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How Ken Loach’s Sixteen Films Is Charting a New Course Without Its Iconic ‘I, Daniel Blake’ Director

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If there was one puzzle from the 2023 Venice Film Festival, it concerned Caleb Landry Jones and the actor’s curious decision to conduct all his press arrangements for the Luc Besson thriller “Dogman” with a Scottish accent. As was later revealed, the Australian had taken a quick break from shooting U.K. drama “Harvest” on location in Scotland and was staying in character for the duration of his brief Italian detour. 

Alongside honing Landry Jones’ vocal abilities, “Harvest,” being directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari (the Greek director’s first English-language film) and based on the book by Jim Crace, also marks the beginning of a new chapter for one of the U.K.’s best-known indie production companies. 

Sixteen Films, co-founded by Ken Loach and producer Rebecca O’Brien in 2002, has been behind every film by the beloved and iconoclastic director over the last two decades, including “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “Looking for Eric,” “I, Daniel Blake” and last year’s “The Old Oak,” amassing awards and accolades — including a record-equaling two Palme d’Ors — along the way. Barring a small number of exceptions, Sixteen has solely been a vehicle for Loach’s features (most written by Paul Laverty). But with the 87-year-old filmmaker having declared that “The Old Oak” was his last, the company is now entering its next phase, of which “Harvest” will be the first out of the blocks. 

According to O’Brien, there are two strands for the post-Loach Sixteen. On one side, she’s aiming to work on English-language films with “auteur European directors,” such as Tsangari, who received numerous awards for her 2015 feature “Chevalier.” As well as “Harvest,” O’Brien is co-producing Sally Potter’s next film, “Alma” (alongside Christopher Sheppard and Potter’s Adventure Pictures), a project she describes as “a family ensemble piece,” likening it to a “sequel to ‘The Party.’” Casting and location scouting is currently underway, with the film heading to the co-production market in Berlin to look for partners. 

On the other side, Sixteen is planning to keep making the sort of socially conscious films it has always been renowned for. First up, “On Falling,” which recently shot in Glasgow, and tells the story of a Portuguese warehouse worker trapped between the confines of her job and home life. The film, which Goodfellas is selling in Berlin, is the debut feature of Laura Carreira, and follows in the Loach tradition of using both actors and non-actors. “On Falling” also marks the feature debut of producer (and O’Brien’s son) Jack Thomas-O’Brien, who has been working across Sixteen titles for the last eight years, having produced several shorts. 

“We still have an ambition to continue to make political films, just not necessarily in the same aesthetic or in the same style as Ken,” says Thomas-O’Brien, who comes to Berlin’s co-production market with “Londoner,” from U.K.-based Nigerian director Babatunde Apalowo, another rising filmmaker (his debut feature “All the Colours of the World Are Between Black and White” won the Teddy Award for best feature at last year’s Berlinale). Other projects in development include Barnaby Blackburn’s “Help Yourself,” about contrived politeness as a British family host a family of Ukrainian refugees, and “The Light of the Living,” set in London’s British Nigerian community. 

Another change at Sixteen is how its films will be set up, breaking with its near two-decade tradition of partnering with Paris-based co-producers Why Not Prods. and sales agents Wild Bunch/Goodfellas. “Harvest,” for example, is being shopped by the Match Factory and O’Brien says there’s now a “desire to explore” the many different ways of putting its features together. Part of the task in Berlin is to meet potential new partners and build new relationships, especially from Europe, something even more vital now given the cuts to funding from the British Film Institute. 

But some things at Sixteen remain the same. The company still has its offices above a fried chicken takeaway in a Georgian building on Soho’s Wardour Street, where its small but nimble team — which also includes financial controller Habib Rahman, assistant producer Naomi Smith, assistant accounts Ateeq Rahman and Loach’s assistant Emma Lawson — work surrounded by numerous souvenirs and posters from their most famous collaborator’s titles. 

O’Brien says there are plans to “work out what to do” with Loach’s archive (much of which sits in boxes in the corner of a wooden-beamed meeting room above the main office) and hopefully untangle the complex web of rights to bring more than 50 years of filmmaking to a new audience. “Some of his best films are really difficult to get hold of,” she notes. 

Loach has made several declarations of his retirement, the previous being with his 2019 feature “Sorry We Missed You.” With this in their thoughts, when the 2020 pandemic hit, it gave the Sixteen team an opportunity to consider their next move. “It meant that we were able to think: What are we doing? Are we developing more projects? What direction are we going to go in?” says Thomas-O’Brien.

Of course, Loach would return with “The Old Oak.” But most at Sixteen — including the director himself — are confident that it really was his final feature, and with “Harvest” and “On Falling” coming this year and various films in development, the company is already taking its next steps in continuing his cinematic legacy.