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Soccer is a gymnasium for your emotions, says Looking for Eric director Ken Loach in this Q&A – but that’s just the backdrop to a film in which truth of character is paramount.

Q: How did this film come into being?
I got a message that Eric Cantona was trying to get in touch…It was about two or three years ago. Without him there would be no film. A very nice French producer, Pascal Caucheteux, spoke with Rebecca [O’Brien, Producer] and suggested that he and Eric and we met. Obviously we knew Eric Cantona, knew his public persona very well, and knew him as a fantastic footballer. And they knew that Paul [Laverty, writer] and I were interested in football. So we met. Eric had a few ideas that were all very interesting, in particular a story of his relationship with one fan. Paul and I couldn’t really make that work in terms of narrative and characters and development, but we thought it was an interesting area to explore - not only the enjoyment of football and the part that football plays in people's lives, but also the notion of celebrity and how celebrities are built up in the press and on television: they have a superhuman quality in people's minds.

Paul went away with a blank sheet of paper and wrote a story that tried to bring in all these elements. There were no major misgivings about showing it to Eric because we'd met two or three times and we had a good sense of who he was: he just seemed somebody who was not reverent about himself and had a twinkle in his eye about the whole project. It was fun, rather than some heavy-handed affair. We were just hoping he would enjoy it and he was kind enough to say that he did.

Q: Why Cantona?
He's original and bright and sharp and perceptive. He thinks a little outside the game and his jousts with journalists were always funny and witty. He's obviously a man of some substance - we knew that about him just from the way he'd been in public, from the seagulls quote both before and afterwards. As we talked to him - particularly as Paul talked to him - his thoughts on the game and on his place in it and what he tried to do and how he approached it all became part of the project.
When Eric walks in a room you really know he's there. It's true of very few people but he's a man with considerable charisma and a magnetism. Actors talk about natural projection, in that you can communicate from the stage to the back of the auditorium without apparently doing anything. Eric did that on a football field – he communicated to 70,000 people. That's an extraordinary natural ability.

In Manchester he was treated with reverence and affection. We had to keep him under wraps a bit - it's the first time I've ever had paparazzi lurking round a set. And if you were with him in the street the traffic would slow down and people would seize him by the hand.

I went to a game with him at Old Trafford. Even without knowing he was there they were singing the Cantona songs - they were singing his name when he hadn't been there for a decade. Then when they discovered he was there the roof went up. Grown men wept! As we were leaving old fellas were coming up to him shaking him by the hand. Very few players have inspired such affection.

Q: Why Football?
I only know it as a spectator but to go to a game is very social: you meet the same, quite large group of people and what you have in common is support for the team. It's nothing to do with work, it's nothing to do with anything except the game and that wide selection of disparate people.

But the game itself is like a gymnasium for your emotions. You experience everything. Hope, joy, sorrow, grief, suspense, anguish. Delirious ecstasy when the goal goes in. It's all those things but they’re all contained in a safe framework that - I can't say, ‘it doesn't matter’ - but in the end it is only a game and in the end real life carries on. It's a huge therapeutic exercise where you have all these emotions but nevertheless they're within a safe environment.

Q: Who is Eric Bishop, your lead character?
He's an intelligent man who suffers from panic attacks and it's really interfered with his ability to stay in a relationship. His response to it is just to put his head in the sand, go out with the lads, go to the games, have a drink and not deal with it. The consequence is his first marriage broke down. He then married someone else who developed a drink problem. She had two sons by different fathers. When she finally went off the rails he was left with these two lads and because at heart he's a very generous person, when they were younger he did have a reasonable relationship with them. But as they’ve become teenagers they do what teenagers do, which is if they see a weakness they exploit it. They destroy him. He's left with a big house that he can’t manage, and of course chaos breeds chaos. He can barely hold his job together and when we first see him he's in the middle of a panic attack.

Q: How was the film cast?
Next to the script the casting is the most important thing. I worked with Kathleen [Crawford, Casting Director] again and we saw unknown actors, well-known actors, everybody - we just try to be as inclusive as possible. It's always important that the film is rooted somewhere specific, so we did restrict it to people from Manchester or nearby. The Eric in the film is a Manchester United supporter when most Manchester United supporters came from Manchester. So we thought it was important that he was played by a Manchester man. With Steve Evets we were able to sense that he was a man on the edge. He's also funny but not in a way that he's playing comedy: he's just being true. We look for true responses and then when somebody reveals themselves, that they reveal themselves in a way that is in line with the character. Because you can get somebody who's really brilliant - right social class, everything right - but as they reveal themselves in their performance it's something different to the character. You’ve got to find somebody who's good in all those ways but also true to the character you want on the screen.

Q: How was Cantona himself introduced in to the action?
There was a moment! It was very elaborate. Surprise is the hardest thing to act, and Steve (Evets) had no idea - he knew that Eric Cantona was involved as a producer but he didn't know that he was in the film. On the day he was going to be in it we brought him in to the house and in to the bedroom. I said to Steve, “The light's not quite right. We're going to have to put up a bit of black to minimise the reflection. Give us ten minutes.” Steve went out for a smoke, Eric Cantona hid behind a black drape that we'd put round the camera and then we played the scene. Steve was looking towards the life-size Cantona poster and Eric slipped out and stood behind him, and spoke. Unfortunately we had some Belgian camera assistants and when Steve heard the voice he thought it was one of them speaking. So he stood there and he didn't know what to do. The first take it didn't quite work. But there was still surprise enough for the second take.

Q: Tonally, how do you go from comic scenes to more serious moments?
You can only be truthful. And that again is down to finding people who can be truthful and naturally funny. Or truthful and naturally touching. The moment there's a sense of, ‘Now it's a comedy scene,’ and ‘Now it's a sad scene,’ it wouldn't work. That's why somebody like John's [Henshaw] a good actor. He's serious and he's funny without a change of step. Ricky Tomlinson is like that as well. He can be funny and in exactly the same mood he can be serious. That he doesn't have to change gear is the essential thing

Q: What do you hope an audience will take from the film?
Just the fact that it's about friendship and about coming to terms with who you are. It's a film against individualism: we’re stronger as a gang than we are on our own. You can be pretentious about this but it is about the solidarity of friends, which is epitomised in a crowd of football supporters. But also where you work and the people you work alongside. Although that seems an almost trite observation, it's still not the spirit of the age. Or it hasn't been the spirit of the age for the last 30 years, where people are your competitors, not your comrades.

Q: Cantona plays the trumpet in the film. Does he have a future as a musician?
When George Fenton recorded the music and heard Eric playing, I sent Eric a text saying, ‘The musicians are impressed but suggest you don't give up the football just yet.’ He texted back and said, ‘Maybe they think I take their work.’

Published September 24, 2009

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Ken Loach


Looking for Eric

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