'That's a Fairly Silly Question': An Interview with Mike Leigh

The acclaimed (and playfully salty) filmmaker on the evolution of style, shooting in digital, and the limits and joys of making period pieces.

Timothy Spall, left, as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner, the new film from Mike Leigh, right.

I’d been warned about Mike Leigh. A difficult fellow, colleagues cautioned—prone to impatience, suffers no fools, not to be approached ill-prepared. As a longtime admirer of the British director’s small-scale epics of improvisatory social realism, I couldn’t imagine it being as bad as all that: I’d sail into the press room, I thought, and dazzle the man with a few perceptive insights and serious questions.

It took about 30 seconds for Leigh to dash my expectations. But what I quickly discovered was that his difficulty had nothing to do with mood or temper. Mike Leigh is tough, but he’s no crank: he merely demands you punch at his weight. Leigh has been making films for more than 40 years, and has no doubt endured everything an interviewer can hurl at him—every well-trodden sentiment, every critical cliché. At 71, he isn’t bothered to indulge a lazy press. It’s hard to blame him.

What follows is, I think, one of the more fascinating interviews I’ve conducted, even if in the moment it seemed among the most trying. I should say that Leigh’s occasional rebuffs were delivered with warmth and a kindly smile, and that, being both old and British, his wit leans so far toward dry that it may be mistaken on the page for an irritability that isn’t there in person. This is a useful point to consider if you’ve seen his latest film, Mr. Turner—a biopic on the life and death of the illustrious J.M.W., a beloved painter and, as the film makes clear, a notorious curmudgeon. As Turner, Timothy Spall is if nothing else an irascible, querulous chap, huffing and grunting extravagantly; he, too, is difficult—but he is very much the ultimate crank. Leigh wouldn’t want you to get the two confused.

This interview was conducted after the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Mr. Turner opened theatrically in Toronto on Christmas Day.

Calum Marsh: This is the first film you’ve shot digitally.

Mike Leigh: My first full-length film, yeah. We made a short the previous year called A Running Jump—a comedy which we made for the Olympics in London. We really thought we’d shoot it just to see how it went, because we were planning Mr. Turner. But yes, this is it. And I think it’s worked, really.

It’s interesting to see your style applied to a digital aesthetic. I was wondering if, given the film’s focus on visual art, you’d considered which format would best serve the paintings?

Well, no, actually. We considered film versus digital only insofar as we would have considered it for any project. Time has moved on. Laboratories are closing down. This is particularly true of lower-budget films like this one—and it’s got a much lower budget than it should—so we had to look at the reality. But having said that, really, by the time it got to when we made this film last year, the digital technology has really advanced, and you can do fantastic things with it. We shot this on an Arriflex Alexa camera, which is a great camera because they’ve built it so you can use it like the 35mm camera you’re used to, and I as a director can look through the viewfinder and direct the shots as normal. And what you can do with the stuff, in terms of colour, and palette, and tone, and all those things, is fantastic. Once having made that decision, and that leap, we just got on with it, really, and embraced the medium. We are living in the 21st century now. When I say we, I mean Dick Pope, my cinematographer, who I’ve worked with for 25 years. We are, of course, old-fashioned celluloid men. We’ve been making films on celluloid for a shitload of time, you know. So it is a leap for us, especially as there is a movement now to hang on to film—which, you know, we’re up for that, but it isn’t the only way, we finally concede.

It’s interesting that your first digital feature is a period film—a contemporary mode adopted for classical use.

You know what, I think by now that’s a pretty academic equation, really. The medium, and its potential, and its possibilities, are such that I don’t think it makes a heck of a difference what’s happening in front of the camera. You can use it for anything, really, I would say.

Did it affect your approach to actors and improvisation?

No. No, no, no. It’s a good question. I mean obviously, technically I could have, if I wanted to, I could have 57-minute takes and things, but I don’t think like that, because that’s not how I’ve learnt film. I think and shoot in what, in the end, in principle, I suppose, is the classical way. Disciplined shots, you know. So not really, no—not at all, actually.

Many directors shoot their improvisations now.

Well that’s nothing to do with the digital. I could have shot improvisations and I have shot improvisations in the past, with an old-fashioned celluloid camera. It’s nothing to do with digital. I don’t shoot improvisation, because all my work comes out of improvisation, and I then rehearse it and fix it, and occasionally, and this applies in all the films I’ve made, occasionally, you can allow—as other filmmakers do, and have, some more famously than others, like Robert Altman—moments of improvisation. But that’s got nothing to do with whether we should do it on a digital camera or on a sewing machine.

