How Mike Leigh Makes a Film

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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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.