MSPIFF 2019 Spotlight: ‘Singin’ In The Grain – A Minnesota Czech Story’ + Interview with filmmaker Al Milgrom

It’s one of the most exciting times of the year! MSPIFF always have a wonderful lineup of documentaries and this is one I had the privilege of seeing early thanks to one of the film’s producers, Kelly Lamplear-Dash, who also helped me land this interview. When I first heard about this film, I was immediately intrigued as I love films about music AND this one happens to have a close personal connection to my adopted state, Minnesota!

Dan Geiger (left) and Al Milgrom

What makes this extra special is that one of the film’s directors, Al Milgrom, is a Minnesota film legend. The founder and artistic director of U Film Society in 1962, and co-founder of this very own Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in 1981, he’s had a second career as a filmmaker going back to grad student days at University of Minnesota.

His credits include doc features _Russian Journey_ (1959), Dinkytown Uprising (2015); shorts: The Bramble Experience (1971) , Rediscovering John Berryman (2014).

Co-director and editor Daniel Geiger is a veteran filmmaker based in Minneapolis. He’s has worked in the film business for over 37 years on feature films such as: Fargo, North Country, Purple Rain, Wildrose, Far North, Herman-U.S.A., Snow and The Jingle Dress.


It was exactly a week ago that I spoke on the phone with Mr. Milgrom. I had met him last year at a film event, and he was fascinated that I was from Indonesia. He likely knows more about Indonesian cinema than I do, and have even met famous Indonesian filmmakers/celebrities like Garin Nugroho and Christine Hakim. It’s clear that Mr. Milgrom loves learning about other cultures, which is how this film was born.

Close-up of Eddie Shimota Jr. playing the accordion

Before I started asking my questions, I told Mr. Milgrom that I had seen his film and that I enjoyed it. He asked if I was bored by all that music and I assured him I wasn’t. I love learning other cultures and the Czech heritage is so different from my own, which makes it all the more fascinating. I like the fact that it centers on a certain family, as the Shimotas became sort of the ‘face of the Czech community’ so to speak. Some of his family members and friends also chimed in throughout the film to give insights into what it means to be Czech-Americans.

As I was watching the movie and watching Eddie and his son played the accordion, I actually felt a bit nostalgic of my late mother who liked polka music and could play the accordion really well. My mom was always the life of the party back in Jakarta, Indonesia, every time she came out with her accordion, as it’s still quite a rare instrument there. Having lived in Minnesota for over 20 years, I’m always discovering new things about the State, so I’m glad I got to learn a bit about the Czech community and various cultural events such as the Veseli Ho-Down, Montgomery’s Kolacky Days, New Prague’s Dozinky Festival, etc. that’s been passed down through generations.

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Singin’ in the Grain is a film that should appeal to every immigrant, or anyone whose parents and grandparents migrated from another country (which are all of us, really). 45-years in the making, the film followed the life of Eddie Shimota in a series of footage spanning 40+ years and three generations. The boy in the poster is Eddie Shimota Jr. as a young teen, which is seen throughout the film from his youth all the way to the time he has his own wife and kids. It’s a film that celebrates a rich cultural heritage and the tight-knit Czech community in Southern Minnesota through folksongs and dances. Music is such a universal language, and something that anyone from any culture can relate to.

When I asked Mr. Milgrom why he chose to explore the story of the Czech community, as opposed to other immigrant communities such as German or Irish, his answer was simple…

The German community is more well-known to people here. The Swedes and Norwegian culture has become assimilated, as is the Germans, so the unique quality has disappeared. 

Mr. Milgrom also mentioned the fact that the Irish culture is pretty much only celebrated during St. Patrick’s Day, and the Norwegians and Swedes tend to belong to the upper bourgeoisie in Minnesota (middle or upper middle class) while the people in this documentary are mostly agricultural farmers in a section in Minnesota where, until the highways were developed, weren’t that well-known.

Mr Milgrom himself grew up in a Bohemian community in Pine City, Minnesota, so he already knew a certain amount about the folkways and their culture, even their language when he’s sometimes invited to their house when he was 10 years old. His early love for cinema was through Czech New Wave filmmakers like Milos Vorman, Ján Kadár (who won an Oscar for Shop On Main Street), etc. In fact, some of those filmmakers came to New Prague and were credited as consultants in this film.

