Ken Loach on Sorry We Missed You: “I want to be part of the world, not somehow locked away”

With his gig-economy drama Sorry We Missed You in cinemas, Ken Loach tells us why the film world would be poorer without filmmakers to hold a mirror up to our society.

8 November 2019

By Lou Thomas

Ken Loach filming Sorry We Missed You (2019)

For his latest film, Sorry We Missed You, director Ken Loach focuses on the pressures of life working in the gig economy. In this, his 25th solo feature film, the director depicts a world characterised by insecure, short-term employment, without the health and holiday benefits of permanent work but including draconian rules about everything from toilet breaks to insurance.

After a decade of uncertain employment following the 2008 financial crash, Newcastle man Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) gets work for a delivery company as a self-employed van-driver. It soon becomes clear that the on-the-road role brings with it an almost impossible amount of restrictions that put a debilitating strain on Ricky and his family, wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) – a nurse also working with a zero-hours contract – and their children Seb and Lisa Jane.

Loach again uses new actors to create a naturalistic and urgent drama that refuses to lapse into sentimentality but retains a crucial sense of humour. It’s of a piece with the veteran filmmaker’s previous work, the Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake (2016), which memorably tackled the UK benefits system. Loach’s regular collaborator Paul Laverty has returned as screenwriter and the pair have again conjured a work rich in veracity that’s sure to provoke strong opinions.

Loach called us from the London office of his Sixteen Films production company to discuss why his films focus on social issues, whether he’ll ever retire and how he’s a promiscuous follower of football.

Why did you decide to make the gig economy the focus of the film?

When we were making Daniel Blake we explored food banks and were shocked to find that many of the people who needed help were, in fact, working. It revealed the extent of the working poor and that tied into a long-term interest of how work has changed from secure jobs with regular hours – with the security of employment, with holiday pay, with sick pay, with all the gains that trade unions had made over the years – and seeing how that’s now been eroded.

And then to see, what’s the effect of that on families? Because people sustain a public face under stress, but when they get home that stress reappears: they have no patience with their kids; they don’t see each other till late at night; they’re exhausted; they’re hungry; and that’s when the stress and the problems arise.

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

Throughout your career you’ve looked at different social issues. What is it about these types of story that attract you as a filmmaker?

It’s holding a mirror up to the world we live in. That’s a long and honourable tradition of cinema, and the cinema can do it probably as well as any other medium or any other art form, because it’s very concrete; the images are very substantial, they’re real, they’re what we live in, and it’s what we experience. It’s saying, look, this is how we live.

But also the drama of people’s lives is very intense. People who are really struggling to survive, the issues they deal with, the choices they have, are very complex. It’s a question of survival; questions of “Where am I going to live? What happens if we get in debt? What happens if we’re evicted?” These are major issues that people have to deal with. And they’re much closer to the bone than middle-class choices. The richer you are, the more insulated you are from these huge questions.

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

Do filmmakers have a duty to tell these stories?

I think it’s dangerous to start saying, “Filmmakers must do this or must do that.” Film is a wonderful medium, and the films that are produced should be as wide[-ranging] as people’s imaginations.

Everyone has got to make their individual choices and follow their individual compulsions. But, if there isn’t a tradition in cinema that’s about reflecting the world we live in, then the cinema is diminished. It’s like novels. If no novelists are trying to tangle with these thorny issues of how society has moved, and what is happening, and how people are living, then the novel is diminished. And that’s true for cinema.

Do you think films can help change social problems?

They can shed a light, and they can leave with a question. They can pass on responsibilities and say, “This is how it is every day. What do you think we should do? What are you actually going to do about it?”

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

You’ve worked with Paul Laverty for more than 20 years. Could you tell me about how you collaborate?

We speak most days. We’ve been friends for well over a quarter of a century and share an understanding of politics, share what makes us angry, what makes us laugh, what touches us. But also share a basic analysis of what’s happening in the world and the same sense of aesthetics, the same sense of how to tell a story.

We talk about everything from the very outset, what kind of subject and what sorts of characters we want to make a film about, up to what’s the nub of that broad canvas, what’s the centre of it? Out of that pool we’ll write a character or two. We’ll talk about that. And then, out of that, he’ll write a first draft or a storyline, and we knock that backwards and forwards until Paul’s written a script.

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

You said that this film would be the last one you put in the competition at Cannes. Why is that?

It wasn’t, “This will be the last one,” I just didn’t know. I said, “If it’s the last one.” When you get to 83, there’s a limit to how far you can look forward. Who knows? I don’t know. I don’t want to give a hostage to fortune. Take each game as it comes, as the footballers would say.

It’s a very different sort of world, overall, and indeed cinematically, from the one in which you started out. Is it much tougher, or any easier, to get films made these days?

We’re lucky because we’ve been doing this a long time, so provided the films do OK, we can keep making them. The people that invest tend to not want to make films that deal with ordinary people, working-class people. The drama of everyday life tends not to attract investors because they tend to have a different experience in their own lives. And so, they gravitate to stories either set in history, or [about] rich people doing nice things in lovely locations. When it depends on private investments, with an eye to making money, they tend to invest in something else. And that’s the way it’s been and, I guess, will continue, until we get a better system of organising the industry.

What advice would you give a director starting out now?

First rule: join the union. Get into the business somehow. Make friends. Find little avenues where you can work. Learn from good trade professionals. That’s what I did; I learned from brilliant cameramen, from good editors, and from good designers. You have to differentiate between the things that suit what you want to do and the things that don’t. So you’ve got to learn from the experience of working with first-class professionals who know their trade. And see the choices, and understand the technique, the techniques that you can use, and so on.

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

Learn from your own mistakes and other people’s mistakes as well. Judge harshly. But get into the business, and find an avenue somewhere. Then, you’ve just got to be your own toughest critic, decide what your principles are and stick to them. Don’t work for nothing, because you endorse an industry that exploits people who can afford to work for nothing.

Back in the 60s when you were making films like Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969) did you ever think you’d still be making films 50 years later?

I don’t know. I never think in those terms. You just think “What’s the next job? Sometimes you have a good year and sometimes you don’t. I had a whole, very bad decade in the 80s. You just keep ploughing on. You do what you can.

Looking at the bigger picture, there’s people like Quentin Tarantino who’ve said they’ll stop directing films when they’ve made 10 films. Will you ever retire?

I don’t know. It just seems a silly, arbitrary thing to say. I mean, you stay engaged with the world. You don’t go into a cave and not know what’s going on. I want to know [what] the score is on Saturday. I want to see what’s in the newspapers. I want to be part of the world, not somehow locked away.

If the medium you express yourself in is sound and picture and image and character and drama, then obviously that stays in your mind. So why would you walk away? It doesn’t make sense to me. We’re citizens first, aren’t we, before we’re anything? There’s no way I’d stop. Keep turning to the sports page to see what the score was last night. You know? You stay in the world.

Sorry We Missed You (2019)

Who do you support, Ken?

A little local team, near where I live in Bath, called Bath City. And Fulham, when I lived in London. We always look for their result. It began with Nuneaton Borough, which is where I grew up. So I’ve been a bit of a football tart, to be honest.

Finally, do you have a favourite film of the many that you’ve made?

No. I’m afraid it’s always the same answer. The films are like your children. You can’t have a favourite son. And what you remember is the people you worked with, and they’ve all been extraordinary over the years. So, no, you couldn’t have a favourite; it’d be unfair on the others. But you cherish them all in different ways, even… well, particularly, the ones that didn’t work out so well. Always the way.

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