I, Daniel Blake won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival and it’s one of the year’s most powerful films. I had the chance to speak to star Dave Johns about his unusual background, the film’s content, and the approach of director Ken Loach…
Matt: You’re a name that many won’t be familiar with here in Australia. Tell us a little about yourself.
Dave: I’ve been a stand-up comedian for 27 years. I’ve been to Australia and done the Melbourne Comedy Festival a few times as well as the Adelaide Fringe and a couple of gigs in Perth. I’ve been working all my life doing stand-up in the UK and around the world and that’s pretty much my background.
Matt: So is this your first leading role in a movie? How did Ken Loach find you?
Dave: Yeah. I did a play up in Edinburgh a few years ago with a load of comedians who wanted to do a serious play. We got together and did Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. We performed it at the Edinburgh Festival and it was a massive hit. We came back the next year and did One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then a few other ensemble plays.
The producer got in touch with me last summer to let me know Ken Loach was making a new film and he was looking for a guy my age from the North East of England. He felt I was perfect so I got in touch with the casting people and was invited in to meet Ken Loach. He got me talking about football for 10 minutes to kind of feel me out. I was invited back for 3 castings with different actresses and he then offered me the part. It knocked me for six.
Matt: Tell us about Ken Loach. He’s 80 years of age and has been making films for 50 years. What’s it like to work with an icon of British cinema who has so much experience?
Dave: I adore the man. He’s got a great sense of humour. He’s very gentle but he has a steely determination to get across his message which is fantastic. The way he works is so different. Ken shoots chronologically and you don’t get the script at the start. You get a couple of pages of script each day and so it’s like you’re living the life of the character as you go along. He has a crew around him who have been working together for years who are sworn to secrecy so they never tell you what’s going on.
Matt: Was there no script at all at the start when you signed on for this?
Dave: No. All I knew on day 1 was that my name was Daniel Blake, I had a wife who had passed away, I’d recently had a heart attack, and I’d been knocked back for sickness benefits from the welfare office. I was going to meet this young mum with two kids and we’d have a plutonic friendship together. That’s all I knew. I’d get new pages of script each day and I’d have to learn them overnight. Ken wanted it to be spontaneous and fresh and for the emotions to be real.
He doesn’t have closed sets either. There’s a scene where Hayley is in a grocery shop and it was just an ordinary shop with real people coming in and out. Ken would say “when the guy at the counter has finished paying his gas bill, we’ll start another take.” This is how the film has a real, gritty feel about it.
Matt: I know there are some people who are going to look at this film and go “this is over-exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with the welfare system.” The screenplay from Paul Laverty – is it based on actual events?
Dave: Oh yeah. Ken and Paul could have made it a lot worse than what it’s portrayed in the film. They did extensive research, they spoke to people to worked in the job centres, and they spoke to people who had left work and become sick themselves. All the things that happen to Daniel and Katie in the film are taken from real life situations that people spoke about.
Ken actually used ex-job centre staff in the film for some of the scenes. There’s also information that came from the foodbanks that shaped one scene in particular involving Katie. They’d found a young mother in that same situation.
Matt: An important part of the film is that it’s not demonising the staff at the welfare office. Yes, the system is flawed but as we see, there are some well-intentioned people there that are sympathetic to Daniel’s cause. Have you had welfare officers speak to you as well?
Dave: I think a lot of the people who are working in job centres and implementing this system are victims as well. The government has lost sight of why social security in this country was set up. They’ve even changed the name to “benefits” to give the connotation of a hand out. It always used to be “social security” which provided security for every person in the country if you came across hard times so that you wouldn’t become destitute.
I’ve been to film festivals all through Europe and people have come up to me to say it’s happening in their country as well. This push for austerity and trying to save money has led to a level of bureaucracy that has lost sight of the person. I never knew about this before the movie. I’ve been self-employed and I haven’t been on the dole since the 1980s. Hearing about sanctions and people having to fill out 52 page forms came as a shock.
After the film came out, my ex-wife phoned and told me about her 42-year-old sister who has Down syndrome. She was called in and interviewed. She shouldn’t have been on her own but because she wants to show everyone how capable she is, she exaggerated some of her abilities. The welfare office deemed that she was able to work and she lost her benefits. The case is now being appealed but the original interview should have been terminated straight away when they released she was on her own.
Matt: I’d like to hope that cinema does have the power to instigate change. Do you know if anyone within the British government has had a chance to see the film and offer their thoughts?
Dave: Damian Green is the Work and Pensions Secretary and he said he hasn’t seen the film but that he’d seen a trailer and it was a gross exaggeration of the situation. Jeremy Corbyn raised it in question time in Parliament and asked Prime Minister Theresa May to go and see it. He even offered to buy a ticket for her.
There has been a lot in the press about the film. People who have seen it are angry with where the system has got to. It’s portraying two ordinary people that people relate to. Katie could be your sister or your daughter. Daniel could be your grandfather, uncle or dad. People who are unemployed have been branded as “scroungers” and it’s their fault that they’re poor as opposed to the system. If we’re a decent society, she should be able to help people who are less fortunate.
Matt: Tell us a little about Hayley Squires – she gives a terrific, heartfelt performance.
Dave: Hayley is an amazing actress. Ken said to me on the first day that he needed Hayley and I to listen to each other in each of the scenes. If you do that, you’ll find the truth and you’ll find the honesty that will show on screen. If you’re working alongside an actor who is always giving 100%, it makes your life a lot easier. Ken saw that in the early auditions that Hayley and I had a connection together. He’s brilliant when it comes to casting.
Matt: You had the chance to attend the Cannes Film Festival this year where the film won the top prize, the Palm D’or. What was that whole experience like?
Dave: It was insane. I was in a lift with Woody Allen, just the two of us, and the funny thing is we never spoke to each other. It was so surreal. Cannes was insane with the red carpet and thousands of photographers. Since winning the Palm D’or, this film has taken on a life of its own. I’ve heard I’ve been nominated for best actor at the European Film Awards and I’ve been nominated at the British Independent Film Awards. In Variety magazine, they had me ranked as #20 in the list of actors who might be nominated for an Oscar this year. I’m in between Jake Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell which is insane. There are times when I think “have I just banged my head and am in a coma somewhere?” I’m so proud that the film is having an impact around the world.
Matt: What’s the plan going forward? Would you like to continue making feature films or do you have other things in mind?
Dave: I would love to keep making movies and I’ve got some offers coming in at the moment. I want to find the right project. If I never made another film ever, I can always say that I was the lead in a Ken Loach film that won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. I could definitely accept that. I’ve still got the day job and I’m still doing stand-up. I’m off to Paris tomorrow to do two shows and then I’m off to Slovenia. So yeah, I’d love to do more films but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.