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Interview: Screenwriter Paul Laverty talks about his new film The Olive Tree and the international response he’s received to I, Daniel Blake

March 20, 2017

FilmReviewReview | by Cormac O'Brien


Across his body of work, longtime Ken Loach collaborator and I, Daniel Blake writer, Paul Laverty has taken time to explore marginalised and often maligned people, prying apart the headlines of the right wing press and fighting back by creating people-centric counter narratives.

This time Laverty collaborates with his partner, actress and director, Icíar Bollaín (Land and Freedom) to bring a closely played and urgent family drama set in post-economic crisis Spain.

When a tight knit farming family sells their millennia old olive tree in order to finance the building of a new family business (a seaside bar destination), Ramon their grandfather is devastated and gradually ceases to speak. The olive tree, a cornerstone of their family life, for the young Alma (Anna Castillo) represents the strong bond she has to her grandfather Ramón, but also represents years of resentment and struggle working on the land for her father, Luis.

Years later, after the boom years have ended and their business has failed, her grandfather Ramón remains mute. When fiery and resourceful Alma finds out that their olive tree has become the symbol of an unscrupulous international corporation based in Germany (strip-mining being one of their many crimes), she sets off on a road-trip with her uncle Alcachofa and friend Rafa to recover the tree from the corporation lobby, where it’s been replanted, and cure her grandfather.

Enlisting the help of a German anti-globalisation group along the way, The Olive Tree talks about the devastation to generations of history by economic circumstance and ordinary people’s daily struggles in times of recession.

Paul Laverty met up with Candid to talk about the too often ignored human hardships behind the European economic crisis and how the world has responded to his stereotype battling screenwriting.

You’ve always gravitated towards stories of ordinary people fighting against huge odds: I, Daniel Blake, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Land and Freedom, and now The Olive Tree. What draws you to stories like these?

The Olive Tree gets you straight to the heart of drama really. Essentially, all drama is conflict and in the stories that interest me, this conflict is always multi-layered and multi-dimensional. In all of those films, yeah, people are struggling against the outside world but they are also struggling against their own demons, their families and intimate personal relationships. In life all of these things are connected.

In other genres, it’s often one conflict, it’s on one level. Some films fight against a single enemy. In the Olive Tree although there’s international themes and it’s set against the backdrop of the crisis in Spain, it’s actually a very, very intimate story about the fragile connections of family. It covers a whole range of things. There’s the very difficult relationship with Alma’s father and her close relationship with her grandfather. All of those things are connected with the crisis in Spain.

Why did you choose Spain in particular?

In Spain, much like in Ireland, your neck of the woods, there was a ferociously over-stuffed economy. Many people were on the make, they were working more hours than God could send. In Spain in the boom years, they were building more houses than Germany, Italy and France put together. That was the level the Spanish economy was at. Everyone was desperate to make as much money as possible. There was also massive corruption, similar to Ireland.

So in our story, a family has a chance to build this little bar by the beach if they pay a bribe to the mayor. And of course, their way to pay off the mayor is to sell off their precious olive tree. This was one of the most sacred things in their lives. And through that premise, we examine a family, we examine a country, and hopefully make a mischievous little tale.

And the symbol of the olive tree?

The actual olive tree is a fantastic symbol. When you think of these millennia old trees, it’s absolutely remarkable. These trees were planted by the Romans and since then there’s been over two thousand years of a symbiotic relationship between man and nature, and man and tree. In Spain, the Santander bank has dug up about two hundred of these millennia old trees and put them all around their VIP lounge in Madrid. These trees are seen as sources of wisdom and long-lasting sacredness and that’s something everybody wants to latch onto.

And co-opt that meaning, like the German owned company does in The Olive Tree?

They’re like sculptures, once you move them from that area many of them die. It was something that got me by the guts when I read about it.

You have an amazing cast to work with. 

We were lucky with the main actress, Anna Castillo, we showed at the Goyas (Spain’s national film awards) and Anna won in the best upcoming actress category. She is dynamite, is really, really smart. There’s also a vulnerability and a fear inside her. You often find that with people with great strength, in some way, in a part of them, they’re still very vulnerable. She managed to capture that perfectly.

