Organic Collaborations and the Discipline of Creative Artists: Conversation with Legendary Filmmaker Mike Leigh

Through the past five decades, legendary writer-director Mike Leigh, has developed an unparalleled body of work. He is one of the most daring, talented and beloved filmmakers in contemporary British cinema, renowned for his humanistic, innovative and exploratory work on the silver screen, television and on stage.

He talks to Dora Endre about his experience in acting school in the ‘60s, his craft where collaboration with cast and crew is essential and he remembers one of his earliest influences, the late, great Peter Brook. He explores in detail his audition process, his way of developing the narrative of his movies through a lengthy rehearsal period and how improvisation becomes the core of constructing scenes and characters in his stories. He reveals how he approaches work without a conventional script, what he thinks of modern methods of filmmaking, streamers, self-tape auditions and Woke Culture. He also discusses the matter of compromising, artistic discipline and the joy of exploring. He reflects on a number of his movies and experience while making those, from his feature film debut through his highly acclaimed, virtuoso movies such as Naked or Mr. Turner.

DE: I know you studied different disciplines in the field before going into directing. Did you always have the intention to eventually pursue directing?

ML: Yes, I did. I mean, I grew up watching movies, watching theatre, watching circus and pantomime. I watched shows in the youth movement and did plays at school. All without putting a label on it. I was just making things up. I grew up in Manchester in the ’40. I watched old fashioned movies all the time but never a movie that wasn’t in English until I turned 17. I failed out of my academic journey. I bailed out early at school, and much to the horror of my parents I applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Amazingly, I got a scholarship and went. I discovered world cinema in London. That was so inspirational to me, similarly to seeing The Tempest directed by Peter Brook.

DE: Oh, yes. The enormous Peter Brook passed away over the weekend (note: July 2nd). How did his daring productions influence you as a college student in London?

ML: His concept of what happens if you clear away all the clutter, actors and directors creating what Brook called “an empty space” was highly inspirational to me. The Tempest, King Lear, Marat/Sade were all going on at the time. I later got to know him and he was very supportive of my work. He died at the age of 97…

DE: 97 is very impressive.

ML: Impressive, indeed.

DE: Going back to my original question about taking different courses and learning a number of disciplines. What other career path do you think you could have taken?

ML: To be honest with you, I do not have an answer for that.  I mean, I can draw quite well. And if I am going to be honest, only because you asked me that question; well, I could have been a cartoonist.  But then again, I love working with other people and collaborating.

DE: How was the lockdown for you? With not much human contact or creative collaboration.

ML: People said to me, what have you been doing during the lockdown? Have you written a script? And the answer is no. I have skills of a very precise nature, I believe in organic collaboration with actors, costume designers, make-up artists, everyone.

DE: How about leading people? Does it come to you naturally as well, similarly to directing?

MK: Well, that’s the important thing. People write novels and paintings and make sculptures all alone. The ironic thing about this question is that the leader in this country has just resigned. (note: the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson) The man does not have proper leadership skills and you have to have those. That’s to do with sharing with others, listening, taking and giving.

DE: For sure. You create characters, relations and the plot through months of rehearsals and collaborative exploration with both cast and crew. And in production, you only have a skeleton script, and not a traditional shooting script. You had less than 25 pages for Naked (1993), which sounds insane. Have you ever thought about writing more of a conventional script?

MK: I think the disease of movies, at least in Hollywood and Hollywood has a massive effect on everyone, is that it is all about the script. The thing on paper. And in fact, people make movies theoretically, on paper, before anybody has gone out and shot anything. Now, to me filmmaking is about this journey we go on. We have long periods of preparation, we create the premise of the film, the characters and we make the movie up as we go along, all in a very disciplined and distilled way. What we arrive at is integral and organic. It is not the interpretation of words on a piece of paper. So writing a script does not come into it at all because what I do is I make films and from time to time, I make plays in the exact same way.

DE: It is a whole different process of having a filmmaker spending six months in a room coming up with a pre-planned vision, which tends to be more rigid than not. While you seem to be more of an observer who enjoys standing still, learning and discovering characters, places, their stories. You are an orchestrator and a dramatist yet you do not tell your audiences what to look at, what to think about, who to identify with.

