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Human Rites Activist

Fresh off winning the Best Screenplay Award at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for his work on Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, Glaswegian Paul Laverty’s route to the red carpet has been an unusual journey for a screenwriter. He became interested in screenwriting after a two-year stint in Nicaragua as a human-rights lawyer during the war, where he walked around the countryside, talking to people whose families had been kidnapped or murdered by the Contras.

"I just decided to write a story about it," says Laverty. "I was sick of writing human rights reports and articles. The only problem was that I’d never written a screenplay in my life."

When he got back home from Nicaragua, Laverty — undaunted by inexperience and fueled with determination — wrote an outline for a movie and sent it off to every producer he could think of. Not surprisingly, he received numerous rejections. That all changed when he got a phone call from Ken Loach. "He asked me to come down to his office for a chat." Not thinking for one moment that the director — known for making uncompromising socialist films— was the perfect fit for a political love story, Laverty met Loach for a coffee and a dynamic partnership was born.

"He was much more interested in what I had seen and heard than in talking about my idea for the screenplay," Laverty says. "He asked me to try and write some scenes, so I did. Virtually the first half of Carla’s Song just popped out." Ironically criticized by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin for stretching its narrative credibility by having a Scotsman working for human rights in war-torn Nicaragua, Carla’s Song was the beginning of a filmmaking career for Laverty, an odyssey that has taken him to Los Angeles, to the Cannes Film Festival, to a marriage and a child and a life in Madrid, and back home to Scotland.

Following Carla’s Song, Laverty won a Fulbright Scholarship to earn his M.A. in screenwriting at USC. "I thought L.A. and Hollywood were going to be fascinating, full of young people bursting with bright ideas, but during my first week there, a young guy from Cambridge and his writing partner sold a screenplay about a monkey and a policeman for a million dollars," groans Laverty. "I remember that this just seemed like poison — everyone wanting to sell their deadly boring screenplays for a million dollars."

Laverty’s experience in L.A. differed from that of those who come here to work on films from the U.K.: ‘I lived near MacArthur Park. At night, you could hear the gangs and the guns. When I went to buy bread, I would talk to gang members who were also buying their bread." Following a research method that has informed every one of his scripts, he walked the streets, talking to people about their lives. "The girl who lived in the flat above me carried a knife in her pocket, and she used to take it out and keep in it her hand on the walk from the bus stop to the place where we lived," he says. "A detail like that tells you everything you need to know about how she lived her life."

Laverty also talked to people who had been beaten up for trying to set up trade unions. From this research came Bread and Roses, a film about underpaid Mexican office cleaners working in L.A. that features a breakthrough performance from a young actor named Adrien Brody. "What fascinated me were the people who were working not two jobs, but three jobs, two shifts then working a job on the weekend, forced to leave their children alone. Suddenly you can understand how these kids join gangs, why this or that gang member has ‘Fuck LAPD’ on his hat. You can’t make that stuff up."

Sweet Sixteen is set in the west of Scotland, and its title is deeply ironic. The idea for the film, Laverty tells me, came from his own work on My Name is Joe, another Loach film set in Scotland. He started talking to kids in Glasgow and realized how limited their choices were. "Most of them could only get a job at McDonald’s, or working a part-time shift in a call center," says Laverty. "I met one girl who had no education but had managed to buy herself a new car and an apartment because she was dealing drugs. For her it was a career choice."

Thanks to its young-criminal-on-the-make narrative, Sweet Sixteen has enjoyed positive comparisons with Mean Streets — and indeed, Martin Compston’s performance is every bit as riveting, and real, as that of the young De Niro. Depicting real people’s lives, unvarnished, Laverty tells me, is the biggest thrill he gets out of writing for the movies. For him, the best part of the job is when they take the film back to the community they have been portraying and screen it for the locals. "When the teenagers up in Scotland saw the film, it made me realize how seldom it is that these people see others like themselves up on the screen," Laverty says. "Most people in films are basically North American, mostly white, usually rich with chiseled good looks, and they always solve the world’s problems with their wit and physical prowess. So when these Glasgow kids see themselves, it’s like their own experience has finally been vindicated."

Whether it’s representing the rights of Nicaraguans, sympathizing with alcoholics in Glasgow or eschewing the Hollywood machine, you know one thing is for sure about Laverty: his authorial voice comes from speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves.


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