We were also very lucky with Javier Gutíerrez. He plays a kind of everyman, he has common sense but he also dismisses things. He plays a man who is really, really hurting. He is caught in the middle of all this struggle, working 18 hours a day, buying his own trucks and then suddenly he finds himself in debt and trying to figure out what just had happened and how it devastated his personal life. He manages that tricky combination between comedy and also feeling things very deeply.

And Manuel (who plays Alma’s grandfather Ramón) is an amazing character. It was important for Icíar and I to find someone who loved the Spanish countryside. You can tell this by his skin, by his hands by the way he speaks. He knows the names of all the birds, the insects, the trees, the whole kind of society of beast and birds that live there. It wasn’t just the olive trees themselves …. He had a really profound connection with the land, like his grandfather had before him. You get that sense of connection when you go to these communities in Spain.

You met Icíar on Land and Freedom.

Well, we’re now partners and we have two children, ha! Land and Freedom got us into a lot of trouble but that’s happens when you mix things up with politics. But I work with Icíar in a very similar way to how I work with Ken, and Ken and Icíar are great mates too.

They seem to be very interested in the same themes as well.

I think you have to be, of course. When you’re doing a film with a director you’ve got to find a theme that both of you are committed to, otherwise it becomes just like a chore. The great thing with cinema is that you can follow that passion. I never take it for granted. It always feels like a mountain to climb and you always have to be your own toughest critic. We were very lucky with I, Daniel Blake and we were very lucky with The Olive Tree. It’s gone to a lot of festivals in Europe. It had a big resonance in Spain and in Germany too. It’s also been really well received in Greece. I suppose people in Greece understand it because they had a huge crisis too. I think that they have that trans-generational agricultural society and have experienced a similar devastation to their economy.

It’s also a theme that you covered in I, Daniel Blake. What brought you to tell that story?

I think there’s a great hidden poverty in the UK. There’s the return of scurvy, there’s the return of rickets. Last year, sixteen thousand people went into hospital with malnutrition. You never hear about all these things in the general narrative.

The government, not all the government just the right wing piss-takers, the right wing television stations were stereotyping anyone in welfare, people on welfare of all sorts. There was a remarkable opinion poll that I came across, it found that the average person thought that up to twenty five percent of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently. The reality is that it is less than one percent which is dwarfed by the amount of unclaimed benefits.

I then spoke to experts, academics and statisticians of all sorts: they told us that disabled persons had suffered six times more in the cuts than anyone else. I came across this wonderful quote by a civil servant where he talked about ‘low lying fruit’. In other words, the easy targets. And it made us look, we said let’s look at what’s going on in welfare. Then we started talking to whistle blowers inside the DWP (The Department for Work and Pensions) and we spoke to people who were on welfare but had been sanctioned.

And those sanctions have a devastating effect on people just trying to make ends meet.

The numbers of sanctions were incredible after the crisis. The year before I, Daniel Blake there was just under a million sanctions carried out. And what that lead to was hunger and food banks and many, many people choosing between heating their house and eating. Mothers who had been sanctioned were feeding their children with biscuits. There was a kind of wilful cruelty there. And when you spoke to actual people inside the DWP you realised that there was great pressure on them from management that came from politicians to deal with people very, very harshly.

I could have written a script that was ten times much tougher than I, Daniel Blake. You would hardly be able to bear it. Some of the stories we found out.

There’s also return of this kind of poverty across Europe.

We didn’t expect the degree of response we received. We’ve had screenings in the US and in Moscow and I was surprised it could cross cultures so easily. It has rung so many bells for so many people. So many people have told me this is the ‘film of the crisis’. I think people realise that this daily struggle for dignity could just as easily be them with a few more turns of the screw.

The National Audit office published information recently and it said all the sanctions the DWP were carrying out was actually costing them more than they were actually recovering. It doesn’t help people into work, it drags people into depression, and misery and hopelessness.

So you need to ask the question why they are doing it?

I think it’s because it keeps people disciplined and I think it keeps people afraid. It’s making people sick and it keeps everybody scared and they don’t like to say that but I think it’s the truth underneath. There’s going to be lots and lots of cuts coming up in April, another 12 billion.

Words by Cormac O’Brien

The Olive Tree is playing in UK cinemas from the 17th of March.