MK: Exactly. However, I am not saying that writing very good scripts and interpreting them does not work. Thousands of people do that and did that in the past. But what I do is what I do.

DE: While working with actors how do you come up with the specific physicality for your eccentric characters?

ML: Well, it is easy, because we create characters in a completely three dimensional way. Work always starts by the actors, basing their parts on real people that they met in real life. So I sit down with the actors and get them to talk about lots and lots of people. And eventually, I choose somebody for them. They start moving around, we add things and ideas, and spend much time on the characterization. We add language and yes, much of the behaviour as we go along.

Once, I was working with an actress and I had to move the characterization on a bit. So I said to her, “Okay, just imagine that the character has been up all night, she has not slept at all”. She went into character, moved around and at the end, we called that fatigue and exhaustion her running condition. The character ended up being like that, in all situations.

DE: Those rehearsals must be exciting.

ML: And I must add, I don’t work with actors who play themselves, I work with character actors who play other people. That is important.

DE: How about your first feature, Bleak Moments (1971)? Lots of characters with interesting physicality, ticks there as well. They have such bad posture, almost as if they were shrinking, trying to disappear. How did that movie come around?

ML: Have you seen it?

DE: Yes. I saw it the other night. I must say, sometimes I watch too many films in a very short period of time. I think, at one point, I had an overdose of your movies.

ML: But luckily, you survived. (Laughs) Bleak Moments was actually a play. We made a play off of experimental theatre – fringe theatre. And we decided that it would be the basis of the film. But it is not really a film of the play. It is the five core characters and their world expanded and turned into a film.

DE: And how about the songs in the movie? I really liked them.

ML: None of them are famous songs. The actor who plays them on his guitar in the movie, Mike Bradwell who became a prominent theatre director, wrote some of them. In the play, there were a couple of Bob Dylan songs. But we could not use them in the movie, it would have cost us way more money than what we had.

DE: Yes, we just talked about the fact that you do not work with full length scripts, in the traditional sense. How do you gain the trust of your actors without a script? Normally, that is what attracts actors to jump on board the first place.

ML: Most of the time, actors agree to take part because of the nature of our work, because of the process. And the deal is, they will never know anything about what is going on except what their characters know. This leads to all kinds of extraordinary discoveries, we explore truthful characters and relationships. What happens is that we rehearse for months. Without a crew, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, location by location, we improvise, build, rehearse, fix things and then we go into the shoot. We are making it all up as we go along.

DE: That is so exciting. In 1997, Steve Persall, film critic of Tampa Bay Times, wrote the following about you and your work on Career Girls: “an unwavering filmmaker working on nobody’s terms except his own”. So, how much do you tend to compromise? For instance, with producers.

ML: Suppose you have a wall and you want to have a mural on the wall. So you hire an artist and say: Okay, that’s the wall. That’s the size of the wall. That’s the budget. That’s where it is, and we’ll see it from this distance, this direction but otherwise you can do whatever you like. Now, the artist will do whatever he or she likes, but what he or she cannot do is change the size of the wall. Change the deadline for when it has to be delivered, or change the budget available for paint. In other words, in that sense, he or she is already compromising. But it is not really compromising, it is discipline. It is the discipline of the creative artist. There are situations where there have been compromises, but it is not mostly about that. It is about cutting your cloth according to its length, and being imaginative within the parameters of what is feasible. I mean, Mr. Turner (2014), my film about the great painter, which I know you’ve seen…

DE: …actually, that’s the first movie I have seen from you, back in the day.

ML: Well, a good story about compromising. William Turner famously went to Venice a lot. Capturing Venice was a central part of his work as a painter. There is no question about it. In Venice, you only have to walk across San Marco to have a coffee at Caffe Florian. And you have spent half the money you earn in the world. It’s the most expensive place there is. Not only that, but we are talking about Venice. And the early 19th century. We are not going to shoot in a tiny corner of a canal. We want to capture the city. We want to make it look authentic and capture the light. I remember sitting down with my producers and realising we were not going to get anywhere near Venice with the money we had. We’re just not and that is all there is to it. So we made a film about Turner and you do not see Venice at all. The point is, there are compromises but the real job is to make the story work.

