Mike Leigh

Kitchen sink dramatist opens up for the Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival

Following on from the release of his latest feature, Happy-Go-Lucky, earlier in the year, long-serving British director Mike Leigh arrives in Belfast's Dublin Road Cinema to give a talk as part of the Cinemagic Film Festival.

Leigh is noteworthy amongst British film-makers for his idiosyncratic means of film construction: famously, he starts out with no final written script, preferring to enter a new project with a vague idea of the themes that he wants to explore, and thereafter works with the actors to create characters and flesh out the final form of the movie. Leigh explains his approach as a synthesis of improvisation and order:

‘The artist starts out with some paint on the canvas. He reacts to that, improvising and creating, and then reacts to that. The sculptor doesn’t start in full knowledge, he breaks down the material and finds the final shape… the journey of making the film is that of discovering the film.’ Order is imposed along the way, as the ephemeral is distilled and formed into hard, fast ideas. 

Leigh admits to being eccentric in his method – often actors don’t know anything outside of their own character, and improvisation can go on for hours – but he is not undisciplined. 'What’s important is on screen, the final artifact. Everything on screen has been rehearsed over and over… down to the last semi-colon.'

Leigh admits that the actors 'just trust me. Some directors are neurotic, dictatorial, repressive, but that would make an actor insecure and uncomfortable. It’s better to let them let their hair down, create space and freedom for them and make them feel more secure'. One gets the impression that this method, which Leigh has been using since his first film, Bleak Moments, in 1971, is used because it works. 

Leigh takes the practical, hands-on side of film-making very seriously. 'When I fly home tonight, I don’t want a pilot who doesn’t know how to fly the plane. I don’t want a film-maker who doesn’t know how to make a film.'

Leigh recollects a pivotal moment in his developing desire to make films: the funeral of his grandfather, an epiphany that occurred whilst observing the people around him, and the banal tensions and interactions between them. 'I want to make films about this,' he thought. In the bleakness of the urban environments and familial relationships that characterise his films, it's clear that Leigh does just that. 

The audience press him on this. His style: is it realistic, naturalistic? He takes issue with the tag of naturalism. 'What I do isn’t naturalism. I don’t record reality, I heighten it to get at the truth.' 

Like the sculptor working on clay, Leigh seems to view film-making as the art of breaking down, of distilling reality to get at the truth that drives his characters. For Leigh, what matters is 'the essence - the emotional essence of life'. 

Not one for unnecessary light relief, how does he explain the uncharacteristically optimistic Happy-go-Lucky? Labeled Leigh’s ‘happy film’ by more than one flippant journalist, many derided it as frothy, and Sally Hawkins’ turn as the primary color-wearing Polly as unbearably cheery. 

I suggest to Leigh that critics missed the title’s irony, and Polly’s inner sadness. He disagrees about the terms, but agrees that she has been misread. 'I don’t know if its sadness exactly… it’s more of a seriousness. A seriousness that comes with her knowledge of life, her empathy.' 

Whether his films are uplifting or dispiriting, his reason for continuing remains the same: the willingness to look at life clearly and seriously. Leigh’s sculpting, no doubt, will continue.

Conor Smyth 

Check out Culture Live! listings for more information on the Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People.