Alfred Hitchcock once said, “A woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing doesn’t want to go to the movies to watch a film about a woman who spends all day washing and cooking and ironing.” But Mike Leigh, another highly acclaimed British filmmaker, calls this assertion rubbish. "I really think people are greatly stimulated and enriched by experiencing in film—just as we can from novels and other art— things that resonate with what our lives are about."
In his Big Think interview, Leigh tells us that there is in English culture "a long tradition of social realism, of looking at working class people, of looking at life in an unflinching, heightened, realistic way. It goes back to Dickens. It goes back to Hogarth and you could argue it goes back via things you’ll find in Shakespeare, all the way back to Chaucer." But while this is an aspect of Leigh's work, his films aren't strictly social realism or "message" movies. "I am more concerned to get to the essence of things," he says.
For a society obsessed with "Jackass" and "Jersey Shore," Leigh's quiet, raw films might seem an unusual type of entertainment. But he says he is "unashamedly" in the entertainment business. "If a film is not entertaining forget it; it’s a failure." But the concept of entertainment is a relative thing, as it has always been. Reality television is just a new form of a very old phenomenon: freak shows. "There have always been and there always will be the peripheral sideline activities which are a form of entertainment, which is to say you pay a couple of cents and you see something freakish—well, that is what reality TV is."
Though his films may seem depressing to some, Leigh is a humanist through and through. "I make films because I am endlessly fascinated by people," he tells us. "That is what drives me and that is because everybody matters, everybody is there to be cared about, everybody is interesting and everybody is the potential central character in a story, so judging people is not acceptable." There are certainly characters in his films who are presented in a negative light, but the point is not to judge them but to examine how people truly interact with other people. "It's about celebrating what it is to be a human being.
To capture this sense of realism, Leigh has an unorthodox method of filming. He begins not with a script or a fleshed-out idea but with a feeling. "It’s more about a spirit, a sense of the thing," he says. It's "more about a feeling than it is about a notion so to speak." From here, he sketches characters with the help of his actors, many of whom he has worked with before. "I gradually put together this whole world where we build up relationships, we build histories, people go and do research into all kinds of things... [that] would fill in the experience of the characters' background whatever it is." With these characters in place, Leigh then creates a very simple plot arc, and he and the actors will go out on location, filming sequence after sequence largely through improvisation. And he never tells his actors anything more than what their character would know in the film. This "makes it possible to explore relationships and to bring into existence a world where people, like real people in real life, only know as much about other people as they would know...It's part of the natural everyday tension of what is going on," he says.