Mike Leigh

DE: Fair enough. How about making movies and getting projects funded in the ‘80s with complex female protagonists? Centering many of your stories on women made things more difficult for you because of the tendencies and representational issues in the industry?

ML: I make movies about men and women. And I have made a lot of films about women, partly because I think there should be more films about women. I collaborate with very talented, intelligent and committed actresses. I mean, one of the things about all actors I work with, irrespective of what the character is, is I only really work with intelligent actors who have got a sense of humour. Going back to your earlier line of inquiry. I couldn’t sit in a room in this room and write the scripts that I wrote with those women characters and arrive at those characters because that exactly illustrates the whole point of my way of collaborating. But one specific footnote to that: one thing about Naked. When that movie came out people said “Oh, it is misogynistic”. The main character is a misogynist. Now, obviously it is true for the landlord’s character. The point is that people say, “Well, what about those sex scenes with violence and the rest of it?”. The fact of the matter is, we couldn’t have done those if any of the actresses were uncomfortable with them and did not think those scenes were organic and truthful. We would not have done any of it then. I think that is important to say in the context of your question.

DE: Definitely. The landlord’s character, Jeremy,  made me think of the male protagonist in Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). The hero in Fifty Shades is almost like your antagonist in Naked; brutally violent, narcissistic, somewhat of a psychopath. They both rape women…It is interesting how times have changes, isn’t it? These days, Jeremy could be a hero.

ML: Absolutely…

Mike Leigh

DE: How about opening shots? How do you decide where your organically building, freely fluctuating story begins, and what shot suits that beginning the most?

ML: That is a difficult question. I mean, how does a novelist know where their story begins? Probably, it is an instinct for storytelling. Sometimes I like to start with a character that you think is going to be the protagonist but turns out not to be. For instance, Another Year (2010) starts with Imelda Staunton in a big close-up. So you think this film is about this woman. In fact, within a few seconds she disappears and you never see her again. So I quite like doing that. But it is not so much a box of tricks or a game. It is more about setting up a dynamic as early as possible. In retrospect, I think Bleak Moments has a pretty weak start. It is not a very dynamic start. I have done better. Of course, the opening of Naked is the most famous one.

DE: I love the opening of Bleak Moments…

ML: Okay, good. Well, that is all right then. (Laughs)

DE: It is really good. I love those static shots where the environment is changing or characters are moving, but what’s happening is not so up in your face. Meaning it is not a superficial way of telling me what it is there to see. For instance, in Grown-Ups (1980) as the couple is outside, doing their everyday things and we are allowed to observe. That is why I like the opening of Bleak Moments. To me it is about storytelling. It is about saying, “Okay, here is this, you can choose what you are interested in”. It gives viewers space. They can explore.

ML: How about Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)? Would you like to talk about it? What do you think about that?

DE: I think it is a great, not so romantic, comedy. It is quirky and non-traditional. I remember watching it while having a bad day. During the first scene in the bookstore, I wished I could have punched the main character, Poppy. She was so up in everyone’s face. I slowly grew fond of her throughout the movie though.

ML: I think that goes back to your question about beginnings. In those first moments, you feel like that about her and later realise that she is a serious, committed, intelligent, responsible person and above all, she cares.

DE: Absolutely. I also like the fact that Johnny in Naked and Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky are both idealists, just in a very different way.

ML: I think that’s right. The difference is, of course, that she’s positive and deals with things. And he turned incredibly negative. I always saw Johnny as a victim of the educational system. He was probably sent out of the room by his teachers, was abused and discouraged from going to college.

DE: But in Poppy’s case, her wholesome positivity is also a coping mechanism, a way of trying to survive, right?

ML: Definitely.

DE: During your audition process, you meet actors, spend time together, talk extensively, and bond in a way. So I wanted to ask about your take on Zoom auditions and self-tapes?

