Big Think Interview With Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh is an English writer and director of film and theater. He began his career in theater, studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and directing and writing for the stage. In 1971 he made the transition into film, directing his first feature film "Bleak Moments," but it would be 17 years until he directed another feature—"High Hopes" in 1998. In those intervening years, he focused on television plays, characterized by their gritty "kitchen sink realism" style. His most notable works are arguably "Naked" (1993) for which he won the Best Director Award at Cannes, the BAFTA-winning (and Oscar-nominated) Palme d'Or winner "Secrets & Lies" (1996) and Golden Lion winner "Vera Drake" (2004). His most recent film is "Another Year" (2010).
Question: Why do you make films about ordinary people?
Mike Leigh: Well let me begin by quoting Alfred Hitchcock who memorably 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." And, in my experience, Mr. Hitchcock’s assertion is rubbish because I really think people are greatly stimulated and enriched by experiencing in film just as we can from novels and other art, experiencing things that resonate with what our lives are about. I think people really want to know... want to share, want to have the stimulus to think and care about the way they live their lives, the way they relate to other people, their aspirations, their hopes, et cetera. So, that is where I sit. And the fact that there is on a completely different planet from those of us in world cinema—because films are made all over the world all the time and only a thin slice of that product is Hollywood—but from the point of view of the rest of us it is all about using that movie camera to look at life, to capture it and to get to find ways of distilling the essence of it. But on this other planet which is called Hollywood there is this corporate, industrial, cynical process that makes films according to completely different criteria.
Question: Do you feel you're thumbing your nose at Hollywood by making a film about lonely, old people?
Mike Leigh: Well I mean you know I take no notice of the trends. I really... It doesn’t... It has never concerned me at all. I mean my job is to deal with what I want to deal with and reach an audience by doing so. Indeed my last film, "Happy-Go-Lucky," did on the whole focus on youngish people, people that were around 30. And I did decide that now was time to deal with, apart from the various other things, "Another Year" is about people of my own age—I’m 67 right now—our generation and the fact that life is moving on and all of those things.
I’m not so much cocking my snoot at trends or anything else. I’m not bothered about that. I trust that if I make a film which is about issues surrounding older people it will actually talk to an audience and it’s already become clear that young audiences are absolutely as fascinated and engaged by Another Year as older audiences. It crosses the age barriers and boundaries quite honestly. One must not forget and it’s obvious to say this I know, that trends and all of those things and formulae that calculate what audiences want to see and what audiences don’t want to see and various other demographic demarcations are the eccentric and ludicrous prerogative of Hollywood studios. But out there in the real world—by which I mean the rest of the world where we make truthful organic films, independent films unimpeded by interference—it’s not about all those sort of calculating what is commercial. It’s about wanting to say things and saying them in a way that will get through to people.
Question: Where do your films fall in the tradition of realist cinema?
Mike Leigh: So far as my own films are concerned, in the context of realism or indeed naturalism—although my films fall into the category of realism more than naturalism I would say. From my own point of view I grew up looking at... going to the movies a lot, as much as they’d let you. I grew up in Manchester in the north of England in the '40s and '50s. I saw a lot of movies. They were all Hollywood and British movies. I didn’t see a film that wasn’t in English until I was 17 when I went to London to be a student.
I used to sit in the cinema thinking wouldn’t it be great if you could have a film in which the characters were like real people instead of being like actors. Of course, what I didn’t know at that time is that it was going on. I mean you know the neo-realists were happening—De Sica, et cetera—when I was really quite tiny. And lots of things had happened before; I mean Renoir long before World War II was doing fascinating things that come under the heading of what we’re talking about. I was a student in the 1960s when there was the so called British new wave and simultaneously across the channel there was a Nouvelle Vague. Personally I was much more inspired by the Nouvelle Vague—Truffaut, Godard, et cetera—than I was by the British new wave—Tony Richardson, Carol Rice, Lindsay Anderson and others. Not that what was happening in the British, the new wave British cinema wasn’t important or significant. In fact, for me having grown up in the industrial North it was important that here were films that were about real life that did come out of a radical kind of tradition. But they were on the whole, in fact, virtually entirely all those films were adaptations of plays or films and the kind of movie that as it were paints onto the canvas, that is conceived and executed purely and exclusively in cinematic terms didn’t really come out of that school, whereas, what was happening across the channel in those films of Truffaut, etcetera were very much on the whole much more organic original cinema, not entirely. As we know "Jules and Jim" was an adaptation of a rather light roman, novel, but actually my inspiration is what I’m saying, came more from those films.
