Mike Leigh is renowned worldwide for his cinematic depictions of everyday British life. Despite the frequently dreary settings of his movies, they have managed to attract a wide viewership.
Not just focusing on middle and working-class England, Leigh’s works, such as Secrets & Lies (1996), Naked (1993), and Bleak Moments (1971), examine a variety of topics. Secrets & Lies follows a woman’s pursuit of her origins, Naked sheds light on the destitution of the urban poor, and Bleak Moments is a heartbreaking study of social alienation.
Born in 1943 in Salford, Lancashire, Leigh was first an actor, director and playwright before moving on to television and film.
Leigh’s approach to filmmaking differs from many other directors, as rather than working with a pre-written script, he works intensively with his actors – from main roles to bit parts – to create characters, storylines, and dialogue.
This process can take months of improvisations, both alone and with groups. Actors have responded well to the director’s method of collaboration, with Blethyn saying: “I first worked with Mike Leigh in 1980.
He likes to develop the history of a character, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The enthusiastic advocate of the British film industry, the director, has not been tempted to move to Hollywood. As Leigh himself said, “Given the option of Hollywood or sticking steel pins in my eyes, I’d go with the latter.”
He still produces movies in the U.K., and has recently returned to writing for the stage. His play Two Thousand Years (2005), which delves into Leigh’s Jewish heritage, had its world premiere at London’s National Theatre.
I was able to meet with the director when he visited the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival last April.
— According to Chloe Veltman
The way you work is quite distinctive compared to other filmmakers: You request that actors join you on an intensive journey, spending months doing improvisations to help form their characters before anything is finalized.
As the characters and story only come about after prolonged workshops with the performers, you can’t tell them much about their roles early on. How can these actors trust you at the beginning of the process?
MIKE LEIGH: When I’m casting, I’m quite particular about my selections. Generally, I go for actors who are willing to trust me.
There are many insecure actors who demand to know everything and need a certain level of assurance before they act, but that’s not something I’m able to work with. I’m searching for people who are comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty.
BLVR: What is the best way to determine if this won’t pose an issue?
When I meet an actor for the first time, I have a natural feeling about them that I can’t explain. During our initial interview, I know right away whether or not I want to work with them.
BLVR: Is the interview of the type that is usually described as a brief “get-to-know-you” conversation, which typically lasts around 20 minutes, that I’ve read about in various publications?
ML: So there was just me and the actor in the room, and we would have a conversation about their life. If I felt that our relationship was progressing, I’d invite them back in and we’d do some work.
This approach helps me get to know the people I’m working with; generally, they have a pleasant level of self-assurance, they’re composed, alert, willing to share, and witty.
My primary mission is to create an ensemble of actors who are all in a secure state of mind so that they are able to work together to make the movie. Consequently, trust is rarely an issue. What I do not do is to put actors into a hazardous situation without any warning.
Those who I choose to work with will spend a lot of time discussing the characters with me. This is done without any pressure of being watched. Our approach is cautious and gradual.
The success of my films is due to the fact that each actor on set feels secure and free to express themselves.
In BLVR’s opinion, there is still a sense of risk in the movies of director Mike Leigh, such as the rape scene in Naked or the moment in Life Is Sweet where Jane Horrocks is covered in chocolate.
ML: Yes, it does require time and effort to reach the level of skill necessary to perform something on-screen. It’s an interesting inquiry I have never been asked before.
Generally, the issue solves itself. Now, on rare occasions I have made the mistake of hiring an actor who didn’t seem to be fully trusting of the process or me. In this case, it’s not my fault or the process; it’s the actor who is not being trusting.
BLVR: In the United States, I have noticed two types of actors: those who are well-read and intellectually sharp, and then there are those who are more instinctive and create performances from a more subconscious level.
When viewing your films, it appears to me that there is a combination of these two approaches.
ML: Absolutely. I’m quite familiar with both kinds of American actors. I totally understand what you’re saying. The second type of actor you mention is a result of the Method trend (which I don’t fault Lee Strasberg or others for).
The idea that acting is simply based on emotionally reacting to a situation is far off from how I instruct my actors to act.
On the other hand, a kind of acting that is completely mental or intellectual isn’t right either. It’s pointless to have actors be so focused in their heads that they can’t be natural.
When it comes to performing well, it is essential for actors to be able to comprehend their characters on a deep level and still respond to anything that comes their way in an organic manner.
Additionally, understanding the language and literary elements of a character is a must. People who can easily differentiate between themselves and the character they are playing, while also staying in character and being spontaneous, possess a complex combination of abilities and a unique spirit.
For those that are proficient in these skills, it becomes instinctive. Unfortunately, those who are not will not have success no matter how hard they try.
BLVR: Can the English actor training system be credited with producing actors who are desirable to collaborate with, or does the sort of actor you’re seeking out find success regardless of the environment?
