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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