Dave Johns and Hayley Squires fight government bureaucracy in Palme d’Or winner, ‘I, Daniel Blake’


Dave Johns and Hayley Squires try to fight the system in ‘I, Daniel Blake.’

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, the latest from legendary director Ken Loach is a gripping, human tale about the impact one man can make. Gruff but goodhearted, Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a man out of time: a widowed woodworker who’s never owned a computer, he lives according to his own common sense moral code. But after a heart attack leaves him unable to work and the state welfare system fails him, the stubbornly self-reliant Daniel must stand up and fight for his dignity, leading a one-man crusade for compassion that will transform the lives of a struggling single mother (Hayley Squires) and her two children. Graced with humor and heart, I, Daniel Blake is a moving, much-needed reminder of the power of empathy from one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers.


Who is Dan?
Dan is in his late 50s and he’s a guy who’s worked all his life as a carpenter. He takes pride in his work and he makes these little carved fish in his spare time. He’s an honest bloke. He’s very straightforward; he’s got a good sense of humor. He’s very dignified and if he says, “I’ll do something,” he’ll do it. He’s been looking after his wife who had a mental illness but since she died he’s a bit lost. Then he has the heart attack, a doctor tells him he can’t work and he finds himself against this authority, these jobsworths, who won’t budge. That’s the thing that raises the hackles and he tries to deal with it in his own way by being quite frank, keeping his dignity using his sense of humor. But he’s finding it harder and harder because they’ve got everything stacked in their favor. The system’s wearing him down. Then he meets Katie who’s come up from London with her two kids and they’ve become friends. She’s up against it and I think he probably sees Katie as a cause. He wants to help, even to the point where at first he doesn’t realize he’s in a bad place himself.

How did you come to be cast?
Oh, God! Unbelievable! I’m a stand-up comic. I’ve done bits and bobs of acting in theatre mainly and last year, a producer I’d worked with said to me that he’d just had this actor’s brief come in. He said it was improv, comic – right up my street. So I just wrote an email to Kahleen [Crawford, casting director] and I said, “I’m a stand-up comic, I’ve done a bit of acting. They said you’re looking for somebody. I don’t have any CV or anything, but here’s my website.” And then a couple of weeks later I was called in to meet Ken. We had a bit of a chat about stuff I was doing, and we talked about my dad – he was a joiner in the north east, so I knew something about Dan and his world. Then I did a casting, and the first person I did my improv with was Hayley [Squires] who went on to get the part. We did this scene, it worked great. Personally I was happy just to have met Ken – and then they called me back. Finally, after a few more times he phoned us: “Hi, it’s Ken,” he goes, “would you like to be in my film?” I’m going, “would I like to be in your film? Do you think I have to think about it?”

How did you find filming?
First day, to tell you the truth, I was shitting myself. I really was. There’s a sad little voice in your head that goes, “You’re going to get caught here. You’re going to get found out here, you cannot do this,” and I’m going, “Go away,” you know. But Ken was lovely: he said, “just think it.” It sounds so obvious, but suddenly it was like a door opened, you know. You’re drawing on all sorts of experiences, like thinking about my dad, and his life and how he was. I mean, this might sound a bit arsy, but it’s like it seeps into you. You’re not just going, “oh this bloke wrote these words and I just have to say them.” If you think it and you live it, it seems to go inside you, and it seems to come out natural and real. The minute I sussed out what he meant by that everything seemed to come into place. I’d really like to thank Ken for going with me on this and making me something that I didn’t know was in us. To be able to channel those emotions in a drama – I mean we did this one scene where it was just Katie talking to me in a room. I knew there was people around, but I never even twigged they were ‘til I heard Ken go, “okay, end it there.” I was still crying in the corner; do you know what I mean?

What did you learn about the benefits system from the story?
Well, I was amazed, ‘cause, you know, the last time I signed on employment benefit was probably in the 70s when I left school. It was the Labor Exchange then. You went down and you said, “I haven’t got any work.” They’d go, “Okay then, well you sign on. What sort of work are you looking for?” And then you went down and collected your money. I don’t think people actually realize what they try to make people do now: it’s all to get them off the system. I believe it’s to sicken people. That’s come as a shock to me. I think it’s 50 years since [Loach’s 1966 BBC movie about homelessness] Cathy Come Home this year. And nothing’s changed.

How did you prepare?
Well, I went on a woodworking course. There’s a place down in Byker – Under the Bridge – where people who are homeless or have problems can go there and restore furniture. Then the furniture gets sold in the shop so it’s self-funding. They’ve got a guy there who’s a wood carver, so I went in for two days and learnt how to carve the fish that Dan likes to carve. I did one from scratch myself, you know, sanded it all up and gave it to my daughter. It meant I could handle the tools properly in the film and when we did the scenes of me woodcarving it looked authentic. And actually I found it quite therapeutic, to just, you know, sit there and sand a bit of wood. My daughter couldn’t believe I’d made it myself. Neither could I, to be honest.


