Interview with Tony Garnett and Ken Loach
Family Life in the making

by Anthony Barnett, John McGrath,
John Mathews, and Peter Wollen

from Jump Cut, no. 10-11, 1976, pp. 43-45

JUMP CUT would like to thank the Editorial Collective of 7 Days, a radical English weekly which appeared in 1971-1972, for their permission to reprint this conversation with Tony Garnett and Ken Loach from their issue of January 12, 1972. Talking to Garnett and Loach are several members of the 7 Days Editorial Collective.

JM: How did you come to make FAMILY LIFE?

TG: Well, actually it goes back to when I was at university—at University College, London—reading psychology in a desultory way—being taught about rats in mazes, skinner boxes, and things like that. Then I came across Erving Goffman’s book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which just knocked me over. I started to read in areas of psychology which weren't broached at all in the academic world. They weren't considered to be “tough minded” in the William James sense. Then I struck up a friendship with David Mercer whose own reading had gone through all these changes as well, and then meeting Ronnie Laing, and talking to him, and then it all came together.

JM: What about the actual storyline—did you take a case history as your material?

TG: Well, it’s a bit like CATHY really. You can say that all those things really happened to various people, but we couldn't point to one person that they all happened to.

PW: How many of you discussed the film?

TG: At that stage it’s David Mercer, Ken and me. And then a bit later Mike Riddall was very helpful. He played the progressive psychiatrist in FAMILY LIFE but he’s not an actor; he is a progressive psychiatrist.

JM: How did you come across him?

TG: David had done a draft. One of the things which didn't quite work was the business of the doctor being sacked—which has happened to a number of psychiatrists we know who were working in the NHS. It’s very difficult to script. We got permission from Equity to work with someone who wasn't an actor, with people who had had quite long careers as schizophrenics. So we went to Duncan Road, and asked people like Leon Redler, Mike Yokum—they're part of the Philadelphia Association—to help. Since Kingsley Hall closed, they've been attempting to create “asylums,” in the best sense, in houses—there’s one in North London—where people who have had long and awful experiences in bins can just “be.” It’s a way of not having to go back into a bin when you're still at a stage when you can't quite cope with the rigors of the outside world. We met a therapist called Ben Churchill, through him we talked to Mike Riddall.

KL: And he was fresh from the experience of working in a NHS hospital, where he had to cope with problems on a very large scale. This was just what we were looking for. And he made a very real contribution. He could say, “It’s not like this—this is how it is.” He was one of the touchstones of reality. Not that he’s to blame for any of the mistakes. But if you're filming an interview, then he can say that this is false, and we can change it. That was his major contribution.

The main difficulty was in bringing the three people together—the mother, the father, the daughter—who aren't in fact a family, and if they had been, probably wouldn't have been a schizogenic family, i.e., one which creates schizophrenics. The difficulty was making them appear as if they would be a schizogenic family, while they used their personalities, that is those parts of which could have produced a child who had difficulty in establishing her own identity. Getting that balancing act was difficult. People veer into other aspects of their personality which would have provided the girl with a way out. Billy Dean played the father, and is a much more open and generous bloke than he appears in the film. The problem was to stop him showing too much of that, while at the same time not letting him pretend to be someone he wasn't.

You're constantly trying to create a situation in which they're off balance, so that their own reactions are the ones which come through. It’s a matter of finding those reactions which are genuine to them, which in the context of the film and script add up to a schizogenic family.

PW: That must have meant a lot of care in the casting.

KL: Yes, if you can find the right people, then it will go. That’s the biggest hurdle.

JMG: Do you see the theoretical richness and ideas in the film as the content, and the realization through this particular way of doing it as constituting a form? Would you accept that as a valid distinction to start with?

TG: When something works as a whole, you can't split it up. It’s a unit. The content and form—what it’s about and how it manifests itself—are the same thing. When it comes a cropper, they're not the same. There’s an artificial, a mechanical relationship between them.