This is, I believe, only the third time you’ve centred a film almost exclusively around one character, Naked being the most prominent example. What are the challenges for you in building a story around one person instead of an ensemble?

Well, as you say, Naked was such a film, and so, in a way, was Happy-Go-Lucky. I still would suggest that despite that that is true of Mr. Turner, it is also an ensemble film. You have very in-depth and detailed relationships of one kind or another with Turner. You know what? This is again sort of academic because for me, it’s about looking at the world, whether it’s the contemporary world or the world in another period, such as this one, looking at people as people, in a three-dimensional way, in their environment, in their context, and you may decide to look just at this person, more than everybody else, or you may decide to look at that collection of people. But it’s all the same thing, really. It just depends what the particular reason for the focus is, if you see what I mean. I would be horrified if you were to say to me now, and I’m sure you’re not going to, but if you were to say, “ah, yes, but in this film, only Mr. Turner is a three-dimensional character and the rest are just cardboard cut-outs,” then I would think, well, that we’ve failed completely. I hope that even the most minor characters are realized in just as three-dimensional a way as Turner is. But I think you see what I’m saying.

I thought of Naked and Happy-Go-Lucky while I was watching the film. What strikes me as different is that in Naked, you’ve got Johnny as the focus, but Sebastian as sort of the counterweight. It’s not that he’s better realized than a normal background character, but that his presence…

Informs Johnny.

Precisely, and in Happy-Go-Lucky, likewise, Scott informs Poppy. But Mr. Turner has no such counterweight.

Well, the bottom line is quite straightforward. This is a biographical film about a famous painter, full stop. That’s what it’s about. I haven’t made him up. We’ve dramatized what apparently there was, you know. I did offer the part of Constable to an actor, who dithered a bit, but then finally turned it down, and said to me—because there’s no script, as you know—“is this going to be a film about Turner and Constable?” And I said, “no,” not least because—apart from the fact that I’m not as interested in Constable as I am in Turner—but mainly because actually, in actual terms, they didn’t have a great deal to do with each other. I mean they knew each other around, but there isn’t a dramatic story in it. So theoretically, one could’ve made a film of that—one could’ve constructed, or contrived into existence, a movie about Turner and Constable, or indeed Turner’s relationship with Ruskin, which we deal with in a humorous way, but you know. But that’s not what it’s about! It’s about this journey over the back end of the stretch of this guy’s life, and therefore by definition, or even you might say by default, it becomes what you’re describing.

The material demands the form.

Yes. But in a way, it’s sort of neither here nor there that other films have been different, because I hope each film I do is different from the other films, and each one has got its own requirements. I mean, it’s interesting, if you go back to my last film, Another Year, is that a film about this couple, who have got a son, or is it a film about this woman who is reaching a point when she’s losing her youth? Then, of course, what I’m doing is throwing the focus in different directions and crossing them over. But it’s a different proposition from Mr. Turner. What we’re saying in Mr. Turner, which is something quite different, I think, from what I’ve done before, is we’re saying, “look at this quarter of a century in which change took place.”That’s a whole different ballgame from what happened in three weekends in this suburban house. Does that make sense? It’s horses for courses. Therefore, I think, interesting though the comparisons that you’re inviting us to talk about in this conversation may be, they finally are, I would say—“well, so what?” That’s that film, and this is this film.

It’s my habit as a critic, forcing comparisons. I guess the obvious question is, then, why Turner?

Well, for one, I think he’s great. He’s a great painter, and he’s very exciting. When he really does the extraordinary things he does, boy does he do them! It’s a turn-on, is that! He’s obviously the greatest English or British painter. I’m saying British possibly in the last fortnight while such a concept exists! It may cease to be part of our vocabulary very shortly! I actually think he’s one of the great painters, full stop, in the world canon. He was obviously a radical—he obviously anticipated impressionism, and modern 20th century, all that stuff. For me, once I started looking into it, and him, and stuff, I became very clear, for my own purposes, that the tension between this epic, sublime, profound stuff that he created, and this eccentric, conflicted, grubby, driven guy, was fascinating. It was an extraordinary thing! It just seemed a very good idea for a film, basically.

The thing that I think is really fascinating, apart from Turner, is the cultural moment of photography’s introduction into the culture, and how that affects painting: suddenly realism is obsolete. Was that a central component of the film from the beginning?

