Jumping out of the British theater scene in 1970 with his first film, Bleak Moments, Mike Leigh joined a loose group of social realist filmmakers emerging in England. Chronicling ordinary lives in near-documentary style, Leigh developed a unique writing/directing method over the years. His films (1993’s Naked, 1996’s Secrets & Lies, 1999’s Topsy-Turvy, 2004’s Oscar-winning Vera Drake among them) often involve long, improvisational rehearsals with actors, slowly building characters, relationships and situations before a single frame of film is shot.
The director’s latest effort, Happy-Go-Lucky, concentrates on Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a colorful London elementary school teacher whose terminal optimism tends to exasperate those around her. The comedy-minded film is already winning rave reviews and inspiring several reviewers to hold up Hawkins for early Oscar consideration.
Leigh spoke to the Alibi while on a press tour of the United States.
A number of critics have called this film a change of pace for you. You seem to be of the opinion that it is not.
How do you see it?
I would say the tone is ... slightly different from your earlier work.
The thing is, every time I do a film, it’s different. I mean, Naked was very different from its predecessors. And Topsy-Turvy was seriously different from anything else. And here we are with this. This is what it is.
When you’re coming up with the concept for a film, then going through your long rehearsal process, is there any idea what the final tone will be like?
Oh, yeah. Of course. The process is only the process. The tone is a function of my artistic intentions.
So did you start out intending to make a lighter film with Happy-Go-Lucky?
It isn’t lighter, it just has a different spirit. I don’t think it’s lighter. It’s got just as much weight as any of the other films. To answer what I think is really your question: Yeah, I had a sense of what the spirit should be. But the truth is, I really discover what the film is by embarking on the journey of making the film. It’s only when you’ve made the film that you know what you’ve made.
Like all your work, this is a intimate little film, concentrating on character rather than story. Some of the audience members I saw it with seemed to be waiting for something big like a car crash or a discovery of cancer to steer the plot. What is it about everyday, common reality that you find so dramatic?
Well, life is fascinating. People are extraordinary. The only answer I can give you to the question is that it’s obviously interesting, and I’m not the first artist of any kind in the history of the world to find people compelling. To me, life is interesting. Of course, you take it, you heighten it, you distill it. To me, life is there to be captured and dealt with. Sometimes there are catastrophes in my films. [In Vera Drake], the woman is an abortionist and things go wrong and she gets locked up in prison. But it’s about dramatic things happening that are a function of character rather than random external forces which merely bail out the audience from caring. These things don’t just happen to Poppy [in Happy-Go-Lucky]; this is a film about somebody who deals with things. Sure, there are threatening things and dangerous things that happen, but she’s a woman who looks it in the eye and knows how to deal with life and is fulfilled. That’s what it’s about. It’s more about fulfillment than just happiness.
Since you and a number of British filmmakers started making this type of realistic “kitchen sink” drama back in the late ’60s, there’s been a surge in “reality television.” Do you think this has changed the dynamic of what is real, or what people perceive to be real?
No. I think it’s got nothing to do with it. Because I don’t think so-called “reality television” has got anything to do with distilling the essence of our experience, which is what serious dramatic films do. And must do. Reality television is concerned with something completely different. It’s not really reality. It’s a form of entertainment. I don’t know that I can speak for other so-called “realistic” filmmakers, but what I’m concerned with is getting to the essence of what life is about. I don’t think reality television is remotely concerned with that. There’s too much surface. It’s too concerned with transient things, material things.
Regarding your method of preparing a film, how long does it typically take? Does it vary from film to film?
It’s defined by how much we can afford, actually. It’s generally—apart from the time it takes to think about it and cast it—around six months. It was [that long] with this film, it was with the previous few, where we are creating the characters, exploring their relationships, building their world, and really putting into place the premise to go out for, in this case, 13 weeks to make up the film as I go along. That’s what I do, really.
So do you wind up with a lot of footage you can’t use?
No. Not at all. Because what I shoot is very, very thoroughly prepared and rehearsed and organized. Usually, in my films there’s no improvisation on camera at all. There’s a little bit in this film because of [certain scenes] working with the kids in school. But not vast quantities. All the main, proper action is very much structured and scripted. I don’t write a script by going away and putting things on paper. But I work with the actors so that what we shoot is tightly scripted and precise.
Have you run into actors who can’t work this way?
Yeah. Occasionally, but I don’t just grab actors off the street. I’m very thorough about finding actors. And, of course, we are blessed with brilliant actors in the U.K.
Do you think of your films as distinctly British in nature?
There is no question in my mind--and this would seem to be borne out by the results--that they’re actually universal, that they travel. Of course, the territory, the milieu is England, London, however you choose to look at it. But that’s just the texture. I don’t think that the essential subject matter in this film or any of my films is exclusively concerned with English things. It’s to do with people and life and how we live our lives.