A Sit-Down with Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh’s endless fascination with human behavior is palpable in every one of the films he’s made over the course of his nearly fifty-year career. With an acute sensitivity to rhythm, character, and setting, he extracts extraordinary moments from the flow of ordinary life. And while his preoccupations with class tensions and strained family dynamics have followed him throughout the years, his work has taken on a variety of forms, from domestic dramas like Life Is Sweet and All or Nothing to period films like Topsy-Turvy and Peterloo, which is coming to theaters this weekend. Even at their most melancholy, his movies are fueled by a sense of constant motion that gives even the heaviest of subjects a kind of buoyancy—a feeling that recalls a line Brenda Blethyn delivers in Secrets and Lies: “You gotta laugh, ain’t ya, sweetheart? Or else you’d cry.”

After growing up in postwar Manchester, Leigh experienced his artistic awakening in the cultural ferment of 1960s London, where he studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). He spent several years pursuing his passion for writing and directing by making plays and television films, and the methods he developed in those early works­—long periods of improvisation and rehearsal, close collaboration with his actors—would go on to influence his approach to cinema. He’s been honing these strategies for nearly half a century now, and at seventy-six, he shows no sign of changing his ways.

I had a chance to sit down with Leigh on a rain-soaked morning during the Toronto International Film Festival, where he was premiering Peterloo, a stirring re-creation of a bloody massacre that occurred in Manchester in 1819. Over tea we discussed his early days as a filmgoer, the amount of research that goes into making his films feel so lived-in, and what he enjoys about postproduction.

I’m curious if you have a first movie memory.

I know the first movie that I saw: Bambi. But here’s the thing. I was born during the war, and in the forties and fifties there were movie houses of all shapes and sizes all over the place. I lived not very far from the center of Manchester, but from our house you could walk to fourteen different movie houses. Some were real dropping-to-bits prewar crap, and some were quite nice. The big one was called the Rialto. But until I was seventeen and I went to drama school I never saw a movie that wasn’t in English. In my later teens I started to read about Eisenstein, but I never saw those films. Everything was Hollywood or British movies. That was my diet, and I was hooked.

Of course, when I got my scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and went to London—bang!—that was in 1960, so Breathless was playing there was Cassavetes’s first film, Shadows, on the screens at that moment; and there were Bergman, the Italian neorealists, Satyajit Ray, and Japanese cinema, and I finally got to see Eisenstein. It was a mindblower.

In what ways did your training at RADA and your early work in theater inform your directorial approach?

I trained as an actor, but I didn’t really want to be an actor. I knew I wanted to write and direct. This is no longer the case, but when I was at RADA it was very old-fashioned and very stale in many ways. You did a very superficial kind of acting, which is to say you didn’t improvise or explore what a thing is really about. You didn’t do background or character research—you just did it. You learned the lines and tried not to fall over the furnace.

So my instincts from the word go were to react against that, which happened of course at the same time as all this other stuff was happening, not only in the cinema but in theater as well, with the work of people like Peter Brook. Before too long there was also what were called “happenings.” All this made me begin to question and challenge the conventions of just sitting in a closet writing a script on paper and then giving it to an actor. I realized that what really interested me was combining writing, rehearsing, performing, and directing. I made a lot of what they called “improvised plays,” which is a misnomer in a way because they were very finished pieces of work that came out of improvisation, like what I’ve worked on ever since. I did that throughout the sixties in various places, wherever I could, until we made Bleak Moments, my first feature.

Naked

There’s something about the way you use space, especially within the walls of a home, that gives your films the immediacy and rhythm of watching something on stage. I often think of the scene in Naked when Johnny is preparing to leave the house and keeps going back and forth between the kitchen and the living room. Do you find that your theatrical sensibility bleeds into how you conceive the world on-screen?

It’s not so much that theater informs the work in any stylistic or organic way, it’s more that I have a natural way of looking at life where it’s a little bit heightened. The other thing is that I did my apprenticeship, as it were, making plays where the convention was to rehearse and rehearse thoroughly for a stretch of time. We still do that with everything we film. We spend six months on every film working with actors and doing all the preparatory work. Were the disciplines of rehearsal not part of my nature, I wouldn’t have really learned how to share that with actors in a way that liberates them and makes it possible for them to be very extraordinary.

Does this mode of close collaboration with actors change when you’re working within the confines of a specific era or a historical narrative such as Peterloo?

Not in principle, but there are different things you have to take on board. I’ve made four period films. Vera Drake is in a slightly different department because it’s set during a time, and in a world, that I remember. And all of the other films are set around the nineteenth century, which is recent enough to sit in our received memory, if not our actual memory. If I were to make a film that was set in the ninth century, I would find it very difficult. The nature of how people would be talking and behaving would be a concoction. But while making Peterloo, Topsy-Turvy, or Mr. Turner there was a great deal to find out about, even how people talked and what language they used. Whatever film we make, whether it’s contemporary or not, the amount of research that goes on is always colossal. People research everything they can think of to make those characters three-dimensional.

Life Is Sweet

So is the process of researching and rehearsing—the whole lead-up to actually being on set—just as stimulating as the actual filmmaking?

All processes, creative and otherwise, involve laying foundations and doing all the donkeywork, which can be very tedious. Nothing beats the actual filmmaking or shooting and being on set. And the postproduction, which is a glorious thing always.

