With a surname that causes instant recognition for any fan of British cinema, Jim Loach knows he has a task on his hands. But while he may be the son of Ken – director of such classics as Kes and My Name is Joe – Loach has more than managed to emerge from his father’s shadow with his debut film. Adapted from Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles by Rona Munro, who previously scripted Ken Loach’s harrowing 1994 film Ladybird Ladybird, Oranges and Sunshine is an equally traumatic tale. Starring Emily Watson as Humphreys, a Nottingham-based social worker, the film tells of how, back in 1986, she came across a shameful secret from Britain’s past. Thirty years earlier, hoards of children in care, many of whom still had parents, were shipped from the country to Australia on the pretence of giving them a better life. Below, Loach talks about what drew him to the project, how an apology from both British and Australian governments to the former child migrants affected the film and how he feels about being the ‘son of Ken’. ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ is out in cinemas now.
You premiered the film in Rome. How did that go down?
We did. It seemed to go down very well. We showed it at the film festival. Then we were struck by the irony of taking it to the home city of the Pope. It was an opportunity too good to miss in a way. To be honest, we were slightly cautious about how it would go down, but they really took it to their hearts, and it was a really good moment.
What was the local reaction like?
The Italian press were really supportive actually, and obviously for them, the big questions were around the role of the Catholic Church in the story, which for us is one aspect of it. But for them it was very important. They really picked it up and ran with it, and they were up at the Vatican asking questions. It was really good. I think they’d covered stories of abuse a lot. And then at the press conference, it was one of the main strands that we were talking about. Then the way they reported the film tended to focus on that, but they were very complimentary and supportive so that was good.
How are you expecting the film to go down in Australia?
We’re going to be holding onto our hats, I think! Not many people have seen it in Australia yet. I went over a couple of weeks ago and showed it the people that helped us with all the research. The former child migrants…we got a group together and put on a screening for them. They were hugely emotional and had an incredible reaction to it. So I felt, whatever happens now, I know that they really like it – and they see it as accurate and truthful to their kind of story.
Really, the accusations can’t be denied now…
Absolutely. Even in the time we were making the film…for me, it started seven or eight years ago, when I first started talking to Margaret. At that time, there was much less known about it. But in the course of making the film, a lot of the facts are now in the public forum and beyond doubt. So I think that’s good. I think it will still provoke a lot of debate in Australia, because it touches on a lot of issues that are very close to home for them. It is where the children’s homes were. They were in Australia, not Britain. So it provokes a lot of soul-searching, I think.
Of course, Britain is hardly innocent in all this…
Absolutely. What the former child migrants said to me is that the apology that they valued the most came from the British government because they were the ones that sent them in the first place, and they were British children. So we had a very big part to play in it.
Were you surprised when both the British and Australian governments made a formal apology?
I knew there was something they were working towards, but the timing of it took us all by surprise. We had just gone into production, so we had just started shooting. Only a few weeks before, it seemed like an apology was a very long way away. So we were all surprised by the timing of it. I was genuinely happy for the real people. Well ‘happy’ is the wrong word. I was really pleased for them, because it was something they’d worked so long for. It was very, very important for them.
How did it affect the film?
Well, it affected the atmosphere of making it. What the film was, Rona and I were really keen that we didn’t make it like a campaigning film. We really wanted to make a film that stood on its own two feet as a piece of drama and as the story of a woman – Margaret. That was the film we always wanted to make, and we didn’t want to make a campaigning film. So in many ways, we were pleased that the apologies came. Dramatically, we felt that you could get to it like a full stop. You could almost get to the end of the story. So for us making the film, it was actually quite helpful. You felt like you get to the end of the story.
How did the film get started?
I read Margaret’s book, and there’d been some pieces in the newspaper – not much. And I went to see Margaret in Nottingham. At first she was fairly cautious! She was very cautious! She wanted to be convinced of what a film could do, and what sort of film it would be. So it took a long time for us to talk through those sorts of issues.
So how did things evolve?
Every time I went to see her – she’s got an office in Nottingham, quite a small one – she’d tell me another story, which I felt, dramatically, was absolute gold. So every time I went to see her, for me the story, the film, the idea, got better and better and stronger and stronger. Because more of Margaret’s story emerged, and it became less an issue and more a story about this woman.
Did she gradually warm towards you?
