More than Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, the film’s Prize of the Ecumenical Jury–Special Mention indicates the nature of Loach and Paul Laverty’s oeuvre in the last twenty-five years. The prize honors works that “reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings as well as their hopes.” In their newest film, Sorry We Missed You, instead of focusing on one character, as in I, Daniel Blake, “Loach widens his lens to a family of four, a heightening of emotional stakes in a move that richly pays off through Paul Laverty’s script,” Ed Frankl said in our rave Cannes review.
The story follows Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), along with their kids Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jae (Katie Proctor). Abbie is strapped for family time as she relies on public transit for her care worker job and Ricky just started a job as a contractor for a parcel delivery service. The job is sold as an entrepreneurial opportunity, but instead of enjoying the benefits of ownership, Ricky pays fees to rent his delivery truck and equipment, cutting into his bottom line. It’s a rhetorical trick of selling independence to employees that strips them of traditional benefits. Seb and Liza suffer from their parents’ absence. Ricky and Liza suffer from the economic stress. Everything comes to a head when Seb gets in trouble, leaving Ricky with two choices, either one hurting everyone involved.
On the occasion of Sorry We Missed You’s debut in U.S. theaters we spoke with Ken Loach about dramatizing the gig economy, middle-class myths about the working poor, Jeremy’s Corbyn Labour Party losses in December 2019, and his hope for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming primaries.
The Film Stage: Will you talk about the gig economy as it’s depicted in Sorry We Missed You?
Ken Loach: The arrival of Margaret Thatcher, the Chicago School of Economics, and Ronald Reagan would come to be called New Liberalism. The trade unions had won rights; they won the eight-hour day, holiday pay, sick pay, and some security of employment. The business and corporate power decided they needed to be able to exploit labor more efficiently. Those gains on behalf of working-class people were an inhibition to their profits. They had to weaken the trade unions, weaken organized labor, and they did in the 1980s. It opened the door to much more efficient ways of exploiting labor.
In the U.K. we have the zero-hour contract where a worker is employed by a company but the company makes no commitment to how many hours work they’ll give. You agree you’ll work for them but they tell you when you work, how many hours you work, and you have no employment rights–or very little rights. They can sack you at a moment’s notice. The other one is this bogus self-employment. This applies for drivers where they say you’re not a worker for us, you’re a business and you’re contracting to provide a service. If you fail, that’s your responsibility, and you must provide us with money to get the service from someone else. You obviously don’t have any holiday pay, you have no sick pay, you have to take care of your own insurance, all of the responsibility passes to the worker. But the wages they’re getting are much less. The money that used to be earned in an 8-hour day takes 12 hours of work. For companies this is an efficient way of organizing their labor. They have no ongoing responsibilities, they can turn employment off and on like a tap, and it’s cheaper. That’s a consequence of a loss of power for trade unions and a betrayal by the political left. People like Tony Blair who came to power as a leader of the Labour Party, but he operated as a leader of corporate power.
Will you talk about working on this film with your screenwriter Paul Laverty?
I’ve worked with Paul for a quarter of a century now. We’re very much in a partnership with our producer Rebecca O’Brien. We’re a gang of three. Paul and I were talking about the gig economy and Paul said all the pressures arrive in the family. When you’re at work you keep on a happy face but when you arrive home late at night, you haven’t eaten, you’re exhausted and the alarm is going off very soon again. If both parents are in that situation that’s when family life can disintegrate. People are trapped in different ways in this insecure situation. Getting into debts. Going from one vendor’s accommodation to another with no way of getting out. They’re losing contact with the kids they intended to raise as a family.
Will you talk about casting your four leads as the Turner family?
Next to the script casting is the biggest question. We’re lucky because we’re very cheap and if means you can find the right actors. If films are tied to a name, in order to raise the money, you can’t work. Finding people you believe in; do you believe they’re their social class? Do you believe they’re from the place they say they’re from? Then they need the emotional range that the part needs. And can they do the job? If they’re professional they know what they’re doing. Then working the relations out with the actors so it works as a family. That’s a long process of several months. Out of that it’s married to the script and shooting the film in order. They learn what’s happened as they go through the film. It has to be a very low key, supportive environment. Shooting is the easiest thing in the world to do if you get it right.
The Turner family go through some serious trials but they all stem from economic stress instead of moral failure, addictions, etc.
They’re not on drugs, they don’t drink, they’re not violent. They’re like most people, they lead normal lives. It’s very much a middle-class perception that there has to be some personal defect, but that’s not the way people are. It’s the relationship to the economic circumstances they’re in, the choices they’ve got, the limitations of their horizons because of the demands of their employer or the economy. Those are the defining factors for people’s lives. That can exacerbate a failing, which we’ve all got. Ricky’s got a fiery temper. The more pressure he’s under the more likely he is to lose his temper. It’s not extraordinary, he’s a sensible guy really. People always underestimate the economic context in which people live their lives as a driver of events.
Last year I spoke with Mike Leigh about his film Peterloo. We spoke about the revolutions in France and the United States and how Peterloo wasn’t a revolution for the working class.
There will be rebellions where people march and occupy buildings, but that’s not a revolution. A revolution is when power changes. They’re rare. We had a revolution in the 17th century when the king and the aristocracy, feudalism lost power to the new merchant class. We haven’t had a revolution since. Power is still with the bourgeoisie. The French revolution was similar. Power didn’t go to the people, power went to the bourgeoisie again. Corporate power controlled Western Europe. The revolution in Russia was the working class taking power but Stalin wrecked it. Now it’s slipped back to an authoritarian gangster capitalism. The only thing we do know is history is volatile. We can’t pick it. And given that we’re destroying the planet at the moment, God knows what’s going to happen, Josh.
What do you think about the Labour Party losses in December and have you spoken to Jeremy Corbyn?
I’ve spoken to John McDonnell, who I knew rather better, who was the Shadow Chancellor under Corbyn. I fundamentally what happened is when Jeremy Corbyn nearly won power in 2017, the ruling class got a fright and they determined to destroy him, and they did. They saw that he and John would cut back the power of big business. They agreed they weren’t having that. A man of peace was called a terrorist supporter, a man who spent his life fighting racism was called a racist. It was daily. The BBC joined in and that had its effect. Jeremy Corbyn made many mistakes, but whatever mistakes he made, they were small compared to the determination of corporate power to remove him. But his demands are rooted in what people need so that won’t go away. We’ve been talking about the poverty of the working poor, the destruction of the environment, it won’t go away. I’m hoping Bernie Sanders does well and people listen to him. At least that’ll give us some hope, rather than another corporate Democrat.
Sorry We Missed You is now in theaters. See playdates here.