Apparently Mr. Milgrom wasn’t initially planning on making a film about Eddie Shimota. Someone mentioned to him about the Hoedown Festival and Eddie’s band was the star of that festival that takes place every August in Veseli. At the time, Mr. Milgrom didn’t even know it was going to be a film, but he found Eddie to be a good subject for a series of interviews, plus he and his band were accessible to him. 

“The point is, I really liked the characters. I like Eddie and the Czech people there. They’re very different from the Academic community at the University. 

Eddie Shimota Sr.

The film shows public domain footage of immigrants coming to Ellis Island that ties in very well with the Czech heritage story. It also talks about various aspects of the Czech heritage in the Bohemian community that’s still being practiced today. There’s even footage of a Czech Honorary Consul (Ambassador) of the Midwest visiting a school in Montgomery, one of the largest Czech communities in Minnesota. But music is integral to the film, and that’s the ‘ties that bind’ if you will, as people of various socio-economic classes (some are farmers, surgeons, etc.) but they’d come together and play music together. 

The Shimotas reflect the culture of the ‘old Czech’ that arrived in the late 1800s and settled in New Prague as they form farming communities. Mr. Milgrom said that the old Czech has been somewhat diluted by the new arrival of new generation of Czech immigrants after Velvet Revolution in 1989, with their own folk-Slavic beat and vibe that’s very different from Eddie Shimota’s world.

In my interview, Mr. Milgrom discussed a bit about the clichéd term ‘America is a melting pot’ that’s rooted in the 60s and 70s.

“… in this day and age, especially after the ‘Make America Great Again’ propaganda slogan, various ethnicities want to reclaim their identity, they don’t want to be a melting pot. They want to preserve their own cultures… the Blacks want to preserve who they are, the Puerto Rican want to preserve who they are. Perhaps not the Irish so much as they’re so political, but the Greeks want to preserve who they are, they don’t want to blend in with everybody and want to preserve their language if they can. The process of assimilation tend to dilute their cultures. The Czech want to preserve their culture because they’d get swallowed up by everybody otherwise.”

Eddie Shimota Jr (in a dark shirt playing an accordion) continued his father’s tradition in the Veseli Hoedown, 2011

Singin’ In The Grain is a wonderful celebration of such a vibrant and dynamic Czech heritage. I’m happy to have seen a glimpse of their culture and music through this film, and perhaps even participate in St. Paul’s Sokol Hall later this year. The music alone makes it a fun to watch and it’s easy to be swept up by their joyful smiles and warm community spirit. It may have taken over 40 years to make this film but I’m glad Al Milgrom and Dan Geiger got it done. It’s definitely a film worth seeing by everyone, but especially Minnesotans!


MSPIFF 2019 SHOWINGS

St. Anthony Main Theatre 3 – Sat, Apr 6 2:00 PM (RUSH ONLY) 

Tickets still available for these two performances:
St. Anthony Main Theatre 2 – Wed, Apr 17 4:15 PM
Marcus Rochester CinemaThu, Apr 18 12:15 PM

MSPIFF 2015 Film Spotlight: The Center – Interview with filmmaker Charlie Griak & lead actor Matt Cici

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One of the most exciting parts of MSPIFF 2015 are the regional premieres of various films, and this one has a personal connection to the city.

Produced by Jonathan Demme (director of Silence of the Lamb, Philadelphia, Beloved) and shot locally in St Paul, Charlie Griak’s atmospheric debut focuses on a vulnerable young man who falls into the trap of a cult-like group. Ryan is a recent college grad searching not only for a job but also for a meaning in life. When he comes across a self-help organization, simply known as The Center, with a charismatic leader, Ryan seems to have found what he has been looking for.

The Center is a tense and surreal portrait of the dangerous nature of groupthink.

I had the pleasure of interviewing The Center‘s lead actor Matt Cici last year when he premiered his feature film debut Lambent Fuse right here at MSPIFF. It’s awesome that he’s back in yet another regional premiere, albeit in a different role, as a lead actor this time instead of in the directing chair.