Yeah. Yeah. I think so. We had our ups and downs. We had some fairly frank conversations. Overall, we went on this huge journey together, I think, where we were trying to work out what we could do together. And Margaret is a brilliant person. I’ve known her for a long time now, and I love her to bits. She’s quite a normal, private person. So to have this bloke coming up from London, getting into quite personal areas, was quite difficult for her, and I can understand why.
Was it problematic that you didn’t have a body of film work to show her?
That would be a question for her. Funnily enough, it never really came up in conversation. It was just always about the story and telling the story and what we would be doing. I think Margaret’s main concern was that it couldn’t just wallow in misery without usefully doing something. I’ve got no interest in doing that either, but of course at the time, it was just an idea, so everybody slightly has their own take. I think that was the nub of it: what sort of film it would be?
How was she with the apology? Do you remember that?
I do. We were in Nottingham. It was about two days away from shooting. It was a very heightened time. It was a very emotional time. Margaret was pretty overwhelmed, because it was such a huge moment. It was something she’d worked for, for 23 years.
Your screenwriter Rona Munro wrote Ladybird Ladybird for your father. Is that how she came to work with you?
I was talking to my Dad in very early days about it. And then we’d spoken over several years about it. So yeah, I saw Ladybird Ladybird, and I’d met Rona when I was much younger, and then I met her again and we talked through it. Then she met Margaret and they got on very well. And they actually had a very sparky relationship, and that’s how it came about. She was really committed.
The characters played by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham – are they amalgams?
They are amalgamations of different people we met but there were a few people we met in particular who we were really struck by. That was very much true to the people that we met. Obviously, everybody had dealt with it differently. They’d all had similar experiences but they’d all dealt with it in very different ways. David’s character was based partly on this guy in Perth that Rona and I had met. Rona was incredibly struck by him, and when she met him she started going off and writing straight away in the hotel in Perth, I remember. For her, I think it completely unlocked the script. If you ever offered him sympathy, he was just not interested. He would run a mile from anyone offering sympathy. He was so emphatically not a victim. He was very direct and quite prickly, and was always deflecting with humour and messing around. So Rona was just really struck by that, and struck by him and his relationship with Margaret. When they first clapped eyes on each other, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. By the end, they were absolutely as one.
Hugo’s character is very broken. Was this a common trait in your experience?
I would say, he was less common in a way. Our experience was that we didn’t meet victims, which was what made the story appealing for us dramatically. That was our experience. Other people might find differently. But we found all these people with amazing senses of humour and they were not asking for sympathy all the time. There was this guy who we met who was an immense character and for us a real enigma. He’s quite private and kept his counsel, and kept his thoughts very much to himself. We found that an exceptional contrast to David Wenham’s character, and it was at that point that we felt we could tell Margaret’s story through her relationship with these two men.
How did you get Emily Watson on board?
I lucked out big time! I was looking back in my diary the other idea, and about six or seven years ago, I drew up a fantasy casting list. Emily’s name is at the top. And I know it’s something we all say, but it’s completely true! I think at that time I thought, she probably wouldn’t want to do it. So she was at the top for a long time. We’d gone through quite a few drafts, and I was trying to work out when I should send her the script. Eventually I did, and then we got together, and we talked it through, and she was completely committed from then on really. That was quite a long time before we started shooting – just at the beginning of financing. For me, she’s obviously one of the best actors of her generation. But what it was, was that she had a brilliant mixture of strength and compassion. My overriding fear for the role was that I didn’t want it to be mawkish or sentimental. She can do that very strong thing but also compassionate. She’s also incredibly intelligent. And she’s got a really wicked sense of humour – she’s quite naughty. And I like that. We didn’t want any holier than thouness, and we didn’t want any sentimental thing. Emily just doesn’t go there.
Was it any film of hers that convinced you to cast her?
There wasn’t one particular role. I like all her films of course, like we all do. For me, Breaking the Waves made a huge impact. But it wasn’t one particular thing. It was a sense of all her work, and her as a person. Then I met her, and she absolutely really liked it a lot, and really loved Rona’s writing. And what’s great about Emily is she knows what she wants. She’s a lovely, lovely woman – and I love her to bits – but you don’t get taken in by her. She’s also very determined and that’s really good for the part. So all those reasons really.
Did Margaret meet her?
They didn’t meet before we started shooting. We thought about it for a long time. But we decided probably best not to, and I’m glad we went down that route actually. I just wanted her to be her own Margaret and not an impersonation. Emily came to the same conclusion. They met only quite recently to be honest, at a screening. We went out for something to eat, and they got on very well.
