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The fine art of improvisation

Posted at 12:27 AM on October 16, 2008 by Euan Kerr

Mike Leigh entertained a packed house at the Walker for more than two hours last night in a dialog with LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas which covered everything from Leigh's realization at 12 that he wanted to be a film maker up to the reactions to his latest film "Happy-go-lucky."

He also talked about his early desire as a young moviegoer to see as he put it movies where the people on screen looked like real people, not film people. He's been working towards that goal ever since

He kept returning to the process he uses in his films which he says is improvisation, but of a very specific and meticulous kind. The word "improvisation" conjures an image of a group of people coming together to hammer out a scene. Leigh says such improvisations don't produce realism, and rarely anything that might be viable material for a film.

His process involves him working one-on-one with all the actors to develop characters. It's a lengthy process, taking weeks or months. Once all the characters are developed he has the actors interact in character to see what develops. He says he sometimes goes in with a topic he wants to investigate, often to do with family dynamics. Sometimes, such as with "Naked" and "Happy-go-lucky" he just went in with a feeling.

As the characters interact he says he not only develops the story which will end up in the film, but also the background of the relationships between the individuals. Parents have to develop a lifetime with their children, adults have to create memories of friendships, past loves and sadnesses which all may have an indirect bearing on their characters, even if they are never mentioned in the film itself. All of this lends to realism Leigh says.

The characters have to develop skills too. Leigh mentioned that for the 1990 film actor Claire Skinner who plays a young woman making a living as a plumber learned so much about the trade that she still gets calls from friends who are having problems with their toilets.

Later on in the process Leigh may add other information to shape the story he is trying to tell. He related a huge 10 hour session he did with a larger number of actors when he was preparing to make "Vera Drake."

He talked about how he set up a situation where actors who had been developing a family situation were surprised when they were interrupted by knocking at the door. When they opened it they found a group of police officers who said they had come to arrest the mild-mannered mother of the family. The police revealed that she was accused of carrying out illegal abortions. Up till that moment Leigh said the actors playing the family had no idea that was part of the story, and they all reacted with great shock. The police officers were taken aback too because they had thought they would be arresting a much more defiant person and had been psyching themselves up for a big confrontation.

All those ideas were examined and considered as they continued to develop the idea. As with all of his films Leigh says the finished product is very precise, even as it looks relaxed, laid back and real.

October 2008
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