To stick with the English or British side of the thing, there is of course, in any case, 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 and it is not insignificant that England—London in particular—was one of the great homes of, over many decades, from the end of the 18th century through into the 20th and even the 21st century, of caricature at its most interesting.
I was slightly generationally behind the revolutionary thing that happened in England in the mid- to late-1960s, which was the work of Ken Loach and his producer Tony Garnett in BBC Television, who took the rather staid and boring traditions of television drama and completely shook it, and said, "Okay, well people are out there with lightweight movie cameras making documentaries and shooting the news. Let’s make drama in this mode." I was lucky enough to join as a freelance to come into that work at the BBC and over a period of time I actually took part in it and there was a great tradition then of telling stories about working-class people with social issues and so on and so forth. Personally, though that is an aspect of my work without any shadow of doubt, nevertheless, what I do isn’t strictly just social realism or just a kind of as it were message cinema because I think I am more concerned to get to the essence of things.
Question: Do all films need to entertain?
Mike Leigh: If a film is not entertaining, forget it. It’s a failure. I am unashamedly in the entertainment business. I think I would make that statement on two levels. On the primary level, I would say if a film or any piece of work doesn’t entertain, it fails—and that is using the word entertain literally, meaning it holds you there and you become absorbed by it so that you don’t walk away and get bored and so on. But over and above that, I mean, sure I make films that are about real life, sure they are realistic and I go to great lengths to achieve that, sure they resonate with people's real experiences, sure they’re emotional, sure they’re properly psychologically motivated, sure the characters are rooted in society. You absolutely can recognize and know that we’re dealing with a substance of the real world in terms of the texture of the thing, but at the same time my films are funny. They are heightened. They are all kinds of… There are all kinds of juxtapositions, which are not simply life un-distilled as its hewn from the seam... and what at the most basic level are my influences.
Question: Should entertainment challenge us, or play to our most basic instincts?
Mike Leigh: Look, the thing is, again, you know I’m reluctant to proclaim about what entertainment should or shouldn’t do. You talk about reality shows and all of that, which are basically, if you think about it, just simply the modern equivalent to Victorian freak shows, where people with anomalous growths and things and—you know ladies with beards and whatever it was, people with three feet—would be put on exhibition for the public.
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 and I don’t think, with all due respect, that really belongs in the conversation that we’re having. Because what we’re actually talking about is art. We’re talking about work that in some way, however it does it, wants to get to some kind of truth and therefore have something substantial to offer an audience. So entertainment is an essential... that the thing be entertaining is an essential ingredient, as I’ve said. And I think we should dismiss and tolerate and in fact, keep our sense of humor about peripheral crackpot activities because they don’t really come into the job of the proper artist or the job of the committed audience, which is to say the audience that really wants to be stimulated.
Question: Do you judge your characters?
Mike Leigh: I don’t. For me, I make films because I am endlessly fascinated by people. I want to know about you. I want to know about this guy who is sitting next to me who is operating the technology in this studio. I’m fascinated immediately to know about the lives that are going on around me. That is... you know it’s a compulsive disorder on my part. 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.
Of course if you look through my films you will find different ways in which people are presented and sometimes they are presented in... certainly in some of my earlier films, in a way that relates to how they’re actually behaving towards other people, but to me it’s about celebrating what it is to be a human being.
