An Interview with Mike Leigh
Born in 1943 in Salford, Lancashire, Mike Leigh began his career as an actor, theater director, and playwright before moving into television and, eventually, film. Over the course of more than three decades and more than twenty films, Leigh has earned himself an international reputation for his bracing, bittersweet dramas about quotidian British life. Despite their perpetually gray English skies, pasty-skinned protagonists, and often minimalist plotlines, Leigh’s movies appeal to a broad audience. His exploration of social relationships extends well beyond the narrow confines of middle- and working-class England. Secrets & Lies (1996), which stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as an optometrist and Brenda Blethyn as her housewife mother, concerns a woman’s search for her roots; Naked (1993) exposes the destitute and painful realities of urban life with its tale about a mixed-up drifter’s misadventures in London; Bleak Moments (1971), which concerns the financial struggles of—and awkward relationships between—a group of young city dwellers, contains heart-wrenching insights into social isolation.
Instead of coming to rehearse and shoot a film with a prewritten script, Leigh works closely and intensively with all of his actors—from the main roles to bit parts—developing characters, scenarios, and dialogue over months of solo and group improvisations to build a finalized screenplay. Actors seem to love the director’s way of involving them so integrally in the process: “I first worked with Mike Leigh in 1980,” Blethyn says. “He likes you to invent the whole history of the character, and I’ve done it ever since.”
A vociferous supporter of the British film industry, the director, unlike many of his British filmmaking colleagues, hasn’t been lured to Hollywood. “Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins,” Leigh once said. He continues to make movies in the U.K., and, in recent years, started writing for the stage again. Two Thousand Years (2005), a play exploring Leigh’s Jewish roots, received its world premiere at London’s National Theatre. I met with the director last April during his visit to the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.
I. BANGING YOUR HEAD AGAINST A BRICK WALL TILL KINGDOM COME
THE BELIEVER: Your process is so different from that of most other directors: You ask actors to go with you on an intense journey in which they will spend months doing improvisations to develop their characters before anything gets set in stone. Because you only arrive at defining the characters and story line after months of workshops with the actors, you are unable to tell them much about the roles they’ll be playing at the start of the process. So how do your actors learn to trust you at the very start?
MIKE LEIGH: In the first place, I’m pretty thorough about whom I choose. I instinctively look for the kind of actor who is going to be trusting. There are all kinds of insecure people out there called actors. Some deeply untrusting actors—the kind that need to know exactly what’s what and are completely insecure—might be quite good within the parameters of a certain sort of acting. But I can’t work with these people. On the whole, I get people for whom not knowing what’s what isn’t a problem.
BLVR: How do you find out that this isn’t going to be a problem?
ML: It’s an instinctual thing. I have a feeling about an actor when I meet him or her for the first time during our initial interview.
BLVR: Is the interview the “twenty-minute get-to-know-you” chat I’ve read about in articles and books that describe your process?
ML: Yeah. We’re sitting in a room and there’s nobody else there but the actor and I. We talk about their life. Then if I feel the relationship’s going to move forward, I call them back in and we do some work for a while. It’s basically a process of getting a sense of people. The actors I collaborate with tend to be confident in the best sense of the word. They’re not overwhelmingly confident but relaxed, cool, together, focused, open, intelligent, and have a sense of humor.
My job apart from anything else is to build an ensemble composed of actors who all come from a secure place so that they can all work together to make the film. So on the whole, frankly, trust is not much of an issue. What I don’t do, as you know, is throw actors instantly into a dangerous situation. The actors I select for my projects sit and chew the fat with me for ages before we gradually get the characters on the go. So by the time they get to the bit that’s dangerous, they’ve spent a lot of time sorting things out without any pressure. Nobody’s watching them but me. We’re careful and slow. The reason my films work is because every actor on set is very secure. They’re able to fly.
BLVR: But there’s still a sense of danger in your films. Like the rape scene in Naked or the scene in Life Is Sweet where a young Jane Horrocks has her body smeared in chocolate.
ML: Sure. But it takes work to arrive at the stage where you can tackle those things on-screen. It’s an interesting question. I’ve never been asked this before. Really, the issue looks after itself. And here’s the truth: Very, very occasionally I hire an actor and get it wrong. The actor just doesn’t trust the process or me as fully as I thought they would. In this case, you can be quite sure that if an actor is untrusting, it’s got nothing to do with me or the process.
