For his narrative feature film debut, director Jim Loach chose to tackle a sprawling tale of warped governmental policy, spanning three decades and involving the forced deportation of British kids to Australia. Almost as shocking as its narrative — which tells the story of literally tens of thousands of children, and the terrible abuses they suffered after in many cases being told that their parents were dead — is the fact that it is hardly known the United States, where tales of adolescent mistreatment and murder are typically seized upon with a white-hot tabloid fervor, grist for the mill of the 24-hour cable news channels. ShockYa had the chance recently to speak to Loach one-on-one, about his movie, his leading lady Emily Watson and, yes, his famous filmmaker father. The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Social worker Margaret Humphreys wrote a book about her experience, “Empty Cradles,” and there were also some documentary projects about the same story, but what made you decide it was a ripe idea for a narrative treatment?
Jim Loach: It was pretty much my first meeting with [Margaret], because I sat on her sofa and was just listening to her talk. And I remember sitting slightly awkwardly opposite her, and her telling me about a man who had just come back from Australia to the U.K. that very week, to meet his mom for the first time since he was a baby. I honestly very clearly remember listening to that, just spellbound. I found it such an extraordinarily emotional moment to contemplate for [both of those parties], and it was pretty much right then that I wanted to make the film. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, as it were, and what kind of film it was going to be, but I think I knew that I wanted the character of Margaret to be in the middle of it, because sitting opposite her it was evident that she was a very special person — quite inspirational, and also full of her own dilemmas, too. She’s obviously a working mom, which has a nice resonance with the story that she was looking into.
ShockYa: If you’re telling a narrative film, even with Margaret at the center, there obviously has to be a procedural quality to it, so how did you go about creating composite characters or winnowing down the real-life experiences of these men and women who were forced immigrants as children?
JL: Hugo Weaving and David Wenham both play characters partly based on people that we met, specific people, even though there are elements of other [people’s stories] in them. They were most heavily influenced by real people that we met. But similarly, the smaller parts also came from ideas of people that we met, and had some of their experiences added in, if that makes sense.
ShockYa: I know that the governmental apologies (of first Australia and then the United Kingdom) aren’t an endpoint, necessarily, but were you surprised by them? Did you think that the respective governments would finally own up to what they did, after so many years of stonewalling and silence?
JL: I wasn’t convinced that we were going to hear an apology, no, and in fact just before it happened it seemed like it was further away than ever. But when it did happen it was an extraordinary moment for the real people, and for Margaret. It was extraordinary because it was a complete validation of what they’d been saying for so long. But in terms of what they achieve — gosh, that’s a really big question, and I’m not sure I know the answer to it. For the forced immigrants it was a day their government — because after all they were British kids — turned around and said, “We believe you, and [what happened] was wrong.” Amazingly, no one had said that up until then.
ShockYa: It bears repeating that it wasn’t necessary illegal, what they did, it was governmental policy. And yet it was terrible. Were you surprised by the scope of it?
JL: I was amazed at the scale of it — of how many kids were involved, and at the scale of the cover-up. And I was absolutely shocked that so few people seemed to know about it, or wanted to do anything about it, apart from Margaret. I was sort of constantly spellbound, to be honest, by the story. When you hear the details of the people that actually went through those experiences — the lies that they were told as children, and the places that they ended up, and the lies that were told to their parents — it was constantly amazing to me. Even after having made the film, I still find it incredible that Britain was deporting children. It’s an extraordinary fact.
ShockYa: Emily Watson is essential to the film’s emotional mooring, and I know you had a meeting with her not too long after the birth of her son. At that meeting, were you discussing character details already, or just talking more about the story itself?
JL: We were talking about both. She’d obviously read the script, so we were also talking about the character. I always saw the film as Margaret’s story, and her emotional journey, and that’s why I really wanted Emily to play the part. We talked about all the components of the character, and how we could explore that on screen. It was obvious from the beginning that we were like-minded, and both wanted to tell the same story as it were, to make the same film. I think we spoke for ages at that first meeting, and went through loads of hot chocolate and what not. I showed her some black-and-white photographs of some of the real children, and I remember her looking at those incredibly carefully, and being amazed by them — as everybody is when they see them. That’s how we started off, really, and then we kept talking about different aspects of it.
ShockYa: Margaret has been traveling around some with you, and doing Q&As for the film. What has that been like, and what have been some of the most frequent questions you’ve received from audiences?
JL: The Q&As have been brilliant. It’s been absolutely amazing doing them, because audiences take it as an inspirational story about this woman who doesn’t give up and just keeps going against the odds. So a lot of the questions tend to be (centered) around that — why did you keep going, and was there a moment when you thought about stopping? And that’s a hard question for Margaret to answer, I think, but it comes up a lot. People also want to know more about the story behind the film, and why the children were sent, and what the situation is like now.
ShockYa: Are you able to get through an interview without someone asking you about your famous filmmaker father?
JL: Umm… it hasn’t happened yet. (laughs) Although, it’s funny, I was in Turkey, I think, Istanbul, just for a day, to do press for a film, and someone said, “You know what, I’m not going to ask you about your dad.” So that was close, maybe.
ShockYa: I ask somewhat tongue in cheek because I interviewed Jakob Dylan (Bob Dylan’s son) once, and knew that I wasn’t really going to ever get an answer that was more interesting or honest than could be found in his lyrics. So, being familiar with your father’s films, I’m interested more in his experience and your own professional documentary experience, and whether he had any advice — or maybe lessons that were kind of unspoken — as you made that leap from the documentary world into telling a narrative feature, albeit one with nonfiction roots.
JL: Lots of advice, probably, because we talk loads — and he does a lot of texting, because he has a Blackberry. (laughs) Back in England, all this stuff can be a bit suffocating, because it can sometimes feel like all I’m talking about is my dad and not the films at all. I get advice from my dad rather than from the filmmaker Ken Loach. Ken Loach always seemed to me like a different person. When I was a kid I thought he was a different person, I didn’t think he was my dad at all. I can’t quite explain that to you now, but that’s what I thought.
ShockYa: Was the experience of directing actors rewarding, and/or does it have you itching to do more narrative features?
JL: Yeah, totally. I walked around cinema for a very long time, because of what we just spoke about. It’s kind of suffocating back in England. But I think one thing I took from this film was that I managed to look at that more squarely. And you get to a place where you can’t control any of that stuff — you just have to go on and do what you want to do, and work with people you want to work with, and make things that you want to make. That’s what I took from the film, personally.
Written by: Brent Simon