It must be hard to stand in your father’s professional shadow in any industry, but in film even more so and much more conspicuously. That Jim Loach’s heritage looms large even before the similarity between his socially conscious style and that of his father is noted must be endlessly frustrating. So when LWLies met up with him, we didn’t mention it. Instead, the director talked about the challenges of adapting a powerful true story to the screen for his directorial debut, Oranges and Sunshine, while caring about the repercussions for those living with the real version; avoiding turning the sentimentality up to 11; and the joys of co-producing a film between countries on opposite sides of the globe.
LWLies: Can you tell us how the project came about?
Loach: I first read Margaret Humphreys’ book and I went to see her – this was about eight or nine years ago – and she’s got a small office in Nottingham above a sandwich shop. I just sat opposite her and I was just completely spellbound by what I heard and the story that she had to tell. I found her a deeply inspirational person, slightly intimidating if I’m honest but nevertheless very inspirational. At that moment I knew I wanted to make the film because I was straight away taken by the personal dilemma set against the bigger story, so it was when I first met her that I knew I wanted to make it. Then I just got to know her over the years and spent a lot of time going up to Nottingham. I was doing different stuff at the time. Then Rona came and met her and we started to work on the script.
Did Margaret take some convincing to do the film?
Yeah, she was pretty wary. She was quite wary about what the film would be, what it could do and I think she was worried that it would be sentimental. It’s a question for her really but I would think that she was worried it would be sentimental or mawkish or offer easy answers, all of those things. Also she’s quite a private person so I suppose she didn’t necessarily want to put herself forward as a subject for a film particularly.
How did you account for her fears when you started writing the script with Rona?
We never really agreed to make the film or not make the film, we just kept moving forward…
And before she knew it…
Yeah and sometimes she would say to me, ‘I haven’t agreed to do it yet’ and I would tell her it was fine, we’ll just start writing and see what happens. So it just went like that for quite a long time and we went through many drafts of the script and lots of different ways of telling the story. Every now and then I’d send Margaret a draft and she saw pretty much most of the drafts, so she could see which was it was going and I think she became more comfortable with it when she actually started to see the words on the page.
How was it to adapt a true story?
Obviously we spent a lot of time with Margaret and we met a lot of former child migrants and it was problematic because every one of them we met you could have made a film of, absolutely, because each one of them had an incredible story to tell about being sent over to Australia, being told their parents are dead, finding out they were actually alive and that they’d been lied to, then traveling back to this country, all of that, it was extraordinary. But we kept coming back to Margaret really as a way of telling the story as we were taken by her dilemma which is that she’s trying to uncover the truth and holding people to account while putting herself in danger and trying to reunite families all at the same time as trying to keep her own family together. We kept coming back to that as the central driving thrust of the narrative. So then we started to take experiences from lots of the people we met and Rona wrote the characters based on that. So the characters that Margaret meets in the film aren’t any one particular person, they’ve got lots of people in them. There were two people in particular, one guy that David Wenham went to meet in Perth, they spent a weekend in each other’s company. This guy drove David up to Bindoon which is where the climax of the film is and I think he had a very big impression of this man, he was the guy that was a big inspiration for David’s character. They also go completely pissed for the entire weekend and when David came back he had a massive hangover…
…and couldn’t remember anything?
Yes, so that was quite funny and then he started to remember little bits and pieced it together! I sat down and said,’You must remember something!’ Then Hugo went and spent quite a lot of time with this guy in Melbourne and they didn’t get pissed but they also had a very interesting time. So they had done quite a lot of prep and research by the time we started to shoot and they had very real people in mind when they played the characters.
Did you rehearse the actors much?
We didn’t do any rehearsing, I didn’t want to do any really. Emily [Watson] and I and Richard Dillane who plays her husband had a day to work out what the dynamics of their marriage were, which was quite fun. But we weren’t rehearsing anything from the script, we were improvising what might have happened in the months going up to where the story started. Emily did a lot of research, she read a lots and spoke to social workers and spent some time around that. She didn’t meet Margaret because we chose not to go down that route.
