Jim Loach talks to Screen about following in his famous dad’s footsetps with his debut feature Oranges And Sunshine, which has its European premiere at the Rome Film Festival this week.

Jim Loach’s debut feature tells the true story of Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson), a social worker from Nottingham who uncovered the secret of the organised deportation of children in care from the UK to Australia which was carried out until the 1970s. She went on to set up the Child Migrants Trust reuniting thousands of families and bringing the authorities.

Produced by Camilla Bray for Sixteen Films, together with Emile Sherman and Iain Canning, the film also stars Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. The script was written by Scottish writer Rona Munro, with shooting taking place in the UK (Nottingham) and Australia (the Outback) earlier this year.

The film world premiered at Pusan and will screen in Rome’s offical selection. It is due to be released by Icon in the UK in March 2011.

The film had its first screening Pusan. Was it well received?  

It was a really good screening, a really young audience. All Koreans. They seemed to connect really well with it. Rona [Munro the script writer] and I were wondering if they would find a way of connecting with it, because it’s a completely different generation. But they responded to it amazingly, in a very emotional way. We did a Q&A afterwards and they asked incredibly intelligent questions.

When did you first come across Margaret and the story of the child migrants?

It was about 8 years ago, I read Margaret’s book and then went up to Nottingham to meet her. From the moment I met her I knew it was a film I wanted to make.

It was just a question of what and how I could tell it. Because from reading the book it’s an incredibly disparate story with lots of different facets to it - the role of the church, the state, identity, social policy – and many bad guys. So it was a question of how we could form a narrative out of it that would make it coherent.

With so many potetial protagonists, why did you decide to make Margaret the central focus of the film?

It was quite a challenge..the problem was there was almost too much material. We met dozens of child migrants and we could pretty much have made a film of any single case, they were all utterly extraordinary.

For instance one of the women we feature in the film was based on a real woman and she only met her mother last week.

It took a long time to work through all the material we had and we started to combine different bits of the stories we had heard from different people and tried to find characters that represented the experience as well as being dramatic and complex.

I was working on television projects, but I stayed in touch with Margaret and went to see her dozens of times over the years, and during that time more of her story emerged and I found her to be a completely extraordinary person.

We knew that we needed something to tie the whole thing together, so her central story became the voice.

Given the sensitive subject matter, did you face any resistance to making the film?

We didn’t have any resistance from the child migrants, but Margaret was quite cautious. Neither of us wanted to do something that was mawkish, and I think she had a greater understanding than I did of what we would be asking of the real people, to revisit all of that pain.

But she read every draft of the script, she made comments and we tried to address them and incorporate her thoughts. I think as the process went on Margaret started to feel more comfortable. She saw the film for the first time three weeks ago. We were very nervous but she said she thought it was very faithful; and she had a very emotional response to it.

The script is written by Rona Munro. How did you establish a relationship with her?

Rona wrote a film for my dad, Ladybird Ladybird. I had met her then and we had originally been talking about something else, this was bubbling along at the same time.

But then I gave her Margaret’s book to read and we sat around with Margaret just talking generally. They got on really well and it started to take flight then. They had a really good sparky relationship and that’s when the script started to emerge. Rona found a way to unlock the story.

Emily Watson play the lead. Was she always your first choice?

She was. I lucked out. We had a list and she was at the top of it. There were lots of basic things, like she was the right age, and we wanted her to be a British actor. I felt that was right fundamentally.

But the character also had to have a combination of empathy and strength and Emily has that in spades. We sent her the script and she read it and then we met on a really snowy day in London one of those days when the tube wasn’t running about 3 years ago, and knocked it around for hours and from that moment on she was completely committed. When we were financing the film we had ups and downs but she was always committed.

Around the same time that you started shooting the film [Feb 2010], the UK and Australian prime ministers apologised for the child migrant policy. Was that a coincidence?

It kind of was. We had been working on it for so long, and then just before we started shooting, that the Australians apologised and just as we were in Australia, Gordon Brown apologised.

It’s hard to know. I think there were lots of factors, it was something Margaret and the trust had worked on for a while. I think we were just one factor in a whole group of things.

We didn’t really want to make a campaigning film. That’s what Margaret does. So it was better for us because it provided a full stop.

Rona and I were more interested in was to make a film about identity, exploring the theme of what makes us who we are and what happens when those things were taken away. For us that was the core and what we were fascinated by and what we wanted to explore.

Did you have strong idea of how you wanted the film to look?

I had a strong idea of what Emily/Margaret’s character would be. I remember on the first day watching Emily dressed as the character, and for me it was a really surreal moment as I suddenly was seeing what this character was that I had imagined for so many years. And it was a great moment, because she was exactly what I’d imagined.

Shooting the first few scenes were in some ways quite difficult because I had such a clear idea in my head of what they were going to be and they can never be exactly what you imagined, so I consciously tried to let go of the imprint that was in my head.

The truth is, I walked around this story for about 3 or 4 years.. And eventually my dad said you’ve got to stop talking about it and do it. I needed someone to say that. I had shot it a million times in my head. I just had to go and do it. Until you start shooting a film, in your own head, it’s perfect.In the end you just have to take the risk.

With Ken Loach as your dad, was it inevitable that you would become a director..and have you drawn inspiration from his work?

I grew up swearing not to be a film director. I took a blood oath with my sister, but I broke it and then she did, she is now making documentaries.

I was definitely inspired by him. Your parents are a big influence on you, not matter what they do. In that respect he’s a really big influence.

I think fundamentally I always wanted to make films and was always drawn to it, but when I was younger I denied it. I just try and live with it now, rather than fight it. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t really work!

What’s next?

Rona is writing the third draft of a script set in Glasgow, which we are really excited about. It’s something we were working on before Oranges, it came from a cutting we found about a housing estate in Glasgow which was used to house illegal asylum seekers.

This time, the narrative will be a completely new narrative, but the world will be true, I think that’s the route we wanted to consiciously go down, we didn’t want to do another based on true story.We are hoping to shoot next year, with Camilla [Bray] producing.

I am like a cat on hot bricks, I’m trying not to call her every five minutes. She keeps telling me to put the phone down and let her get on with it!