PW: In a more general way, there are two important problems about FAMILY LIFE that I'd like your response to. One, you seem to begin with the theoretical ideas, which are general, and then move into the particular. That always has the effect, for me, of zooming in, or zeroing in, of going down a funnel, until at the end you reach a dead point. I think that comes out, as a result of the preconception you have of what you're doing—which I wasn't completely happy about in FAMILY LIFE. By making it these particular people, and by making it so perfectly realistic, in the end it either becomes just those particular people, and you lose sight of the general, theoretical points which were what you started with. Or they are seen as representatives, in which case the theory becomes too simpified; it seems as if you're saying all families are just like this.

The other thing is the point about content and form. I'd argue what is a more Brechtian point of view, that there should be gaps and rifts between the content and the form which set up gaps and rifts in people’s minds. Far from the film being closed and continuous, there should be discontinuities, disclosures which go on operating in people’s minds afterwards.

KL: I tend to see it as the inverse of what you're saying. It’s possible from observing individuals reacting on one another to make some generalized statement, and that in fact you're looking through the other end of the telescope.

PW: You can look at it either way: either you can say they're all like that, or this one is special. And neither of those alternatives is presumably what you want to say.

JMG: It seems to be a question of the limits of naturalism. I've seen most of what you've done, and at times you've broken from naturalism very clearly. When we worked together in television, and before that in the theater, you were notoriously non-naturalistic, or anti-naturalistic, in your approach, particularly in the theater, but also in Diary of a Young Man. But of late you seem to have been getting closer into a naturalistic vein.

EL: Yes, I think that’s true. We're just trying to make films to reflect people in situations as accurately as possible. Most other communications you read or see or experience seem so totally inaccurate. We've tried to say, “Well, look, this is how it is,” in a way which ordinary people can appreciate, so they can glean some perspective. We've tried not to make it an indiscriminate naturalism, and by the juxtaposition of different naturalistic sequences—to make the comment there. So that’s why we veered towards that sort of thing.

JMG: How do you relate this to a consciously political approach?

KL: It’s what you tend to make films about. One thing which I think has been central to the films which we've done has been to try to make films for the class which we think is the only politically important class—the working class—and therefore not to make elitist films, or cineaste films, but to make films which can be understood by ordinary people.

JMG: Does it necessarily have to be naturalistic for a working class audience?

KL: No, I'm sure you can make films which are unnaturalistic in the way the sequences are juxtaposed, but if people can see a situation and say: Yes, I recognize that, I recognize those people, that’s true of me, or that’s true of someone I know, then you've made a basic contact. if it’s a film about an industrial situation, it’s very important that everybody in the film is accurate so the people seeing it recognize their own fellow factory workers. It’s also very important that you can follow what’s going on—the story line. Given that, it’s hard to avoid going towards a film that looks naturalistic.

JM: But do you agree that there’s a problem here? If your political and cinematic purposes are naturalism, and you present the events on the screen as if they were real life, then compounded with Peter’s funneling effect won't you end up with a form of pessimism?

TG: Why do you end up with pessimism?

JM: FAMILY LIFE seems to be obstructed by the lack of an underlying dialectic connecting the family with the wider society; it was isolated. This lack of dialectical connection would seem to end up in pessimism.

TG: I think there might be some justice in that. If you start off with some basic political assumptions—which we needn't go into—then there are lots of ways of filming that theme.

PW: You mentioned Kingsley Hall, and these follow-up places. Did you think of mentioning these in the film?

KL; I don't think those facilities would be available for most of the people confronted by that situation. The idea that there can be any optimism gleaned from within the way we treat mentally ill people now, would be false. To say “The whole system is terrible, but hang on folks, there is a chink here.” It would be as false as saying, “Couldn't Billy Kes be gotten a job in a zoo?” It’s not on.

PW: So you're saying, if it’s to be opened up, it has to be by politicizing it more?

EL: It would have to be by making what we felt was implicit, explicit, yes.

JMG: But this is precisely the limit of naturalism.

PW: It may be the limit also of wanting to go for the mass audience.

AB: What do you mean by the limit of naturalism?

JMG: What Ken has implied. It is impossible to show, in a naturalistic form, the way out of an apparently closed situation. Precisely to have a dialectical relationship to the subject, you need an extra dimension.

KL: That’s a very valid point. We have been involved in films which were more overtly political in the methods used which we hope have been showing the optimism more clearly. But you can't make that film every time. You can't just take a political attitude and state that in the films over and over again, trotting out the message each time—the commercial at the end.

