Ken Loach and Eric Cantona looked like a mismatch, until they worked together and it turned out they're soul brothers - uncompromising and intense. So how come the result is Loach's most light-hearted movie in years? Simon Hattenstone talks to them both.
April 9 2008, and they are spotted together for the first time. Nobody can quite believe it. Ken Loach is sitting next to Eric Cantona in the directors' box at Old Trafford for Manchester United's Champions League match with Roma. Surely some mistake. After all, Loach is the puritanical socialist film-maker who despises corporate fat cats such as United, whose football-going normally involves Bath City and their rivals in the Blue Square South league and who hardly ever works with stars (the last one was Terence Stamp, 42 years ago). The tongue-in-cheek rumours start instantly. On the Guardian's live minute-by-minute coverage of the match, it is suggested that Cantona is going to be in Loach's new film about deep-sea trawlers. The last line of the commentary concludes: "And incidentally the rumour about a Loach/Cantona project was a joke. Although Ken, if you're reading this ..."
June 16 2008: Eric Cantona stands in a Manchester pub whispering arcane Cantona-isms to a scruffy, unshaven bloke. Cantona is playing big Eric, himself; the other man is Little Eric, a postman who has cracked up, driven hundreds of times round a roundabout at speed the wrong way, ended up in a psychiatric hospital, smoked too much cannabis on his release and now believes that his idol Eric Cantona has become his friend and mentor. "He that sows thistles shall reap prickles," Big Eric, the bearded superhero, whispers urgently to Little Eric, the scabby failure.
"Y'what?" Little Eric says.
"If they are faster than you, don't try and outrun them," Big Eric says, getting into his aphoristic stride. "If they are taller, don't outjump them. If they are stronger on the left, you go right. But not always. Remember, to surprise them, you've got to surprise yourself first."
The philosophising is a joke, but it's also at the heart of the film. Little Eric learns that he has to think positive and take risks to have a chance in life. Looking For Eric is also a film about old-fashioned solidarity - Cantona tells the postman you must always trust your team-mates, something he grows to appreciate through the film.
As the two Erics chat, Loach is looking through his monitor. I've known Loach for ages, and have never seen him so content. He laughs at Cantona's attempt to deliver the sowing thistles line. "It was a dirty trick by the writer, because a French person cannot say those words."
Looking For Eric is Loach's first comedy in 20 years. It's a wonderful, humane, feel-good movie. Though, as you'd expect with a Loach film, he still plumbs the depths along the way. The film deals with broken men, drugs, poverty, violence, betrayal, corruption. Business as usual, then, for the director, except he's swapped down and dirty realism for down and dirty magic realism.
Cantona has a huge presence, especially with his collar pulled up and his chest puffed out. Dark eyes, deep voice, direct stare; even his smile is scary. In his heyday at Manchester United, the fans simply called him God. Loach is on the small side - size seven and a half feet, delicate hands, a beansprout of a man. Vincent Maraval, one of the film's producers, tells me that the first time Loach and Cantona met it was awkward. "They were both very intimidated by each other. Very humble. They couldn't think of anything to say." Maraval says it was a good job he was around, otherwise they would have just sat in silence.
Well, yes, Loach says, of course he was overawed - he was a huge fan of Cantona's. "I mean, I'm not overimpressed by anybody in films because it's the business and we just work in it, but when it's somebody from outside who is very special in their own field, and particularly if it's a field you care about, then I think you are overwhel ..." He looks embarrassed. "Well, not overwhelmed, but you are impressed because, that level, it's something you can't approach - you can only stand back and admire really."
Loach says he loved the wit of Cantona - as a player and as a man. He mentions the famous and much-derided seagulls quote, after Cantona was banned for kung-fu kicking a Crystal Palace supporter. "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown in the sea." The seagulls in question were the press, the trawler Cantona himself, and the sardines his titbits. "The wit of it was to say it to the hacks, who would then scratch their heads and say, what does it mean?"
Cantona's production company had originally approached Loach with an idea he had for a film about his relationship with a fan who had become a friend. Loach and his regular writer, Paul Laverty, didn't much fancy the story, but they had always wanted to make a film about football and, despite their golden rule not to work with famous actors, this was, after all, Cantona. It was Loach, by the way, who created British cinema's greatest football scene in Kes when games teacher Brian Glover provides a running commentary as he dribbles past his tiny pupils imagining he's Bobby Charlton.
Laverty went away and dreamed up the story of the two Erics - big Eric the idol and little Eric the loser. If he was working with a famous man, he might as well explore the nature of celebrity - how stars are perceived, how we put them on pedestals and what their lives might actually be like. While Cantona is larger than life, Eric the postman feels he has become invisible, even among his friends - middle-aged, crippled by uncertainty and lost in his memories.
Laverty says there were two conditions he set before agreeing to let Cantona loose on his script - first, he had to feel for Little Eric's situation and, second, he had to be willing to take the mick out of himself. Hence all the proverbs. "Big Eric was up for that. He laughed his head off at some of the daft ideas. He's prepared to laugh at his own persona - he's done lots of adverts referring to sardines. He's a very bright, perceptive man."
