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Exclusive Interview : Mike Leigh

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Mike Leigh remains one of the most original and exciting cinematic voices of his generation, an iconic filmmaker who has transformed the face of British cinema in the past four decades.

His process, an intensive collaborative one in which the actors help create their characters, has been the constant approach that has allowed Leigh to craft some of the most extraordinary and seminal films of British cinema, from Naked and Secrets and Lies, to Vera Drake.

His latest film is the perennially optimistic Happy-go-Lucky, aboput a woman who really does see the bright side of life even when a confronted by an intense driving instructor.

The film had its North American premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival which is wherer Paul Fischer caught up with him for this eclusive interview.

Question: This is a movie that really does explore the nature of optimism, in its purest form. I’m just wondering whether or not – as you’ve gotten older, have you become more of an optimist yourself?

Leigh: Well, I may have done. But it would be wrong to see the film as being merely a function of that. Because the truth of the matter is – well, A, this is this film. And this film does what it does. And B, who knows that I may not deliver the next film, which will leave you lamenting our condition. I have no idea, you know? Because each film explores different things. But, I mean, I hope I’ve mellowed as I’ve got older. Or at least, I hope that life’s experiences have given me – as I think they do, with growing older – you know, a more fuller view of things.

Question: You don’t think that your work does reflect your own internal psychoses?

Leigh: Yes, it may at some level. But as I say – I mean, you know, you can track consistent themes and obsessions and preoccupations and cares through all my films, from Bleak Moments to Happy Go Lucky. And there are resonances of the latter in the former, I would say. But, yeah. I mean, at a certain level, I’ve no doubt that’s true.

Question: This is very much a character study. A wonderful character study. And you could never have pulled this off, I don’t think, without the formidable talents of Sally.

Leigh: Well, yes. That’s – with my work, that is a given. Whichever film, whichever character you pick. That is a given. Because my job is to – as you know, is to collaborate with actors to create characters.

Question: Was she used to that process?

Leigh: Oh, she is, because she was in Vera Drake and All or Nothing. She was the posh girl in Vera Drake who has a private abortion, and goes to the psychiatrist.

Question: What did you see in her that made you realize that she could be this character?

Leigh: Well – I mean, having worked with her and got to know her -there was no doubt that she’s got this extraordinary energy, and a great sense of humor, and this great perception. She’s very intelligent, and has this great perception about characters, and things. All of which are qualities that I would want in an actor, anyway. And I just knew – and she’s done lots of other work in other things, significantly. And I just knew this was the time to plug in. You know, I wanted to make a positivist film. And I just knew that this was the opportunity.

Question: Why did you want to make a positivist film?

Leigh: Well, we’re in bleak times. The world is – we’re making a mess of the world, you know?

Question: Especially in England.

Leigh: No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t make films about England. No, no, no. Not especially in England. We’re destroying the planet. That’s not an English phenomenon. We’re destroying the planet. And, you know, we’re destroying each other. No, it’s nothing to do with England. It’s to do with the world, you know. I don’t really think parochially in that way. But – and there’s a great deal to be gloomy about. But while that’s happening, there are people out there being positive, you know? Teachers, not least. Well, you know, you cannot teach, you would agree, without being optimistic. You’re cherishing, nurturing the future. So it’s positive. It’s anti-miserablist. And it just seemed to make sense to – I knew that if I worked with Sally, we could create a character who somehow – this is all intuitive. And in a way, when I talk about these things in this reasonably articulate way, it’s after the event, because we’ve talked about it, that for me, making these films is the journey of discovery. The making of the film is a journey of discovery, to discover what the film is, you know.

Question: Now, has that process changed at all over the years?

Leigh: No. I mean, it’s always changing, because every project has its own demands. And indeed, the individuals involved bring very different sensibilities to the thing. But in principle, in general terms, it’s the same.

Question: For the uninitiated, how would you differentiate improvisation and collaboration? Do you agree – a lot of people just assume when they read about your work, that films – that it’s all improvised.

Leigh: Well, I mean, there’s no distinction between improvisation and collaboration, because they’re different sorts of things. You can’t make that distinction. They are all an act of collaboration. But then, all filmmaking is an act of collaboration, unless you make a film – but, I mean, that’s distinct from novel-writing. Painting. But what you’re asking me really is a different thing. Which has to do with the general assumption that we are looking at actors improvising on camera. Which we’re not, as you know. And – we spend a great deal of time, six months, bringing the world of the characters into existence. I’m sure I’ve said this to you before. And then, of course, when it gets to the shooting, I work from a broad structure. I’ve written a very broad thing. And then we work into it, scene by scene, location by location, making it very precise, if you like. Writing it through rehearsal in the location. So that what is shot is absolutely precise, before it’s shot.

Question: So it doesn’t change during principle photography?

