On the set of Ken Loach's 'Route Irish'

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After the comedy of ‘Looking for Eric’, Ken Loach is turning to the hidden consequences of the Iraq War for his next film. Dave Calhoun meets him on the set of ‘Route Irish’ in Liverpool

Stunts and Ken Loach are not words that often share the same sentence. But as I approach the set of the director’s new film in Liverpool, I spy a police cordon and some nifty action-driving along a wet dockside road. Loach, dressed like he’s ready for a spot of mountaineering in two-piece waterproofs, is standing at a safe distance with Chris Menges, his director of photography. Menges has been involved in Loach’s films going back as far as ‘Poor Cow’ in 1967 and ‘Kes’ in 1970, but this is the first time in 20 years he’s worked on a feature with the director. It will be fascinating to see what Menges, who lately shot ‘The Reader’ for Stephen Daldry and ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada’ for Tommy Lee Jones, brings to a Ken Loach film after such a long time away.

As Loach reminds me later, when we’re travelling in a minibus from one location to another, he has filmed in Liverpool many times before. The 1997 documentary ‘The Flickering Flame’, about the casualisation of dock workers, was the last, and just the week before we meet, his 1968 film ‘The Big Flame’, about striking dockers, screened in London as part of a season of radical British TV dramas. ‘How does it stand up?’ he asks, unconvinced when I tell him that it still plays well. ‘I wish we’d used more real dockers,’ he says, thinking aloud. Today, we’re standing on the same road where he shot some of that earlier film 41 years ago, although the vast Collingwood Dock, with its famous six-faced clock tower, now stands forlorn, empty and quiet.

Loach’s new film is called ‘Route Irish’, its name taken from the infamous, dangerous road that links Baghdad’s international ‘Green Zone’ with the city’s airport, and it marks the 73-year-old director’s first attempt to grapple with the Iraq War of the past six years. Loach’s sympathies are well known: he has spoken out in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But ‘Route Irish’ doesn’t deal with high politics. Instead, it explores the murky world of British ex-soldiers who work for private contractors in Iraq, many of whom, such as the film’s main character, Fergus (Mark Womack), are grieving for lost colleagues or suffering from post-traumatic stress. Fergus is living back in his home city in an apartment funded by his contracting work and having to face the demons Iraq foisted on him. We meet him at the funeral of a colleague and close childhood friend, and he’s burning up with anger and thoughts of revenge.

The film’s producer, Rebecca O’Brien, tells me that Loach has spent a week filming in Jordan, a regular cinematic stand-in for Iraq (Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’ and Nick Broomfield’s ‘Battle for Haditha’ were both shot there), which involved several action sequences. The majority of the film is set in Liverpool, although part of the film’s trick is to bring home the horrors of war. ‘When people see stories of torture and murder, they think: That’s Iraq and it’s a war zone,’ says the film’s writer, Paul Laverty. ‘But if you bring that back here, it’s much more potent.’ Loach has already filmed a water-boarding scene within spitting distance of the Liver Building. Tomorrow, says O’Brien, he’ll be blowing up a car in a suburban car park. But let’s not get too carried away: from reading the script, it’s clear that ‘Route Irish’ will be a film about people not pyrotechnics.

Laverty – an energetic, engaged Glaswegian in his early fifties – turns up on set. When he’s not pounding the streets and talking to people as research for one of the ten films he’s written for Loach, he lives in Madrid with his partner, the Spanish director Icíar Bollaín. He’s arrived in Liverpool from Bolivia where Bollaín is filming one of his scripts: an epic drama called ‘Even the Rain’ that stars Gael García Bernal and offers a parallel focus on Christopher Columbus and the uprising in Bolivia in 2000 known as the ‘Water Wars’. Laverty is a jolly presence: he laughs that the other day he was at home in Spain watching a Man United game on his laptop when he saw someone in the crowd unfurl a banner saying, ‘I am not a man. I am Cantona’ – a reference to one of the footballer’s lines in ‘Looking for Eric’. ‘I was sitting at the same desk where I wrote that line,’ he chuckles.

There’s a general air on set of ‘back to business’ after the levity of ‘Looking for Eric’. This is Loach back in the territory of ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ and ‘My Name Is Joe’: a portrait of a tragic character trapped by circumstance and his own flawed choices. Laverty crafted the story after interviewing scores of ex-soldiers and contractors and has whittled down a huge subject to the story of one Liverpudlian veteran. Laverty remembers visiting a centre for troubled ex-soldiers in Ayrshire: ‘I was surprised to find a lot of soldiers who had suffered in Ireland and the first Iraqi war. On average it takes 14 years for post-traumatic stress to manifest itself. I met some remarkable people, and they were all saying: "You have no idea what’s coming. I think we’re going to see a wave of destroyed men and women, long after Blair has made fortunes from his speeches and Bush has gone off to cut weeds on his Texan ranch." ’

Route Irish’ will be released next year.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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