Interview : Mike Leigh


Mike Leigh remains one of Britain’s most accomplished filmmakers. More than a director, he believes in a complete collaboration, inviting his actors to embark on the process, thus his scripts begin as an improvisation exercise. His films have helped define the landscape of British cinema from Naked to Secrets and Lies. Born February 20, 1943, in Salford, Manchester, Leigh originally wanted to go into acting. While training at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, however, he found himself drawn toward directing and writing, and he eventually transferred to the London Film School.

He began his career on the stage, with two of his most important works, The Box Play and Bleak Moments, brought to life through collaborative experimentation during rehearsals. The latter play, a drama about a woman looking for satisfaction in life, later comprised Leigh’s 1972 feature-film directorial debut. The film earned wide acclaim, but was virtually ignored by the public. Returning to the stage, Leigh occasionally ventured into the television arena with a number of made-for-TV films. Two of these, Meantime (1981) and Four Days in July (1984), gained limited theatrical release, while Nuts in May (1976) and Who’s Who (1978) were given video distribution.

Leigh had his first real success as a film director with High Hopes in 1989. The recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s FIPRESCI Prize, it was a bitingly satirical portrait of life in post-Thatcher England. Although the film received wide acclaim, it failed to find equally far-reaching theatrical release, a fate that also befell Leigh’s subsequent effort, Life Is Sweet (1991). A blithely funny comedy that explored the dramas inherent in the apparent superficiality of everyday life, it featured excellent performances by its leads, including an award-winning turn by Jane Horrocks as a bulimic, woefully insecure young woman.

Leigh’s true international breakthrough came in 1993 with Naked. A disturbing, relentlessly bleak account of the misanthropic wanderings of a philosophy-spewing drifter (David Thewlis), the film earned both raves from critics and rants from various feminist groups, who found it to be deeply misogynistic (a charge that Leigh would angrily refute) due to the violence carried out against some of its female characters. Naked was rewarded lavishly at the Cannes Festival, where Thewlis won Best Actor for his terrifying performance and Leigh was honored with the festival’s Best Director prize.

Even more acclaimed was Leigh’s subsequent film, Secrets & Lies (1996). A family drama, it revolved around the relationship between a young woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and her biological mother (Brenda Blethyn) who gave her up for adoption at birth, and the complications that ensue when the mother’s family learns of their reunion. For their excellent, largely improvised performances, Blethyn and Jean-Baptiste were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars, respectively, and Blethyn received a Best Actress Golden Globe. Blethyn also won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or. Secrets & Lies also earned a slew of additional honors, including a Best Film BAFTA Award.

Leigh’s follow-up, Career Girls (1997), was a decidedly more low-key affair. A look at the friendship between two thirty-something women and their disparate personalities, it received a fairly strong critical reception but failed to resound with much of the public. Leigh was back in 1999 with Topsy-Turvy, a biographical comedy about famed 19th-century opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan. The film represented a drastic departure for Leigh, although it did feature collaborations with some of his regular actors, including Jim Broadbent (who won the Venice Film Festival’s Volpi Cup for his portrayal of Gilbert), Timothy Spall, and Lesley Manville. Leigh’s latest film, All or Nothing, which opened selectively prior to its upcoming wider release, is a melancholy look at the day-to-day lives of a dysfunctional lower-middle class British family called the Bassetts. Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville star as Phil and Penny, a common-law husband and wife who toil their gloomy days away as a cab-driver and grocery-store cashier, respectively. When the couple comes to realize the growing emptiness in their relationship, an unexpected emergency within their family brings them closer together and offers the possibility of reigniting the long-extinguished spark in their marriage.

Mike Leigh talked to PAUL FISCHER.

Paul Fischer: I have been thinking somewhat about the role that class plays in All or Nothing and a lot of people were thinking: oh my God, it’s a portrayal of what, the working class is like. Do you think that if the characters in the film weren’t struggling so much, things would be different?

Mike Leigh: Well, things will be different, but I think it would be quite wrong for anyone to imagine that the working classes have a monopoly on emotions. No, I mean these are lives. I mean, obviously, things will be different. Of course they would. But, you know, you could give me the core things that this film is about. You could tell a story which was set in any social situation.

P.F: But when you started this, I mean, you had a blank sheet of paper and you were talking about what you were going to do. Did class become something that you thought about or—

M.L: No, no class isn’t an issue. I mean, this is a film about these people. And these people are, you know, people like a zillion people around the world. I mean this is about people such as you might find anywhere and this is what it’s about. I mean there’s only one moment in the film when class is an issue which is when he meets a French woman. And that’s only an issue because they are people from different classes. But it’s not actually what the moment is about. If anything, it’s about, if it were classed to be an issue in that sequence at all, it’s merely that they transcend class by communicating across some kind of initial barrier. But it’s not, I mean in a way with respect, you know, because it’s about working class people doesn’t mean it’s a film about class. You know. It’s just, that is the class.

P.F: How in the process do you change? You’ve been working this same way throughout your career as a filmmaker. Is it easier to come with and create new, interesting—

M.L: It’s a question with no real interest because, you know, the only thing that’s difficult for any storyteller or writer or artist of any kind, you know, the more you do, the more you have got not to repeat, you know. But there’s only that. I mean, actually, if anything I suppose that’s, t gets easier in the sense that I have gotten more out of what I’m up to really. But I don’t really know. I mean I just carry on doing them and each one is as tough as its predecessors because it’s complex, you know. I’ve tried in this film to, what I think of sort of succeeded in at least for myself on my own terms and this is about sort of the sort of construction of the, architecture of the film, is that, you know, here is a series of journeys of character stories with different elements, all of which have its own journey or arc, but they all interlock. They all add up to something that addresses something to the core of what the film is about. And that’s the first time I think I’ve succeeded doing better than I have previously. But, I mean, these are sort of structural things to do with, actually what’s to do with it exploring complex themes in a more complex way.