Ken Loach and Eric Cantona, the odd couple. But perhaps it's not so surprising they teamed up. They are two of the most uncompromising men I have met. Loach, now 72, has won numerous awards in Europe (three years ago, he won the Palme D'or at Cannes for The Wind That Shakes The Barley), but has not had a commercial hit in Britain since Kes in 1969. He often uses real people rather than actors in his films; refuses to show his actors the whole script, so they are surprised by what happens next (in Kes, David Bradley, the boy who plays Billy Casper, thought his kestrel really had been killed); he turned down an OBE in 1977 ("It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest," he said in 2001); and has had films about trade unions commissioned by Channel 4 and ITV, and then withdrawn (he says both decisions were politically motivated). He might be quietly spoken, but Loach is not a man who holds back.
As for Cantona, he makes Loach look like a diplomat. In 1987, he was fined for punching team-mate Bruno Martini in the face. The following year he was banned from international matches for a year after calling the French team's coach a "bag of shit". At Montpellier, six players called for him to be sacked after he threw his boots in a team-mate's face. In 1991 he threw a ball at the referee, and when he was banned for a month at the subsequent disciplinary hearing, he walked up to each member of the panel to tell them individually they were idiots. When his ban was increased, he announced his retirement from football. He changed his mind and returned to play the best football of his life in England at Leeds and Manchester United. Alex Ferguson called this sublimely gifted footballer his most important signing. In his six seasons in England, he won the premiership title every year except 1995, when he was banned for nine months for that kung-fu kick.
When Cantona returned from his ban, he scored one of the greatest goals the game has seen, against Sunderland, turning on a sixpence, beating three defenders, playing a one-two with Brian McClair, then outrageously chipping the ball into the top corner, apparently in slow motion. After the goal he held out his hands to be adored, preening.
He retired for real at the ridiculously young age of 30. No injuries, no trauma, he'd just had enough. While Loach has spent most of his career revered in France and ignored at home, Cantona is still revered in England 12 years after he stopped playing. But in France he tends to be regarded as an underachieving maverick - although he scored 20 goals in 45 appearances for the national side, he last played in 1995 and had retired by the time France won the World Cup in 1998. Since retiring, he has worked consistently as an actor in French cinema, a pretty good one - notably as an obese police inspector who falls in love with a murder suspect in 2003's L'Outremangeur.
In the afternoon, Cantona and I head off to another location - a council tower block in Manchester. I ask why he was so keen to work with Loach. He stares at me with those dark, defiant eyes. It's a look that says: who wouldn't want to work with Loach? "We wanted someone who was English, we wanted someone who was involved socially and politically, and we wanted someone who was a fan of football. In France, it is well known he is a fan."
Had he seen any of his films before working with him? Now he gives me a how-could-I-not look. "I have seen a lot of Ken Loach's films. I've seen Riff-Raff, Carla's Song, Land And Freedom, the one about the war in Ireland, Family Life ..." He reels them off. Unbelievable. He has seen just about every Loach film. Family Life, about a pregnant teenager who ends up having electric shock treatment, is one of the most miserable films ever made. I tell Cantona that I am a Loach junkie, but even I found this too depressing and walked out of the cinema. He smiles, and tells me it is a great film.
Cantona did not watch many films as a child. He preferred to play football on the street, in school, everywhere. Even as a boy, it seemed like a profession. "I always knew I had to work hard." His father, a psychiatric nurse, told him it was not enough to be gifted. "He'd say to me, OK, you have abilities, now you need to work hard. Work, work, work." Like Loach, Cantona grew up in a working-class family - he was born in Paris, but the family soon moved to Marseille.
He believes the modern game has betrayed its working-class roots by pricing many of its traditional supporters out of the game. "The real fans of football come from the working class. Now they cannot afford to come and watch the game. So maybe when the game will need fans, they will be in trouble. And they will realise they were wrong - the people who come today don't come for the right reasons."
To Cantona, now 42, football was as much an art form as a sport. When Paul Laverty was writing the script, he asked him for the favourite moment from his career - Cantona did not mention any of the famous goals but a chipped pass to Ryan Giggs. He says that the move from footballer to actor was a natural one to make - acting is just another form of performance.
Cantona leaves me to play the trumpet into the Manchester skyline, as Little Eric (brilliantly played by Steve Evets) delivers his post. It's a beautiful scene. Big Eric lifts the trumpet to his lips and blasts out La Marseillaise - poignantly, it's recognisable, but still hopelessly out of tune. "When Big Eric plays the trumpet, he's all fingers and thumbs," Laverty says. "I suppose what I wanted to show is him struggling through life like everybody else. It's implicit in the relationship between the two Erics - they're just two flawed human beings in this adventure of life."
I ask Cantona when he learned to play the trumpet. "When I was banned, I wanted to focus on something else." Did the nine months drive him mad? "No. I'm never bored. I always find something to occupy me, to love. I didn't watch many games when I was banned. I tried to improve myself."
