Film director Ken Loach goes 'Looking for Eric'by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Combining unlikely ingredients can make for great food -- and great movies.
British director Ken Loach creates gritty depictions of working class life. His latest film "Looking for Eric," which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend, includes an unlikely collaborator -- a French soccer superstar.
In England, Manchester United fans call Eric Cantona 'le Roi' -- the king.
He played for the club from 1992 to 1997, but still generates excitement even to this day.
"I mean his play was audacious," says director Ken Loach. "It was cheeky. It was very stylish. He played with such grace, really."
Like everyone in Britain, Loach knew Eric Cantona's name. When he heard Cantona wanted to pitch him a film idea he didn't believe it.
"I thought it was a wind-up," he says. "I thought it was someone taking the mickey."
But it turned out to be true.
Cantona, now retired from professional soccer, wanted to make a movie based on a real story from his own life. It was about a fan so obsessed with Cantona that he sacrificed his job, friends and family by moving from France to the north of England to be closer to his hero.
But Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty wanted to stick with fiction. They'd also just made "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," a tough film about the Easter Uprising and the formation of the Irish Republic. They needed a little fun, and so they wrote the story of Eric Bishop.
He's the protagonist of "Looking for Eric." As the film opens, he is in a panic, driving at high speed 'round and 'round a roundabout -- going the wrong way.
After a terrifying few minutes, the inevitable happens, and another car hits him.
He's scared, but unhurt. But even aside from the wreck, Eric's life is a mess.
"He's just got a very humble job," says Loach. "He can't really keep his home together -- it's falling apart around his ears. His step sons run him riot. And the only thing he's got to hang onto are his friends at work and his memories of Manchester United, particularly Eric Cantona, because he can't afford to go to the games any more because they've got so expensive."
Eric Bishop is a mail carrier. After the crash his friends at work are so worried about him they do a visioning exercise where they call on people they admire to give them help. Eric chooses Cantona. Later that evening Eric speaks to a poster of his hero in his room.
"Have you ever done anything that you are ashamed of?" he asks.
"Well, have you?" responds an accented voice behind him.
Bishop turns to see Cantona standing just feet away.
"Is that really you?" he gasps.
"Yes," comes the reply.
"Say summat (something) in French then," Bishop says, still not believing.
"Je suis Eric Cantona."
The scene works well, Loach says, because the actor playing Eric Bishop didn't know who would be playing the Cantona role.
"I think surprise is the hardest thing to act so we sprang it on him. He was absolutely gobsmacked."
Known for his enigmatic philosophizing as a player, Cantona helps Eric with his past mistakes. This includes fleeing a marriage to the woman he loved 30 years before. Together they also deal with thugs threatening Eric's stepsons. At times it's hilarious. Others achingly sad.
"Comedy is only tragedy with a happy ending, isn't it?" Loach says. "The same situation can make you smile or it can make you weep, it just depends how things fall out."
Ken Loach, who usually works with relatively unknown actors says having someone like Eric Cantona in his film is a new experience. He points out that the Frenchman isn't really playing himself, but more the Cantona public image.
While he's had movie bit parts before Cantona playing himself on screen is a new experience for Manchester United fans too.
One of them is Current DJ Mark Wheat. He compares Cantona's sporting stature to that of Michael Jordan.
"It was interesting to hear that the way he approached it was to make fun of himself kind of be in on the joke, or create a joke than nobody else can create -- that is pure genius."
"Looking for Eric" has done well in other parts of the world, particularly where there's lots of soccer.
Ken Loach says he doesn't know how it will do in the U.S. He says it's not actually about soccer really, but a simple man sorting out his life -- something to which everyone can relate.
- Morning Edition, 07/07/2010, 7:45 a.m.