Where in Australia did you shoot?
We shot in Adelaide, in the city, and in the Flinders Ranges, which were where all the Bindoon sequences were, which is set in the Outback. I loved it. I loved shooting away from this country anyway. I think it’s more freeing to me personally, away from stuff here. So for me I find it very liberating to go away, so I always go away, which is probably why I focused on that story in the first place.
How was the heat out there?
Yeah, it was absolutely blistering. A lot of the unit were Australian and they were tough. But for the English people, we were suffering! We had a fantastic collection of hats! And nets – they’ve got these nets that you put over your face to stop the flies. The flies get into your mouth and your eyes and everything. Emily was doused in fly spray before every take but it didn’t really make much difference, so we just had to go with it in the end. I’ve never known flies like it! They go in your eyes, in your mouth, up your nose, in your ears – it was horrific! It was quite challenging. It was at the end of the shoot as well, so it was quite a heightened time. We were keen to do it at the end, because we just thought to keep it in that story order would be beneficial to the material.
Did you show your father the film during the edit?
Yeah, we screened it. He popped into the cutting room to give me a few tips! We talk every day, so it’s not really a big deal. We’d talk all the time and text and stuff. It’s important to be able to show it and have someone with a fresh eye to come in and see it. I’m lucky really. People always assume it’s going to be difficult, but it’s not really as difficult as they think.
I’ve read you swore you’d never follow your Dad into filmmaking…
I know! When I was much younger, I definitely didn’t want to make films. I think it was because I was determined to do the opposite of what my parents did. At the time, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be like John Pilger – he was my hero. It’s difficult to explain, to be honest. The pull was irresistible. That’s the only way I can describe it. And I think fundamentally I always did want to make films, but I denied it in myself.
One of your earliest jobs was directing Coronation Street. How was that?
It certainly knocks out a few high-falutin’ ideas you’ve got, to do Coronation Street. What was really good about it, for me, was that technically it was very valuable. You just had to go and shoot dozens of pages a day, so technically you learn a lot about the process of filming. In terms of telling a story, for me personally, it was a little less useful. But at that time, if you’d done World in Action, you could hop over to Coronation Street. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really happen now. But a few directors had done it before me. So I was quite fortunate…I was the last to make that leap over. Yeah. Obviously I was only there for ten months – so even at the end, as far as they were concerned, I was the new boy. A lot of the older cast used to look at me like I should make them a cup of a tea and then bugger off! It was a completely surreal experience to be honest. I’d just stand there thinking ‘What on earth am I doing here, in the Rovers Return? How has this happened? And what on earth am I going to say to them.’ But looking back, I think I did learn a lot technically.
Did you spend much time on your father’s sets when you were young?
We visited occasionally. It was in our world, I suppose, as kids. But we weren’t always on set or traipsing around the country. In our teenage years, we were brought up in Bath, so it was a pretty normal childhood to be honest. Whatever that means!
How do you feel being seen as ‘the son of Ken’?
Really, it’s a royal pain in the arse to be honest a lot of the time! But I’m really, really close to my Dad – and my mum – and we talk all the time. There were definitely times when I felt like it was too difficult to deal with. But now I just do what I want to do. The problem for me was, obviously you don’t start from a clean slate, so you just have to let that notion go, and accept there will be a perception, and get on with it, and do it anyway. You’ve got to, I think!
Are you ready for comparisons to your father’s films?
Yeah. I know it’s going to happen and it’s inevitable. Funnily enough, in terms of the material we go for, we probably would be slightly different. But it’s totally inevitable. It’s difficult but it’s just my world. It’s just my perspective, so I have to get on with it. We talk all the time.
What is next for you?
Rona and I have got another script, which we’re hoping to get going later in the year, which I’m really excited about. It was something we were developing alongside Oranges…and we weren’t really sure which one would take off. And I’m really excited about that. I’m really hoping we can do that next. It’s about a kid who wants to escape his life and he wants to find out who his Dad is. His journey is to try and achieve those ends, and it takes him off across the world. And it ends in a shocking way for him. We were always interested in the themes that are in Oranges… and we felt they would sustain another narrative. There was something interesting about heritage and parents and how well you know your parents. In a way Oranges… tells part of that, because it’s focused on the real story of Margaret, so it was ideas that came out of Oranges…It’s completely fictional. We didn’t want to do another true story. I think we both felt like we wanted to do something fictional next.