Jim Loach talks about the making of Oranges & Sunshine, the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who uncovered one of the most significant social scandals of recent times: the deportation of thousands of children from the United Kingdom to Australia.
How did you go about the process of narrowing down the material to make this film? So many people were affected...
Jim Loach: We met lots and lots of former child migrants and, honestly, any single one of them you could have made a film about them. It was just extraordinary - every single one of them had an extraordinary story of being lifted out of this country and being taken to another country and being sold a lie, and the moment when they discovered that what they'd been told was untrue and then trying to piece together their lives. I mean, it was extraordinary.So, in the early days, we were thinking maybe that would be a way to do it, but I think we kept coming back to Margaret [Humphreys], because we were really interested in her central dilemma, which is that she's a woman, battling against the odds, [in a] heroic struggle against all these authorities, trying to reunite families and bring families back together but at the same time, trying to keep her own family together. And we were interested in that dilemma and the working mum thing. We found that was interesting as a general motor for the story, in the context of the wider story.
There's an emphasis placed on Emily Watson's portrayal of Margaret listening, which is a quality that a counsellor needs. Tell us about working with her to achieve that.
Jim Loach: We talked a lot about it and, again, Emily did a lot of research and spoke to social workers and did a lot of watching of social workers in action. By the time of shooting I'd known Margaret a long time, so had observed her a lot myself. One of the reasons I wanted Emily was that she is a great listener, she totally understands that aspect. But it's exactly right, what you're saying, and that was the aspect of the part she completely got from day one which was very heartening. There were many other attributes she could bring, but I knew that was one of them. We were always fascinated by and also challenged by the [idea] that this woman has a big interior life. There's never a scene where she goes to the pub and says: "It's a nightmare, I can't do all this, it's impossible, no one person can do it!" She had to communicate that in the smallest moments, and in that environment professionals don't show much and we wanted to really be truthful to that.
Yet they didn't meet prior to shooting, did they?
Jim Loach: [Laughs] No.
Did that surprise you?
Jim Loach: We talked about it a lot, and I've since been questioned a lot about it. Emily and I came to the conclusion that it would probably be better if they didn't and that was because... Emily had played real people before for a start, and I think she would say that she'd been round the course on that and seen the problems it can bring. I think she'd say that. Also, there's just no point in getting bogged down in a narrow impersonation. She was obviously aiming at a wider truth. And the real Margaret creates a very strong impression because she's a fantastic woman who we found really inspiring, which was why we wanted to make the film. But for me, there wasn't any point in Emily getting distracted by things that weren't relevant. They met after a screening a couple of months ago, and they get on very well.
What does Margaret think of Emily's performance?
Jim Loach: She really likes it a lot. I honestly didn't know what Margaret would think of the film, I had no expectations, good or bad, I just didn't know what she'd make of it. And she really likes it a lot. Social workers actually, generally, have really responded to what Emily's done which has been really gladdening. But Emily especially... I mean, people in Margaret's family and her friends can't quite believe they didn't meet beforehand. It's quite odd. I told a woman that yesterday and she thought I wasn't telling the truth, but they honestly didn't meet beforehand. It was a decision we made. But Margaret really likes what Emily's done.
Did Margaret have any comment on the depiction of her family and the impact on them?
Jim Loach: We talked about it a lot at the script stage. For the first few years, Margaret was quite reluctant to have the film made. Reluctant might not be the right word, but wary definitely, because she's very private for a start and she didn't want to put her family up for discussion, which I can understand. I think she wanted to know what the film was going to be, and that's really difficult to answer because truthfully you don't really know what the film is going to be until you've made it, do you? You've obviously got strong ideas, but nothing has actually been committed to film. I think what changed was she started to read Rona [Munro, screenwriter]'s drafts and she started to see what we were interested in doing, and that we weren't going to just make stuff up that had no bearing.
Do you think the reaction is going to be different in Australia? In the UK, I would sense that there will be from establishment quarters a sense of guilt; perhaps in Australia also, although maybe less so because they were the recipients...
Jim Loach: Yeah. There's a completely different atmosphere in Australia, actually, and I think it'll be taken quite differently there. Of course, they have the indigenous story there, so I think, I hope they'll be ready to accept it as part of the nation's history. I mean, you know, whether Emily and I cop a bit of "Coming over here, telling us about our history"... But we haven't had that so far. I mean, we really haven't. I think there, actually, there's a real interest in heritage and everybody has a very clear idea about where, specifically, they came from and where their families came to Australia [from]. So, I hope they'll want to accept it as part of their history too.
What about the children themselves? What does the film mean to them and has someone like the real-life person behind David Wenham's character Len seen it?
Jim Loach: Yeah, he has. A lot of them have seen it. I went over about two months ago and we showed them the film. It was incredible, actually, it was a really, really memorable afternoon. We just sat down, they watched the film and, obviously, they were really emotional afterwards. We sat around and talked about it and I just heard their feedback and they were really ready to embrace it and it was brilliant. Because, again, you don't presume that you know what the reaction's going to be and obviously, as a director, you worry about how people will take it but it was amazing. They really want to take ownership of it and it was very highly-charged, but great.
Are the Christian Brothers and their representatives tired of apologising or is there still a mea culpa to be had there?
Jim Loach: Well, you know, it's so cack-handed, the way it was dealt with. I mean, I'm obviously not the expert on that, but a lot of it was compounded by fumbled apologies and kind of fumbled compensation, stuff like that. We wanted to shoot the real Bindoon, which was the place you see right at the end. And we could have done and we should have done, because it was part of the history of that building and we would have been ready to shoot, but they kind of came up with a load of excuses and fobbed us off and then eventually said 'no'. At one point they said we might have to go to the Vatican for a meeting, which I was rather up for. I kept saying to Camilla [Bray], our producer: "You've got to set that meeting up at the Vatican." But eventually they just gave us a blanket "no". But they should have let us, because they would have accepted it as part of their history and that would have meant a lot to the real people too, that they were able to at least acknowledge what had happened there.
When real events began to overtake the film, and the apologies occurred from both the English and Australian governments, did you feel you had captured the zeitgeist?
Jim Loach: It was coincidental what happened. It was quite strange because we'd first come out with the story in 2002 and then we worked on it for about seven or eight years and it just so happened that it all happened at the same time. We were just about to start shooting when [Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd apologised in Australia, and then when we went to Australia Gordon Brown promptly apologised. So, it was just the way it happened, and it was a huge moment. Feelings were running really high, it was a massive moment for Margaret. They were completely knocked out by it because they'd worked for it for so long. And for us, actually, for the film, it was quite useful really. But we didn't really set out to make a campaigning film, so it sort of got it out the way. It was useful in that respect, and it also gave a full stop to the story, which we felt was really important, that an audience gets to an end of sorts. So it's important in that sense.
Do you think it's possible for the victims to find closure in some way?
Jim Loach: It's a really good question and I'd be lying if I told you that I knew the answer because, of course, I'm really wary about speaking for them. I think most of them would say that they found a way of living with it, and obviously for some who found their parents, that's the start of a new chapter and they kind of move on. But some are still looking. All of them still live with the damage done, absolutely. But we were fascinated by the fact that they weren't victims, they never presented themselves as victims to us. To us, they became quite heroic characters, like there's this one guy who kind of became the inspiration for the Len character in the film. What we liked about him was that if you offered him sympathy he'd run a mile, he wasn't interested in sympathy or an arm round the shoulder. He was full of great humour and strength and dignity.
Interview: Rob Carnevale
Oranges and Sunshine is out in cinemas on Friday 1 April