ML: There’s a more extensive problem that should not be ignored. I produce films in an English setting with performers who come from the same social milieu as myself. There’s something to be said for the circumstances that we are in which makes the projects work.
The accomplishment is further associated with having a commitment, being caring, and having an emotional attachment to the work, yet at the same time being aloof and having a sense of humor.
This is what makes my work unique and something that no one else does, but that is a different topic. As for the training, I was taught to act.
I was instructed at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and started my career with the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, the training at that time was extremely outdated and oppressive.
BLVR asked, “Are you only performing Shakespearean monologues?”
Back in the day, going through the motions with Shakespearean monologues was the norm. There was no consideration given to the play or any attempts to improvise. However, nowadays, things are different.
Improvisation has become a staple part of actor instruction, so much so that when I’m holding auditions, it’s rare to come across someone under forty who hasn’t done it before. This is beneficial as it means I can get straight to work with the actors.
That said, I don’t think the way an actor is schooled has a significant impact on the way I do my job. Rather, I’m more interested in the person as an artist.
The performers are the focus of your approach.
I’m looking for actors to join in on the creative process as partners.
In the world of filmmaking, there is something that can be viewed as a detriment. This negative effect is referred to as a “curse” in the industry, and it can have a major impact on the production of films.
The “curse” can be seen as a hindrance to the progress of filmmaking, and it can have a significant impact on the outcome of projects.
BLVR: You have been traveling between the United States and other places since the mid-1980s. Your outlook on filmmaking in America is not overly enthusiastic. What do you anticipate you will gain from your trips to America?
ML: I, like many others, was raised on the classic movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and although some of my films, such as Topsy-Turvy, have seen some American investment, it has not been extensive.
Moreover, it has been essential that this funding has not been accompanied by typical Hollywood-style control. My filmmaking style is not conducive to the Hollywood way of doing things, and it would not be suitable for any kind of job in Beverly Hills.
BLVR: It is clear to understand why: you do not construct “packaged deals,” and all things in Hollywood must be “packaged.”
ML: The key difficulty is that the Hollywood system has developed the film long before the director starts filming.
Returning to your initial inquiry regarding coming here, in the seventeen years or so between Bleak Moments and High Hopes, I conversed with people who potentially could have funded my movies on multiple occasions.
One of the comments I often heard was “The issue with your films is that they won’t be successful in the States. People won’t understand them.” At the time, I thought there may have been some truth to this.
In 1986, when I first visited the U.S., the San Francisco International Film Festival showed all six of my films to date, introducing me to the West Coast.
Contrary to the expectations, American audiences really enjoyed my movies. Because of this, I am confident that Happy-Go-Lucky will be well-received by American audiences.
BLVR’s assessment of the movie is that it has a distinctly American feel to it and is quite spirited and cheerful.
The movie Secrets & Lies, which follows a character’s pursuit to find her mother, is arguably my most successful one due to the fact that there are laws in place in all 50 states that prohibit tracing a birth mother.
When it comes to Hollywood, I am happy to be a British filmmaker and part of European and world cinema.
But it is also quite satisfying to come to the San Francisco International Film Festival or the Oscars with my low-budget, foreign, offbeat, quirky, real-life, uncompromising films and behave like a Trojan horse.
I particularly enjoy the subversion of it. Interestingly enough, I once did an industry screening in Los Angeles with a massive crowd of industry professionals.
They asked me why they can’t make similar films there and I thought, with all the resources they have, they can make anything.
BLVR suggested that the Hollywood system impedes the progress of creatives.
ML: Indeed. I must also emphasize the significance of the strong tradition of independent filmmaking in the U.S. – many remarkable projects have come out despite the difficulties they faced, such as Trees Lounge by Steve Buscemi.
Independent filmmaking has been around for quite some time and must not be forgotten.
It would be ridiculous to say no good comes out of Hollywood, as this is simply not true. There are also times when genuine, organic creations are born of those who stand up to the system and just go for it.
Recently, a number of British directors have been relocating to Hollywood; some of the most notable names include Sam Mendes and Phyllida Lloyd.
ML finds it a complex issue, but there has always been a British influence in the film industry. His reluctance in regards to making films in the US is not about shying away from Hollywood, but instead pertains to his commitment to the British film industry and its infrastructure.
What is the current state of the movie business in the United Kingdom? Many people have expressed some harsh opinions about it.
ML discusses the issue that the British movie industry has with feeling anxious and apprehensive towards Los Angeles.
He points out that Hollywood moguls such as Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer are to blame for the meddling producer they created. All of this insecurity results in British roles being given to American actors, a practice that should not be happening.
BLVR: Could you be referring to the part in which Renee Zellweger portrays Bridget Jones?
ML: How do you even begin? It’s ridiculous to think about all the people who have been associated with Anne Boleyn. Fortunately, authors of novels don’t have to worry about this.
