Monday, October 28, 2019
Interview ‘If you gain control of the narrative, you control the story’
Screenwriter PAUL LAVERTY talks to Dan Nolan about his work on a new film with Ken Loach which takes the ideological brainwashing of the free market to task
“DID you see that article in the Financial Times?” Paul Laverty asks me. “They’re really, really worried. There’s such gross inequalities now, the whole thing is going to collapse.
“And they want a benign, humane capitalism. As if [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos gives one flying fuck. You know, he’s monitoring people’s behaviour — eight seconds to move every single item. Do you think he gives one single toss? No.”
This invective is typical of Laverty, who’s honest, unrestrained and funny in spite of the London press launch we meet at for his latest film with Ken Loach, Sorry We Missed You, which he scripted.
He speaks with a conviction born of leg-work and commitment. Working with Loach and producer Rebecca O’Brien, his screenplay is derived from time spent at delivery depots, white-van cabs and care workers’ rounds.
When I tell him I was once a Deliveroo rider, his response is characteristic: “Did [the film] ring true to you or what?”
Sorry We Missed You, through the intimacy and intricacy of just one single family, tells the story of sweeping and systematic abuse of the working poor in the name of unfettered capital gain.
Ricky and Abby, on the verge of buying a home, are hit sharply by the collapse of Northern Rock and they’re left to sustain rent, bills, a car and two kids through tenuous, false self-employment in couriering and care work.
All of that, Laverty reminds me, was part of a plan. In the 1980s Tory minister Nicholas Ridley, along with Margaret Thatcher — the “radical free marketeers” — plotted to destroy the trade unions, “then destroy the miners, then privatise.”
Here, at its tail-end, this ruthless neoliberal ideology has metastasised. Well-meaning victims now promote it — alienated from other workers and their own families — in a language manufactured by legal and PR experts.
This new lexicon of “onboarding” and “working with” — which opens the film over black title credits — has huge significance, says Laverty. “If you gain control of the narrative, you control the story. You’re no longer an employee. You are an ‘owner-driver-franchisee.’ It’s your business. You’re a ‘warrior of the road.’”
He quotes William Blake, who talked of “mind-forged manacles”, and for Laverty “that’s exactly what it is: ‘There’s great opportunities here and if you screw it up and if you fuck it up, it’s your fault.’”
After I, Daniel Blake’s targeting of the Tory welfare state, in which a man in the street pours scorn on Iain Duncan Smith, no character here is blaming the Tories or Bezos. “Ricky believes in this system,” Laverty stresses. “And he’s not got a fucking chance because it’s going to grind him down.”
This manifests in the film through Maloney, Ricky’s depot boss — the self-declared “patron saint of nasty bastards” — who works and sanctions his self-employed contractors harder than any direct employer.
But Laverty, briefing former copper Ross Brewster for the role, told him that he is not playing the enemy. “In his own mind he’s saying he’s got to win the contract because he knows that black box [the couriers’ bleeping handheld device] is up against everybody else and is absolutely merciless.”
When Abby shouts down Maloney for sanctioning her physically broken husband, the depot boss does not flinch. “This is beyond personality,” Laverty says. “She’s looking at a corporation and it begs the question: ‘How do you get away with it?’”
Sorry We Missed You does not bludgeon viewers with its message. It’s heart-breaking and affecting, but touched with warmth and humour — and curries and football.
The writer saves a certain ire for misreadings of this reality. “This guy, Matt Littlewood, made me laugh — I think he was a Tory adviser at one point — he was asked to watch the film and he goes: ‘Oh, that’s probably the worst day ever. Everything comes together at once.’”
The film is painfully aware of the fate of Don Lane, the DPD courier fined for taking time to treat his eventually fatal diabetes. But its characters live on, despite 15-minute care visits and plastic-bottle toilet breaks.
The likes of Littlewood always say: “Oh yes, that’s the worst-case scenario,” says Laverty. “No. Bullshit. I’d love to put him in a room for 10 hours and give him a plastic bottle and see how he feels — him and Bezos and his executives.”
Laverty is defiant, not resigned. He cites Gramsci: “We’re in an ‘interregnum,’ this kind of period where we don’t really know what’s going to happen. But I think so many people of [the younger] generation are saying this does not work.
“I think what’s hopefully beginning to seep into people’s minds is that the centre of ground is changing.
“And they say: ‘We cannot allow this if we’re going to have our communities screwed, our families screwed, the mental health of our children.’
“And what’s the point of work if you can’t even see your children?”
Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas on Friday November 1.