'I, Daniel Blake' Writer Paul Laverty on Climbing the 'Enormous Mountain' of a Screenplay
Paul Laverty faced the challenge of dramatizing bureaucracy in Cannes-winning I, Daniel Blake.
At Cannes last year, a single film took critics and audiences alike by storm. Palme d'Or winner I, Daniel Blake not only captured the sociopolitical tensions roiling under the surface of the Western world today, but did so with humanity, humility, and humor. The story of a man abandoned by neoliberal bureaucracy presaged the anti-establishment political turmoil that would come to characterize 2016, from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) embodies the honest, hardworking everyman who's just trying to survive in a society that tells him his poverty is his own fault—and punishes him for it.
The man behind this tragic film is Paul Laverty, perhaps the greatest living social realist screenwriter. For 20 years, he and director Ken Loach (The Wind that Shakes the Barley) have made empathetic films that strive to understand and relate social issues from the inside out. Their characters and stories are born of exhaustive research; often, they immerse themselves in communities to get to know the real-life versions of their characters. For I, Daniel Blake, Laverty and Loach lived among the blue-collar residents of Newcastle, many of whom are downtrodden and unable to support themselves due to a failing welfare system. Loach cast some of the people they met as actors in the film.
No Film School spoke with Laverty during the film's New York Film Festival premiere about the process of turning his journalistic research into a lived-in, relatable screenplay.
"I treat every screenplay as if it's an enormous mountain to climb. You're not going to repeat yourself; you have to say, this is the right fucking mountain."
Paul Laverty: You know, I was wandering the streets [of New York City] today talking to homeless people, and I realized we have so much in common despite our cultural differences and languages and cities.
No Film School: That is the central tenet of your work.
Laverty: Yes, I suppose it is. It's always a surprise when it seems to communicate, and I take it for granted. It's always such a battle, really.
NFS: I imagine this is something you deal with extensively in your research process. When you go into a world, communicate with people, and then capture it all in writing, what is your process?
Laverty: It's quite long. Depends on the story. I've done historical stories, so if it's historical you try to understand the times. Going to libraries and seeing photographs and getting the music, looking at the poetry. Talk to grandparents, talk to children who remember the words of their grandparents. It's a long, exhaustive process. [You have to] march around the locations.
Laverty: With this particular story, there were lots of things that attracted us to it. We wanted to do something of the moment. We wanted to do something post-economic crisis. Lehman Brothers. The banks went down. It was very interesting to see how the government made a political decision to attack people on welfare. Welfare meant people who were unemployed, people who were sick, people who were disabled. There was a political campaign to denigrate them. To sanitize them. There's a whole narrative of the skiver—someone who lives off of other people. A mooch.
We looked at the statistics and opinion polls. Most people thought 25% on of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently. The reality is 1%. There's a big misperception. In reality, there's a much bigger attempt to avoid paying taxes, especially for corporations. Especially those bastards Apple. You know they've only been paying 1% taxes in Ireland? You know, Tim Cook and Donald Trump have much more in common than they think.
It was a political decision to go for the weakest and the humblest. Civil servants talked of low-lying fruit. They're easy to pick off. They didn't go against the corporations and the people who have got armies of lawyers and accountants to set up their systems and bogus headquarters. That's the mirror image of what's happened to Daniel Blake. The government doesn't target those people. They target the lowest.
We had to learn and understand the welfare process, which is very, very complex. It's different for single moms, for people who are disabled. You've got to understand the application. You've got to speak with experts. Then you've got to understand the lived experience for people confronting it. Then we heard about the long phone calls, people stuck on the phone for three hours, for which you've got to pay. Then you realize how marginalized they've become. How frustrated they've become. Then you begin to realize, of course this is a deterrent.
"If you're listening to people with respect, most people tell you their life stories."
In government organizations, they started talking about reducing "fitful." Fitful means human beings. It means people. It means names. They turn them into statistics and they have this new speak. The whole thing became quite Kafkaesque. Then I talked to people inside the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], whistleblowers, who told me about how they get targets for sanctions. I was shown intel documents with names of people, with the area managers saying, only the top three have carried out enough sanctions. Of course, the government denies it.
They also guarantee zero contracts to people. In other words, Monday, you work for me, but you can't work for anybody else, but I guarantee you zero contract hours. You have to be available for me when I want it. Tuesday you do five hours and Wednesday you do six hours, and Thursday I don't need you. It's unpredictable. Throws people into chaos. That's why we went to the food banks to find the working crew—not just the unemployed and the disabled.
You build up a picture, and then you begin to try and figure out what's going wrong. Why is the government making it so difficult?
NFS: How do you find people to talk to about these experiences? You just walk around and find them?
Laverty: I did it today. I saw people in the food bank just a couple of blocks from here at St. Marks Church. If you're listening to people with respect, most people tell you their life stories. It was amazing to see people choosing between heating and food. In the fifth largest economy in the world. That's interesting. To see people feeding their children with biscuits instead of food because they've received a sanction from the state.
