Be Angry: Ken Loach on Sorry We Missed You

A mainstay of British social realism, director Ken Loach has been telling humanistic stories of class and inequality for over five decades, adapting his defining cinematic interests to modern-day concerns. With 2016’s “I, Daniel Blake” and now “Sorry We Missed You,” two thematically-related films about people on the fringes abused by bureaucracy and economic injustice, the 84-year-old master continues to prove he might never run out of things to say, given the worsening state of the world from both social and political standpoints. Joining me on the phone recently, “It was much easier back in the '60s. We're lucky because we’ve been doing it for so long,” reflects Loach, within regards to creating his kind of cinema, making his brand of films that follow and honor the struggles of working men and women. “What gave us the chance was the BBC. But the BBC is doing different things now and [filmmakers like me] aren't getting the chance. I hear stories of people with good projects all the time. But they don't get the chance because nobody will invest in it.”

Teaming up with his long-time screenwriter Paul Laverty for “Sorry We Missed You,” Loach tackles the so-called gig economy this time; the false “be your own boss” promise that robs people of the basics: a dignified quality of life, time with family, the permission to pause during paid vacations, sick leaves or even to eat or go to the bathroom. We follow the delivery driver Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and his home-attendant wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood)—two recent victims of this financial structure, who have been hit by the aftermath of the 2008 crash but found hope in the misleading promise of their gigs. Financing Ricky’s job-mandated van by selling the family car, the couple face the unexpected inhumanity of their demanding, around-the-clock schedules while also trying to maintain a family life and provide proper parenting to their teenaged son and daughter.

“I am very pleased to ring the Roger Ebert companies,” Loach says before we delve into our conversation on his latest. “Great man.”

You have been telling stories of social injustice for decades, often refashioning them with the most contemporary struggles. Here, you tap into something that's so present, the so-called "gig economy." The “you are your own boss” kind of exploitation. What was your journey like, noticing this shift in society and deciding to make a film about it?

I've worked with [screenwriter] Paul Laverty for 26-27 years now. I’m very lucky to work with Paul. We just talk endlessly about everything. And one of the ideas that's been in mind [for us], over many years, is the idea of how work is changing—a former secure job, where people [could] go on holiday and not lose pay [is fading]. You [could] be sick and you wouldn't lose pay, and you couldn't be sacked overnight. All those gains are disappearing and now [there is] this new form of exploitation, the so-called gig economy, [with] the pretense that you are self-employed. Whereas in fact, you are just a driver and you are working for a company that made it appear that you're self employed.

So the employer has no responsibility. If anything goes wrong, the worker pays. And that's for the drivers and for people who are doing care work, which is done by private companies. Private companies make their money again out of exploitation so that they can just tell the worker when they're working the night before and they just have to do it or they can be sacked at any point and they don't get paid several times. So they may only get paid 20 minutes in an hour, even though the rest of the time is [also] work time because they're [traveling] to the next patient.

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So with all these changes are happening, [Paul and I] thought, we have to try and tell this story. And Paul made a very good point, which is that when you're at work, you put on a smile. You know, you keep up a pretense, people don't know your circumstances. But when you get home and if you've got a family, that's when the pressure emerges because you're tired, you haven't eaten, the alarms going off in seven hours time, and you've got no patience. You can't deal with things that the father or mother ought to deal with. So that's why we thought we should tell a family story.

The impact the parents’ jobs has on the family is heartbreaking. There is this once sequence in the film where you see all four of them operate as a unit to help the mom solve a work dilemma. That’s when you can actually see what they can be like as a real family.

Yes! Yes, they're just going on a trip. It's a Saturday night, they go out and put some music in the cab and sing along. Yeah, you can see the potential. 

I often feel social class is a blind spot in mainstream American movies. Though recently, I have been thinking that’s maybe changing. “Parasite” just won Best Picture from the American academy (AMPAS) and perhaps that’s a small sign. I’m wondering if you observe this shift in conscience, in terms of what audiences and industry are responding to.

I don't know. I mean, mainstream cinema, whether it is British or American (I don't know about other European films, maybe not quite so much), is still about film stars looking beautiful and having wealth that nobody explains. You never see where their money comes from, they just live in beautiful places and look glamorous. Even when a lot of films are now about ordinary people, they're still played by film stars. There's a gloss to them that is not realistic. Italian Neorealists were using ordinary people to be in the films sometimes. So you really felt this was a working class man or a working woman. And [in our film], I guess we've tried to do the same.

The second biggest issue for a director after the script (which is the most important thing) is [casting]. Who is going to bring [the story] to life? And if you can't make that decision as a director because the film star is attached to the project, it's difficult to see how you can really make the film you need to make. Because the casting is the second most important decision you've got to make, and if it's already [made for you], how can you work?

And you do something very unique with your cast. You shoot your films in chronological order without revealing everything all at once. What was that process like for this particular film and cast?

