Cannes: 'Jimmy's Hall' Director Ken Loach Reveals Why He Still Gets Anxious at the Fest (Q&A)

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Ken Loach

The director most often invited to Cannes sounds off on the anxieties that grip him during every premiere, the collaborators who stay by his side and his dislike of the word "auteur."

British director Ken Loach holds the world record for getting films accepted at Cannes: Jimmy’s Hall, Loach’s latest and his largest-scale production ever, is his 12th to be selected. The movie, about a fighter for freedom of speech in church-dominated 1920s Ireland, is Loach’s 10th collaboration with writer Paul Laverty.

Loach, 77, has won nine prizes at Cannes, including the FIPRESCI award for 1979’s Black Jack, the Palme d’Or for 2006’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about Ireland’s 1920 civil war, and the jury prize for 2012’s The Angel’s Share, the latter two written by Laverty. Loach also received the 30th Anniversary Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for his life’s work.

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Despite his formidable artistic reputation, Loach spoke with THR about his anxiety (still!) about bringing a film to Cannes, why the word “auteur” doesn’t apply to him and just how he goes about finding those unfamiliar faces to turn into stars.
You have said this will be your last narrative film. Is that true?
Well, I kind of thought I wouldn’t get through another one just as we were beginning Jimmy’s Hall because it’s a moment of maximum pressure when you haven’t shot a thing, but you’re knackered from all the prep and you’ve been away from home for a long time and you still have to get through the shoot. It’s quite a daunting prospect -- the effort you’ve got to find from somewhere and the nervous and emotional energy and all that. So it just seemed too daunting, but now having come out the other side, while I’m not sure we’ll get another of that size, [we’ll] at least get a little film together of some sort [with Laverty] more akin to a documentary scale. There’s nothing on the horizon yet.

Documentaries are still what you would like to make?
I think it’s a scale thing. The bigger the scale, the more exhausting the prospect it is, so a small contemporary film may be a possibility. When you’re at the wrong end of your 70s, everything is a challenge.
Where does Jimmy’s Hall sit in tone with the other films you’ve made with Laverty?
We made The Wind That Shakes the Barley about the war of independence and the civil war, which were the pivotal moments of Irish history, really. Jimmy’s Hall would seem to be a smaller story 10 years later. It’s just a few events that indicate the society that had developed after that. As in all upheavals, there had been a huge range of ideas that had been explored in the independence struggle. Some of them hadn’t been translated into action so the society that was left was one that was still based on landed interest and the power of the church and had turned into quite an oppressive society. So it’s a corollary to The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Can you tell me about casting Barry Ward in the lead role, continuing your tradition of pushing largely unknowns into the spotlight?
I work with Kahleen Crawford, who does the casting. We meet anyone who is remotely interesting or interested or wants to have a go. We meet them all, hundreds literally, then we whittle it down to people who you can see in the part and they all have different qualities. Jimmy’s a complex character with many different sides to him and the man who stood out was Barry.

Would you call Jimmy’s Hall an issue-driven film?
The trouble is if you reduce the film to the phrase “issue-driven” it suggests something else. I hope it’s a story based on those people at that time trying to do what they were trying to do. And the fun of it.

What defines an auteur for you?
It’s not a word I’d use, to be honest. It means author and a film can’t have an author in the same way a novel does or a written play. You’ve only got to look at a film to see that it has to be collaborative -- the images, the performances and all the art direction and the costume, everything shrieks collaboration. It came about as a reaction against the studio-type production, where it didn’t have a single voice. The job of the director is to make certain that the film has one voice and a sense of a single vision, even though it’s produced by a large number of people making contributions -- to turn all those contributions from individual voices into one coherent one.
Does it get any easier taking one of your films to Cannes, a place where you have been more than any other filmmaker?
The first thought is you hope it’s not going to be a total disaster. It’s anxiety. Anxiety about the showing and the worry that the projection will be good. The second anxiety is that I haven’t made a load of old nonsense -- and then the third is that you’ll get through it all without making a complete arse of yourself.
Still nervous?
More nervous as the years go on. It’s high risk in terms of the consequences the audience can have and the critics there. You just cross your fingers and hope they find it OK. It’s quite a nerve-racking few days.
What about being the most invited filmmaker of all time?

It’s extraordinary, really. I can’t believe it. I think one thing that has been important is that I work with a writer and producer [Rebecca O’Brien], who are equal parts of the team so it’s not down to one person; it’s a collaborative collective. It’s meant we have been able to work at a reasonable rate, which is good fortune.