It comes with the territory. It’s part and parcel of what’s interesting about it. We do go from the Georgian period to the Victorian period in that quarter of a century, and it was a huge leap. You know, you see him watching a train, and you see all that. You see that great sail ship, the Temeraire, as in his painting, being towed to be broken up, but it’s being towed by a modern, very modern technology—a steam tug driven by coal! Also, it is something that fascinates me anyway—you get it in Topsy-Turvy: there are telephones, and fountain pens, and stuff, you know, electric light. The fascinating thing about Turner and photography is—obviously in the film he sort of clocks, and states, “this will affect painting”—but of course, the interesting thing is, which is not necessarily clear in the film, but it’s certainly historically the case: before he’d ever discovered photography, he’d already done it! He already was painting, and anticipating the changes off his own back. It wasn’t the coming of photography that affected him, in any way. In fact, it was right at the end of his life that he discovered it. He had already begun to be far more abstract, and less directly figurative.

A lot of so-called period movies fail because executives say, “well, we must modify the language so that people will understand. Women shouldn’t wear corsets, and anyway it’s sexier if they look more modern.” So the result is it’s no-man’s land. You don’t believe that it’s got a period feel to it, and it certainly doesn’t feel contemporary, because it’s not trying to. So it’s kind of neither fish nor fowl—it’s all bollocks, really.

I’m going to ask you a question you’re not going to like.

Go on then.

Do you see yourself in Turner in some respects?

No. That’s a fairly silly question.

You see?

No, no, it’s fine. But I don’t really know what it’s about. Obviously, he’s an artist, and I and others involved were artists, in some shape or form. You know, I’ve known painters—I went to art school—I’ve known painters, as probably all of us have, and creative people, and bohemians, and eccentrics, and all the rest of it. So I understand, and sympathize, and empathize with what I understand to be Turner, or the character we created, or something. But it’s really not an issue. Apart from anything else, I’ve got two very fine sons, and I’ve never, ever denied their existence! I’ve never spent a moment thinking about it in an autobiographical way and I don’t see it like that. It’s irrelevant, really.

I was thinking less biographically and more in terms of how Turner was received critically. Perhaps you feel misunderstood.

Of course I have had critics and others misunderstanding, certainly, what I’ve done, but to be honest, it never occurred to me when making the film. I never drew those parallels. I don’t think I thought about that much, really. Not really, frankly. It’s neither here nor there, really.

As a biographical film it’s very unconventional. What was your approach to adapting a man’s life to the screen?

First of all, what was for sure, is that I wasn’t gonna start at the beginning. You see, you’re familiar with my films, clearly. Another Year took place over a year, Topsy-Turvy was again about a year, but most of them happen in a few days, or a week, or something. So here we are, spanning 26 years, you know. I was not turned on by the idea of the film starting with a baby being born in ‘75. Apart from anything else, we’d have had to find a small fat boy who looked like Tim Spall, who could draw and paint. I find that very boring, really. You don’t need to go through all that thing of having a younger actor and then changing to an older actor. I can’t be bothered with all that, and it’s not necessary, because the thing is to drop anchor. We’ve managed, I think, to put in backstory information laid into what you see without it being crass and crude, you know. Apart from anything else, it’s just to allow Tim Spall, within his acting range, to go through that phase. I think it’s more interesting to come in when it’s all happening, and then to move on from there. Anyway, all the interesting things that I wanted to deal with were from his father’s death, his relationship with Mrs. Booth, certain famous events, like the famous event that did actually happen, in the Royal Academy, where he puts a red blob on a painting; all that actually happened. And other things, and also that period, most importantly, where he was being more radical, and people were reviling him, not least amongst whom Queen Victoria, who loathed his stuff! There are no Turners in the royal collection to this day in London.

Was there ever a question of not ending with his death, or was that a must from the beginning?

Hmm, I don’t know. There were various possible things that could’ve happened. Ruskin, apparently, was an executor, and is thought by many people to have burnt what he saw as Turner’s pornographic… but actually, his erotic drawings, some survive. But that didn’t seem to me to be in the spirit of what the film is essentially about, really. Once I’d distilled down what I needed—I do make these films by developing them as we go, and making decisions. Death certainly seemed inevitable.

As it is for us all.

Indeed, yes.

So why begin exactly where you begin? Was there a particular reason you needed to start there, in that period?

Well, I needed to start with him in middle age; his father is still around. That’s when he met Mary Somerville, the scientist. It was dictated partly by the general principles of doing the back end of his life, and by certain events that all happened conveniently within that period.

Let me ask you about your periods, so to speak. Is there a difference between your work today and the work you’ve done in the past?

Well if this is a question about style, I don’t know that I think there’s any fundamental difference. Hmm. Do you think there’s any difference?

I do.

Can you talk about it?

I feel it’s not unlike the difference you see in a lot of artists over the course 20 or 30 years.

And what is that difference?

I suppose you could call it a maturation, but you might also say there’s been a mellowing of sorts. I don’t see the volatility that animates a film like Naked or Life is Sweet in Mr. Turner.

