Over the past two decades, screenwriter Paul Laverty has penned some of the most nuanced, character-driven movies in world cinema. A prolific writer, Laverty’s films run the gamut from historical war pieces to working-class romances. His latest, The Angels’ Share, focuses on the struggles of an young, unemployed father who decides to steal some of the rarest whisky on the planet. And while the movie carries the label of comedic caper, Laverty’s strengths make this more than your average heist movie.
Middle Western: You’re a very prolific screenwriter, penning 14 movies in almost as many years. Are you the kind of writer who just needs to get your ideas out on the page, or do you find the writing process to be a challenge you must work through?
Paul Laverty: Screenwriting is easy, but it’s trying to balance it with family and children that’s the difficult bit, because I have three little boys now. I didn’t at the beginning, but I do now. I think screenwriting is easy, but family is the more challenging bit really [laughs]. It’s a bit like a drug for me, I suppose. I really enjoy investigating and digging around, and so does Ken Loach, my wonderful collaborator.
What I find is, what takes up most time is actually thinking about it, digging around, figuring out what I want to write about. You might have a sense or an instinct, and you follow that. I was trying to kind of find out what was going on under the surface, and that’s the stuff that takes quite a long time. And then I find the story kind of grows in your head. But the longest part is finding out what you want to actually say.
And then there’s the biggest question of all: Why write this one? You know, that’s the most important question of all, and you have to be your own toughest critic.
MW: Beyond sheer quantity, you have a very eclectic body of work. You’ve of course led a very interesting life—schooling across countries, working for a human rights organization—but do you find yourself surprised with the things you decide to write about?
PL: I suppose I’m curious by nature. I was sent off to seminary at a very young age. You know, seminary is like priest college. So I was in a boarding school. You’re locked up and they try and teach you in a very black-and-white nature. And I think perhaps it’s human nature to react against that. You like to see the grays and all the different colors in the rainbow, rather than just black and white. And I think if you’re locked up for so long, you become massively curious about the world. So in a strange way I have to thank them for that. I have to thank the Jesuits for making me curious … I don’t think they planned it that way.
People try indoctrinating you, but you just want to see the other point of view. I’m endlessly interested in the other point of view and other peoples’ experiences, because it’s a fascinating, complex world. I’m interested how power operates in this world. You see actually millions of people now who will not have meaningful work in their lives. Why is that? Why is our system—why are so few people becoming richer and richer and so many other people becoming impoverished? These are really big ethical questions. And I suppose I’m drawn to stories that have some echo against that.
MW: So in keeping these ideas in mind, was whisky something you were fairly familiar with prior to writing, or did you become knowledgeable to serve these broader concepts of power and unemployment?
PL: I quite like the contradictions in the world of whisky. You know, it’s one of Scotland’s biggest exports. It’s projected as the drink of sophisticated business class. People spend fortunes on bottles; they can easily spend £100,000 on a bottle of whiskey. Then many of these kids who do community service have never tasted whiskey, their own national drink. They’ve never been to the countryside where it’s distilled. So their horizons are very narrow. And then in the middle of all this, it is a wonderful drink. So seeing these lads who have never tasted whiskey in their lives, it just makes you smile, and there are nice contradictions in the middle. So for a screenwriter, all of that is very useful.
MW: You expound some of the more nuanced traits of whisky, and tasting in particular. Is it difficult presenting so much straightforward information while keeping the narrative rolling?
PL: It’s always a balance. Because if the audience feels its watching a documentary or being hit over the head with information, they act against it. So you always need to find ways to make it interesting. So in this particular way, you see these young lads who are fascinated, so you can see their growing interested in it. There’ve got to be things beyond the mere revelation of the fact, otherwise you bore people to death.
MW: This movie kind of jumps between genres. It’s a comedy, something of a heist movie, but a movie rooted in characterization above all. Are you comfortable with the genre tags so many people are applying?
PL: I think oftentimes when people talk about genres, it’s kind of a lazy shorthand for people who don’t watch the film carefully. People like to put things in boxes and I think there’s a real crisis in criticism where people say it’s a heist movie or a comedy, or whatever. But what you’re interested in, hopefully, what I was interested in writing, is just the characters. You see the world from their point of view. You see their world unfold.
I don’t think of films at all in terms of genres, because it’s too limiting. You want your characters to run freely where they should go in the story, rather than being stuck to kind of arbitrary definitions.
MW: Is there a trick to making characters lovable despite their flaws? I mean, many of the characters are criminals, some very violent, and ultimately the movie focuses on stealing one of the rarest, most expensive bottles of whisky in the world—but we still view these characters in a positive light.
PL: We can be very vicious in how we apportion blame in this society. The biggest crime probably with someone actually spending a million pounds on a couple bottles of whisky: Where did he get that money? Why is he investing so much money on one bottle of whisky? That’s a bigger moral question to me then someone getting drunk and climbing on a monument. We do play with the ambiguity of all that. We’re not saying this is a way that everyone should copy or this is a way to solve unemployment in Scotland. That would be ridiculous. It’s a little tale of a victimless crime, and we poke fun at the rich and the powerful. But what we’re really trying to do is examine this young man who’s determined to find work, who’s got a child. When you have a child, you look into the future in a very concentrated fashion, because it asks big questions of you.
MW: To that effect, and in researching for this movie and in touring, have you found a commonality between the youths of these various countries and cultures?
PL: Yes, I have. I think people have a sense of this terrible waste of talent. When you spend time with these kids, they’re fun, they’re full of mischief—they’re angry and they’re frustrated—but they’re full of mischief. They all want a plan, they all want a project. Some of these kids involved in the film, to actually work was just a joy for them, and they come to life. It’s a bit like you and me, when we’re working with people, we’re doing well in our work, it gives great satisfaction to your life. And I think that’s why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in 1948 I think actively claims the right to meaningful work, because without that you can’t plan to have children, you can’t plan to have a safe home for you and your family. Work has to be central to our demands for a dignified society. And I think this clashes with the logic of the free market, because they’re quite happy to see mass unemployment. It keeps wages low and it keeps shareholders very very happy, but it makes for a miserable existence for millions upon millions. I think we have to challenge that if we want a dignified life for our young people.