Named after the lethal 12KM stretch of highway between Baghdad airport and the International ‘green’ zone, Ken Loach’s new film 'Route Irish' deals with the murky world of private contract workers in Iraq. Fergus (played by Mark Womack) is one such former SAS man turned contractor, struggling with the ticking time bomb of post-traumatic stress disorder, and out to unravel what may be a conspiracy in the death of a comrade. Dazed brought Loach together with up and coming director Luke Seomore – whose haunting documentary Isolation focuses on ex-veterans – to discuss Loach’s latest thriller, and bringing the war back home.
Dazed Digital: You started your early career as an actor…
Ken Loach: I was the worst actor in England at the time! I didn't get much work. It was the 1960's, a lifetime away. But I think if you have been an actor however briefly and however poorly, you do have some sense of what is helpful and unhelpful. Every director should do it. Because then you realise how vulnerable people are. I've never understood just sitting beside a monitor, like Kubrick, it just feels very cold. In order to understand the actors, you have to be with them on their stumbles and falls.
DD: In Cannes you mentioned yourself and scriptwriter Paul Laverty had wanted to make a film connected to the war in Iraq for a long time - why did you feel it was the right time to make Route Irish?
Ken Loach: It’s always difficult to make a film on the back of a news event, even one as big as Iraq. If you want to do a considered piece of fiction, it's easier to let the dust settle. The further away you are, the more perspective you've got. It became clear there were various cliches; the soldier that goes there, gun-ho and comes away convinced it was illegal and wrong. The other danger is you make a film about the American tragedy and ignore the fact it was largely the Iraqis that suffered. The roots of the war being about corporate greed seemed to us the area to go to. As the soldiers moved out and the private contractors were moving in, the privatization of war became more and more apparent. Paul (Laverty) had the idea of creating a mystery that you had to unravel. The various solutions to the mystery, which were all possible, all involved some different degree of corruption.
DD: One thing our film Isolation tried to reveal was the complex emotions soldiers experience on coming home. Route Irish conveys that really well.
Ken Loach: The volatility of the character Fergus was important, the fact he is like a ticking time-bomb. It just needs one thing that triggers him into despair or rage. Five weeks of dangerous, hard military soldiering, a load of money. Then off to somewhere to let it off with some local hookers. Then back to your home trying to have a normal family situation - people become torn apart by that. It’s a pretty awful way to live. Paul met a woman nurse, who talked about people who had come back, either from war or from being a contractor, who had post-traumatic-stress. She said 'they seem to be in mourning for their former selves'. The person they were; the person they lost. So that is why we had that little prologue with the two lads talking about what adventures they will have. There is a certain innocence, but one comes back in a body-bag and the other one is destroyed.
DD: That sense of camaraderie is important in the army…
Ken Loach: Soldiers say when they’re fighting, they are fighting for the platoon, or the people next to them. The actual bravery is within that context, it’s not an act of bravery for Queen and country, it’s for the guy standing next to you. When they become contractors taking a 'package' or carrying a person, that thing must come first, so they leave comrades exposed or dead or dying. Because they are paid to protect the ‘package’ not each other. It goes against everything they know in the army.
DD: One scene which is particularly shocking is the torture scene, where the actor Trevor Williams seems to be 'water-boarded' for real?
Ken Loach: We tried it with a mask over his face but it didn't work. In the end he said “oh bugger it, I'll do it”. But he suffered. He was from Manchester and on the train going back, he suddenly went into an absolute panic and had nightmares for a long time afterwards. We were doing it in a controlled situation, he had a controller in his hand to stop it, he wasn't bound down, he could have sat up. He was brilliant, I think there is very few actors who could do that scene, he just went for it.
DD: How did you come across Craig Lundberg, the blind ex-veteran in the film?
Ken Loach: Paul met him when he was doing the research. You have to salute someone like that, for their courage, determination and bravery. He plays blind football for England. In between his scenes he went and played blind football for England and then climbed Kilimanjaro. We were just doing a film and that seemed hard enough!
DD: I really liked the brief scene in Route Irish with Tess, the three-legged dog…
Ken Loach: [laughs] Stupid little thing, we've always had three legged dogs in our films, but sometimes they hit the cutting room floor. There are more three legged dogs than you'd imagine, you know.
DD: There’s one near our studio, a black Labrador.
Ken Loach: Send me the details of his agent… Two films running, three legged dogs happened across the shot, so we thought this has got to be a sign of good luck. That was twenty years ago, so we always try to creep one in somewhere.
Route Irish is out on March 18
Text by Luke Seomore