As he approached the Crystal Palace fan, did he realise what he was going to do? "No. I just reacted as a man. With my personality. And after, I think." That's how he's always lived, for good and bad - act first, think second.
Did he regret it? "No. I don't like it when people say, 'I had a bad time.' I endured. So I learned a lot and now I am a man. Every experience makes you a man."
In 1997 he told Alex Ferguson he wanted to retire because he had lost his passion. Was he surprised that he fell out of love with the game? "Yes. It happened because I felt I couldn't play better. You need to say to yourself, 'I can improve every time.' One day you realise you will not improve any more, and you lose a bit of the passion." He says he had lost the ability to surprise himself.
Cantona's pride would not allow him, or us, to witness his deterioration as a footballer. But he found retirement tough. Is it true that he compared it to dying? "Yeah, it was, but I lived that before because, when I was 24, I retired from football for two-three months, and I really believed I had retired. And it felt like a death. With myself and with people around." He says it was a painful experience, but also strangely enjoyable. "I liked it. It's a dream for a lot of people to come when they put the body in the cemetery ... to see the reaction of people."
And how did they react? "People tried to encourage me not to take this decision, but they quickly realised it was better not to say anything. I prefer to live this kind of death than to kill myself."
Maybe it's all of this that makes him so capable of empathising with Eric the postman - yes, he experienced enormous highs, but, despite appearances, he also had a developed sense of his own vulnerability; the fact that a footballer's peak is so short-lived that he's unlikely to do anything as well in his life again.
It's April 2009, and it has just been announced that Looking For Eric will be in competition at Cannes. It's strange how Loach's movies have never had so much as a sniff of a Bafta, while the rest of the world can't give them enough prizes. For once, though, a Loach film is getting a decent release in Britain.
The odd couple don't seem half as odd as they did a few months ago. In his own reserved way, Loach is every bit as cocksure as Cantona. And in his own cocksure way, Cantona is every bit as reserved as Loach. Rebecca O'Brien, Loach's long-time producer, says she is not at all surprised they ended up working together. "They are both very shy men, self-effacing, neither of them puts up with any shit, and both are pretty serious about football." Plus, she says, with a wicked producer's grin, "Eric being French helps - France is our best territory, always has been!"
What did Loach most admire about Cantona as a footballer? "He was a player of consummate skill and great cheek." Loach is staring out of the window. A parabola of water is squirting over a wall in our direction. There is no sign of what or whom it is coming from. Loach is giggling. "It's a very tall man," he says. It could be a scene from one of his films. For all their bleakness, he's always enjoyed knockabout farce. "Oh yes," he says, refocusing. "Most people who enjoy football just saw in Eric's performance a very strong personality that communicated the joy of football."
What did Cantona admire about Loach as a film-maker? "I like the way it's so real, like documentary. And I like how you don't know if you have to laugh or cry. For instance, in Riff-Raff, in the pub the girl sings and you laugh because she cannot sing well, but at the same time, the way they film this scene, you can cry. It's a strange feeling."
When I met French producer Vincent Maraval, he told me that Cantona had found it tough in France because he was expected to compromise. "In English football, you have more space for the strong personality, for being yourself," Maraval said. "And Eric is not for any compromising in his life or his career. He is always very straight what he thinks about you ... he is the opposite of a hypocrite. He had a lot of respect for the stories Ken was telling, and has a vision of life that is very pure. He could feel that Ken was on his side."
In the film, Big Eric plays with the notion that he is a superior being. He tells Little Eric, "I am not a man, I am Cantona." I ask Cantona if he could imagine saying the line in real life. "Yes, I could say that, because I have a lot of... auto-derision?" He grins, and looks at Loach for confirmation.
"Yes, self-mockery," Loach says.
When he came to England, Cantona turned away from the gated properties and exclusive clubs beloved of contemporary footballers. He lived with his first wife Isabelle and their two children in modest, semi-detached houses in the community. When they split up after close to two decades, it was painful - Cantona has said neither came from families where there had been divorce. In 2007, he married the actress Rachida Brakni. Loach has been married to his wife Lesley for 47 years.
Cantona has always regarded himself as on the left politically, and talks with pride of his grandparents fighting for the republicans in the Spanish civil war. His parents taught him all the important things in life, he says. "I think I had a very good education of love ... le plaisir des petites choses, a delight in small things. I'm not sure the people who want to show their power with big houses, bigger cars, are very happy. I feel sad for them."
We talk about their various run-ins during their careers, and both agree compromise is not their favourite word.
It's amazing how two such obstinate buggers have ended up working with each other and loving the experience.
"Well, it's not obstinacy," Loach says. "I think it's more that life's too short to sell out, really. Why bother in the end? It's easier to stay with what you think than make a compromise with something you're not happy with. Then you regret it for ever."
He looks at Cantona, and Cantona looks at him.
"Yeah, exactly," Cantona says.