Yes, well that may be true. I wouldn’t have thought that, but then maybe I’m too subjective—I don’t know. Again, it’s a question of horses for courses: I think Naked, very deliberately, does a certain number of things, stylistically, which are absolutely germane to what it is, and what it’s about. But if you’re simply saying that you perceive an improvement or a maturity or a mellowing of some kind, then that’s fine. Have you ever seen Bleak Moments, my first film? There’s no question that, stylistically, Bleak Moments has all the hallmarks of a Mike Leigh film, but it’s pretty crude, I guess in many ways, compared with more recent films. But I was 28 when I made Bleak Moments, and I’m 71 now. So there you go, really! That’s all I can say.

Could you make Naked today?

Yes. There’ll always be a difference in terms of mindset, but if you mean the up-to-date equivalent of Naked, certainly—no reason why not.

This is your third period film. How does your approach to creating characters through improvisation change in the context of a period film?

Basically it doesn’t. The difference is, really, that you do a lot of research and that informs the decisions you make. With a contemporary film, there’s a whole bundle of stuff we all know instinctively because we’re there, and with a period film you research stuff that fills in that ignorance, that compensates for it. But in the end, since the principle of doing a period film—and I’ve made three: Topsy-TurvyVera Drake, and this one—is to put on the screen a period that feels as real as if you were there, just like you’re watching one of my contemporary films. Like if you’d got into a time machine, and gone back, and you’re actually there, and it’s real. In principle, we’re doing the same things. It may be a period costume, but it’s a costume, and in a contemporary film it’s still a costume, and it has to be done with the same consideration. If it’s a period where women wear corsets, then the actresses have spent a bloody long time getting used to wearing those corsets before they do it. If the language is different, then we really get down to all kinds of ways of getting our heads round the language, over and above merely scripting dialogue.

Like for example in Topsy-Turvy, we actually had etiquette workshops, because how people behaved in the later Victorian period, in middle-class society, was informed by very strict codes of etiquette. If you were gonna have people improvising, you couldn’t just take that for granted, it had to be done rigorously. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So in a way, it’s doing exactly the same thing. Then, obviously there are things that you can’t do. In a contemporary film you can leap out into the street with a camera, and walk down the street with the traffic and the people, and you can’t do that in a period film—you’ve gotta make it all happen artificially, and that’s a whole different ballgame. It’s a dangerous one, because you’ve got to be careful that that construct doesn’t look like what it is, which is fake, as in an old-fashioned studio movie. But in the end, the principle is the same, to say these are real people, three-dimensional people, living and breathing and living in the moment, and interacting in the moment, using things, and being in places, and having emotions, and doing all that.

Do you consider the requirements of period authenticity an impediment to the naturalism you want in performance?

No—no, no, no. It’s a gas. It’s great. No, behind that is a kind of philosophy about these things, which is that I think a lot of so-called period movies fail because executives, or whoever it is, say, “well, we must modify the language so that people will understand, otherwise it’ll alienate people and they won’t know what’s going on. Women shouldn’t wear corsets, and anyway it’s sexier if they look more modern,” and all that stuff. So the result is it’s no-man’s land. You don’t really believe that it’s got a period feel to it, and it certainly doesn’t feel contemporary, because it’s not trying to. So it’s kind of neither fish nor fowl—it’s all bollocks, really. Far from being an impediment, it’s part of the gas of doing it. Research always plays a massive part in what we do in any of these films. Finding out about life, and things, and people, and what people do, and think, and know about, and eat, and whatever it is.

How do you regard your work in retrospect?

I have to admit that I have never made a film I don’t like, not really. I mean some are better than others, but I haven’t made one that I actually don’t like.

Is there one film, or one achievement, of which you’re particularly proud?

Well, there are some that I find remarkable. There are some moments in some of my films where I basically look at and think, “how the fuck did we manage to do that?” A lot of Mr. Turner comes under that category, actually. I’m very fond of... well, have you ever seen my film Meantime? Well, I’ve got quite a soft spot for that. There’s a scene in Topsy-Turvy where they bring the Japanese people to the rehearsal—you remember that scene. The thing about that is that I created it and it was shot at great speed, because they were gonna throw us out of the theatre. We hadn’t done it, and that was it: we’d been there for five weeks and we had to go. When I look at it, I have no recollection of how—it just happened. But actually, there’s something about the scene, and the kind of simplicity of how it’s shot, which is to do with the fact that it was rushed. But it doesn’t look—I mean, it’s fine, and it’s a good scene. The adventure of filmmaking, the journey, is such a kind of complex one.