Though he works in the highly stylized realm of the horror genre, Ari Aster’s acute attention to the fraught dynamics of intimate relationships—evident in his psychologically penetrating new film Midsommar—makes it easy to see how he draws inspiration from the ensemble dramas of British filmmaker Mike Leigh, whose grittier, more naturalistic approach to cinema is otherwise quite different from his own. In this article, edited together from a recent conversation at the Criterion offices, Aster explains why he considers Leigh’s 1999 period epic Tospy-Turvy to be the most lucid expression of the director’s process.
When I first watched Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy on DVD in college, I’d never seen a period piece that felt so generous and so free and so transporting. The film is a portrait of Victorian life, and its entry point is the relationship between librettist William Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner), which was on the verge of breaking apart after their operetta Princess Ida was tepidly received. In the aftermath, Gilbert attended a Japanese arts and crafts exhibition with his wife and was inspired to write a Japanese opera. Sullivan liked the idea and agreed to write the music, resulting in the success of The Mikado in 1885. This is the period that Leigh re-creates in Topsy-Turvy, and what becomes apparent in the film is that it’s Leigh’s love letter to the theater. For my money, it’s the greatest film ever made about the collaborative arts, and it’s the most illuminating film Leigh has made about process.
The movie gives you a dictatorial figure in Gilbert and a temperamental composer in Sullivan, but it is just as interested in the choreographer, the costume designers, the actors, the choir members, and the people managing the theater and turning on the lights. The Savoy Theater, which Gilbert and Sullivan ran, was the first in England to have electrical lighting, and peripheral details like this accumulate throughout the film and become objects of fascination that entire scenes revolve around. It truly feels like you’re watching lives being lived, and a specific time being lived through, and this comes from Leigh’s way of mining day-to-day experience. His approach to making period pieces is something absolutely unique to him—he creates these hermetic worlds that feel so authentic. So much is discovered as he goes along that his films are packed to the brim—and not with incident but with texture. Here, as with Mr. Turner, he completely eschews the typical structure of the biopic and builds a gorgeous tapestry of moments.
This rehearsal scene is one of my favorite scenes in any film ever. It’s classic Mike Leigh. It’s very lived-in and treated with an almost stubborn sense of patience, and it’s an extraordinary depiction of a director working with actors. What’s funny is that I have a feeling Leigh would disagree with just about everything Gilbert is doing as a director. But at the same time I also think that Leigh is somebody who appreciates methods that are nothing like his own. I’ve heard him speak with total reverence about Hitchcock, and I can’t think of any two filmmakers who are more different, at least in their attitude toward acting. Leigh does not view actors as cattle; they’re essential collaborators to him.
Jim Broadbent plays Gilbert as an uptight, emotionally remote tyrant who, despite being kind to his actors, needs things to be just so, which is very different from Leigh and his methods of investigative improvisation. In this scene, Gilbert is giving his cast precise and static blocking, having them recite their dialogue, correcting their pronunciation of certain words, and instructing them on how to deliver each line. Though we can tell that he’s a very astute technical director, it’s also clear that he’ll never break out from what he’s already conceived alone in his room. Just before this scene we see him playing with dolls and planning the whole production out. Whatever he’s come up with in that room is what the scene is going to be. You can see this as a strength or a weakness, depending on how you feel about what it means to direct.
Despite how deeply set Gilbert is in his ways, what I get from watching this scene is the joy of people creating things. Leigh allows us to experience this by playing the scene out to its fullest extent. That’s characteristic of Topsy-Turvy, which is a film intent on breathing at all costs. It’s as though Leigh is turning over every possible stone. Without giving way to excess, he allows scenes to feel long and rich and generous, while never outstaying their welcome. And there’s so much chemistry between his actors because they’ve worked together for so long.
Here they really embrace the style of an operetta, which couldn’t possibly be further in nature from what Leigh does. Jim Broadbent and Martin Savage are such chameleons. Savage has only served as a supporting actor in Leigh’s films, but he seems to totally shed his skin from project to project. And Broadbent disappears so completely into the role of Gilbert; you look at what he did in a film like Life Is Sweet or the staggeringly brilliant A Sense of History, and it’s entirely different from what he does here. I can’t think of a partnership between a director and his performers that rivals the breadth of what Leigh has achieved with so many of these character actors. You want him to keep going just so he can keep pulling the best out of them and giving them these beautiful opportunities.
Leigh has talked a lot about his process, but it’s still a very mysterious thing. Personally, I work so much in isolation; I write alone and compose my shot-list alone, which requires me to map out the blocking for my actors. In that sense, I’m closer to somebody like Gilbert than I am to Leigh. So while I can’t say that I’m influenced by Leigh’s way of working—I would never even know how to do what he does—I would love greater insight into it because it results in the most vivid performances I know. Watch the alchemy that comes of his process in this scene. It’s magic.