JMG: Peter made a point that I don't think I agree with that a mass audience means having naturalistic forms.

PW: It’s not a question of the audience itself resisting, but within the conditions of production, distribution and exhibition in which the cinema industry works, it can be a limit. Take, say, Godard, who is always accused of being elitist, a phrase Ken used, it comes from the fact that the films he wants to make are no longer distributable, within the system. How far can you go within the system? Is it right to break from it and go outside it? Those were the questions I'm trying to raise. I think it is right to make films for a working class audience but that brings you back to the distributors.

TG: It is certainly true that in the cinema in this country only a narrow range of subjects, and ways of treating them, are acceptable. So of all the films that one wants to make, and all the ways one wants to make them, only a fraction could ever be done.

KL: One tries to take into account the level of consciousness of the people who are going to see it, and their expectations. While not pandering one starts from there to lead people to certain conclusions, given that when people go to the cinema they are expecting what they have been led to expect. One doesn't want to put a barrier between you and them by adopting a form they will react against.

JMG: There are two things—how far do you think the working class is wedded to that particular form and how much do you have to conform to the industry’s idea of a movie? On the first, in television, where you've done a lot of work, Ken, do you find that the working class response diminished with the amount of adventurousness you put into it? THE BIG FLAME, for example, was certainly adventurous.

EL: It was very naturalistic.

JMG: It wasn't an intimate psychodrama. And the people in it were constantly pushing against the form.

KL: Well yes, obviously the biggest response we've had to any film was CATHY COME HOME. This was because people identified with the family, not because we put up statistics about homelessness on the screen.

JMG: But BIG FLAME did have a built-in alienating device in the documentary way it was set in an industrial conflict, it gave it an objectivity; you were always aware that a class issue was at stake, not just the “problems of these particular men,” and the same is true of CATHY COME HOME, the documentary realism and the devices in the context of a television play broke the funneling effect.

TG: It also had a big response because it made people comfortably uncomfortable. They felt worthy to be moved having sat through it. So two bob for Shelter and that is all right, without putting any really difficult political thought into it. The thing to show, which we didn't do, was to show some relationship between that family and the necessity to nationalize the land, and, and, and, and; right? it should work on all of those levels so that it is the most natural thing in the world for those things to link up. If you can do a piece like that, that is the way to do it, and we didn't.

PW: The problem is how to politicize a film without just tacking on a message.

AB: How does the absence of a large scale political movement against the present setup affect your making films?

KL: It’s the context in which we are.

TC: It’s us, isn't it? We are part of the English tradition struggling for some Marxism, we're not separate from it. It would be dead easy to take an easy way out of it. That would be mechanical. The reduction of it would be one film of a thick-thighed girl riding astride a tractor shouting “Bread, Land and Peace.” The safety of that is marvelous. It’s like that awful word in politics about being “correct,” it’s a kind of Stalinist death that is, in politics, it means people are not daring, risking, not putting their imagination into their political thought and work, all they are doing is avoiding criticism by taking the “correct” line. This is true in making films. I mean “correct” used in that discussion, not that one shouldn't argue for a position.

JMG: There is far more work in the theater that has been done on this which one can draw on, also the theater is related to circus and show business, you can use so many more devices in the theater, and the theater is much more related to having a direct effect on an audience, which is a political involvement. In the cinema it is a kind of “thing,” a screen with images effecting a much more passive audience, with the makers thousands of miles away. There is an element of truth in what you say about naturalism and the working class audience. Actually photographing people, everybody mentally checks whether the character is natural in a way that they don't in the theater. There just isn't a tradition of devices in the cinema that relate to having a direct effect on an audience. One thing you mentioned, the juxtaposition of naturalistic scenes, can have an effect by rubbing things together, you did a lot of TV placing voice over. But there is a very limited range of equipment at your disposal in the cinema at the moment.

PW: The two are very different. The amount of investment required for a start. John can tour on a comparatively small investment experimentally, also he can confront an audience which, whatever it is doesn't have the social composition of the West End audiences; and theater is like that, and nobody thinks that it should be reaching a gigantic mass audience. When you come to the cinema you frequently hear the reproach against lots of directors, that they don't reach a gigantic audience, that they're running away from it. In the theater you accept that you are only going to have so many dozens of people there at a time.