What about it do you find glorious?

First of all, that’s where you make the film. Secondly, if you’ve been rehearsing for six months, then shooting for four months and getting up at four o’clock in the morning, it’s like a rest cure! It’s very exciting, and I go backward and forward between the editor and composer, and then we start. People say to me, “You must love the rehearsals best.” I don’t. I hate the rehearsals because it’s donkeywork and you haven’t got anything to show at the end of the day. You’re just preparing and preparing and sometimes it can be quite grueling. On all of my films, and Peterloo is no exception, all the preparation work has happened, but I can only construct each scene in the location. I can’t write it without seeing it. So we do that by improvising and then pinning it down and distilling it and then finally writing it through rehearsal. And the whole business of shooting and working with the cinematographer and all the rest—that’s marvelous. It’s a privilege.

You’ve had fruitful partnerships with so many great actors over the years, but you’ve also been working with the same cinematographer, Dick Pope, since Life Is Sweet nearly three decades ago. What is that relationship like?

The thing about working with the same cinematographer over a long stretch . . . A violinist who owns a Stradivarius is not going to arbitrarily use another fiddle. That is the tool and you can play anything with it. So that’s how I feel.

Topsy-Turvy

Whether it’s literally staging a musical in Topsy-Turvy or the subtle way your scores establish an emotional atmosphere in your recent films, it’s clear that music means a great deal to you. Can you tell me more about that?

Bleak Moments has no score, but it has music within it, people play songs—that’s a characteristic of some of my work. At that stage in my life I had very strong feelings about making a film that wasn’t dressed up in music but was pure, in a sense. It wasn’t until my fourth film that I had a score with a composer. When used organically and appropriately, not in a clichéd, robotic way, obviously a score brings out the flavor. I’ve worked with Gary Yershon, who’s great, on my last few films. We made a decision very quickly and easily in Peterloo that once you get to the big day there wouldn’t be a note played, not until the very end. We couldn’t have anything that could run the risk of degenerating into a movie cliché.

What’s important about the approach to music in my films is that I like to work with composers who start from their own emotional response to what they see and can’t do anything until we’ve got a cut of the film. Also, I work with a composer exclusively. There’s no committee, which a lot of movies suffer from. The thing we don’t do is have temp tracks, which I think are completely ridiculous. All they do is create a false and irrelevant ambiance. We have none of that bullshit, that Hollywood stuff. For me, one of the best bits of the entire making of a film is the day or two when the musicians show up to play the score in a recording studio. It’s just a hoot. I love it. They’re all top-end guys from the orchestras and it’s always live, organic music. You can be sure they only saw it for the first time yesterday, but they show up, they pick up the instruments and they play it the way musicians can do. And then they rush into the control room to watch it back with the film because they’re fascinated by what it is they’re doing. It’s just lovely because, in a way, you suddenly feel it. 

Do you find that you’re a different person when you’re making a film from who you are in your everyday life?

[Laughs.] I don’t really know how to answer that—in a way, you’ve got to ask other people that. But I will say that my shoots are famously pleasant. There’s no nonsense. No wobblies and people behaving badly, partly because they’re all nice guys that I work with and partly because I’m a nice guy. But not least—and this is quite serious—because we spend so much time with the actors preparing, what you don’t get on my films (and if it happens it’s very rarely and for exceptional circumstances of some kind) is actor insecurity. Most of what causes neurosis and time-wasting on movies are actors who can’t remember their lines or haven’t been given the chance to work out how to play the character or they’re insecure because they’ve put on a costume they’ve never worn before or are in a location they don’t fit in . . . all of that stuff. But none of that’s the case because it’s all been prepared and collaborated on, so it’s all organic and relaxed and they’re on top of it. You start shooting and after a week or two you hear an electrician who’s never worked on one of my films say, “I don’t understand it, there’s no script, and they all know the lines and they’re all very nice.” It’s because we prepare and we do it in this organic way.

Because I’m not a jobbing filmmaker and people don’t send me scripts, I just go out and make up these idiosyncratic pieces of work. Therefore, my modus operandi as an artist is much like a painter or novelist, whether I’m actually in the process of making or preparing a film or just simply gestating. At this moment I am in the early stages of this endless process of talking about a bloody film, but we’re also going to make another film in a couple of years. Right now I’m gestating and that’s fine! Even if it involves reading a whole bunch of novels that have got nothing to do with what I’m thinking about, everything feeds in because that’s what the creative process is.

On that note, where do you go to find inspiration? Is it a matter of just living your life and absorbing what you encounter?

In the street is the real answer. In the underground train. Wherever. I went to see the Picasso exhibition at the Tate Britain the other day and I came out and it was a very nice day, and the Tate is next to the river, so I thought, I’ll just have a sit-down. I must have been there for about an hour and a quarter, and you know it’s just a feast of people walking past. What more do you want? Given the sorts of things I make. But there are people who make movies about all kinds of different things. I love cars, and I love machines, and I love technology, and I love food, and I love place. People say, “Oh, your films are about character,” but they’re also about place. Of course more than anything they’re about people, so everything is stimulating, everything. If I started to be bored with life then I think I would be finished, and I think you would be too.