Arts: Feeling the charge: Prizes, praise, and enough funds to make a film a year: the Nineties are being good to Ken Loach. Now he's recreating the Spanish Civil War. Robert Butler joined him on set

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THE SOFT Midlands voice is hesitant: 'Yeah, um, what'll actually be quite good, is if . . .' Ken Loach stands in the middle of a remote field in Aragon. It's hot and he's just sort of . . . yeah, um . . . helping his cast work their way through a scene. Or so it would seem.

An international cast - English, Scots, French, American and Spanish - stand around him with rifles, bandanas and impressively gory wounds. They swig bottles of water and pass round the suncream. They're playing members of a militia group, the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion Marxista), young men and women who joined up to fight Franco. After six weeks, these are their final days shooting Land and Freedom, Loach's film about the Spanish Civil War.

They have reached the climax of the story. 'Everybody will imagine that it's just like an anti-Fascist film where the good guys and the bad guys are very obvious,' Loach tells me later. 'The story of the film is not that. The story of the film is the conflicts within the Republican side.' What's unusual about shooting this climax is that there are people on this parched hillside who don't know what is going to happen next. Loach knows. The cameraman knows. The production team know. I know. But the actors don't.

There's Ian Hart, who played John Lennon in Backbeat, sitting, unshaven, with a collarless shirt and a cloth cap, flicking his knife into the ground. He doesn't know who is going to get killed. He imagines someone will. 'I know I won't be killed. I'm going to Liverpool next week.' That's for the final leg of the shoot. Land and Freedom starts with a flashback, and then follows a young, unemployed man (Hart) as he leaves Liverpool and comes to fight out here. It's the only section shot out of sequence.

Out here is a four-hour drive from Barcelona that ends in a mile of dirt track. There isn't a pylon or main road in sight. The countryside looks deserted. One village where they are filming is deserted. No one has lived there for 20 years. In the distance, the medieval town of Morella rises out of the rocky hills. The only sound in the valley is of the bells of grazing cattle. In this heat a siesta looks more probable than a shoot-out. Keeping the energy level up among the large cast is Loach's toughest job.

'We just have to remember the situation,' Loach tells them, then pauses for the translator to repeat his words in Spanish. For most of the cast, the situation is all they can remember. They've never seen the script (by Loach's long-term collaborator, Jim Allen). 'You don't know what you're doing from day one,' Hart says. Just one actor knew he was going to die early on and that was because he was contracted for only two weeks. 'There's a very basic human emotion at stake here,' says Paul Laverty, who plays a Glaswegian, Jimmy. 'Curiosity. We're all wanting to find out what happens next.'

Laverty is a human-rights lawyer turned screenwriter. He is writing Loach's next film, which will be set in Nicaragua - another time, another place, the same ideals. When Loach rang Laverty up in Los Angeles and asked him to be in the militia, 'I thought it was just a wind-up. The only acting I've ever done is charades at Christmas.'

THIS IS typical Loach. He spends months looking for non-actors - people who are temperamentally close to the characters or share their experiences and ideals. Everyone on the set, says producer Rebecca O'Brien, is 'a good socialist'. (It made casting the extras harder, as the locals mostly supported Franco.) Then Loach recreates the conditions so exactly that their reactions will be unpremeditated. To do this, he manipulates the actors in quite a mischievous, secretive way. There's a touch of Prospero here. 'You've got to steer what they do,' he told me. 'They're a bit like a stream running downhill. They'll go the most natural way. You've got to make sure that what happens takes them the way you want them to go.'

There's no storyboard. He films the story in sequence, usually in long takes, to allow the emotions to build. 'We've got to go from the top. We can't cut into it,' he says. Loach keeps the camera on its tripod. There are no smart tracking shots, dolly shots: 'The camera never interferes,' Hart says. Some actors have scripted lines (which they may receive, if they are lucky, the night before). Others say and do whatever comes into their heads. 'It's such an antidote to the way they make films in Los Angeles,' Laverty says, 'with every dot, every comma known in advance.'

Nothing from outside the story must come into the eyeline of the actors. Loach is uncompromising about that. When he needs to film Hart looking into the distance at some soldiers coming over the brow of the hill at dawn, he gets the other actors up at dawn to come over the brow of the hill. They're not in the shot. No one else would bother. Especially since, as Hart says, he couldn't see any of them because the sun was in his eyes. But then for nearly 30 years Loach has taken the greatest pains to make acting as close as possible to real life.

