The continued malicious campaign against anyone who honestly requires help supporting their family during times of need is one of the most harrowing problems that’s plaguing many societies around the world. When the public naively starts believing the crude propaganda of the government without doing any of their own research, and savors the misery of those they believe are beneath them, the people who truly require assistance are marginalized even more. That’s certainly the case with the protagonists in the new British drama, ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ which was directed by Ken Loach and written by his frequent collaborator, Paul Laverty.
Set and shot in Newcastle, England, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ follows the title character (Dave Johns), who’s a skilled carpenter in his late fifties who lives alone in one of England’s low-cost housing blocks. Daniel, who maintains a good rapport with his neighbors in his building, has overcome the struggles of caring for his late wife while she battled an illness that eventually led to her death. While he was able to maintain his job as a carpenter while providing healthcare for his wife, he’s now struggling with unemployment. His doctors have forbidden him from returning to work until he has sufficiently recovered from a heart attack he recently suffered.
But after healthcare professional interviews Daniel about his eligibility to receive an Employment and Support Allowance while he’s recovering, she deems him fit for work. He becomes upset over the dispute between the assessor and his doctors’ opinions over whether he’s fit to return to his job, and how he’ll be now be able to provide for himself. His dilemma becomes even more exasperated when he visits his local job center, as no one is actually willing to listen to him while he explains his situation.
The only worker at the job center who helps Daniel is Ann (Kate Rutter), even though she’s repeatedly reprimanded by her supervisor for taking the time to help him fill out the necessary forms. Ann warns Daniel that he’ll have to follow the rules in order to receive his benefits, and if he doesn’t abide by the system, he may end up without a home. In order to make sure he doesn’t become defeated by the system, and to help him secure an income again, he must secure and prove his worthiness an appeal interview.
In order to pay forward the small acts of kindness he has received from the people in his community, Daniel begins helping Katie Morgan (Hayley Squires), a young single mother who has two children, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan). She and her kids have relocated from London to Daniel’s neighborhood after they spent the past two years living in a homeless hostel. While also experiencing her own troubles at the job center, Katie goes without food and basic necessities to take care of her kids. As Katie and her family becomes friends with Daniel, they’re all pushed to make difficult choices in order to survive.
The drama, which is set to be distributed in the U.S. by Sundance Selects later this year, won the Palme d’Or at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Prix du public at this past August’s Locarno International Film Festival. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is currently playing at the 54th New York Film Festival, during which Squires and Laverty generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview in the Hauser Lounge of Alice Tully Hall at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.
Among other things, the actress and writer discussed how they wanted to make the political-driven drama, to show how when welfare programs are cut, the people who truly need government help are the ones who suffer the most. Through their research and collaboration with Loach, they also realized how the bureaucracy of welfare affects a variety of people in British society.
Laverty began the conversation by revealing what inspired him to write the script for ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ and what the writing process was like for him. “Ken and I are very close friends, and we’re always talking about things that interest us. The previous film we worked on together was (the 2014 dramatic biopic,) ‘Jimmy’s Hall,’ which is a period film. The thing about period films is that you have to create every single frame, which is very time consuming,” the scribe noted. “You have to create all the clothes and hair. There was also a lot of dances and music in that film, so it was a lot of hard work for Ken.
“So for our next film, we wanted to create something in the moment…After the banks collapsed, they started to make cuts to the welfare programs, which affected the most vulnerable people,” Laverty also explained. “There was a campaign to stigmatize and stereotype these people. It describe them as being lazy.
“So we wanted to find out what was really going on with these people. We traveled up and down the country, and talked to people in food banks, including those who had to choose between heat and food,” the writer also mentioned. “We also spoke to disable people who lost all of their benefits.”
Laverty then explained that he began to form ideas “in my head that began to grow. It’s almost like doing journalistic work in the beginning, because you’re trying to find the real experience of people who live on welfare. So we tried to find a way to dramatize bureaucracy, which was difficult to do. I said, ‘The welfare system is incredibly complex.’ So we had to understand that, and be able to recreate the characters in the story. So it was a long process of just listening to, and talking with, them.”
After Laverty heard and understand the stories of those British citizens who were living on welfare, “characters began to form in my mind. So the character of Katie Morgan, who was so brilliantly played by Hayley, was so important. She moved from London, and from a screenwriting point-of-view, that was marvelous, because it offers a whole subtext on that culture…We know people are being pushed out of London, and are being marginalized and separated from their families. Then Daniel Blake came to mind,” the writer explained.
“Sometimes these characters just appear, and I have to put them down on paper. I then talk about the characters and structure with Ken, and try to write the first draft very quickly. Fortunately, the first draft is actually very similar to the final draft that we shot,” Laverty also mentioned.