Leigh: Oh, yes. It’s very, very, very thorough, and very precise. In fact, I would say it’s more precise than most films. And because the dialogue and the action has come organically, with its roots and the whole thing – the actors have worked with me to create it from the ground foundations up. You can get a nuance, or an emphasis or a stress or anything – it will be totally consistent, because it’s completely organic. And you don’t get the sort of random line readings that you get from take to take on something where it’s just thought about as lines on the page. Because it’s never lines on the page. They never see a script. You know, it’s organic. But it’s very precise.

Question: When did your interest in cinema take place? Why this interest in cinema, for you?

Leigh: Well, I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. The fifties most. I mean, I was born in 1943. So you could go to the movies, as I’m sure was the case when you grew up– if they let you, or the funds were available, you could go to the movies every day. I didn’t, but you could – and see two different films every time you went to the pictures. So I was hooked from a very early age, basically. I never saw a film that wasn’t in English until I was 17, and I went to London, and Manchester. And was then – I went to study acting. And I was then hit explosively by world cinema. But it goes back to that. And yeah, I mean, I had a very strong sense of wanting to tell stories. And as you know, I also make theatre plays. And it goes back to that, really.

Question: Do you still have the same sense of boyish enthusiasm for the work that you had 20 years ago?

Leigh: Yeah. For making films? Oh, yeah. I love it.

Question: Why do you still love it?

Leigh: Well, that’s an upside down question. I mean, if I didn’t love it, you could ask me why I don’t still love it. I love it because it’s wonderful. And it is – why do I love it? Well, first of all, I love the medium. First of all, I’m a compulsive storyteller. And I love working with actors, and I love working with technicians, and I love the family thing that is created on every film. And it really is – on my films, it’s very, very harmonious, always. Because that’s the kind of work – if it isn’t, you couldn’t do this sort of work. You couldn’t. Because people really commit, from both sides of the camera. So that’s – there’s all that. But I love the medium itself, you know? I love the whole thing of what film – you know, taking that little machine out, and capturing the world, you know? I love to shoot in places, on location. And I love the rhythm of filmmaking, and what you can do with time. The whole – you know, what some people call the feel of the celluloid, as it were. And I love shooting. I – the post-production process is great, because that’s when you make the film. And it’s great working with a composer. And the music for this film is wonderful. Gary Yershon, very good. Great composer. And, I mean, the rehearsal period, the long stretch of getting it together and working with actors – and each – I work very, very closely with every actor individually before I’ll put them together and start to build up the worlds that we do. And therefore, because it’s – there’s all this one-on-one stuff – I mean, it’s very, very time-consuming. It can be very, very exhausting. And there’s never anything to show for it. It’s only all preparing for what we’re going to actually create in six, five, four, three months time. So that is all together the one bit that – in answer to your question – the time, as it were, less in love with. I mean, the older I get, the more hard work that becomes. Because I start at 9:00 every day and go through until goodness knows what time. And I invented this way of working when I was 22. And I’m sixty-five. And, you know, sometimes I think it would be great to cut all this out and just do it. But you don’t get nothing for nothing in this world. And so that’s – since one of the underlying themes of your questions are all about my having aged, and gone through decades doing this – that is the one bit that’s tough. But once it gets to the shoot, what you describe as the boyish enthusiasm – boy, it’s back there. You know, I love it. And it’s great. And, you know, I mean, you’ve seen this film. To take an example. The very last shot.

Question: On the water?

Leigh: On the Regent’s Park Lake.

Question: That is a beautiful – where is that?

Leigh: Regent’s Park. Middle of London. Baker Street. It’s behind Baker Street Station. I mean, you know, it’s the magic of film, because it’s a wonderful state of the art crane thing you do, that. And it goes up. And then these birds fly through the shot. Like – you couldn’t plan them, or put them in.

Question: I thought you did it on purpose.

Leigh: Exactly. That’s – but it’s just magic, you know?

Question: And no visual effects.

Leigh: And the light is right. And the other people who were randomly doing the thing in their boats, perfect.

Question: You must have been incredibly lucky with the weather.

Leigh: Well, actually, we shot this film last summer, which was one of the worst – up ’til this last week, which apparently – I haven’t been in the UK. But the weather’s been really piss awful in the last week. But it was a terrible summer last summer. So the whole film is an achievement in dodging around the raindrops. But again, that’s part of the joy of filmmaking. And, you know, I did a play for the first time in 13 years.

Question: Which one?

Leigh: It was called 2000 Years. I did it at the National Theatre three years ago. And it’s great to go back and do theatre, because it’s sort of part of my roots, in a way.

Question: And you love working with actors.

Leigh: I love working with actors. And it’s great to sit in an audience with a live audience but actually, for all of that, you go inside this black hole, which is completely introspective and hermetically sealed from the real world. And it’s kind of – the fresh air of filmmaking is part of what turns me on.