BLVR: In the U.S., the actors I’ve seen seem to fall into two camps: You get the ones that work very much with their heads. They tend to be very literate and extremely intelligent. And then there’s the other sort—the emotional, feeling actor who doesn’t really read anything and has little idea of what’s going on in the world, but nevertheless creates a performance from some apparently deeper or more instinctual place. When I watch your films, I feel that there’s cohesion between these two different approaches.
ML: I couldn’t agree more. I’m very familiar with both these sorts of American actors. I know exactly what you mean. The second category of actor you mention comes as a result of the Method thing (for which I don’t blame Lee Strasberg or anybody else). The notion that acting is simply about intuitively responding to situations the way you feel couldn’t be farther away from how I ask actors to work. On the other hand, the kind of acting that’s wholly literary or cerebral is also wrong. It’s useless for me to have actors so much in their heads that they can’t be organic.
When it comes to the crunch it really is about having actors who are totally able to think deeply about their characters while at the same time, once we developed those characters, for them to be absolutely organic and able to respond emotionally to anything that comes their way. When it comes to thinking about how a character talks, there are literary and language considerations. For actors to be able to differentiate between themselves and the characters they are playing while at the same time remain in character and spontaneous requires a sophisticated combination of skills and spirit. The bottom line is this: For those that can do it, it’s a natural combination and they don’t think twice about it. For those that can’t do it, they can bang their heads against a brick wall from now till kingdom come and they still won’t get there.
BLVR: Do you think that the English actor training system in particular prepares actors to be people that you’d want to work with? Or does the kind of actor you’re looking for flourish in any kind of environment?
ML: There’s a wider issue at stake here. It would be wrong to overlook the fact that I make films within an English context with actors who come from the same social environment as I do. There’s something about the whole context in which we all come together that makes my projects work. The success is further bound up with being committed, caring, and emotionally connected to the project while at the same time being detached and humorous. This is what makes my work idiosyncratic and something that no one else does. But that’s a whole other discussion. As to the training, I was trained as an actor. I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art [RADA] in London and began my career with the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC]. But the training was pretty ropey at that time. It was very old-fashioned and prescriptive.
BLVR: What, just Shakespearean monologues?
ML: We didn’t just do Shakespearean monologues, but it was a very mechanical approach to acting. You learned the lines and the moves. You didn’t discuss the play or improvise. Since then, the culture of drama schools has completely changed. Improvisation—the cornerstone of my process as a director—is now a standard part of actor training. Once upon a time when I was auditioning actors, a large proportion would come in and say, “I’ve never improvised. What do you mean there’s no script?” Today, that’s no longer the case. If I’m meeting actors under the age of forty, very rarely will I encounter this attitude. They all take improvising for granted. This is great for me in terms of getting actors who are ready to hit the ground running. Then again, the way an actor is trained doesn’t ultimately have much bearing on my work. I’m interested in the actor as artist.
BLVR: You put actors at the center of your process.
ML: I’m asking actors to be creative collaborators.
II. A CURSE TO FILMMAKING
BLVR: You’ve been coming and going from the States for years now, since the mid-1980s, I believe. Your views about filmmaking in this country aren’t altogether positive. What do you hope to get out of your visits to the U.S.?
ML: First of all, most of us, myself not least, grew up on Hollywood movies—specifically, the great Hollywood movies of the Golden Age. Some of my favorite movies are Hollywood movies. Hollywood is part of the cinematic spectrum. I nurture a healthy love-hate relationship with Hollywood. Of course, there’s been a bit of American money in some of my films—Topsy-Turvy, for example—though not a lot. The important thing is for the funding to come without classic Hollywood-style interference. One of the reasons the whole Hollywood way of making films wouldn’t work for me is because the way I operate would be anathema to anyone who wants to hold a job down in Beverly Hills.
BLVR: It’s easy to see why: you don’t create “packages,” and everything in Hollywood has to be “packaged.”
ML: The main problem is that the Hollywood system has already made the film before the director shoots a single frame. But to get back to your original question, which was about coming here, the fact is this: In the seventeen or so years between Bleak Moments and High Hopes, I talked to people who might have backed my films on a number of occasions. One of the things I always heard was “The trouble with your films is that they will never work in the States. People won’t get them.” At the time, I thought there might be some truth to this.
Then, when I came to the U.S. in 1986, for the first time—the San Francisco International Film Festival brought me out to the West Coast and screened all six of my films to date—audiences over here started to know about me and it turned out that the prediction about how U.S. audiences would receive my films was wrong. So one of the reasons I continue to come to the U.S. is to do with American audiences: they really like my films. I think that American audiences will go for my latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, in a particularly big way.
