Director Mike Leigh looks for realism without a scriptby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
British film director Mike Leigh says his course in life was set very early on.
"I mean, as a kid I used to sit in the cinema all the time and think 'Wouldn't it be great to see a movie where the characters were like real people as opposed to characters in movies?'" said Leigh.
In the years since Leigh has produced a string of films including "Secrets and Lies," "Vera Drake," and "Topsy Turvy." Critics laud Leigh's films for their realism, even though they are almost entirely fictional.
St. Paul, Minn. — Mike Leigh admits he presents a challenge to the film industry, not least because of the way he works.
"I am the guy with no script, who won't tell you what the film is about and won't discuss casting," he said.
Leigh jokes that he makes his films up as he goes along, but that belies a rigorous and multi-layered process which he has used to make 10 theatrical films and numerous TV shows so far.
When he says there's no script, he means it.
Leigh starts with an idea he would like to explore and then selects actors. He then works one on one with them, often for months to develop a character. He'll say how long it takes, but not much more.
"There's absolutely no way I can take you through that process, because it's nobody's business," he said. "It's a trade secret."
When all the characters are developed, he brings them together.
"A character doesn't exist in a vacuum," he said. "Obviously, a character develops by interaction with other characters."
And through those interactions, with Leigh's guidance, a story emerges.
There are times when Leigh has characters drop bombshells.
Leigh talks about how after weeks of work on "Vera Drake," he brought a group of actors dressed as police officers on the set to arrest the title character for performing back street abortions. None of the actors playing her family had any idea this was actually the central storyline of the film. Their reactions became part of a powerful scene in the movie.
Leigh says he's obsessed with stories about family dynamics. He's explored everything from adoption and inter-racial relationships, to the careers of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Leigh's latest film "Happy-Go-Lucky" started with his desire to work with actor Sally Hawkins, and there was something else.
"I wanted to make a kind of, what I call an 'anti-miserablist' film," he said.
What they ended up with is the story of Poppy, an inner city elementary school teacher. She's always happy, no matter the situation, whether it's in her classroom, out with friends, or at her first ever driving lesson with a grumpy instructor.
To be honest, Poppy is kind of annoying at first, with her incessant barrage of perky one-liners. But Leigh points out, as the story continues she shows a depth of character which makes her truly remarkable.
"We are living in terrible times, and there is a great deal to be gloomy about and to lament," said Leigh. "But there are people out there getting on with it, teachers not least, being positive. And Poppy is the embodiment of being fulfilled and sensible and mature and focused, but also having a great sense of fun and sense of humor and being altogether joyful as well as real." The film has won many awards on the film festival circuit around the world, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for best actress for Sally Hawkins
"Happy-Go-Lucky" opens nationwide this weekend, and the Leigh retrospective at the Walker runs through Saturday. Leigh calls the retrospective "good news."
"I gather this is unusual for various reasons, but I actually like my films," he grinned. "I make films and think if I don't like them, why the hell should I expect anyone else to really?"
Leigh says he hopes to make a new film next year, and its about?
"I never tell anybody about what's going on in my head at this stage - not even you," he laughed.
It was another Mike Leigh moment.
- All Things Considered, 10/21/2008, 3:35 p.m.