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The Talking Issue

Mike Leigh

I’ve been watching Mike Leigh’s movies for almost 20 years and every time I see a new one I have a fantasy conversation with him afterward.

by Steve Lafreniere; Photo: Leo Leigh
02 October 2008, 12:00am

I’ve been watching Mike Leigh’s movies for almost 20 years and every time I see a new one I have a fantasy conversation with him afterward, which generally consists of me trying to worm crucial personal info out of him. Because his characters can be so hyperreal—the kind of people who are so interesting or honest or insanely, baroquely fucked up they make you curious about living another day yourself—I usually feel like I’ve just met them offscreen. Like, in Abigail’s Party has anyone considered that Angela might be retarded? In Naked, for which of several reasons would Johnny be faking his cough? Does Gary Oldman’s skinhead have some kind of schoolgirl crush on Tim Roth’s nerd in Meantime? Not many other directors could even get me to wonder this sort of stuff.

Vice asked me to actually talk with Mike Leigh for this issue, I gulped. For one, he’s got a reputation as a hairy interview. Legend has him cutting off journalists he thinks haven’t done their homework and being hostile to anyone he even slightly perceives as having an agenda. Good for him, but erm... Then I saw his new movie, Happy-Go-Lucky, which is about a woman so cheerful she makes Amelie look like Diamanda Galás. I didn’t like it that much at first. It seemed kind of weak for a Mike Leigh film. But sure enough over the next few days I found myself mentally rerunning almost every scene, amazed yet again at the densely woven characters and what made each one tick. Now I love it. So yeah, I looked forward to getting him on the phone.

It turns out Mike Leigh is nothing like they say. It’s just that he doesn’t cotton to the idea of being misunderstood, period. He’ll vigorously argue any mistaken notions about his work that you put across, no matter how slight, and calibrate every opinion of his own to a precise click. He’s also mordantly funny about people and things he doesn’t like. He’s basically just like half my friends. Except that he’s one of the best living filmmakers in the world.

Vice: Happy-Go-Lucky looks different from your other films. It’s jammed with bright, saturated color and it’s shot in wide-screen.

Mike Leigh:
When it got to the stage where I had a clear conception of what the film was going to be, I talked to Dick Pope, my cinematographer, about the central character, Poppy, and what she’s like. How positive she is, what a great sense of life she’s got. Just as we were about to shoot tests we discovered that Fuji had brought out a new stock called Vivid. It’s great with primary colors. We used that, so then it seemed a natural thing to go wide-screen.

A first for you.

Yeah, it was. We’d thought about it for earlier films but this was the first time it was absolutely the right thing for the feel of the picture.

Poppy is almost obnoxiously chirpy, but that’s just one of an ensemble of qualities. Her stubbornness not to be afraid of life is great to watch. What made you want to present this particular character now?

In a way it’s a kind of anti-miserabilist film. The fact is, we’re knocking lumps off each other and we’re destroying the planet. Things are looking quite tough, bleak, and indeed we have good reason to be gloomy. But while all that is going on, there are people out in the real world who are just getting on with it. Not least among those are teachers. If you teach kids, you are by definition being optimistic. You are cherishing the future. So, yes, I wanted to make a film that was motivated by and carried by a generous, open-spirited, funny, optimistic, positive person. Now, that wouldn’t be interesting if it was just a simulation of those things on a surface level. But as you said, Poppy is actually a rounded and proper person. Now, on another level it’s due to Sally Hawkins, the actress who plays Poppy.

She had interesting parts in your two previous movies, All or Nothing and Vera Drake. But I’d never have guessed she could carry a lead like this.

Sally has this great energy and sense of humor and that obviously played its part in the chemistry of the proceedings. If you’re familiar with my films you know that I make them by collaborating with actors to create characters. And although the characters that we get in the films are never the actors themselves, I do tap into their various energies. Having worked with Sally Hawkins, I got to know her and I did absolutely think it was time to put her at the center of things.

There’s an encounter between Poppy and a homeless guy she meets late one night. He’s talking gibberish but she looks him in the eye and seems to get exactly what he’s going on about. Given your extemporaneous method, did Sally Hawkins know how that scene was going to play?