He was born in 1936, the year Land and Freedom takes place. His father was an electrician at a machine tools factory. Loach went to the local grammar in Nuneaton, and then read law at Oxford. He was president of the drama society, appeared in a revue with Dudley Moore, and worked as an actor in rep before joining the BBC as a trainee director. He started on episodes of Z Cars and graduated to The Wednesday Play. One Wednesday in 1966, Cathy Come Home, the story of a young mother's descent into homelessness, mixed documentary realism with drama so effectively that it led to a national debate, and the founding of the charity Shelter. Alan Parker said Cathy Come Home was 'the single most important reason I wanted to become a film director'.

At the BBC Loach's interest in politics deepened, encouraged by his friendship with Tony Garnett, his producer for many years, and by reading Northern novelists such as Alan Sillitoe, John Braine, Stan Barstow and David Storey. His work showed signs of orthodox Marxism. He still believes that ruling classes use Fascism to defend their interests: the Spanish Civil War was 'not about nationalism, more about class superiority'. One of Loach's targets is Stalinism. Land and Freedom is a story that 'really shows what the Soviet Union's politics were and what Stalinism was very early on. There's really no excuse for anybody after 1936 thinking that the Communist Party was a revolutionary party.'

After Cathy Come Home Loach developed his neo-realist approach to social issues with Kes (1969), based on Barry Hines's novel about a boy and his kestrel. Lengthy sequences featuring schoolboys on the football pitch (with Brian Glover) and in the classroom (with Colin Welland) brought a new texture and spontaneity to the screen. Kes was a small story that had wide political implications. Loach had taken British cinema as far as it was possible to go from its roots in West End theatre. Here were events that looked as if they just happened to be happening in front of your eyes.

TO ACHIEVE this authenticity in Land and Freedom Loach treats the actors and non-actors playing the militia as an inseparable group. It's an intense period for them.

They spend the entire six weeks of filming together: learning to drill under the instruction of two sergeants in Barcelona, sitting out all day in the Aragon sun, and, in the evenings, staying in the same hotel near Mirambel, where they eat their meals and talk politics with Loach and the cameraman, Barry Ackroyd. They are, in effect, Loach's militia. There are no stars here, waiting in trailers to do their scene (there are no trailers). The people doing the acting are the ones sitting out in the field.

'We just have to keep the feelings we had yesterday,' Loach says, stirring them up. 'Although it's a quiet scene, it needs a lot of

energy. It's not just people sitting in a field on a sunny morning. Here we go then.'

'Preparado]' says the assistant director, who compensates for Loach's quiet manner. 'Silencio absoluto por favor] . . . Turning over.' Loach clenches his fist and gives the thumbs- up to the heroine, Bianca (Rosana Pastor), who runs over with her Red Cross box to tend to the wounded Jimmy (Paul Laverty). Other soldiers, off camera, are running around carrying stretchers and answering calls for 'agua' and 'medico'. They may be 100 yards away from what the camera is filming but they still have to repeat their actions, take after take.

Loach looks an unlikely director, crouched

in front of the foreground scene: no baseball hat, sunglasses, megaphone, or director's chair: just an ironed shirt, slightly ripped jeans and the beady alertness of, well, a kestrel. Everyone remarks on his stamina. He's up the hill, down the hill and clambering on rocks with his viewfinder. The temperature rises into the 90s, and there's Loach, at 58, a slight, academic figure, out in the midday sun, running.

'It is like a war,' he says, later. 'It's made when everyone is exhausted. The heat is just draining. And if you're not visibly energetic, nothing happens. You've got to wind people up by committing that level of energy to it. If you just sit back and give instructions over a mobile radio nobody ever feels any charge come from anywhere.'

His stamina is evident in his career too. In the Eighties, Loach averaged a film every three years. He was finding it so hard to raise finance that he had to do the occasional commercial. Now he makes a film nearly every year: Hidden Agenda (1990), Riff-Raff (1991), Raining Stones (1993) and Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), which opens here on 30 September. The awards are clocking up too: the Critics award for Riff-Raff at Cannes, the Grand Prix du Jury for Raining Stones also at Cannes, three awards for Ladybird, Ladybird at the Berlin Film Festival.

