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A Journey of Surprises: MIKE LEIGH

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)

Director MIKE LEIGH

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Monday, March 30, 2009


A JOURNEY OF SURPRISES: MIKE LEIGH

BY PATRICK Z. McGAVIN


The films of British director Mike Leigh have their own social realist style, internal logic and freedom of expression. Happy-Go-Lucky, his 18th feature, is a jaunty, free-flowing mixture of the crude and the riotous. The title refers to a North London primary school teacher named Poppy, who is incarnated in a miraculous performance by Sally Hawkins.

The 65-year-old director is often inaccurately described as having an improvisational working style, when in fact his scripts are painstakingly developed out of collaborations with his actors. Leigh’s working method always produces its own style and rhythm. The most invigorating aspect of his new film is how he’s successfully liberated the story: The film has no plot to speak of, just a series of intertwined movements and actions orchestrated around the cheerfully optimistic personality of Poppy.

Before the release of Happy-Go-Lucky late last year, Leigh spoke about his life, work and art.

Stop Smiling: Part of what makes the film so buoyant is that it feels completely unencumbered by the typical forms of exposition and plot. Did you feel liberated making it?

Mike Leigh: I know what you’re saying. The first thing is, there’s no such thing as a film with no narrative. There are things that happen and they happen sequentially. There are causal plots and cumulative plots. A film like Vera Drake is very clearly a causal plot; this is too. Poppy has her bicycle stolen, she takes driving lessons. There are a lot of things that simply build up a portrait of this person. What happens is not strictly causal.

The tyranny of plot is not a problem. One of the problems I had to deal with during this film was not what to do, but being able to sustain it. In the end the story is told through how Poppy is. You unwrap further layers of Poppy. What I found quite challenging is the slightly elusive and fluid nature of making all of those sides of her add up in a coherent way. You still have to deal with that tyranny as it were.

SS: Is it fair to look at Happy-Go-Lucky as a mirror work to Naked, your 1993 film?

ML: Yes, it is. I think that’s very perceptive and correct. The films are not all the same, apart from the fact that each film centers on a single protagonist. Poppy is on the screen except for two tiny moments, whereas there is a lot of parallel action in Naked that doesn’t involve Johnny. What’s interesting are the similarities between Poppy and Johnny. Both are idealists. Both eschew materialism and all that goes with it. They would get on, they would communicate and understand each other. The difference is that Johnny is a bitter, frustrated and disappointed idealist and Poppy, of course, is the opposite. As much as anything, what is important is Poppy is about caring and empathy.

SS: Is your manner of developing the scripts out of intensive workshops and collaborations with your actors still the same?

ML: I don’t create scripts, I create films. The scripts don’t come into it. I have to say that. I reinvent or rediscover how to do things on each film, only in the ways that any artist learns new ways of using tools of the kit. The principle is the same since Bleak Moments [1971].

SS: Your facility with actors and language tends to overshadow your work as a filmmaker, particularly the visual design and construction. You work with a great cinematographer, Dick Pope.

ML: He’s an extraordinary cinematographer. I won’t work with anybody else. What’s interesting about him is that, for a stylist, he’s a great motion picture cinematographer and image-maker. In the early days he made a lot of documentaries. This is a guy who went into the sweatshops of Hong Kong with a camera hidden in a bag because they’d have killed him if they saw the camera. This is a man for whom the camera really becomes an extension of his body and soul. He has enormous taste. There are a lot of talented cinematographers. If you say, “This is a static shot,” he’s as turned on by that as by the most elaborate [camera movement].

I thought about Poppy, I described her. [That meant we were] going to have a burst of color. We decided to shoot widescreen, which we’d never done before. We always shoot tests. About three days before we were to start, Dick came back from a trade fair in London, where Fuji announced this new stock that was wonderful for primary colors. His ability to sustain that and follow through is terrific.

The other thing that is brilliant, one of my fundamental requirements was, during the driving sequences, whatever character was at the wheel should actually be driving the car and interacting with the traffic. We set about working ways with that. He decided the best way was a combination of 35mm camera and high-definition video — these tiny, what are called “lipstick cameras.”

SS: It’s very similar to Abbas Kiarostami’s films.

ML: Those films were points of reference. What Abbas does in those scenes photographically and cinematographically, I don’t believe is as sophisticated as what Dick has done with this film. One thing about Dick, he’s like a dog with a bone. He goes to enormous lengths to get the grain harmonious and match it. We could be working on a scene, and he could say, “I don’t agree with that line.”

SS: Do you have new projects in the works?

ML: We’re having a struggle at the moment getting the money together for another film because it’s always a tough thing financially. Backers are always about banks and investments. The pound is rubbish against the dollar. It’s tough, and I’m the guy with no script, no discussion about casting and can’t tell you what it’s about — and that’s a massive turnoff. As always, I have lots of ideas, and I’m not going to talk about them because I don’t until the film’s done.

SS: Is there a relationship between your earlier work as a playwright and the transition you made to making films?

ML: I did write plays before, but only because I couldn’t get to make the films. I did 10 plays before I did my first film. I’d already been to London Film School, and I’d already gotten into films. Filmmaking was always the passion. I went on doing plays. Throughout the Seventies, I used to alternate between doing films and plays. Begrudgingly I’ve done less and less plays. I did one three years ago at the National Theatre [Two Thousand Years]. The one before that was 13 years earlier, basically.

The truth of the matter is that you can do a play anytime. Filmmaking is by definition more elaborate and complicated. Apart from the fact that my passion and first love is the cinema, you never know how long you’re going to be able to do it because you never know when the chips are going to run out.  I have a standing invitation from the National Theatre, and I’d like to take that up, but I will hopefully shoot a picture next year.


SS: Given the manner in which you work, do you still find out new things about yourself, even after making 18 features?

ML: Absolutely. As much during the course of making films, having to discuss them and, if you like, having to justify them and explore what I’ve been doing, with audiences and journalists. You learn so many things about films when you make them in the way I do. You don’t spend as much time as I have with somebody like Poppy without stopping to think how you interact with people.

 

 

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