The following Q&A with Sixteen Films Director Ken Loach, in two parts, is part of Sixteen Films' Production Notes for its biopic "Jimmy's Hall." The notes, assembled for the produceers by Benji Wilson, were presented to the entertainment industry trade and news media. We are delighted to share these perspectives with our readership, in cooperation with Sixteen Films and Sony Pictures Classics. (You can read Part 2 here.)
Why did you want to tell Jimmy Gralton’s story?
It is a story that brings so many things together: it challenges the idea that the left is dour and dispiriting and against fun and enjoyment and celebration. It also shows how organised religion will make common cause with economic power. They did it in the case of Jimmy Gralton and continue to do so. Church and state become agents of oppression. In this case - though it’s barely mentioned in the film because of time - those who would appear to be progressive regressed, like de Valera, whom people thought would encourage open minds and tolerance. In fact, the first thing he did was to seek the approval of the church and get them on his side. Principles were expendable in the interest of realpolitik.
Is it intended to be a companion piece to "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" and if so, how?
Well, it’s set just ten years later and there’s a line in "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" where the Anglo-Irish landowner says, “This country will become a priest-infested backwater,” and lo and behold, it came to pass. It’s been a struggle ever since. The church has now lost a lot of credibility because of the scandals. But when we were making the film people absolutely understood the power of the church and the power of the priest to determine who would be successful or not in the community.
The film is ‘inspired’ by the life and times of Jimmy Gralton. There isn’t a huge amount known about the details of his life and personality. That’s sad in some ways because clearly he was a brilliant man, but it gave us the freedom to imagine a private life and explore those choices he had to make. We wanted to give the audience a character that has richness and is a rounded person, not just a two-dimensional activist. That balance is very difficult and it always comes down to the details - can he have a relationship with someone? And then what might that relationship be? We can share and imagine the secrets. We did not want the priests to appear as caricatures, which would have been a danger if we had just dramatised the historical record. It was more interesting to imagine a priest who while he was ferocious in his hostility, nevertheless had another dimension to him - he respected his enemy’s integrity. Jimmy had real qualities that the priest couldn’t ignore. What we tried to do was round the characters whilst being true to the historical facts.
The landscape is very important - the landscape of that part of Ireland, the lives people lead because of that landscape and the bogs and the mist and the rest.
What is the significance of the hall?
I think it’s an embodiment of a free spirit, a place where ideas can be tested and expressed, where poetry, music, sport can all be celebrated, where people can express their talents and, of course, dance.
So what is the role of dance and music in the story?
It is an expression of freedom. Always dangerous to those who seek to exercise control.
How did you go about capturing dance and music on film?
You can do it in various ways. You can choreograph the camera and the dancers and make it very stylised, but that was the antithesis of what we wanted. People learned the dances to a point where they could enjoy them and express themselves. Then we had to find camera positions and images that would capture that. I think it’s to do with the angle you shoot at and it’s to do with the lens you use: it comes down to technical issues. The images that I always have in my head are the Degas images of dance where you feel you’re sitting in a box, alongside. It’s not right in the middle of the stalls, where everything is straight on to you, he’s at an angle, and he’s slightly above the dancers, and you see not only the dancers but you see what’s in the wings. You observe the dancers rather than being in the middle of them and you observe the joy and the comedy and the communication between them.
Rather than using a taped track you filmed your musicians live. Why?
Well, because you’ve got to see the effort of playing. We’ve done that in our films for half a century - it’s quite amusing that one or two people have started doing it now and it’s presented as a breakthrough! It’s the only way you can see people really playing, and the interaction between the musicians and the dancers, otherwise there’s just something slightly wrong, slightly missing. It just needs to be live. It does mean that the editor has got to be good at cutting music and maybe joining two or three bits of music together. But Jonathan [Morris] is very good at that.
Why did you build the hall in situ, as opposed to using a studio?
Building a real hall was much easier. The landscape is very important - the landscape of that part of Ireland, the lives people lead because of that landscape and the bogs and the mist and the rest. The temptation in the studio is that you don’t make it the actual size, yet the actual size imposes a discipline that I think you can sense as an audience. In a studio, walls can be moved and you get a shot you could never get in real life. In addition, the natural light in the hall is beautiful. Sometimes, Robbie [Ryan, DOP] had to supplement it, but the reality was always there in the room.