KL: I'm not sure they do accept that. A lot of the people who have moved out from the West End are going to theater they want to be a popular experience.

PW: Popular is different from mass, that’s where the thing about the screen is important. The theater, even with a little audience, can be a popular experience. The cinema doesn't work that way.

On the way here, John was saying that 7/84 had followup discussions after performances, could that be done with films?

JMG: There are special films, like educational ones, which are designed to be discussed.

PW: Have you ever shown films like that?

TG: We go whenever we can. That’s the dream, that you can do a film that will help to pry open the issue, for everybody else to get amongst it. That’s a smashing thing for a film to do. We'll be going up to Newcastle when it opens there.

KL: Let’s hope some of the people there are from the local bins.

AB: What kind of response did you get when IN TWO MINDS was shown on television?

TG: The letters divided, fifty percent saying, “Oh, the poor parents, with a girl like that, what a terrible time they had.” The other half said, “The poor girl, with parents like that, no wonder she went mad.” Both of which were failures from our point of view, because if you make those kind of moral judgments when you're ceasing to understand the predicament.

JM: Are you going to aim for more for television again now?

KL: It’s a bit hand to mouth. You never know what you're going to get the money for.

TG: I've just signed a new contract with the BBC for two years. The idea is to spend half the time with TV and half with cinema, if we can get the money.

JM: What sort of projects?

TG: There’s a few things cooking; its bad luck to talk about them (laughter). There are one or two historical subjects, fairly recent history, because the working class have no history, they haven't been allowed to have history, it’s been taken away from them, it’s important to do something about that.

AB: What is the structure of Kestrel Productions? How do you go about making films as an independent organization?

TG: What happens, is you go to Nat Cohen, or whoever, one of the distributors, with a script and a detailed budget and ask for the money.

JMG: Others go along with a star as well. True, we're only talking about us. Some people start with a poster (silence). It’s true, there is a man at Hammer who says that he starts with a poster and then works backwards (laughter). It’s amazing, you know, we get letters. every day to the personnel manager. Kestrel is Janet in the office. That’s it, unless we are actually shooting, when there are sixty people working one way or another. Otherwise it’s Janet. What happened with FAMILY LIFE, we were very lucky. It was just before the National Film Finance Corporation got into terrible trouble. They had a bit of money and financed the script; then they put 50% of the money up for the film, and Nat Cohen of Tango-EMI put up the other 50%. The film cost 175 pounds. How else can you make films?

JMG: And now the NFFC can't put up the front money for scripts.

TG: We're in trouble—trying to get new things going will be very difficult. The NFFC has been the only civilizing influence on British Films. We wouldn't have survived without it.

AB: Have you lost money on all your films?

KL: On balance our ventures into feature films would show quite a healthy profit.

TG: We haven't seen any of it.

JMG: Will your record make it easier for you to raise some money commercially?

TG: Not really. Take KES. Once it started to do well, if we'd wanted to do a film about a girl and a sparrow we could have got the money (laughter). But who wants to do that?

AB: What happens if a film starts to make money, do you see the money?

TG: Look, Anthony, very simply, what happens is that all of the money that is paid into the box office roughly a third goes back to the distributor and two thirds is kept by the exhibitor. On that third he then takes off around 25% to 30% as his expenses, of the rest he then charges publicity, advertising and the cost of making prints.

KL: Those aren't his expenses!

TG: Of the remainder of that he starts to pay off the cost of making the film prior to the negative. Then of course there is all the cost of the interest on the money which has been borrowed to make the film and which has accumulated over the months. Then when all that has been paid off, it is called “going into profit” (laughter) and of that you may have a percentage.

PW: It’s like in Persia when the Shah would give the Minister the money, he'd keep what he felt was right, he'd give the rest to the deputies and they'd keep what they felt was right, and so on; it filters down gradually until it gets to the end of the chain, if there’s any left.

AB: The situation is scandalous.

TG: No, it’s just called capitalism. That’s how it is.