BLVR: In the commentary for Naked, David Thewlis discussed a scene between his character and Ewen Bremner’s character, Archie.
He noted that the actors became so immersed in their roles that a fight broke out during an extended improvisation sequence and the police arrived.
Thewlis mentioned that he and Bremner almost got arrested, and that he kind of wished they had because then a court would have had to try two fictional characters.
You are clear about the actor being separate from the character, yet the intense realism you create makes it difficult, particularly for the actors, to accept that it is all just fiction. What are your views on this conflict?
When shooting a movie, it is important to get the actor to embody the character they are playing. Despite this, the director needs to collaborate with the actor rather than the character in order to create a dramatic interpretation of the script.
It is a myth that actors need to stay in character all the time; this is not beneficial for them. This has been a contentious topic in the wake of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in There Will Be Blood, where he stayed in character all day while on set.
BLVR queried if that was his customary approach to labor?
When constructing a character in any context, the actor must be aware of the effect it can have on them. To mitigate this, I like to keep a certain level of objectivity and maintain the distinction between the actor and the character they portray.
This is done by not allowing them to refer to the character in the first person. It serves as a reminder that what is being created is a fictional character and the actor is the actor.
However, it is still a practical procedure and there is no need for an actor to make the same performance or say the same lines from take to take. There are those that believe this is necessary, but I find it to be a waste of time; the goal is to make an artifact.
BLVR: Are there ever issues arising when a performer is involved in the creation of their character? I’m aware that some actors have challenged scenes by stating that their character would not do something, such as rape someone else. How do you manage such a scenario?
It was certainly the case with Vera Drake. Naturally, this sort of question necessitates a careful resolution. I was cognizant that this figure could indeed be a rapist; and so did the actor, who had to confront it in the end.
BLVR: At first he refused to acknowledge it?
In the case of one of ML’s projects, the rape was necessary. Generally, he does not predefine plot points. During the production of Secrets and Lies, Claire Rushbrook, who played Roxanne, suddenly left in the middle of a large improvisation.
After finding her, she said her character would not return. However, with further improvisation and discussion, they arrived at an idea that she had taken a bus to North London, but she still did not want to go back.
ML then realized that if her boyfriend said she should return, she would do so as she was irritated by him being a wimp.
I find myself often needing to consider and carefully determine individual elements. I ask the actors, “Could this be a believable action for the character to take?”
This is necessary because my role as an artist is to initiate something that will evolve and then make sense of it to have a complete, unified piece. This is true of all artistic mediums since they are all based on both improvisation and structure.
Do you ever have a break from the internal dialogue that is constantly happening? Are you able to take a pause and turn off? Do you get a chance to rest during the night?
ML: Absolutely not. What are you suggesting I should do? It’s a tremendous honor to be able to work on something that is so engrossing. It’s also a bit frightening since I must wake up each day and make something happen.
I often ponder if I would be able to produce anything if I wrote a script and worked in a more traditional manner due to my tendency to procrastinate.
For instance, I can recall thinking “Today I’ll just take a reading break,” “I must watch a movie,” “I’ll go get groceries first,” or “I’ll make one more cup of coffee.” However, when the film enters the rehearsal stage, I find myself on the set by 9 a.m. every day.
There is no time to dawdle. I have to make it work for the actor. When the project gets underway, it is highly stimulating. It may be tempting to believe when the rehearsal process takes months that nothing is being achieved.
But when the day is done, amazing work has been created. It’s an intense, outgoing, and synergistic experience.
I am aware that you are attempting to launch a film based on the life of J. M. W. Turner.
ML: I was planning to use the same approach I did with Topsy-Turvy for a Turner movie. I’m very intrigued by his life and I think it would be a great project. As a rule, I don’t usually talk about projects I’m interested in until they’re finished.
However, I’m so frustrated with the challenge of getting people interested in this film due to its high costs compared to my usual budgets, that I figure I may as well discuss it because I’m sure it won’t happen.
BLVR: Is there a way to complete the project for an amount that is less than the extremely high cost?
For Topsy-Turvy, we originally estimated it would cost 20 million. However, as we kept working on the project, the budget decreased to 15 million, then 12 million, and finally settled at 11.75 million.
BLVR: Subsequently, the Korean financial supporters withdrew their support.
ML noted that the budget was reduced to 10 million, but this was resolved by the fact that most of the film was filmed indoors. However, this wouldn’t be possible for the Turner project. A movie about the artist could not be produced without shooting scenes outside.
This was due to the fact that he was the same person who decided to attach himself to the mast of a vessel in order to capture a storm on canvas.
It would certainly be a sight to behold.
ML: It would be fantastic. Turner is a great person to portray. I’m at a point in my career where I would like to take on bigger projects. The movies I make would still possess my signature style, yet they’d be larger in scope.
Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to give me more than the standard budget. Thus, I keep creating films of the same scale, which is alright but at the same time a bit irritating.
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