The Center‘s film director Charlie Griak is an accomplished visual artist who has been working professionally as a freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, and animator since 1998. He is the creator of the short animated film Fever, an eight-minute narrative made up of over 4000 of his hand drawn illustrations. It earned a screenings in The Palm Spring International Festival of Short Films, The Seattle International Film Festival and The Raindance Film Festival in London. THE CENTER is Griak’s live action directorial debut.

Today we have an interview with both Matt and Cici about the film, thanks to both for the wonderful opportunity!

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Charlie Griak directing on set

Questions for Charlie:

1. How did you come up w/ the concept about a cult? Is there a personal connection or is it something else that inspire you to write about this cautionary tale?

I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics— whether in a workplace, at a school, or even in a family — so I thought that a movie about a cult would be an interesting place to explore these ideas. Without realizing I was doing it, I’ve been researching the topic for years and years.

This research has led to a lot of great personal revelations. Maybe the biggest thing I take away from it — and I hope it comes through in the movie — is that almost any group can have cult-like aspects. Often our beliefs and value systems are given to us from the outside rather than decided upon from within. I think this a valuable concept to explore as an artist.

2. Based on the press release, this project took over six year to make, so what’s the biggest challenge to bring this film to life?

Whenever you are tackling a large creative project, you need to be flexible and open-minded enough to find creative solutions to the obstacles that inevitably arises. Coupled with that, filmmaking requires a strong discipline from the filmmaker to keep going when times are tough. So there is a great balancing act that an independent filmmaker needs to perform — between great flexibility and great tenacity. So for me, that was always the biggest challenge — finding the right balance between those two seemingly contradictory requirements.

3. Your background as a storyboard artist/animator, how does your experience in the business assist you in the filming process?

Working as a storyboard artist and animator really instilled in me the importance of planning. In animation, planning is especially important because the process itself is so laborious. Ideally, you don’t draw any extra “footage” in animation. You have the edit in mind, down to the exact frame, before you finalize a single image. Having spent years working that way, it felt very natural to extensively pre-visualize The Center in storyboards before shooting anything.

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4. There is a shot of Ryan from below where he’s at a skyway looking out into the street – you use that shot several times in the film. Is there a significance to that scene in particular or you just like the aesthetic of the shot itself?

I’ve spent a lot of time working for various companies in downtown Minneapolis and found myself watching the activity of the city from the skyways whenever I needed to get away and think. It always felt like it was a unique place — somewhat separated from the action of the city, but also right in the middle of it.

So I put Ryan in the skyways at several times in the film because I felt the visual elements of the location expressed his inner state of mind. He is trapped behind glass, very close to the people he wants to connect with but also unable to reach them. The skyways felt like metaphor for his life. I like trying to find a realistic location (one that logically makes sense to the film’s story) that also visually expresses the inner world of the characters involved. Hopefully that came through in those shots.

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5. Would you share what’s a day in the life is like during filming? Especially during the intense meetings with the group leader Vincent?

I was so excited to be on set that I would jump out of bed and rush to our location before I would even eat breakfast. I couldn’t wait to start filming each day. In fact, for the first day of shooting, I was so excited that I think I showed up over 5 hours early! It really was a dream come true to actually get to make a movie, so I tried to soak up every second of it.

Once the day would officially begin, things moved very quickly. We had a finite time to shoot at each location so we had our schedule figured out in 15 minutes increments and we decided early on that we would never go over a 12 hour day if at all possible. That might sound a little rigid or contrary to the creative process, but I believe that having such a solid structure actually gave our team a lot of confidence during the production. Being organized created a safe and dependable environment for everyone to be at their best — creative, spontaneous and also willing to be vulnerable.

We had two local producers, Annie and Judd Einan, who did an amazing job of organizing and managing the production. A lot of the cast and crew told me that it was the best set they had ever worked on, and I think Annie and Judd deserve a huge amount of credit for that. I had seen their short film ”Blindspot” and was thoroughly impressed by what they had created. I was very lucky that they were interested in producing The Center.

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6. Lastly, how did Jonathan Demme come to be involved as executive producer?