Land and Freedom is his biggest yet. It has a budget of pounds 2.75m, still peanuts for a war movie. 'Here we are,' O'Brien says, cheerfully, 'with not an executive producer in sight.' The budget, she says, 'is about as much money as you could raise in Europe'. The money comes from the UK, Spain and Germany. 'The big sequences aren't huge,' she says. The film runs on low-budget logic: if you don't spend much, you don't need to make much in America, which means you don't need American stars, and if you don't need American stars, you don't have to listen to the demands of the studios.

After lunch Loach comes marching back down the hill. There are too many people sheltering under too many umbrellas near the cameraman: 'We should stop this looking like a beach,' he says. 'It looks like St Tropez.' Everyone not directly involved has to move back up the hill. 'Can we all fade to the background?' Fifty extras, dressed as the Popular Army, have had their lunch on the other side of the hill. They won't meet the militia until they make their appearance in this scene.

Loach addresses the troops. He reminds them that the battle only finished an hour or two ago. The militia is composed of people who are very political and very committed and they've been fighting for eight or nine hours. The address takes a while. Every reminder is repeated in Spanish. The news from Loach is that three lorries are about to arrive.

'Right, you've been expecting some help from the Popular Army in the struggle you've been engaged in and you see three lorries full of soldiers get here. What happens afterwards we shall see and we shall work it through step by step. In the first instant you should respond as you think you would in the situation. Later we will, of course, make amendments. But remember, you do share a certain discipline, and you would take notice of what your commander tells you. OK. Here we go then.'

The scene starts: the militia sit in the field, tend the wounded, smoke, call out for 'agua' and 'medico'. Then the three trucks arrive, the militia look puzzled, watchful. The trucks stop, the soldiers pile out, line up facing the militia and point their guns. Two officers walk to the front to address the militia. But the militia don't like the look of these new arrivals, and run and hide behind the nearest wall. There's a stand-off. The two sides shout at each other. Bianca (Rosana Pastor) rushes forward and remonstrates with the officers. It looks messy. The shouting continues. People run a few yards, wave their rifles, hurl abuse and then run back. This is meant to be the final moments of the film but it looks as if it could go on for ever. Eventually Loach says, 'Cut'. Coolly, he goes: 'OK, we'll pick the bones out of that.' There's a buzz. Loach joins the actors, standing in the middle, like the team coach at half-time. Half-hearted phrases float up the hill. Loach is telling them: 'You were expected to . . . you weren't expected to . . .' A vigorous discussion follows. The lorries go back up the hill. They prepare for the second take.

BACK IN London, a fortnight later, Loach is in a cutting room off Wardour Street. It's cool and shaded, and he's losing his tan. He's already 'cut' the first five minutes of Land and Freedom. He edits the way he shoots it: starting at the beginning and working through to the end. After 30 years, he reckons that 'you take more chances as time goes by. Just be bolder and take bigger risks.' The final scene, in particular, had been a big risk. 'Suddenly they all took to the hills and we hadn't got a scene. So that was quite tricky. In the end it all came OK, but it was touch and go for a bit.'

Manouevring the cast is like a game of chess. 'Suddenly you see that you're in some danger and you've got to work out the next move to get out of it. So we did scratch our heads for a moment.'

After the first take Loach went through the scene with the cast moment by moment, asking why they did what they did when they did. Initially they thought the other soldiers were reinforcements come to help. 'The trigger was that the soldiers in the Popular Army actually pointed their guns. So we changed that so they were just getting out and staying very much in the background.' Keeping the guns down, and the soldiers in the background, altered the militia's reaction. They no longer ran behind the wall. Then the Popular Army officer started to speak and the militia gathered round. 'So it unravelled differently. It taught me a thing, really, that I was doing it wrong.'

The approach isn't exactly improvisation. The officers on either side were closely scripted. Others weren't. 'Oddly enough,' Loach says, 'Bianca, when she rushed forward, was using the words of the script and I don't think she ever saw it.' Loach's soft, hesitant, um, um, manner encourages everyone to think that the actors are improvising. But often he'll have fed them the line, casually in conversation. 'If it's working all right it perhaps goes into their subconscious - subconscious is rather a pretentious word - they just sort of remember it and it comes out when the moment's right.' -

(Photograph omitted)