Question: You started doing this, as you said, when you were in your 20s. I was wondering, how much of a purveyor – even though you said that this is not necessarily a parochially British film. But in a way, you have been purveyor of contemporary London.

Leigh: Oh, yes. Yes. That’s not in question.

Question: Well, how much of a purveyor of London? I mean, when you look back at those early films, are you astonished at the way that that city has evolved and changed, for your work?

Leigh: Yes. I mean, it’s hard to answer that question. Because London is – you know, I mean, some of the films, most of the feature films, have been set in London because every time we embark on making a film, I say, “Okay. Well, it’d be great to go somewhere else. Be it in the UK, or indeed elsewhere.” And we look at the budget. And we say, “Well, actually, we can’t afford it.” Because it’s cheaper to film in London. Because everyone lives in London, and if you go away from base, you’ve got pay everybody more. And so in the end, I think, “Okay. Well, actually, it doesn’t matter.” Because the films are never about London. The subject matter is always universal, and it could happen anywhere, basically. Sometimes you get a specific sense of London. And you see Poppy on a bicycle, and you realize you can see she’s on Waterloo Bridge, or Frye’s Bridge, or whatever it is. On the other hand, in Naked, they are in London. And they refer to the fact that they’re in London. But you never actually see anything. You may recognize bits of Soho in the middle of the night. But really, it could be any big city. There’s nothing Londonesque about it. So – I mean, in a way, London is kind of – I regard London as a given factor. A universal landscape in which we can explore. I mean, Secrets and Lies is set in London. But you really don’t think “Londoners” when you see it. You think about the issues. And Vera Drake is set in London. But – you know, in the ideal version of that film, you would have seen Vera Drake scuttling along the upper street Islington, with trolley buses and trams, and all the things that you would have found in 1950. Which a film with a Tut and Neggly [?] budget like ours could not possibly have allowed. And perhaps the most London film of all my films is Topsy-Turvy. And the best we can do for you, because of the ridiculously small budget, which shrank while we were doing it because of the Southeast Asian economic crisis that went on at the time – the best we could do for you is that when in the famous drought of 1884, which is a factor in the film, you simply have the man saying, “Oh, there were seven dead horses in the Strand. Seven dead horses. Well, one in Trafalgar Square.” You know, ideally, we’d have loved to have seen the dead horses in the Strand. And – of course, the Strand in 1885 or 1884 was the most exotic 24-hour Bacchanalia, with restaurants all open all night, and bars, and what they call gin palaces, and all the rest of it. You know, pearly kings and queens, and girls selling flowers. I’d love to have shown all that. And Gilbert walking down the Strand. But we have no bread. So the Londonness of it, it comes – it’s very notional.

Question: That must be very frustrating for you, when you have to balance economics with art.

Leigh: It’s the name of the game. It is frustrating. And I make no secret of the fact. And I promote it everywhere I can, including in this interview, that one of my prime pet and prime projects, which will probably never see the light of day, is to make a film about J.M.W. Turner, the great painter, which I could do well, with my team. We could do a very good movie. But it would cost a great deal more than my films have cost.

Question: What are you able to budget?

Leigh: Well, in fact, about $15 million. If that.

Question: Yet your films are always distributed here by major corporations.

Leigh: They are. But they’re never massive profit-breakers. I mean, the only film I’ve made which was really commercially successful internationally was Secrets. And that is probably, as much as anything, because it remains illegal in so many places, including 50 of the 52 United States, to trace your birth mother. It’s amazing. Although I expected that the fact that infinite numbers of people had abortions would make Vera Drake as popular as that. But that didn’t happen, for various reasons. Reasons I don’t know. But just to go back to the thing about it being frustrating – it is frustrating on one level. But on the other hand, it’s a discipline. You know. I’m made to cut my cloth according to its length. And that has – I mean, there are, in fact, all kinds of inherent implicit disciplines in my films. I mean, you know, the fact is that if they work, they work because they are character-driven, and that’s a function of the fact that I put character at the center. Because that’s what is my main concern, my main fascination. But that imposes, in a perfectly healthy way, its own – both its own liberating factors, and richnesses, and its own disciplines and restrictions. Because – you know, if you put enough time, effort, and energy – and indeed, funds, and took time to make the character happen – it’s character-driven, and all the rest of it – then you can’t randomly say, “Well, actually, we’re just gonna go and shoot the Saraha Desert.” You know. Which you could – you know, with the same money, I could do all sorts of effects. But then there wouldn’t be the time and space to make the character stuff.

Question: Geography seems to be a very pivotal facet of Happy-Go-Lucky. Because it is, after all, about a woman who takes driving lessons, who does explore herself within the city. And you have some beautiful shots of the city.