ML: Well, I know a lot of actors and I live with an actress. So I’m very aware of self-tapes and online auditions. I think the whole thing is disgusting. I believe it encourages a form of laziness. As far as I am concerned, I have to meet actors. We meet, we see if we could work together. We have plenty of time and space, we care about the process and not have any pressure on. To me, even if the audition takes place in person, interrogating massive groups of people or these days, checking self-tapes after self-tapes is only an industrial way of dealing with the process. It is not for me, but I can see why it makes the wheels turn, especially today, when it is all about having products ready for streamers.

DE: Yes, to me self-tapes are painfully one-sided and impersonal. I think it tends to boil down to what is the easiest, most comfortable way for actors and filmmakers. As you have mentioned, it is rooted in a form of laziness. I believe it also has a lot to do with budgets, this way, you do not have to rent a studio to audition people. Or many times, actors are late yet the clock is ticking, you are wasting money if it is in person.

ML: Yes, I can see why those things play a big part. The problem is I am an old fashioned, 20th century person.

DE: I understand. My problem is that I’m an old fashioned 27 year old. (Laughs) How about humour, jokes and situational comedy? I think both dry wit and subtle humour are prominent tools in your toolbox as a filmmaker.

ML: What you see in my films is a combination of stuff that came out of improvisations. We write jokes, conversations down through rehearsal. A good idea comes up, we write it down. Sometimes a joke or a funny situation comes out of a character rather spontaneously. And there are actual gags, or cinematic juxtapositions that have humour to them. Mostly, humour is the result of collaboration with production designers, costume designers, actors and with the cinematographer.

DE: I wanted to bring humour and jokes up because of the current domination of PC culture. I love your dark sense of humour but there are lots of people out there who are rather sensitive when it comes to comedy these days. Do you take Woke culture into consideration when it comes to what to include in your films and what not to?

ML: Well, it is an interesting thing. I haven’t made a film for the past five years. After Peterloo, we could not find the money and then there was COVID. So in the past I haven’t had to worry about these things. The whole thing about what you are allowed or not allowed to say is mushrooms. I do not think I’m going to take any notice of it, really. If you don’t like something, you don’t like it. Just get on with it.

DE: I agree. Also, what is wrong with “babies drinking beer”? As a song in Bleak Moments goes.

ML: Oh, what is the line? “Run and fetch a pitcher…”

DE: “…Get the baby some beer”. I mean, people have to know that there’s irony and jokes. We should not take everything so seriously.

ML: Absolutely, absolutely.

DE: Talking about your early movies. Was Meantime (1983) Gary Oldman’s screen debut?

ML: Yes, I think it is his first film.

DE: How did he get on board?

ML: I saw lots of young actors for different parts in that film. He was one of them. You could not tell he was or his co-star Tim Roth was going to be such international movie stars.

DE: That’s what you call good casting, I guess. (Laughs) How about Gary’s scene in the concrete wheel? That is insane. How did you come up with it?

ML: Now, that is very interesting in context of some of your earlier questions. There were guys doing some building work close to one of our locations. That wheel was just laying on its side. I saw it and said to Gary, “I’ll tell you what, get in there and go mad.” He said, “Alright, I’ll try it.” That is the last time we see his character, he is completely flipped and gone off the edge. And so Gary went in there and we said, “Okay, we also got this metal bar. Use it.” So this came out of an idea on set and improvisation. This is why spending time on location, making things up together, and responding to the environment are important. I could not sit in a room and write a conventional script. Never in a million years would this random idea occur to me.

DE: What can you tell us about your new movie?

ML: I mean, we’ve just decided this morning, coincidentally, to make a film with a very low budget. We have been unsuccessful with getting proper backing.

DE: When I first heard you couldn’t get the support, I was shell-shocked.

ML: Oh, no, it’s a fact. It is because I’ve got no script. This is the great age of Netflix. Everyone wants to know what the film is about. I felt frustrated. It was frustrating that after all my achievements, we could not get the money. But anyway, the point is that with my producer we are going for it. It is not going to be on the scale of my last movie (note: historical drama, Peterloo from 2018). Our budget is around what we had for Career Girls. Going back to one of our earlier topics, it is not about compromising. It is all about artistic discipline. Painting within the limitations of the canvas we have.