BLVR: It’s very American in some ways. It is a buoyant, spirited movie.
ML: In some ways, it is. One of the reasons that Secrets & Lies—a film about a character’s search for her mother—remains my best commercial movie is because there’s a law in fifty states in this country that says that it’s illegal to trace your birth mother.
To return to the Hollywood issue, though: On the one hand, I am very happy to be part of European and world cinema as a British filmmaker. But on the other, it’s also very stimulating and rewarding to come to the San Francisco International Film Festival or the Oscars (which I’ve done three times) with these low-budget, foreign, offbeat, quirky, real-life, uncompromising films and be a bit of a Trojan horse. I enjoy the subversion of it. Funnily enough, I’ve done industry screenings in Los Angeles with huge audiences and industry insiders. They say things like “Wow, this is fantastic. Why can’t we do this here?” And I think, Well, actually, with all the resources you’ve got kicking around here, you could do anything.
BLVR: But the Hollywood system stymies them.
ML: Yes. But the other thing I want to say is that there is a great tradition of independent filmmaking in the U.S. that I absolutely respect. There’s some wonderful stuff that comes out in this country against all the odds, like Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge. Independent filmmaking has always been there and it’s not to be forgotten. Also, it would be ludicrous to suggest that nothing good comes out of Hollywood, because that’s not the case. Sometimes really truthful, organic stuff surfaces by those who managed to stick it to the man and just got on with it.
BLVR: There’s been quite a migration of directors from the U.K. working in Hollywood lately, from Sam Mendes to Phyllida Lloyd.
ML: There always has been. What about Hitchcock? The Brits have always drifted over and that’s fine. It’s a complex issue. A lot of the reasons that I’m resistant to making films in the U.S. have nothing to do with not doing a film in Hollywood, but rather to do with what I’m committed to working on in the U.K. I feel very committed to the British film industry and infrastructure.
BLVR: How would you describe the film industry in the U.K. right now? Some people are very critical of it.
ML: The problem with the British film industry is the nervousness and insecurity about—and genuflection toward—Los Angeles. All those Hollywood grandfathers like Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer have got a lot to answer for, because they invented a monster that is a curse to filmmaking—the interfering producer. All those insecurities lead to things within the U.K. film industry like wheeling in an American actor to play a part that should plainly be played by a Brit.
BLVR: You mean like Renée Zellweger playing Bridget Jones?
ML: Where do you start? What about all those Anne Boleyn people? It’s ludicrous, basically. Nobody writing a novel has that problem.
III. ROXANNE GETS ON A BUS.
BLVR: In the commentary for Naked, David Thewlis talked about rehearsing a scene between his character [the protagonist in the film, Johnny] and the young Scottish homeless character, Archie, played by Ewen Bremner. Thewlis talked about how the actors were so immersed in their roles that their characters got into a fight during an extended improvisation sequence and the cops came. Thewlis said that you had to intervene, telling Bremner and him to step out of character in order to save them from being arrested. Funnily enough, Thewlis then said that he kind of wished that he and Bremner had been arrested because then the court would have been faced with trying a couple of fictional characters. You’re so clear about the actor being separate from the character, and yet this incredible visceral reality you create makes it hard, especially for the actors, to accept that it’s all just fiction. What are your thoughts about this tension?
ML: The delineation between the actor and his part is a practical matter. When the camera runs, you want the actor to be the character. But from a practical point of view—and this relates back to the second category of American actor that we discussed earlier—I can’t negotiate and collaborate with a character to create a distilled dramatic investigation of the raw material. I need to work with an actor. That stuff about actors who stay in character all the time is nonsense. It’s bad for them. The issue has come up a lot in discussion recently in terms of Day-Lewis’s performance in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie There Will Be Blood. On the film set, he went into character and stayed there all day.
BLVR: Well, that’s his stock way of working, isn’t it?
ML: The thing is that when you work on a character in any context, it gets to you. You spend day in, day out, week in, week out with the character. I’m just pretty strict about making sure that when an actor goes into character, he or she comes out of character eventually, too. I like to be objective about what happens. For example, I never allow actors to talk about their character in the first person, as “I.” This helps us remember the fact that we really are creating a fictitious person and that the actor is—and always will be—the actor. But at the end of the day, it’s all a sort of practical procedure. If an actor really and truly is in character, then in fact the actor would never hit the same mark or say the same lines from performance to performance or take to take. There are Method-trained actors who think that this is what acting is all about. But I think that’s a total waste of time. It’s all about creating an artifact.