Squires then chimed in on how she became involved in starring as Katie in ‘I, Daniel Blake.’ “My agent called me and said that Ken was casting for his new film, and asked if I wanted to meet with him and the casting director (Kahleen Crawford). I said yes. The minute that I knew it was Paul and Ken who were working on the film, I jumped at the chance. I started watching their films when I was 14, so I was very excited by the opportunity,” she admitted.
The actress then revealed that when she met with the director, “Paul’s script hadn’t been given to me yet. Ken kept it to himself, because that’s part of his process when he’s shooting.”
So when Squires and Loach first began conversing, they spoke a bit about their respective ideas on the script and the character of Katie. “After that initial meeting, during which we talked about where I was from, what I did for a living and that kind of thing, I did two different auditions. I went in and met Dave Johns, who played Daniel Blake. We were partnered up during both auditions and did improvisations,” the actress explained. She added that the director “gave us scenarios, and we would talk about them.
“The way Ken works is very specific, and it affects your performance,” Squires also mentioned while further discussing whether or not the director encouraged her and her co-stars to improvise on the set. “Ken had Paul’s script in it’s entirety. So the two of them, as well as the rest of the crew, knew where the characters would begin, and where they would finish. But we as actors didn’t know” the characters’ arcs in advance.
“We found out day-by-day what was going to happen to our characters. We were only given sections of the script chronologically. So we found out what would happen like we would in real life. So there wasn’t a true development of the script with Paul and Ken,” Squires explained. “Sometimes Ken would allow the conversation to carry on. The thing about Ken is that he does a lot of takes. So that allows you to find things within the scene.
“Paul was on set with us a lot,” the performer also divulged. “Ken had given Dave and I the freedom to carry on the conversation at the end of a scene. So if there was something there that Ken or Paul liked, Ken would come over to us and whisper that to us. So it was really collaborative in that sense.” Laverty agreed that Squires and Johns would “come up with things in the moment that were quite lovely.”
With ‘I, Daniel Blake’ focusing on how the bureaucracy of welfare affects a variety of people in British society, from a single mother like Katie to an older single man like Daniel, Squires and Laverty also discussed what kind of research they did while they were working on the film. The actress explained that “My and Ken’s focus was on where Katie had been, and where she was now, but necessarily where she was going. So our process very much involved figuring out what kind of homeless hostels she would have lived in with her children.
“I also visited a brilliant U.K. charity named Shelter, and they work with the homeless. By homeless, I mean people without a home, and not necessarily people who are living on the street,” Squires shared. “There are women who are in their 20s and 30s and have children, and they’re living in one bedroom.” So the actress met with “a few women who were living in those circumstances. That way, I could get a hold of the energy they have to face life, and how they interact with their children.
“Another thing that Paul, Ken and I spoke about is the hunger that Katie and her children face during the first half of the film. So the focus was on her not being able to eat, and what her options were,” Squires noted.
Laverty also shared that he “spoke to all sorts of people. The more time you spend talking to people, the more you realize what the bureaucracy is really like. You’ll never get some of the information you need unless you talk to people.
“Daniel Blake’s a very capable man-he can build a house. I think that’s closer to the norm of what people think about when they think of people’s ordinary life,” the writer admitted. “But there are many more people who are much more vulnerable, so circumstances can be much tougher. Answering the important questions of what these people’s lives could be like was vital before I began working on the script.”
Once the actors were cast in their respective roles in the drama, and they finished their research process, they didn’t have any rehearsal time together, “because that’s not Paul and Ken’s style.” She further explained that the writer and director emphasized the importance of the actors knowing where their characters have been, and where they are now.
That was especially true “Since there’s such a small cast at the core of the film, including Dave, the people (Daniel) comes across at the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions), myself and the kids. Most of the time we did have to work together focused on my relationship with Briana and Dylan, who played my (character’s) two children. We worked to get to know each other, and break down those boundaries.”
The actress also explained that the crew that Laverty and Loach frequently work with have known each other for years. “So it’s not like we all didn’t know the names of the men who are micing and lighting you. It’s very much about being a part of a family. So this movie was very different from other films, in that sense. There’s such a sense of relaxation, that’s the sense of rehearsal, rather than anything else.”
Squires then expressed her appreciation for being able to work with Loach on ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ as she called him a “brilliant man. Ken has a wonderful ability to calm you the minute you step in the room. You know that he’s listening to you, and that he has a real kindness and humor that will take you through the process.”
During the five-and-half weeks that the cast and crew were working on the drama, Squires admitted that some of it was hard work. “But it was really collaborative, and we really felt as though we were making a piece of art together.”
