Ken Loach has found an unlikely ally in football superstar Eric Cantona, the star of his new film, Looking for Eric.
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20 May 2009 - 10:30 AM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 1:00 PM

British veteran director Ken Loach is used to Cannes film festival adulation. The 2007 Palme D'Or winner (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) is a regular favourite at the Riviera event, having bagged numerous awards with various juries. Personally, too, he's a very popular figure: respected for his political conviction and social conscience. In a world of divas and super-egos, his gentle, affable demeanour is a rarity.

But until now the phrase 'crowd-pleaser' has not been associated with his films. Yet during the 12-minute jubilant and noisy standing ovation for his competition entry, Looking for Eric, at its gala screening last night (Monday), the twinkle and look of wonderment in Loach's eyes registered that finally it was truly beginning to dawn on him that he had crossed over. That in fact his executive producer and actor, French-born Manchester United soccer legend, Eric Cantona, had just propelled him firmly into cinema's mainstream.

In the process he and screenwriter Paul Laverty had come up trumps in creating a rare feat in a genre where so many had failed: they had made an entertaining film featuring a footballer.

The press conference too, conducted in a light-hearted manner, punctuated by outbursts of laughter throughout, was a direct antithesis to Lars Von Trier's sado-masochistic horror intrigue drama.

Following are some highlights from the press conference:

How refreshing was it to work with a lighter subject?
Loach: “We had done a couple of films that were quite tough. And we thought it would be nice to do a film with smiles on our faces. Comedy is a tragedy with a happy ending. This film could have been tragedy, but equally it could be a comedy. We felt that what we had to do is play the story with truth. The actors played it true, and sometimes that is funny and sometimes it is sad.”

To Cantona: So how does Ken Loach compare to Manchester United boss,Sir Alex Ferguson?
Cantona: “They are very similar in the way they have of giving 100 per cent to the actors or players. They give humility and before becoming a big director he has come through a lot. They are both great men which is what they have to be before becoming a great director or a great manager.”

To Loach: You have rarely had as much popular acclaim in the UK. Could this be your popular hit?

“I don't know, you have to be true to the subject matter, that is my main consideration and if it is popular that is a great bonus. This film does seem to connect to people. We are getting many more prints in the UK than we have before, so that is a good sign.”

What makes soccer/football so popular/scuh a world-wide phenomenon?
Screenwriter Paul Laverty: It's about hope. A team's spectators constantly pray for miracles. And a human being is one great hope machine. I think that we all need that. We underestimate how important is excitement in our lives. You are always hopeful when you go to a match. Spontaneity and it is a beautiful thing. “

Loach on soccer:
“It does have a function in that it brings people together and most teams represent a community. Nationalism is not attractive these days but it is okay to support the national team. People can let their feelings be expressed, particularly men who find it difficult to express emotions.”

Cantona on acting:
“I'll leave it to people to decide whether I am a good actor. I lost passion for football and left and if I lose that passion for cinema I would leave it too.”

Why do so many football films fail?
Cantona: “I think filming a game can never compare to what the match is itself. The film used archive film, but it can never be as intense as the match itself.”

Loach: “The rhythm of football is different to the rhythm of a film. The two do not sit happily together. To recreate a real game is almost impossible. We wanted to reflect about the game and reflect about all the elements. We had to reflect on that rather than do it game by game.

What surprised you about Eric?

Laverty: “Perhaps how much he was prepared to laugh at himself. When I found out that he had learned to play the trumpet while he was suspended I put that in to the script as well. But I told him not practice too much. He took it to heart.”

Like Cantona (as footballer), is Loach, too considering winding down his career?
Loach: “Maybe I should take a leaf from Eric's book and retire early. The good luck I have had is to keep working with this team in a framework which enables us all to function so well. It's not just signing the cheques, but it is setting up the right environment.”

Raving about his screenwriting partner, Loach added: “Meeting this Scotsman with the same passion for football and politics that I share, helped to reinvigorate the work I do. And to find a partner with whom I get on so well is brilliant. He is the petrol in my tank. And of course you need the talent of actors, and you can see Eric is a fine actor and he acts with flair and ability and commitment.

Work aside, did football tragic/fanatic Loach get to have a hit/kick-around with his star?
“I have done some stupid things in my life,” replied a deadpan Loach. “But playing football with Eric would not be one of them.”