I feel so incredibly lucky to have Jonathan Demme on board as the film’s executive producer. He is one of my personal heroes as both a filmmaker and as a person.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be selected by Jonathan and Curious Pictures in NY to create imagery for an animated feature film that they were developing. As the project was being developed, Jonathan would send me parts of the script and I would him send him illustrations and animations. We went back and forth in this way for several years and along the way he and I developed a great collaborative partnership and a great friendship.

In 2012, I asked Jonathan if I could share my rough-cut of “The Center” with him. He was very excited to watch the film and really liked what he saw. Soon after, he set up an artist residency for me in Pleasantville, NY at The Jacob Burns Film Center where he and I worked with JBFC Editor Thom O’Connor to create the final edit of film.

Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?

I hope the film generates a lot of discussion in the audience about cults, human behavior, belief systems and group dynamics. I think there is no bigger compliment than hearing that my film made someone “think”.

But beyond simply the topic, I hope that the audience walks away feeling that were able to connect with the film and its characters. Because ultimately I think that is why audiences see films and why filmmakers make films — to connect with one another.


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Questions for Matt:

1. How did you get involved with the project? Did you know Charlie or any of the producers before this film?

The Center was my first experience with Charlie and the rest of the team. I knew of Annie Einan, one of our producers/actors, from when she had expressed interest in my film, Lambent Fuse, but we hadn’t worked together yet.

This is the first feature film I’ve worked on as an actor. Primarily, I work as a crew member on films: directing/writing/editing and crewing on other films in various roles from 1st Assistant Director (AD) to Location Manager.

I found out about The Center in a most perfect time in my life:
I had just driven eight hours straight from South Dakota after a somewhat exhausting feature film production, where I served as 1st AD. Right when I got home I opened my Mac, brought up Facebook, and saw a post from Annie Einan mentioning they were casting for a feature film. I thought to myself, I wasn’t really in the mood to crew something at that moment, so I read on.

The part of Ryan jumped out to me immediately. But, I kept reading since I wasn’t sure if it jumped out to me only because it was the lead role. There was something about the way he was described that intrigued me. He was inspiring and depressing at the same time. It just sounded like someone I could connect with at that time. So, I sent a headshot and my résumé with a note mentioning I’d like to crew if they felt that would be a better fit.

Before showing up I shaved my head because I had sported a mohawk for the film I did in South Dakota. We all did it as a fun, bonding thing. I was a bit nervous that my shaved head, not looking anything like my headshot, would not play in my favor at the audition, especially when they asked me to take off a beanie I had worn to cover it up. But, I think it’s safe to say it didn’t.

Less than a week later, I received a call back audition, and we worked hard from that point forward to create Ryan together. They challenged me in so many wonderful ways, and the team was one happy unit. It was awesome!

And to think, had I not driven home at that exact moment, had I not opened my computer at that exact moment, had I not gone to Facebook at that exact moment, I would have never found this film. I wasn’t actively looking for a role to play; it found me, and as cheesy as that sounds, I’m so happy it did.

2. How did you approach this role of Ryan with his vulnerability as well as that ‘seeker’ aspect of this character?

It was something I connected with immediately when reading the audition character description. I approached it as attributes that also lived inside me. I felt really close to Ryan at the time of shooting. He was disconnected from the world. I think we all have had that feeling or understand “not fitting in.” There was a point in each of our lives when we just want to know what to do next. “Who should we be?” Once you’ve worked that out, you’ll need to figure out how do become that person. Ryan is looking for those answers too.

With acting, you’re being analyzed on every breath and every twitch. Each one of them matters. In film, there cannot be a wasted frame. Those moments matter to the people watching, but they matter even more to the character you’re playing. You, as an actor, become vulnerable to everyone around you: the film crew, the other talent, and the audience who will eventually watch the film. As people, we attempt to put on our best faces, and with each character they are doing the same.

On top of being vulnerable, it’s hard for him to find support at work and at home. He had nobody to turn to. At the time, I was in between places, and had just come off an exhausting film shoot. I was premiering a near-rough cut of my feature film at a festival. So, there was a mixture of amazing and tough. Though, I did have people that supported me. To connect more with Ryan, I would start separating myself from society. I’d go for long runs and bike rides where I’d be stuck with only my thoughts. Whatever I was doing during the day, I would imagine myself as Ryan: isolated, lost, and lacking confidence. Personally, it made me appreciate those around me so much more, but it was also a feeling that I’ll never forget, and I worked hard to show that in the film.