Laverty then noted that he has been working with Loach for 20 years. “So we’ve built an atmosphere where we feel confident in voicing our opinions. I think the secret in that is that he carefully chooses people who have talent. He has confidence in them, and they have confidence in him,” the writer revealed. “He creates a very safe space,” which is a sentiment that Squires agreed with. “He makes sure there aren’t any distractions.
“Ken also creates an atmosphere where you can just give it your best. He does that with me, too. He pushes you to trust your own instinct, so we have a great collaboration. That’s why he doesn’t include the phrase “A Ken Loach Film” in his projects,” Laverty explained. “He says, ‘I didn’t do the DOP (Director of Photography) work and I didn’t raise the money for, and I didn’t act in, the film.’
“So there’s a modesty in him that’s very attractive. He’s also smart and talented. But he’s also a tough collaborator, because he demands a lot out of you,” the writer also noted.
“Trust is the most important thing with Ken,” Squires also chimed in. “What Paul was saying is absolutely right-the point-of-view of an actor is so important. So if you have a director who trusts you enough to give you a script, you have to match that. Even if you don’t realize you’re doing it, you want to match his trust in you, as well as his level of responsibility.”
The actress added that Loach “is the kind of man when you meet and work with him, you want to match his kindness, calmness and hard work. He leads very much by example.”
While Loach shot ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in only about five weeks, Laverty and Squires both agreed that it was the perfect amount of time to make this type of film. “We didn’t waste a lot of time. While we did do a lot of takes, we tried to use natural light, so the shooting process was very fast. We also shot the film in chronological order, which I think actors find to be very helpful, as it helps them trust their instincts,” another sentiment that the actress agreed with. “So that’s why Ken is able to capture these wonderful performances from his cast.”
“As Paul said before, with ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ they deliberately made a sparse film,” Squires echoed. “It’s about how people talk to, and interact with, each other. So the amount of time we had to make this film was perfect.”
The actress added that she felt it was beneficial to set the film in Newcastle, as opposed to a larger city like London. “I think Paul did that because this is a situation that’s happening all over Britain. The government is offering people, who they need to house, free homes outside of London. The counselors are doing this scheme where they’re offering them a certain amount of money to move out of London, so they no longer have to pay for them. These people are considered to be undesirables to have in their area, so they want to push them out of London, and into other parts of the country.
“If these people are moved, other counselors will have to deal with them, and the money that’s given to these residents is no longer being taken out of the city’s budget,” Squires explained. “So these people are being taken out of their hometowns, where they were born and raised, and are being put in places where they have to go to, because they have no choice. It certainly gives a sense of unity across Britain.
“Daniel was from Newcastle, and Katie was from London, but there’s still a unity between them. So it’s about what the government is doing to people,” the actress noted. “In Katie’s circumstance, if she hadn’t taken the flat in Newcastle, the government would have said to her, ‘You’ve made yourself deliberately homeless, so we don’t have to deal with you anymore. We no longer have any responsibility to you.’ So Paul wanted to shed light on this scheme they’re running.”
The film presents the argument that the bureaucratic structure is impenetrable by design; no matter how hard people strive to fulfill the requirements the government sets for them to receive their benefits, they often times can’t met those goals. So both Squires and Laverty was it important to showcase how the counselors weren’t willing to help those in need in the story.
“There are people who are desperate to improve their situation, but they’re being made out by the government and media to be lazy and useless, like Paul mentioned before. But the vast majority of these people are striving to make their lives better. They’re caught up in a vicious system that’s designed to make them invisible,” the actress explained.
Laverty also mentioned that “in Europe, there are attacks on welfare budgets all over the place. But at the same time, big corporations are dodging their fair share of taxes…So there’s a big correlation between being hands off of these big corporations and (targeting) the disabled citizens. So there’s a lot of anger about that, and I hope that’s implicit in the story…It helps raise all of these questions. They find it easier to target the vulnerable.”
As a result of the cast and crew humanely raising the questions of why those people in need are being targeted by the government, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ has won awards and screened at several film festivals this year, including the New York Film Festival. Squires noted that the cast and crew “has had a wonderful experience” bringing the drama on the festival circuit. She added with a laugh that “I’m saying that with fingers crossed, as we’re about to show it to the U.S. public for the first time. But we had a wonderful reception at Cannes and (the) San Sebastián (International Film Festival in the Spanish city of Donostia-San Sebastián). That gives me a sense of pride of what we’ve done with the film.
“I think that speaks to the universal issue of what we’re talking about. This is happening by governments and corporations across the world. While the details of the bureaucracy may be different, the problems, targets and systems are still the same,” the actress pointed out. “So the fact that the film is being embraced makes me feel as though we’re doing something important.”
Watch the official trailer for ‘I, Daniel Blake’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello