In The Mood For Love

Film still for In The Mood For Love

Can such veterans of realist film-making as Ken Loach and Paul Laverty get close enough to the racial divides of Glasgow youth to make a bi-racial love story? James Mottram visits the set of Ae Fond Kiss.

Despite his summer clothes, Ken Loach is looking hot and bothered. Maybe it's the presence of an interloper on his usually 'closed' set. Or maybe he's waiting for just the right mood, in the way some directors might pause for a ray of sunlight to strike a pane of glass. "There's too much of a presence here," he says - and as if on cue, the relatively skeletal (and noticeably young) crew of Loach's new film Ae Fond Kiss melt away behind the furniture in the Glasgow-style bar. "Hide your eyes," says Loach, turning to me. "I know it sounds daft."

It doesn't. If you've ever watched a performance in a Ken Loach film, the instruction makes perfect sense. Like his working method of shooting in sequence and providing the cast with the day's scenes only the evening before, this shielding of the actors from the artificial nature of the film set by ensuring that no one intrudes on their sight lines is a way of keeping the action spontaneous. There's just one lighting rig and one camera, manned by Barry Ackroyd, Loach's regular director of photography since Riff-Raff (1991). "This is heavy for us," says Loach later on. "We wouldn't normally have as much gear. But the strong summer light was evaporating, and the feeling of 'real' light should be dominant, not the film technology."

It seems strange to hear Loach elaborate on the technical aspects of film-making - a subject he's rarely asked to discuss, perhaps because he and Ackroyd consistently strive for a naturalistic look that disguises the 'craft' of their profession. He mutters something about the "aggravations with sound" that affected the afternoon's shoot and promptly moves two extras to another part of the room, praising their work as he does. At the bar, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, stands 24-year-old newcomer Atta Yaqub. By the toilets is leading lady Eva Birthistle, sporting a halter-neck top, a jazzy skirt and high-heeled shoes appropriate for a night on the town.

Like her character, music teacher Roisin, the 29-year-old actress is an Irish Catholic. And Yaqub's social and educational background is equally close to that of his character Casim: both hail from Glasgow's ever-expanding Asian community; both are graduates (Yaqub in IT, Casim in accountancy); both would prefer a different career (respectively as an actor and a DJ). So far, according to Yaqub, the depiction of Asian family life that drives much of Ae Fond Kiss has been "bang on" - from the way "the story shows there's a lot of community pressure" to the fact that like Casim, most of Yaqub's Asian friends lead a "second life" their parents and relatives know little about. The story, Yaqub is pleased to note, differs significantly from most screen portrayals of Asian life. "The film goes beyond the stereotypical ways Asians are thought to live. It shows that a lot of us have changed and moved on."

It's now day 20 of a 34-day shoot, and we've reached the point in the story where "things have gone awry", as Birthistle puts it. Today's scene is a simple one: Roisin confronts Casim, they argue and she storms off. This inter-racial romance, kept hidden from Casim's parents, has led the film to be dubbed a contemporary Romeo and Juliet . "That's crass and clichéd," says Loach. "The moment you describe it in three words, you flatten it." With a script by Paul Laverty (their fifth collaboration since Carla's Song in 1996), Ae Fond Kiss is also touted as the final part in an unofficial trilogy of Glaswegian films begun with My Name Is Joe (1998) and Sweet Sixteen (2002). "Glasgow has the same quality as Liverpool," says Loach. "It's a strong working-class culture, built out of political and social struggle. The humour is strong, the language is sharp and the people have a lot of energy."

Admitting that the socio-economic backgrounds of the main characters will give the film "a different ambience", Loach hints - as producer Rebecca O'Brien has already suggested to me - that the project is a mite more "commercial" than some of his previous outings. The recent success of Anglo-Asian films such as Bend It Like Beckham certainly makes the production seem timely, though Loach is quick to dismiss the notion that he's jumping on a bandwagon. Laverty, meanwhile, admits that the script is perhaps more "upbeat" than his previous collaborations with the director. "The young protagonists are all graduates and they're not from broken families. But for reasons of culture, language and religion there are fetters on their choices."

This "different territory" may flummox those Loach detractors who dismiss his films as grim and fail to appreciate their life-affirming humour. Loach was omitted from the recent Guardian listing of the world's 40 Best Directors despite the impact of 16 features made over the course of a 40-year career, 11 of them since his sagging reputation was revived by Hidden Agenda in 1990. His exclusion from the Guardian poll (in favour, for instance, of Pawel Pawlikowski, whose one film Last Resort was probably influenced by Loach) confirms what many supporters have suspected: that Loach is no longer valued as an important film-maker by his countrymen. Attacked in the press, notably by the late Alexander Walker, who waged a campaign against Hidden Agenda , Loach recently came under fire from the BBFC, which slapped an 18 certificate on Sweet Sixteen because of its "colourful" language. "I was embarrassed for them," says Loach. "And it certainly did us no favours. Teachers were saying they wanted to use the film in schools, but they couldn't. The idea that words can hurt you when explicit violence can't is such a cockeyed way of looking at the world. I thought we'd grown up a bit more."