3. How much does your experience as a filmmaker help you as an actor?

Oh, I feel it definitely shaped the way I approached this film, and it’s always helpful to cross-train in the field of cinema. I understood the production aspects, from script to screen, as I was in the final stages of editing my first feature film when we started working on The Center. It makes you look at a script with so much more care knowing how many long nights Charlie, Wendy, and his circle of support went through to craft it (a minimum of 2 years). To know they had been working on such detailed pre-production plans before I found out about the project made me appreciate and work diligently to perfect each moment they gave me. Charlie and his team put on one of the most wonderful productions one could wish to be a part of.

It helped during each take, knowing what to give for the director and audience, but also some range for the editor. They’re the ones who eventually craft the story into what it’s going to be. A story changes dramatically from thought to paper and paper to film before the editor sees the story unfold. Then, he/she once again retells the story.

I feel that I’ve become a better filmmaker by taking on several different roles.

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4. What’s your favorite scene to shoot from this film? Do you prefer the more intense or quieter moment of a scene?

I am not sure if my answer would change for another film, but I think I enjoyed the quieter moments more. There was always somewhere to go inside Ryan’s head. He was thinking constantly, and it was a lot of fun diving into his life. He did a lot of writing too, and I remember worrying a bit about what exactly I would write about. For some reason though, I couldn’t stop my pencil. Ryan was a very interesting person to play.

Question for either Matt or Charlie: What would you like the audience to come away from watching this film?

There are so many personal stories and experiences that came from this film for us and for our viewers. I’ve had people stop me afterward and share their experiences of having a family member or friend involved in a self-help group, cult, or cult-like group and what that was like for them and how that affected their lives. We are people. We care. If The Center can bring hope to someone or educate another, then it’s more than we could have ever asked for. Film is effective because it’s universal. It’s an art of storytelling, something we’ve been doing forever as beings on this planet; we’ve just found different ways to do it. I hope we can all see a film and talk about it. I will be impressed by everything that comes from this and thankful for the many that look to share these nights with us.


For more info: check out The Center’s official website

Trailer:


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A day in the life of filming ‘The Center’
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Matt (far left) and Charlie (far right) at Cinequest

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Get your tickets to the screenings of The Center!

Wed, Apr 22 7:20 PM
Fri, Apr 24 10:00 PM

Hope you enjoy the interview! What are your thoughts about The Center?

My interview with The Angels’ Share’s Screenwriter Paul Laverty – on Ken Loach, inhabiting the characters of his films, Eric Cantona, and more!

The Scottish indie The Angels’ Share kicked off the MSPIFF last Thursday, the latest from acclaimed British director, Ken Loach. Loach’s award-winning long-time screenwriting partner, Paul Laverty, was in attendance for the film festival’s opening night.

PaulLavertyI was fortunate enough to get a sit down interview with Mr. Laverty the afternoon before the film premiere. Bummer that I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of Paul, so the photo to the right I found from Google.

I was planning on having the entire taping of the interview here, alas I forgot to turn my phone on airplane mode so when my friend called me two minutes into the interview and I didn’t realize that it stopped the recording until five minutes later, so I lost a great deal of our conversation where I asked Mr. Laverty about working with Ken Loach and with the actors in The Angels’ Share, so I’ll try my best to write down his answer based on memory, so a lot of the first few answers here is paraphrasing [note to self: get it in writing in case technology snafu happens!]. But the last three questions were on tape, so you can listen to his answers below.

Anyhoo, here’s the interview:

Q: This is your 12th collaboration with Mr. Ken Loach and together you’ve won numerous awards for your work. What’s the secret of such a successful collaboration?

A: Ah yes, well ehm, it’s hard to be objective about it, hard to put my finger on it exactly, well I think the big thing is that we believe the same things, we care about the same things and want to see the same things being explored cinematicaly. Another thing is, it’s fun working with Ken, obviously. But he’s also a radical man, he has a strong opinion about things so it’s could be a challenge, he challenges me sometimes when we work together. But he’s also a very funny man, which makes it enjoyable to work with.