Everything you see in any of my films comes out of improvisation work from when I first set these things up, in which none of the actors ever know what’s going to happen. But of course we then draw from that and build and distill and construct scenes, and then we shoot them.

So when you improvised at the start of your process, had it even been explained to her who this person was that she was going to encounter?

No, no, no. That would run counter to the whole principle of how I work. I simply set up a thing where she’s moving around and suddenly this guy’s there. When actors agree to take part in one of my films I won’t say anything about it. They will never know anything about the film or the other characters or anything other than what their character would know at any stage of the game. Obviously the more the actors get to know each other through their characters the more they find out. But it’s still only from that perspective. In fact, given how we shot the scene, even if she watches the film now she doesn’t really know any more about him than you do.

A cornucopia of good shit from Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Meantime, All or Nothing, and Career Girls. Every single movie that he’s made is better than almost any other movie by any other person.
You start the process with only a vague idea of who the characters are, who even Poppy is.

Yes. In a way I discovered who I was making the film about through the journey of making the film.

Well, all this has an interesting effect. More than once after seeing one of your movies I’ve found myself thinking about a character as if they were someone I’d actually met. They seemed to enter the part of my brain reserved for new, possible friends. Or enemies.

That’s the objective. That’s the job.

When did that first become the objective?

I’m a movie watcher and I have been since an early age. And I used to sit, as a kid, thinking, why can’t we have movies where people are like how people actually are? To me that’s what it’s about still—trying to put on the screen people like we actually are. Now, there are a million things I try and do to make that happen and what we’ve been talking about is the key to it: being completely spontaneous and organic. But it’s not only that. It’s hard to know how to express it, but there are hidden elements that have to do with the unpredictability of creative exploration and a certain kind of telepathy, so that the characters function and operate the way that we do in real life. Hopefully what I don’t put on the screen are characters who are only a function of the plot, or this moment in the story, or who are in other ways two-dimensional. Or indeed characters who are behaving, rather curiously, like actors.

An ongoing problem in the cinema.

[laughs] Especially when such a character wouldn’t know any actors.

You’ve been making plays and films for over 40 years. What was the atmosphere in 1960s London for accepting your ideas when you started out?

There was a lot going on. And you shouldn’t underestimate the degree of transatlantic exchange of ideas. For example, when I hit London in 1960, the very first breach, Shadows—Cassavetes’s first film—was playing. One also knew about the Living Theatre. In fact, I saw the Living Theatre in London. And by the mid-60s, when I started doing this stuff, one of the major things in theater was the work of Peter Brook. A lot of other barriers were coming down, and then happenings began. Do you know about happenings?

Like Claes Oldenburg and Yayoi Kusama.

Yes. There was also the documentary-play movement, where one went out and talked to people in various industries and made that into plays.

How did you fit into all this?

I started up writing in hidden corners. I put on plays with actors in fairly remote, fringe places and for very few performances. A lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing because my work was, and this remains the case, not concerned with displaying in an obvious way the manifest signs of experiment. I was concerned more with creating work where you actually did suspend your disbelief because it was so real. Or because of a sense of heightened realism that took you through the barrier. This was fairly unfashionable. Experimental theater at that time was very much about displaying its experimentation. You had action going sort of sideways, people walking on their hands, all kinds of linguistic tricks and surrealist things, and all the rest of it. It wasn’t until I got into my stride with what is in fact my natural habitat—movies—that I started to be taken more seriously. Then, of course, the plays started to be taken seriously too. By the time you get to Abigail’s Party, which started as a stage play, people were right on the case.

More good shit from Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, All or Nothing, Bleak Moments, Topsy-Turvy, and Career Girls.
One of my favorites is your first film, Bleak Moments. It also started as a play.

Yes. We made it into my first film simply because I was desperate to make a film. It’s not really a dramatization, but more a reinvestigation of the play. A large portion of what happens in Bleak Moments is never in the play at all. Nuts in May is also a reinvestigation of a play.

How were the original plays received?

It wasn’t understood what people were looking at. There was a review in the London Times of the play Bleak Moments. The play was like a clock, meticulously structured with silences. In the audience you could hear a pin drop. Yet the heading of the piece in the Times was “Embarrassed Actors.” He’d got hold of the fact that it was an improvised play and thought the actors were improvising before your very eyes, which they were not. If you’ve seen the film version, the atmosphere, the moods, the tensions, the silences, the embarrassments were all in the original play. The whole review was predicated on the premise that because they were improvising, the actors were tongue-tied and didn’t know what to say.