Leigh: Yes. I mean, you see, because the conception of the film, which is motivated by Poppy, by the whole sense of Poppy-ness, is one bursting with energy, bursting with life, I wanted it to burst with movement. And therefore, yeah. You have driving lessons, bicycles, traveling in a car, trampolining, flamenco. You know, all these things, which are kind of active and mobile. And when I shared with Dick Pope, my cinematographer, who’s done all my films – and has also done this film, Me and Orson Welles. When I shared with him and the designers the basic conception of the film, and I said, “You know, it’s got to burst with energy and color and light.” Which is the function of Poppy. That’s when we decided for the first time ever, to shoot wide screen. Which we have successfully, I think. But we’ve used this wonderful – we were about to shoot tests. And three days went by. He went to the film industry trade fair in London. And Fuji set up their stall, and announced this new stock, film stock, called Vivid, which is for bright primary colors. And we used that. It’s fantastic. And that’s really one of the things that – he’s also done an extraordinarily clever thing with the way we filmed the driving lesson scenes, in the car. Because it was important, I wanted the actors to always actually be driving, literally, during the action. So instead of having them on a low load and pretending them to drive the usual way, or on a train – or being towed on an A-frame, which I’ve done lots of times in other films – they actually are driving, and thus interacting with the real world on the road. So the car is rigged with these tiny high definition cameras, mixed with a 35 millimeter camera. It’s very cleverly done. And because of the wonders and magic of digital grading, you absolutely can’t see the difference.

Question: I have to look at it again now.

Leigh: Oh, yeah. You must. At least five times. [LAUGHTER] So, it bursts with color and energy, and – what were we talking about?

Question: About geography.

Leigh: Yeah. Geography, yeah. So that’s all part of the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s about geography. But it’s certainly about movement, and getting around. And not being – I mean, you know, I’ve had many a film where you’re stuck in rooms with people. And indeed, when you do go visit the sister in her box in South End on C you actually – you know, we know we’re back in that claustrophobic suburban territory.

Question: Secrets and Lies was very sort of like that, too.

Leigh: Yeah. I think you’ll find it in lots of my films.

Question: Do you set a date, a time frame where you will slow down?

Leigh: [LAUGHTER] Well, you know, the thing is – I mean, people born on the same day as me – and certainly in the UK–are now – we are officially pensioners. I’m a state pensioner. I mean, you know, I can travel on public transport –

Question: You get a discount on a train and everything.

Leigh: Well, you know. It’s great. But – how old are you?

Question: Fifty-three.

Leigh: All right. So you’re a mere spring chicken. So, I mean, you know. One is always torn between the idea of just not having to do anything – just reading, and – you know. But of course, the thing is, as soon as you think, “Great. I’ll just stop doing this, and have time to”–and you finish the sentence. It’s time to write, paint, and take everything – do other work which you would take just as seriously as – you know, if you’re a compulsive creative, you can’t help being a workaholic. So I think – “Well, actually, I may as well actually really do what I love, and get on with it, really. And stop procrastinating about procrastinating,” you know?

Question: Are you already thinking about your next film?

Leigh: Yeah. And at the moment, because of the prevailing economic climate, and because people are waiting to see how Happy-Go-Lucky does, it’s a bit slow getting the money together. But my producers are on the case, and hopefully it’ll happen next year.

Question: When did it open in the UK?

Leigh: Last April. It opened in April.

Question: How did it do?

Leigh: Fine. It’s been and gone a bit. It’s out on DVD. I mean, too many films are out. That’s part, for me.

Question: Yeah. Competition is terribly ripe.

Leigh: It’s huge. I mean, that’s your problem. People will go. But before they get around to it, there’s another film shunted in there. That’s the problem. But it’s not something we can complain about, because I can remember a time, sort of towards the end of the ’70s, when people – perfectly healthy-minded people, predicted without flinching that film will be finished by 1990. And they were wrong.

Question: How is the British film industry?

Leigh: Well, it’s tough, you know? And there’s not enough production. And there’s not enough – and, I mean, I continue to bang the drum that when things do happen, there is still far too much genuflection in the direction of Hollywood. Preoccupation with Hollywood values, and interference from that part of the world. And even when that doesn’t happen, there are still too many people meddling with – particularly young filmmakers. I think people need to be given the scope and freedom and trust to get out and really explore. Having said that, the good news is that that is happening. Because new technology is wonderful. I mean, you know, you can pick up, cheaply, the technology to get out there and make films.

Question: Especially now.

Leigh: Yes.

Question: And I take it that Hollywood has not really come a-calling to you –

Leigh: No.

Question: And that you would tell them politely to –

Leigh: Well, I mean, I’m a filmmaker from the rest of the world, you know? I’m a European filmmaker.

Question: You couldn’t – they wouldn’t let you work the way you want to work.

Leigh: No, they wouldn’t. Nor would they get an Indonesian filmmaker to do it, either. So, it just has no relevance.”

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