But Ae Fond Kiss has shown that Loach's popularity on the continent is undiminished. When the crew spent two days in Spain shooting the protagonists' brief sun-and-sangria break, media interest was high and the director was trailed by paparazzi. The thought of him receiving similar treatment in England doesn't compute - which is doubtless a relief to Loach himself. I'm told by an assistant that he hates the idea of a film crew arriving in town like a travelling circus, and indeed there are no 'holding areas' or trailers for the cast here: most are sharing apartments in Glasgow and travel to locations in mini-buses with the crew. "There's no scope for pretension," says Birthistle. "You'd be on your bike if you showed any airs or graces." For this segment of the production, a local church hall has been commandeered for the actors, with one corner turned into a makeshift wardrobe/make-up department consisting of a table, a mirror and a rail for costumes. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a guerrilla shoot for a student film.

While Yaqub's only experience in front of a camera has been at a model agency, Birthistle has been acting for nine years - notably alongside Ackroyd in Sunday (2002), the Jimmy McGovern-scripted Channel 4 drama about the events of Bloody Sunday. But working with Loach is different. "He never rehearses," she says. "Before a scene all we do is roughly block it, and the first time you speak the lines is the first take. And you don't know what your co-actor is going to say because they might change it - you're told not to learn the scenes by heart but to be familiar with them. It keeps that feeling of spontaneity because you're not sure what tangent a scene might take."

With a proven ability to coax extraordinary performances from virtual newcomers (most memorably from Liverpudlian club comic Chrissy Rock for 1994's Ladybird Ladybird ), Loach remains quietly confident about his method. "It never fails... that's the amazing thing," he says. The risk in his films is tied up in the subject matter and performances not in structure or technique, and he's at his most inspirational when he's surrounded by his regular team. Part of his success in the 1990s must have come from finally finding a replacement for Tony Garnett, his influential producer at the BBC during the 1960s, first in Sally Hibbin and then in O'Brien. At the same time, establishing a core creative team with Ackroyd and Laverty (and previously with screenwriter Jim Allen) has returned him to the halcyon days of Kes (1969), his first outing with writer Barry Hines and DP Chris Menges, a team he would reunite for The Gamekeeper (1980) and Looks and Smiles (1981). In Laverty, Loach feels he has found someone who sees the world in a similar way. "He's very to the point and on the ball. What can I say without lapsing into cliché? His work is very accurate to the surface details of how things are."

For Laverty, the starting point for the script of Ae Fond Kiss was 11 September 2001, whose signi-ficance he and Loach had already broached in their contribution to the portmanteau film 11'09"01 , in which they had exiled Chilean singer Vladimir Vega (who acted in Ladybird Ladybird ) write a letter to the relatives of the Twin Towers victims detailing the CIA-arranged coup that put Pinochet in power on the same date 28 years previously. Laverty was in Tuscon, Arizona, when the terrorist attacks took place. "It was fascinating to be there - the chauvinism and nationalism were incredible. And not long afterwards a Sikh was murdered at a petrol station. The stupidity of it... everybody who was foreign was confused with Bin Laden." On returning to Glasgow to work on Sweet Sixteen , Laverty learned from Pakistani friends how the city's atmosphere had changed. "People weren't murdered, but one of my friends from a traditional Muslim background told me her niece, who was born in Glasgow, was scared to go out. That really got to me. I have lots of nieces in Scotland as well, but they're white. It's hard to imagine if that was your own niece. It made me want to examine what was going on."

Loach is quick to point out that racism is not at the centre of the story, however. "It's about one community coming to terms with another, from inside the family," he says. During his research, Laverty, who was raised a Catholic, began to discover parallels between the experiences of Catholics and Muslims. "When Catholics first came to Scotland 150 years ago they were seen as aliens with a loyalty to something foreign to the indigenous population. Drunken Protestants would go and beat them up. And now we're demonising asylum seekers..."

As when writing all his scripts for Loach, Laverty spent time with people from the same backgrounds as his characters (part of the Ae Fond Kiss script is in Punjabi). Speaking to "teachers, school-kids, grandfathers, professionals, non-professionals" from the two large Asian communities in Glasgow's West End and South Side, he found that the "dynamics of the Pakistani family" took over the story. In particular, the hypocrisy of fathers who pressure their children into arranged marriages, having "played the field" themselves in their younger days.

Yet whatever the milieu, Laverty and Loach's preoccupations remain very much the same. Both have returned time and again to notions of 'family', surrogate or otherwise - whether the Sandinista revolutionaries of Carla's Song , the AA groups of My Name Is Joe , the trades unions of Bread and Roses (2000) or the more traditional (though broken) unit in Sweet Sixteen . Doomed romances have also featured heavily. Yet while Carla's Song saw the faltering relationship between Robert Carlyle's bus driver George and Oyanka Cabezas' eponymous Nicaraguan revolutionary in political terms, here the strain placed on Casim and Roisin stems from a social context. "Families are families," says Loach. "The surface details change but the emotional blackmail is the same. There are always sticking points between parents and kids - and there's always rebellion."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012