Mike Leigh’s Realist Roots

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. 

Recorded on October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

The filmmaker was more influenced by the realism of the "Nouvelle Vague" of 1960s France than by the "British New Wave" or the tradition of Dickensian social realism.

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