It’s just a way of working. I mean, the people in it knew everything about the family, who they are and why they [do what they do] when they're doing it. So there are no secrets to make it difficult. But sometimes, when there's a surprise, you want to shoot the surprise because that's the hardest thing to act. [For example], when the little girl sees her father hit the son—he sort of hits him across the head—when we shot the film, the sequence, she came in and stood in that bedroom and we kind of reenacted it for her. So it had an effect on her really. And when, she'd stolen the keys, we filmed her doing it even though we wouldn't put it in the film so that she felt she had really done it and then she kept it a secret until she told them where they were. I think [with this method], you get a more authentic response really. It means they don't have to think for six weeks, “Oh my God, am I going to cry at this point?” Whatever they do, if they're [really] in the moment, it's okay.

Reading the synopsis before watching “Sorry We Miss You,” I thought it sounded like a contemporary “Bicycle Thieves”: needing a van to do a specific job, and selling something to afford that van. Startling to realize that the basis of injustice has always been similar throughout history, but the ways in which it happens change.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It's the eternal struggle between employers and workers isn't it? The employees have to make them money and [employers] pay their workers less than the value of their labor. That's the key to private business you know, that's where the profit is. The worker contributes ten pounds in on the job and you'd pay him six or you'd pay him seven and the rest is profits. And so that's the key and of course it has its permanence [in history]. The conflict of interest between the two classes is permanent, it's inevitable. 

And of course the interesting thing is, when you have a right wing government, they say, “Well, we're all in this together. Remember David Cameron? He was prime minister and he was always saying that, “Oh, we're all in this together.” You know, the austerity, [as if] we all suffer the same. But of course, it's not true at all. At the same time, Jeff Bezos becomes the richest man on the planet and people are doing his work.

In that regard, I do hope people think a little more closely and deeply about the human cost of instant delivery upon watching this film. Did you speak with any delivery drivers as part of your research? While this is Paul Laverty’s script, I am wondering if you were a part of that process. 

As the writer, Paul did most of the research. I met drivers and care workers through him. He went out with the drivers in the cabs, even though some of them were intimidated about speaking. But in the end he found one or two and he went out with them and just sat with them all day, you know. He said he took some sandwiches at the beginning of the day to one of them, and at eight o'clock at night, they still haven't eaten them because there wasn't time.

And we heard some stories. One in particular; [there was this] man who was a diabetic. He had an appointment at the hospital to see his consultant. He went and he was fined. The company fined him 150 pounds cause he wasn't there even though he told them, obviously.

Goodness.

And then [he didn’t go to] the next appointment. And the appointment after that. The people who he was working with saw him getting more and more ill. His wife was very worried and said, you must go to the doctors, you must go to the hospital. And he didn't go. And then he collapsed and died. And of course the company sent a letter of sympathy and that was it. They had no obligations to him or his wife, [who] had to move out of their home because [she] couldn't put forward the rent. And so she was in real trouble. This is quite an extreme case of course. We thought better to just to tell an ordinary, an average story. It's just the way of ordinary families. It's the life that millions of people are living, really.

The story that you just shared with me could have been in “I, Daniel Blake,” too. The two films are such close companions to each other.

Yes and that was intentional. It's the same city [Newcastle], it begins in the same way, the voiceover, a dark screen. So you just hear the voices. I mean that was our thought, you know. You're just concentrating on just what other people are saying and then you see them. It was meant as a companion piece.

Both of them made me feel a distinct anger about the state of the world.

Oh good. Be angry. I like to hear that.

I wonder what one can do to turn that anger into something productive. 

Well it's a big question. I think it's political, you know? There is no way to avoid politics in the end. I mean, people join trade unions that make them stronger, to make demands for paid holiday. And so you can be sick and not lose money. [These are the] basic demands. It [all comes down to] political change. In the last election, the party of the left would have made a big change. They would have ended this bogus self-employment, that every worker would get [paid leave]. They would get sick pay, they [would] get an eight-hour day, going back to basic trade union rights. But the campaign against them by the press and the whole establishment was so vicious. It turned people off even though they would have done these very good things. So it was an extraordinary election. I hope the same doesn't happen in the States now.

We are all very fearful.

I mean, when the press and television is entirely on one side, [it’s hard]. People are used to thinking that the BBC is in the middle, but of course, it wasn't. It was very much on the side of the right wing. So it's, it's very tough to withstand that level of manipulation. And the abuse [of the left candidate Jeremy Corbyn] was something we'd never seen before. But anyway, what can you do? You just have to keep at it. I mean, nothing lasts forever. The history is dynamic, isn't it? We are in an evolving situation and the climate change is now is very critical. And so for the first time, you've got an end game. We can't go on saying, “Well, if we lose this battle, we'll win the next one in 20 years time.” Because these years are really critical and the young ones are waking up to this. In our last election, it was the young ones who were voting left. And I think that's what we've really got to cultivate; talk about the climate [change]. The earth is collapsing and that's where the right wing is weak, because they tried to deny it, as we all know. So I think that's where the hope is, where change [can happen].

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and film critic based in New York. She regularly contributes to Time Out New York, Film Journal International, Film School Rejects and RogerEbert.com, and her byline has appeared in Indiewire, Variety and Vulture, among other outlets.

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