So that she wouldn’t be so much of a direct version?
No, we weren’t interested in that. Emily had played real people before of course and I think she would say that she knows all the pitfalls of that, so she didn’t really feel it was of value to get caught up in an impersonation.
And we guess and actor can’t help that if they meet the real person.
You start absorbing stuff and we were really clear that she was going to be her own Margaret on-screen, so they didn’t meet until a screening after we’d finished the film. David and Hugo met people who’d been the major inspiration for those characters and took a huge amount from it.
They were very restrained and powerful performances and avoided the sentimental. How did you keep that in check?
We just had a very strong sense that almost every scene you could dial-up to 11 because it was a deeply emotional story, but the people that we met weren’t like that, they weren’t victims by any stretch of the imagination. The people we met were very heroic characters to us for a start, very strong, very dignified. They guy that gave rise to the Len character most of the time would be pissing around, playing practical jokes, he had a great sense of humour. That was the opposite of a victim and that’s why we wanted to make the film so I had that in mind. Then when we were shooting sometimes I’d let the actors go somewhere then try something else. I think sometimes emotionally if you’re trying to get to the nub of it, sometimes the point after an emotional outburst can be more interesting than the actual outbursts.
How was it doing a British/Australian co-production? Obviously you can’t just pop over there.
It was a complete nightmare and if I’d have thought about it I probably wouldn’t have done it. It’s completely impractical, you’d be here working on the film and there’d be two-thirds of the script that we’d think we’d just work out when we get there. Then similarly in Australia doing the same thing of the elements set back here in Britain, so it was really difficult. When we were shooting it was a bit of a traveling roadshow really as a lot of shoots are but it was just that when we got here to London we had to just pack up everything and move it over to Adelaide in South Australia. When we were making the film we felt it had elements of road movie in it so we went with that.
Did you use locations from real life, was that important to you?
It wasn’t too important to have the actually places to me because we weren’t shooting in Perth, we were shooting in Adelaide. A lot of the other places that we found which we felt were true to the spirit of the original places, but they were locations. We would have liked to have shot at the real Bindoon and talked to them over a long period of time but they came out with excuses and prevaricated and at one point they said we might have to go for a meeting at the Vatican, which I was bang up for! I was trying to engender this meeting at the Vatican just because it would have been fun to go to the Vatican and give them hell. It didn’t come t that unfortunately, eventually they just said no, so that was a great shame for them.
How have the parties involved in real life reacted to the film?
David had been to a Christian Brothers’ school and I think he’s one of their famous alumni so when we were shooting we were telling him they were going to be taking down his photo pronto! We had our premiere in Rome at the film festival actually which was brilliant as it’s the home city of the pope so we invited him at the press conference and the Italian press loved it and went completely mental! I thought we were going to get drummed out, as soon as I muttered it I thought, ‘I wonder how that’s going to go?’ and everyone was looking at me like I was just out to cause trouble. In Australia they’re very open to it, it’s as if they want to accept it was part of their nation’s history, so that’s good. Here of course there are a lot of different authorities involved, a lot of charities and the Church, so they each have reacted slightly differently. Because both governments apologised quite recently the atmosphere is to accept it.
What are you working on next?
It’s a film which we’re really excited about, it’s very different and we’ve been working on it for about three years. It’s a completely different rhythm, it’s a much younger story about a teenager. Thematically it came out of Oranges and Sunshine but it’s a completely different rhythm of film. It’s a really brilliant script, Rona’s come up trumps big time so I’m excited about it.
You were in television before, but do you think film is your future now?
Well it was where my heart was, so there’s nothing on the horizon in TV but I wouldn’t ever say never because for me what matters is the material, the stories you’re telling and so I wouldn’t say never, just not for the moment.
Oranges and Sunshine opens in cinemas April 1.