The reason I ask you about the early responses is because you seem to still encounter confusion from audiences and critics now.

People try and decode my films. For example, there have been reviews of Happy-Go-Lucky that say the problem is it’s got no plot. Well, by the most extreme and crude Hollywood criteria, sure it has no plot. But there are two kinds of plots. There are causal plots and there are cumulative plots. A causal plot it certainly hasn’t got—A happens and therefore B happens and therefore C happens and that makes D happen, etcetera. Happy-Go-Lucky has a cumulative plot.

Critics can be rough on your actors too.

There are responses to Happy-Go-Lucky that say “Sally Hawkins’s acting is dreadful because she’s just improvising and she’s self-indulgent and it’s all hanging out all over the place and it doesn’t add up to a real person.” Apart from anything else, that is someone coming to it so marinated in preoccupations with form that their natural ability just to respond to a human being as a human being seems to be cauterized in some way.

Another standard detraction is that you’re sneering at the working-class characters in your films. I know you don’t agree with this.

What drives it is cynicism. There’s a certain amount of cynicism out there that makes people perceive it in that way. OK, to tell you the truth, that’s me trying to come up with an answer, because to a considerable extent I don’t get it. It’s dreadful. Certainly there’s nothing serious to say about it. Large numbers of people find my work compassionate, as I hope it is.

I showed Abigail’s Party to someone recently and they had that knee-jerk reaction. A real lefty I might add.

The fact is, Abigail’s Party is a passionate lamentation on the way people become seduced and indoctrinated by all kinds of received behavior and materialistic preoccupations. It’s obvious.

Do you use actors with the same background or class as the characters they’re going to play?

It’s no big deal. There are a hundred examples. Say Imelda Staunton, who plays Vera Drake, comes from a London working-class background. It’s a bonus, but that isn’t to say much. Or Leslie Manville, for example, who I’ve worked with a lot, has played characters from all sorts of class backgrounds, from posh people to the kind of working-class woman she did in Grown Ups or indeed All or Nothing. Sometimes it’s useful, but it’s not the only criterion. We’re talking about versatile, intelligent, sensitive, sophisticated, imaginative actors who can pitch tent in all kinds of different territories and explore with me. Sometimes it is a territory they’re familiar with, sometimes it isn’t.

And I guess you could say that, being as it’s set in the 1880s, Topsy Turvy would be a good example of unfamiliar territory.

Exactly. We had to go and pitch tent in a whole other century. Actually, Topsy Turvy is my film about filmmaking. It’s the one time I dealt with the real fundamental issues of filmmaking. I thought it was a liberated way to explore those preoccupations.

Would you be interested in making a film about actual filmmaking?

I don’t think I would find out any more about the subject than I know. Each film is an exploration anyway and there are other things to explore.

I’ve often wondered if your films operate as psychoanalysis?

No. I’m not concerned with that one bit. I’m a storyteller. What I’m concerned with is storytelling and audiences. I’m also an artist, hence I’m concerned with the synthesis of the craft of film with the substance of it. So far we’ve talked mostly about actors, but in the end the real investigation is the shooting of the film and the postproduction. It’s about the coming together of the performance and what the camera does and the design and the rhythm and the tempo and the music. So when I’m working with the actors I’m working to create fictitious characters and I’m working toward making a movie. I assume they should be enjoying themselves and they should be feeling very positive and creative. Obviously part of my responsibility is the pastoral care of the actors. But I’m not concerned with their psychotherapy.

Actually, I meant your own psychoanalysis.

The same answer applies, except that these films are very personal and very much a part of my life and they come out of me, if you like. Therefore they move me on and they form how I look at the world. In that case, yes. But it’s not something I think about consciously.

I’m talking about watching one of your own films years later and understanding something different about not only the film, but yourself. If any director would be interested in that I thought it might be you.

Well, yeah, that may be true. But I think we directors fall into two categories. To put it very crudely, there are hired hands who come in and do a movie and they’re not really concerned with its provenance and its meaning in a personal way. They only execute the job of getting a movie made. The rest of us make films very much from our hearts. So you ask that question of us.

