There's an astonishing story at the heart of I, Daniel Blake, the latest film from veteran director Ken Loach, and the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. After suffering a heart attack while standing on scaffolding on a building site, the titular character (Dave Johns) seeks government assistance. Alas, despite his doctor's advice that he needs rest to recover, a series of bureaucrats deem him fit to work, and refuse to listen to his pleas about his health. His situation isn't unique; at the local benefits office, he meets a single mother, Katie (Hayley Squires), similarly battling an uncaring system.
Exposing the punitive barriers those in need are forced to face when they're looking for help, the movie has been garnering a strong reaction as it travels around the world. However, there's another incredible tale driving I, Daniel Blake. Lead actor Johns is a stand-up comedian who has appeared on British panel TV shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks and 8 Out of Ten Cats, and now makes the leap to film to star in his first feature at the age of 59.
His is a devastatingly naturalistic performance in a heartbreaking piece of social realist cinema, and one that lingers long after viewing. With I, Daniel Blake releasing in New Zealand cinemas after playing at the New Zealand International Film Festival, we chatted with Johns about making his first movie, receiving the script page-by-page as shooting progressed, and the responsibility of making a film that hits so close to home for so many people.
ON MAKING THE JUMP FROM STAND-UP TO STARRING IN A KEN LOACH FILM
"I was aware of Ken's work — and just to meet Ken, I said to people, friends of mine, 'If I could just get in and do the improv with him, that'd just be a great experience'. So I never dreamt that I would be offered the part.
We shot it for ten weeks up in the northeast of England, around the area where I was brought up as a kid. And I remember the first day, I mean, I'd done plays and stuff like that, but I hadn't walked on set and seen the enormity of what I'd taken on. 'Oh my god, I'm the lead of this film,' I remember thinking. 'Oh, have I bitten off too much?' And now people say to me, 'You know, what's it like, your first film?' — and I go 'Well, if it's my first film and it's won the Palme d'Or, I think I've set my bar a little too high'.
Now I'm up for best actor at the European Film Awards this year in Poland. I'm up for best actor and best newcomer and the British Independent Film Awards. Variety magazine in America have tipped me as number 20 to win an Oscar behind Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell, so it is pretty surreal. I think your career should be a bit of an adventure. And if you do one thing in your life that you can be proud of, to be in a Ken Loach film that has made such an impact and won the Palme d'Or, I'm very proud and very honoured to be in this position."
ON DISCOVERING THE STORYLINE AS HE WENT
"The thing with the way Ken works is he doesn't tell you much about the film. You don't get the full script, you only get a couple of pages each day — and he shoots chronologically, so basically you are thrown into this life where you're just living this life everyday. And you don't really know what's coming until you get the two or three pages of script in the evening that you go away and learn and bring in the next day.
I think that's so you don't have that sort of [situation] where you and the other person you're doing the scene with, you can't look at page 26 of the script, and go, 'Oh look, this is our big scene'. Ken doesn't want you to pre-empt what's going to happen. He wants it all to be in the moment. A lot of people think there's a lot of improvisation in Ken's films — I mean all that script is all scripted, it's just that Paul Laverty [Loach's long-time screenwriter] and Ken, they give you the chance to own the words. That's how it comes across. And because he shoots chronologically, and because he has no closed sets — he puts you in real situations — it has that gritty, real feel about it."
ON REACTING TRUTHFULLY RATHER THAN ACTING
"I think you rely on truth. You rely on your true emotions, and you actually respond truthfully. You don't have any chance to pre-empt how you're going to feel. The first day, Ken said to me on set, 'When you're in scenes with Hayley, when you're in the scene together, if you just listen to each other and you find the truth, it will look like that on the screen'. So that's the notes I got, so I just took that on board. Just basically, like, he would say to me, 'You're getting a phone call today on set'. And I'd go, 'All right, who's it from?' And he'd go, 'You'll find out when you get the phone call'.
It's a very fascinating process. It makes you rely more on your gut reaction rather than any technique you might have as an actor, I would imagine. In any of the scenes I had with the kids or the neighbours or with Hayley, I think I was reacting to and responding to how she was playing it to me, you know. I think it was just being honest if something touched you, and then you brought the honest emotion to it. I think that's the only way you can do it when it's like that."
ON FORGETTING THAT HE'S MAKING A MOVIE
"The way Ken shoots, he doesn't have loads of people on set. There's no makeup touching you up before the scene, there's no checking your costume before every take, it's basically, you leave the unit and that's it. And basically, if we were in my flat, it'd just be the camera in the corner of the room — he never tells you what lens he's got on the camera, so you don't know how close the shot is. And there were times when in scenes I forgot I was in a film, really. I was just reacting to what Katie, the character, was telling us. And that was a pretty amazing feeling, when there were times when you forgot you were making a film and you were just talking with this person."
ON THE REALITY BEHIND THE FILM
"The first thing Ken said to me when we did preparations — I had to learn how to carve the wooden fish, did a little woodwork course, just a couple of days — and then he said to me, 'Fill that 52 page assessment form in.' And I was like, 'What?' And I came back and went, 'I can't do this, this is insane'. And then it got me thinking, imagine if you were sick, and you had to fill that in, and if you filled it in wrong. And so it was revealed to me how unjust the system is.
And I think it is because it is a system that is spread by this austerity which has been played around the world. I mean, every film festival — I took the summer off to go to film festivals with this — and at every film festival I went, at Locarno in Switzerland, in Spain, in Italy, in Slovakia, everywhere we went with this film, people came up afterwards and said 'This is happening in our country as well'. Because of the big banking crash and because of the finances, the way globalisation is going, you see the poorest and the less able are taking the biggest burden. And that's what's happening with the welfare system. I think they've lost sight of the person and they are just trying to save money, and it is bureaucracy, and it is outsourced to a company, and these questions are insane."
ON THE RESPONSIBILITY OF PLAYING A PART THAT HITS SO CLOSE TO HOME FOR SO MANY PEOPLE
"You can't just do this film and go, 'Well, that's it, I'm done.' You go on and you do other work, but you still come back to it because you do feel a responsibility to it. I mean, I spoke at the Labor party conference this year — I've never done that in my life before, you know.
So I do feel a bit that we have to see this film through, you know, and I don't think it is the sort of film that is going to go away. I think it's going to change things, because people here are angry, and people in America. People have said it will speak to the working poor who're in America. And it has already been mentioned in the House of Commons here by the opposition to Theresa May, so it is having an effect. I'm very pleased for Ken and for Paul, who, you know, thank the heavens that we have people like Paul Laverty and Ken Loach who are still making films that give a voice to people who don't have one."
I, Daniel Blake is currently screening in New Zealand cinemas. Read our review here.