Question: Is Mary to blame for her loneliness?
Mike Leigh: Well I dare say she is to some extent, but there is absolutely no doubt whatever as well, and very importantly, that she is a victim of life. And it is very much for anybody in this world it’s absolutely a function of your fortune, your luck. And some people have good luck, some people have bad luck. Sure, you can make it worse. Sure you can... some people can fight to overcome things and some of us have the ability to overcome, to make choices and make the right choices or overcome things or redress the balance, but a lot of people are vulnerable you know and it’s not so easy and I think Mary for a variety of reasons to do with the fact that she had a bad childhood, due to the fact that she is to some degree a victim of the problem of her being kind of sexy and where that leads—but at the same time not being able to deal with it with confidence—therefore she has been abused by men. You know for a whole complexity of reasons she is somebody that is not dealing with it and finally is resorting to alcohol, so I think it’s unacceptable ever to ascribe to anybody that all their problems are entirely of their own making and they’re to blame because we are all a product of our environment and of conditions and circumstances which are not necessarily within our control.
Question: Could you walk us through your process of conceiving and workshopping an idea for a film with your actors?
Mike Leigh: For me the journey of making a film is a journey of discovery as to what that film is. I mean what I do is what other artists do, painters, novelists, people that make music, poets, sculptors, you name it. It’s about starting out and working with the material and discovering through making, working with the material the artifact.
So I, at some level, depending on the film, there might be a specific idea. I had the idea for example, for over 40 years to make a film about an illegal backstreet abortionist set before the law was changed in England because I remember. I’m old enough to remember what it was like when abortions were illegal and people had unwanted pregnancies. I had some experiences, so that led to "Vera Drake."
But I’ve made a lot of films and that would include "Another Year" and "Naked" and "Happy-Go-Lucky" and quite a few others where it would be impossible to report an idea or a scheme and far less a plot or outline or characters. It’s more about a spirit, a sense of the thing. The conception is kind of more about a feeling than it is about a notion, so to speak. With that in mind I mean that is very, very important. I mean there are things going on in my head if you want to interpret that, but they’re not things that are so tangible as I could explain what they were necessarily. I then gather together a group of actors. I say to any actor that is going to be in it, “I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.” And that of course 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, just like you and I know... I know less about you than you know about me, but part of what is motivating this conversation that we’re having is the nature of what... is our ignorance about each other so to speak. It’s part of the natural everyday tension of what is going on.
So I then work with each actor individually. I create a character and 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 to do with... would fill in the experience of the characters background, whatever it is. There is a great deal of discussion and then my job as director is to get... is to help them to, sort of, how to play the characters in an actual physical way. And we gradually build up this world and so that what comes into existence by my pulling it and pushing it and, if you like, manipulating it is the premise for a film. Then I will write a very simple structure and then we’ll go out on location sequence by sequence, scene by scene. We will build scenes. We rehearse. We write through rehearsal. I don’t go and write it all down separately and what we shoot is very precise and I wind up with… What I take to the cutting room are the ingredients of a coherent, well structured, well written, thoroughly finished film.
Question: Are you optimistic about the future?
Mike Leigh: I can’t really see how anybody could be particularly optimistic about the future in general because we are destroying the planet. I mean we have been having a conversation here for some half an hour or perhaps 40 minutes and in the time that we’ve been talking far more people have been born who will fit into this entire skyscraper in New York that we’re actually sitting in and they have to be fed and the world hasn’t got any bigger in that 40 minutes, so... And this is quite apart from... I mean, territory and food and resources are going to be fought over and that is quite apart from the additional burden of ridiculous religious fundamentalism of various kinds. So it’s quite hard to be optimistic about the future, but we battle on and you know we value life and we… some of us try and express some sense of hope through the work that we do, but we can’t just sit around being blindly optimistic because we are on serious disaster courses I would say, but that is not news.
Recorded on October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
A conversation with the filmmaker.
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