Q: I like stories about second chances and how a small gesture of kindness can turn someone’s life around. The character of Harry, played brilliantly by John Henswaw, is such a wonderful, inspiring character, is he based on anyone you know?

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John Henshaw and Paul Brannigan

A: Glad you mentioned him. John Henshaw is such a wonderful actor and he played his role beautifully. I don’t think [Harry] was based on a single person, but more of a compilation of several people I knew who devoted their lives to rehabilitating the kids who are cast out from society, who can’t get out of their life situation even if they want to because nobody wants to take a chance on them, nobody’s willing to give them a job. That’s why I wanted to tell a story that perhaps would illustrate that part of society, that part of life, and maybe that’d get people to see how tough it is.

Q: The characters in this film are portrayed in such convincing ways by the actors. How did you find them, as I learned that most of the actors didn’t have any acting experience?

A: Yes, the lead Paul Brannigan who played Robbie has never acted before this. His real life story is actually very similar to Robbie, he’s also been to prison. But he was more than up for it. He obviously identified with his character and what he went through. There’s a lot of improvisation and as filming progressed, his confidence [as an actor] just grew and grew. Plus he’s not afraid to take a chance.

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Ken Loach, Paul Brannigan and Paul Laverty in Cannes

In relation to Laverty’s answer, this is what Ken Loach said about working with Brannigan, per The Guardian:

Says Loach: “He had real emotional truth. He knew this part implicitly. He’s also very astute. Some young actors have talent but you can’t really read them. With Paul, you can, and that’s quite unusual. He’s very centred and focused and economical.”

Q: The dialog in this movie is just wonderful. There’s a profound moment where Robbie’s wife said to him in the hospital as they’re holding their newborn baby, “You just get one shot of being a wee baby, Robbie. Just one shot… You know what that means don’t you?”

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“… I think it’s about trying to see the world from the point of view of that character… and that’s always the great challenge to do that well and not to turn it into a stereotype.”

Q: My friend Mark who lives in Glasgow is a big fan of yours and he’s wondering whether you’re a Celtics or Rangers fan?

A: I’m a Celtics fan, you have to tell him… all the film fans are Celtics fans… as for Ranger fans, I don’t think they see films. Now don’t put that it in print, ahah.

Q: Now, Mark also asked me to pass this question to you… it’s about the situation in Glasgow. He said that the city doesn’t entirely function on sport [football] but its more to do with the religious divide that comes with the sport. It’s hard to describe but it permeates through the city and plays a big part of the cultural divide. It seems like it’s a topic that hasn’t been explored in films hardly at all.

“The ugliest part of Glasgow is the sectarian divide… you know, which is a great shame. It’s a great curse to the city. I think your friend is right. I think there could be a great story told about it…”

Mr. Laverty then said that Mark should write that story. He asked me to say hello to him, so Mark, perhaps one day you would collaborate with Mr. Laverty and Ken Loach on this Scottish football drama! 😉

Q: Why Eric Cantona, of all the other famous football players in Europe?

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Eric Cantona in ‘Looking for Eric’

“Because Eric Cantona came to us and was very keen on collaborating with us. And he came with another idea, which you know, didn’t really work for us. But I was very fascinated by the figure of Eric Cantona, and Ken loves football as well.”

Mr. Laverty also recommended a football-themed film he did with Ken Loach, Italian director Ermanno Olmi and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami called Tickets. I definitely will be renting that!


Off the record:

At the end of the interview, Mr. Laverty asked which publication I worked for, and when I told him I run a movie blog, he asked if I work on it full time and that he’s always fascinated by how these things came about. Then I replied that I have a full time job elsewhere and that I run my blog after work, and he said how it must take incredible energy.

He was very encouraging when I said I’d love to write for films one day, saying “Well you should do it, I mean if you have that much energy… you stop interviewing people like me and write your own script,”… to which I replied that I’m constantly inspired by creative people like him. But in any case, maybe one day I take up on his advice 😀

THANK YOU Mr. Laverty for your time and for being such so friendly and gracious. Now I really need to do a Ken Loach marathon, starting with Looking For Eric [read Mark’s review of it here]


Hope you enjoy the interview. Now, what’s your favorite film(s) from Ken Loach & Paul Laverty?