P.F: This is not a typically commercial movie. How do you think it’s going to do in America? Do you care?

M.L: I care very much because I care, I mean, I don’t make films for my own, just to show my friends and my own lounge. I mean I make films to be seen and enjoyed and stimulating to people around the world. That’s what films are about. And I care very much how this film will play in the United States. The ticket in your question is the whole; let’s see, well, you know, to what extent do you compromise the audience to make the film. You know, I don’t know how I would compromise if I wanted to. The good news is I’m able to make these films in such a way that nobody makes me compromise. I’m allowed to make the films just as I think they should be without any interference. Which is apart from anything else one of the advantages of not making them sort of Hollywood studio. If there’s a problem with a film such as this, and its relationship with American audiences, the problem doesn’t lie in the film or with the audiences, it lies in the system that stands between the film and the audience. And we all know that, and that’s all there is to it. And that is all about, you know, elaborate, on the whole stupid notions and fascist notions about what people want that, I mean, exist on the part of all those people who control the industry that just stand between the film and the audience.

P.F: There is a place for films like yours in this country, obviously. There has to be.

M.L: Of course. Since there are real people in this country who actually drive cabs and live lives and all the rest of it, and who go to the movies, whether they eat popcorn is another thing.

P.F: Could you ever see yourself working in America? Has it ever crossed your mind? Have you been asked?

M.L: Yes, it’s a possibility. But it’s not a primary concern. I mean it’s the thought of, you know, it’s a kind of game really. And on the whole I don’t, sort of, it isn’t a game.

P.F: It takes a very special unique character to understand all kind of human behavior and you create characters that are truly believable. How do you come up with that? Where do those come from?

M.L: Well, where they come from, I mean it has to be said that they are all fictitious characters. But I always find it a curious question because that’s what artists do, what storytellers do, what novelists do. You draw from, you know, your ears, or open your eyes, or your antennae, they’re twitching, you know.

P.F: Twenty﷓four hours a day?

M.L: Pardon?

P.F: Are you like that all the time?

M.L: Yes, including this moment in this room.

P.F: Oh, no. So always observing people.

M.L: Yes, that’s what it’s about, basically.

P.F: Do you get the writing credit here, but the actors all contribute to the writing process.

M.L: Absolutely. The important thing is that there isn’t a committee of writers. I mean one of the myths is that, you know, the actors and I sit on some kind of committee and together we decide what the film’s about and we write a film. That’s not true. There’s a great and serious and fundamental division of labor. The actors contribute what they do, and their contribution is colossal, but they contribute it as actors through acting. And my function as writer/director and it’s terribly hard for me to draw a distinction between those two functions because it’s one function really, is to work in a very, very slow and painstaking and detailed with each actor from the outset in creating the character. And that gradually I become very selective about the nature of our characters and to put those characters together and to create a world which grows and which I move carefully into the direction of where it can become the premise, the dramatic premise of the film. And then my job is to direct construction and within that to, if you like, to put it this way, write through directing so that we gradually arrive at a the thing, a very precise and — let me finish now, and therefore my function throughout that is like a director. But of course what I did is to take something in a very creative way from what everybody contributes, on both sides of the camera and not least, you know, stuff that happens in the act of improvising a character but then I have to work with that and push it and pull it. So I’m the author of the film. The fact is if I cut in my room and were it a conventional screenplay, apart from the fact that I am quite sure that it would be as good as the results that I get, I would still have to go out and find actors and they would still make their contribution, except that there would be this tension between the actors and me. So, I mean, all I’m really doing is moving the divisions around so that it’s a more organic thing. But finally, I have to; somebody has to be in control. And the actors, you see, one of the things that’s important in a way in further answer to your question is this: when I ask an actor to be in one of my films, I say come and be in this film. I can’t tell you what it’s about. I can’t tell you what the character’s going to be. We’ll create that when we start working. And you will never know any more about what the film is about or what’s going on than your character knows at any stage of the proceedings, right? So they’ll get an overview of the film, so they’re not making a kind of dramatic decision about the film. Each actor is sees the whole film just from the point of view of his or her character, to answer your question. If I get the screenplay award, they will be delighted and I will not feel guilty.

P.F:Is it okay if I ask you about Katrin Cartilage who died so suddenly?

M.L: I knew all the while that Katrin Cartilage who died three weeks ago suddenly at age 41, who, for no known reason, she was very healthy and very clean and was in several of my films and lots and lots of international films. Apart from being extremely original and talented character and actress with an extraordinary kind of ability to get to the sort of core of people in pain and people with emotional problems and sort of quirky characters. And also characters drawn with compassion. She was also an extraordinary person. She was extremely positive and very, very intelligent, very much very unusual for an actor, very much an artist beyond being an actor. She was a person with a huge sense of humor and she worked internationally, you know, and had friends everywhere, I mean, an enormous number of people were just devastated by her sudden death. Just huge, huge loss and I was very personally very close; you just can’t understand it.