Now, you don't copy a screenplay from the streets. What you do is almost like journalistic work. I've got to figure out what's going on. I've got to find out. I've got to join at the doors. A lot of it writing a screenplay is actually making connections. Then it's almost like, then things come into your lane. Once you got all this information, bit by bit, characters start growing in your mind. Katie Morgan started growing in my mind, because a lot of people are being pushed out of London because of social cleansing, because of the social welfare cuts, because of the housing demand, because so many foreigners are coming in buying. There's a whole housing crisis. Once again, the government has not provided proper planning or housing, a lot of poor people have been pushed out of London.
"The big challenge was to dramatize a bureaucracy, which is quite hard to do."
You're already telling an amazing amount of the story if you know the culture. You're always trying to find shortcuts and situations that are revealing of a much bigger picture. To do it economically and also memorably, and also dramatically. So the big challenge in this one was to dramatize a bureaucracy, which is quite hard to do. You have to forget what you've learned, and then create the characters, but you're informed. That gave me the confidence to write something that was very, very raw. People who want heating, food, health, housing. That's going back to caveman needs. Isn't it? That's kind of the problem from time immemorial.
NFS: What about the vernacular of specific characters? How do you build out their speech patterns and their idiosyncrasies?
Laverty: It's funny, because I'm from the west of Scotland, and so it's much easier for me to write in that region's vernacular. When I go to a place like Newcastle or Liverpool, you just try to listen to the characters. Add in their accent, they'll change a word here or there. There's kind of a great myth that the scripts are improvised. They're not improvised. We shoot the script, but then kind of allow them to continue the conversation. Sometimes you get something very magical that might not be in the script. The actors are remarkably talented and everything like that, but usually it goes back to 90-95% of the script.
NFS: How do you extricate yourself from the subjectivity of the character? Sometimes you can hear a writer in their characters. But for you, that doesn't seem to be a problem.
Laverty: When you're writing, I think you use everything. Then in the moment, sometimes you just hear the characters and they do things and say things that you would never expect. The very end—I just wrote it having coffee one day. Like, "I am a citizen. Nothing more, nothing less." I suppose that came out of seeing all these people who were assumed to be moochers, but are actually furious that people are treating them as moochers. They're fighting to the teeth. I think if I hadn't seen those faces, I wouldn't have written that. I wasn't thinking of any one individual because I've seen so many people angry and humiliated and frightened and marginalized. It was this sense of heart and anger, and also a sense of trying to maintain their dignity.
Laverty: You can also use a childhood memory. It was perfected exactly with Katie. I remember my mother crying on the steps once when she was very young. When a child sees that, it looks like the whole world's inverted. It's terrifying because you don't want you mother to be crying, you're worried for her. It's so shocking, sticks in your mind forever. I think you rob and steal—sometimes it's something you see, sometimes a memory, sometimes it's something that's imagined in the moment.
NFS: What about your drafting process? From first draft to final draft, how do you navigate?
Laverty: Ken and I are joined at the hip. We've been working for 20 years together, and so there's obviously a sensibility there. We're very, very close as friends, but also politically, we've got a similar sensibility.
What I like to do is really test the idea on paper. Once I've done all the research, I'll start putting things on paper. A premise. Who are the main characters? What is the narrative? A mixture of maybe statistics, like that thing with 25%, but also someone's voice, or a situation, or someone from the food bank. What I try to do is put it in the shape of a story. "She might speak like this. Or he might speak like that. They might have this relationship, they might meet here." I throw it all together and give it a shape.
Picking Daniel Blake and Katie Morgan were essential, because I could have picked [characters] who were disabled, or a thousand other people. Those two started to grow in my mind because I thought they would reveal more about the story I wanted to examine. Once I pick the characters, I'll write to try to find out who they are. By writing, you've got to actually give them a name. Daniel Blake. The name was very, very important to me. Daniel is a strong name; Blake is quintessentially English. It's like, I Daniel Blake: "I exist. I am a man."
"In the moment, sometimes you just hear the characters and they do things and say things that you would never expect."
NFS: It's a declaration.
Laverty: It's a declaration. Even getting things like that is very important to me, because it informs the whole screenplay. If we feel I have an interesting idea, then Ken just leaves me to write it. I've got to write the first draft as quickly as I can. A month or something.
NFS: That's quick!
Laverty: Yeah, but that's after six months of research. Then I just try to write. Then we'll look at it again and try and be our toughest critics. Fortunately for the screenplay, between the first draft and the last draft, there's a lot of chopping and things change quite a lot. But it's essentially the same spine and the same characters. If you don't get that right, I think you're screwed, because you're just going to run in circles. That's the importance of really examining the frames beforehand. Doing that in collaboration with the director. If you don't, what can happen is you can go in different directions and waste two or three years and then nothing never congeals. You know?
You're asking people to give years of their life to a movie. You're asking loads of people to give their time and talent to make a film, so you want to make the best use of it. I treat that with enormous respect. I treat every screenplay as if it's an enormous mountain to climb. You're not going to repeat yourself; you have to say, this is the right fucking mountain. I'm going to try to enjoy the view and the journey up.
But then you've got to be your own toughest critic. If you don't try to your absolute maximum, you just won't have resonance. You have to really push yourself and do something original. It's a massive battle every time. You've got to get yourself psyched up for it.