Who is Katie?
Katie is a 27-year-old woman from South London who has a daughter of 10 and a son of 7. She is very bright, wants to learn but two years prior to her moving to Newcastle she was a victim of a revenge eviction in London. She was renting a house from a private landlord, made a complaint that the boiler wasn’t working and was chucked out, which is something that is rife in London at the moment. So she had to get out of her house and as a result of that was placed in a homeless hostel by the council. She ended up living there for two years, before the council got in touch and said, “We can offer you a place – but it’s in Newcastle.” She’s got no choice – she has to move. But she’s never been to Newcastle before. Mum’s back in London. She’s not very well, so she’s got nobody up there. When we first meet Katie the very first scene is her going into the Job center for her transferal appointment, to register the new address and go over her Jobseekers’ agreement. She ends up being half an hour late with the kids because they get lost – they don’t know the city. And then she’s told that she’s going to be sanctioned. That then means she doesn’t have any money for a month. So when you first meet me I’m already done over.

How does she meet Dan?
He’s at the Job Centre for his own reason, he tries to help me, there’s an argument and we get removed. From there we form a friendship with each other because we’re in not dissimilar circumstances. I mean, he’s a 60-year-old man who’s fallen ill and he’s trying to get back to work. He’s lost his wife through illness and he’s met with the bureaucracy of it all, you know, of not being able to use a computer or meeting the demands that you have to meet. At the beginning he looks out for Katie, helps her with the heating and the cooking and the kids. Katie ends up in a situation where Dan takes her and the kids to a food bank. She hasn’t eaten for a few days; things get pretty drastic there.

What is your background and how did you come to be cast?
I graduated in 2010 from Rose Bruford College. I did a degree in acting. I write as well as act, and I’ve just started on a screenplay. I had a very quiet first two years coming out of drama school and then things picked up and I’ve done bits of TV and supporting roles in films. I’d done a couple of tapes for Kahleen, the casting director, but I’d never met her in person. I got a call in the summer, last year, to say Ken Loach’s new film’s casting and he’s just meeting women and girls from London that fit this age group. Don’t know what the project’s about, there’s no script, there’s no sides, he just wants you to go in and have a chat. So I met Ken and Kahleen and we talked for about 15 minutes. It all went from there.

What did they ask you about?
They asked me about my life, where I grew up, what my parents were like, what they did for a living. I grew up in South London and then when I was 14 we moved to Kent. They wanted to get out of London. So I spoke to Ken about the transition of being in London and moving to a small town. We talked about what I would be doing if I wasn’t acting, my brother, my family. If I hadn’t got on well at school then I don’t think my situation would be too far away from Katie’s. Friends of mine are in a similar position, not to the point of sanctions and all the rest of it, but on their own with children. I’ve grown up surrounded by it.

How did you find Dave Johns when you first met him?
It was so nice because we just talked. I’m not saying all actors are vain but a man in his sixties who’s been in the game for however many years, you’re used to going and doing audition after audition and presenting a version of yourself each time you go in. Whereas with Dave, he was cracking jokes while we were in the room so that made it very relaxed and very calm. It didn’t feel like he was trying to show what he could do – it felt like we could just talk to each other and anything that they needed to see was going to come out of that.

Was this film different to others you’ve worked on?
Yeah it was completely different. I mean I do very little theatre. I trained in theatre but I’ve only done one play since I left drama school, everything else has been screen. Normally you get your sides, get your character breakdown, if you’re lucky you get the full script to have a proper read. And of course with Ken you don’t. One thing I picked up was he very rarely used the word ‘improvisation,’ he said ‘conversations’ instead. Then he would go, “This is what the situation is, this is where you’ve been, this is where you’d like to get to and now just talk to each other.” And it was lovely. Overall it’s been the best experience I’ve ever had – it makes me a bit emotional thinking about it! Ken is a hero of mine, having watched his films and knowing what he’s all about and what he represents. Same with [writer] Paul [Laverty] and [producer] Rebecca [O’Brien]. The work they’ve done over the last 20-odd years is amazing. It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever done before, what with not knowing what’s coming and placing a lot of trust in your director and also your crew. But it’s great to be able to tell that story and be that character. And it hasn’t been like being part of a cast – it’s been like being part of a crew. There’s a calmness and a support you get from everyone who’s involved. It’s like a safe circle that they’re all on the outside of and you get to be in the middle.

I, Daniel Blake is now playing in select theaters.

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