Deserves props for: Collaborating with Ken Loach, Britain's foremost working-class/socialist filmmaker, on such films as My Name Is Joe, Bread and Roses and Sweet Sixteen. Their latest, the IRA period drama The Wind That Shakes the Barley, won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Did you expect the negative reaction the film's received from British conservatives, one of whom compared Loach to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl?
"I suppose I was slightly surprised by just how hysterical and vicious it was. But in another way it was kind of satisfying, because we realized we'd put our finger on something very important to elicit such a response. It was almost as good a feeling as the Palme d'Or, to be frank."
How much of the incidents and characters were culled directly from your research?
"[Loach and I] made a very specific decision not to base any characters on real people or historical figures. I just tried to imagine what it was like for a shopkeeper or a blacksmith or a farm laborer or a farmer's son. For every single character, even if they had short screentime, I did a history."
You spent much of the '80s as a human rights lawyer and a journalist in war-torn countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. What drew you to film?
"It was an accident. I went to Nicaragua in 1986 when Reagan and Bush Sr. were involved in financing the Contras. At the end of my experience there I was sick of doing human rights reports and journalism--I wanted to try to write a fictional piece inspired by what I'd seen. I wrote a letter to Loach, and luckily he was interested in a project that eventually became Carla's Song. There are very few directors who are open to someone who hasn't written a script before, let alone willing to shoot a film in a war-torn country."
While the film's sympathies are never in doubt, there are a lot of ugly scenes.
"I think that goes back to my experience in Nicaragua in the '80s. Violence does great damage, obviously, to the victims, but also to those who perpetrate it. I remember talking to a young teenager who was a Contra. He told me how he'd finished off people after an ambush with a knife. And he was absolutely traumatized by it. I think this boy was destroyed."
How intentionally did you work that feeling into the film?
"I was very keen with this film not to romanticize violence, or make it heroic or grandiose. When he's about to execute the landowners, Damien talks about crossing a line. He says, 'I studied anatomy for five years, and now I'm going to shoot a man in the head.' I wanted to capture the contradictions, that even for those who are following their conscience, there's a great cost to pay for it."