate. It's totally ridiculous. It never even happened in Europe. They said that the language in the movie is bad and rough and I think people who don't like that kind of language should get a clear warning, but the idea that you ban people under 18 from going to see it is absolutely ridiculous, it also means that a lot of the people, a lot of the young kids who informed the story aren't going to see the movie. This is censorship and class prejudice."
Censorship or not, Sweet Sixteen won Paul the Best Screenplay Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. "That prize was a poke in the eye! " Paul exclaims, "It is very nice to have your work recognised at such a festival. I think Cannes is a festival of the world cinema in a way that the Oscars aren't. As a festival it is of course a platform that tries to compete with American cinema, so it is very theatrical, you get to the stage, shake hands with other people and stuff like that, you can't really escape this sort of thing. I treated it seriously, it is important to be recognised together with films that earn $25-30 million, though, at the end of the day, I think that it's much more important how the film is received elsewhere. Besides, a film is really a collaboration. That's why I shared the award with my colleagues, with the people I collaborated with. So, in one way it was lovely to get the award, in another way I treated it with a pinch of salt."
Paul, who worked as a lawyer in Glasgow and later in Central America before becoming a screenwriter and actor, wrote the screenplays for quite a few movies directed by Ken Loach: Carla's Song (1996), My Name Is Joe (1998) and Bread and Roses (2000). He's also starred in Land and Freedom, by now he's a Ken Loach films veteran, "Ken is a very open minded man. I got in touch first with him after working in Nicaragua as a human rights lawyer. I just wrote him like anybody else would have done, by post, and we met up and talked. It's very difficult and boring to hear friends complimenting other friends because people do it in the media industry all the time. But Ken is a real character, he's got a tremendous curiosity for life really. If you saw Sweet Sixteen and you didn't know who the director was, you'd swear it was done by a young director, because there's a lot of energy in it and that reflects Ken Loach himself."
One of Paul's latest collaborations with Ken Loach was for the collective movie about 11th September 2001, 11' 09" 01, directed by Yussef Chahine, Amos Gitai, Shohei Imamura, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedrago, Sean Penn, Danis Tanovic. "We did our shortcut through the eyes of a friend of us who lives in London, Vladimir Vega, a Chilean who was shot on 11th September 1973 for defending the democratic vote of the Chilean people," Paul explains.. "Vladimir was fantastic, he's so touching in the film. We just thought he had a really good story to tell since on 11th September 2001 it was the 29th anniversary of this event and the 1st anniversary of the Twin Towers. To be honest when the shortcut won the Fipresci Prize, the international press award, at the 2002 Venice Film Festival I was really touched and I enjoyed that more than the Cannes Award." In Italy during the Venice Film Festival, Vladimir Vega's episode was accused by critics of being anti-American. "There was a British journalist who writes for the London Evening Standard who said that we had brought shame on the country," Paul remembers, continuing, "You'd have to be heartless to say something like that."
Paul seems to be such an easy going person and also so keen on talking to young people that I wonder if he would ever go and teach screen writing techniques. "I don't think I'd be able to do it!" he confesses, laughing, "Writing is totally different from teaching. If I were put in front of twenty young screenwriters I'd panic, I wouldn't know what to say!" Paul starts laughing. His laugh is contagious and for a while he seems to be less tense than when he was talking about the 18 certificate given to Sweet Sixteen.
"Along with Liam, Pinball, Night-time … I'd like to add my own 'two fingers' to the British Board of Film Classification …, and, as a contribution to freedom of expression, and freedom to sit in a cinema with a big noisy trough of popcorn and drive everyone mad, I'd like to attach the infamous little word used with all the aggression I can muster," Paul Laverty writes in the introduction to the Sweet Sixteen screenplay. Perhaps he's thinking to these words while, smiling, he writes down "Suerte" on a Sweet Sixteen postcard for me. Aye, he's definitely smiling, perhaps happy about the movie, perhaps happy knowing that the certificate will only push more teenagers to see the film notwithstanding the ban. So "suerte" to Paul and above all "suerte" to all the teenagers Paul met and, in his own special way, celebrated with their energy, obsessions and deranged hopes in Sweet Sixteen.