Sally Hawkins and Mike Leigh on the set of Happy-Go-Lucky. Photo by Simon Mein/Courtesy of Miramax Films
You’re known for casting the same actor again in different films, sometimes many years later. Is this partly because you wanted to investigate something else about them? Phil Davis comes to mind. Anthony O’Donnell. For those familiar with your films, it adds another layer as well.

You’re barking up the wrong tree. Look, if I work with somebody and they’re really good, I want to work with them again. Occasionally I work with people who it turns out I don’t particularly like. That’s very rare. But on the whole it’s about getting on with people and us liking each other. If there’s somebody I really like they become a friend of mine. It’s great to be able to come back to someone you know and like and you stimulate each other both personally and creatively and then you go on another journey and explore somebody else. But it’s all about the job. To tell you the truth, the idea that I come back to an actor to investigate something about them in a personal way actually has never occurred to me until you suggested it. The first time I work with an actor, whatever we do goes in whatever direction. The second time I always say, whatever we do we’re not going to repeat ourselves. But that’s an artistic thing. It’s not to do with our relationship.

Although it’s one of your most brutal films, I noticed a new audience for your work after Naked.

It’s true. But don’t forget it’s also true that it’s the first film that I made that went to Cannes. And it also won prizes at Cannes. So apart from anything else, we went wider with that one. But in terms of the film itself and its spirit, it certainly spoke to people who would not previously have been concerned about Life Is Sweet or High Hopes. If there’s a previous film with which it’s a younger sibling, it’s Meantime, which enjoyed cult underground status for years with unemployed people before it came out on commercial DVD or video. Although Naked doesn’t have that kind of specific constituency, nevertheless it’s enjoyed a similar kind of cult.

Naked is a great example of this: Your films can be harsh in their depiction of people’s lives, but they’ve all got this seductive entertainment factor too.

Hitchcock once famously said that a woman who spends all day washing and cleaning and ironing doesn’t want to go the movies at night to see a film about a woman who spends all day washing and cleaning and ironing. In my experience Hitchcock in this particular instance is talking a load of crap. Because people get a real buzz out of being able to relate to what they see. At the same time a film must be entertaining. A film that’s just a bland, surface record of reality would be extremely tedious and alienating. And pointless, in my view. My job is to make films that resonate with people’s lives, in all ways. I haven’t invented that. It was going on when Shakespeare wrote King Lear.

Give me a Hollywood movie that you’ve seen lately. And approved of.

I don’t know whether you’d count There Will Be Blood as a Hollywood movie, but it’s a great piece of work. I’m a sucker for cinema, you know. It’s about movies to me. A painter can be into all kinds of paintings but it doesn’t mean to say that he or she is going to paint like all kinds of painters. My passion for cinema of all kinds feeds in on a conscious or a subliminal level to what I do.

What about younger audiences? Do you think it’s true that they’re too ADD to focus on anything but the mythical, served up with big-budget effects?

Younger audiences are ready for anything and everything. They’re extremely sophisticated, they’re extremely open, and the more you chuck at them the more interested they are. People now understand film not just in part because the means to explore film is readily available to them. The only ones who are saying that people only want big-budget films are the studios.

Are you thinking about the next generation?

I am. As a matter of fact I am the chairman of the London Film School. It’s been going since the mid-50s and it’s a great international house. I put a lot of time and energy and effort into young filmmakers. It’s something I’m very concerned with and passionate about.

But in regard to your way of creating a film, can that be taught to a new generation in the same way as, say, method acting?

It can’t. Perhaps one could teach the surface mechanics, but what I’m actually able to do each time can’t really be, as it were, quantified and turned into a set of instructions for a manual. Does that make sense?

Sure, I figured as much. Not that you’re about to leave anytime soon anyway, but what about critics who say that with Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh has mellowed?

First of all, and you know this perfectly well, every movie I make is in some way different. Of course it’s also true, as Jean Renoir said, that we all make the same film over and over again. So, following Vera Drake I got around to making this one. It’s a question of choices. No doubt in some ways I am mellowing. In any case I’m 65 and was somewhat younger when I made my first film. But it’s simplistic to review Happy-Go-Lucky as merely a function of a person going soft. Anyway, they haven’t seen the next film yet.