How Mike Leigh Makes a Film
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: 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.
Recorded on October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
The filmmaker is known for his idiosyncratic creative process in which he and his actors create the film together through workshopping and improvisation.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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