BLVR: Does asking the actor to be a key collaborator in defining their character sometimes cause issues? For example, I’ve heard that some actors come back at you and say things like “My character wouldn’t rape this other character.” How do you deal with that?
ML: That’s true. It happened with Vera Drake. Understandably, this kind of issue has to be gently negotiated. I knew that the character could perfectly well be a rapist. And so did the actor, when it came down to it.
BLVR: But he was in denial for a bit?
ML: Yes, in some way he was, and fair enough. In that particular case—unusual, for one of my projects—the rape was a prerequisite. Normally I don’t set plot points in stone. There was a moment during the making of Secrets and Lies where Claire Rushbrook, who plays Roxanne, just buggered off in the middle of a massive improvisation. She disappeared and we had to go and find her. She left at a point that was effectively in the structure of the sequence I’d put together, but the final proof hadn’t come out. I knew there was more to flesh out. But after I located Rushbrook, the actor said, “There’s no way that Roxanne would go back.” Then, through more improvisation and discussion, we discovered that what the character had done in the reality of the fictitious circumstances was that she’d gone wandering off because a tiny part of her—even though she was completely in character—knew that I would stop the improvisation at some stage and that she would stay in North London for what we had to do next. So we decided that her character would have caught a bus—there was a bus stop at the end of the street. We decided to explore that idea. But Rushbrook continued to say, “No way.” She knew that I wanted her to go back. But I can’t just say to an actor, “Let’s go back,” because the action has to be organic and motivated. Then we discovered that if her boyfriend, as he does in the finished movie, says, “Actually, I think you should go back,” she would do as he says, because she’s getting fed up with him being a wimp.
So these things have to be thought through and gently negotiated. Sometimes I have to say to an actor, “Is it plausible or impossible for the character to do this?” I do this because my job—and this is what all artists do whatever the medium, because all art is based on improvisation and order—is to start something that grows all over the place and then figure out how to shape it into something that’s coherent.
BLVR: Considering this monologue is going on in your head all the time, when do you get to step out of character? Do you ever get to switch off? Do you sleep?
ML: What, while the film is happening? No. What do you want me to do? Go to Bermuda? It’s a privilege to get to work on something that’s so completely absorbing. It’s terrifying, too. I have to get out of bed every day to make something happen. I wonder if I would have been capable of producing anything if I worked in a more conventional way with a prewritten script, because I’m of the procrastinator class. I could see myself waking up saying things like “Today I’ll just have a reading day,” “I think I need to see a movie today,” “I’ll do the shopping first,” or “I’ll just make another cup of coffee.” But because of the way I work, once the film goes into rehearsal, I’m out of bed and on site by nine o’clock every single day. There’s no point hanging around. I have to make it work for the actor. And when the project takes off it becomes immensely stimulating. It’s tempting, when the rehearsal process drags on for months, to think we’re doing all this work and have nothing to show for it. But at the end of the day, we create great material. It’s a powerful, gregarious, collaborative process.
BLVR: I hear you’re trying to get a movie about the artist J. M. W. Turner off the ground.
ML: I’d like to do what I did with Topsy-Turvy on Turner. I think he’s a fascinating character and there are all sorts of aspects of his life to explore. I generally have a policy about not speaking publicly about projects I’m interested in pursuing down the line until they’re completed. But I’ve gotten so fed up with trying to get people interested in this particular idea, because it’s so expensive relative to my usual film budgets, that I have decided that I may as well talk about it because my hunch is that this it’s never going to happen.
BLVR: Couldn’t you envisage doing the project for less than whatever this astronomical sum is?
ML: Let me answer your question by talking about Topsy-Turvy. When we started developing that movie we envisaged it costing 20 million dollars. But it went down to 15 million, then 12 million. By the time we started working on the project, the budget was 11.75 million.
BLVR: Then your Korean backers pulled out.
ML: They did, and we went down to 10 million. But the problem of the shrinking budget was solved by the fact that hardly any of the film was shot out of doors. This wouldn’t work for the Turner project. You can’t make a movie about the artist without shooting outdoors. We’re talking, after all, about the man who strapped himself to the mast of a ship in order to paint a storm.
BLVR: What a scene that would be.
ML: Yeah, it would be terrific. Turner’s a great character. I’ve reached a stage in my career where I want to paint on a larger canvas. The films would still be Mike Leigh films, but just bigger things. But people have been very resistant to giving me more than the standard amount of money. So I keep making films on a similar scale. Which is fine, but also frustrating.