Filmmaker Mike Leigh makes funny-sad chronicles of the daily slog set in notoriously class-conscious England. His stars are doughy working- and middle-class Londoners with thrifty wardrobes and a repertoire of verbal and physical tics. They live in cramped flats decorated with tacky curios or in vanilla starter homes of upward mobility. At first these characters seem like caricatures, until you realize it’s the people we’re so used to seeing in movies that are the parodies.
Most American movie characters are fantasies—consistent, predictable, superhumanly self-aware, and blessed with dependably better hair and makeup. Leigh’s ensemble comedies bring into focus the far more fascinating and messy minutia of everyday life, where most of us have little grasp of the big picture and muddle through in our own disorganized way. The drama in Leigh’s films turn on micro shifts in relationships, how parents and kids relate or don’t, how couples grow and don’t. Conversations often go nowhere (as they tend to in life) and characters continually push against or retreat into prescribed roles. Work, sex, food, and family preoccupy because that’s the stuff of most lives.
In ten feature films over almost four decades (and many more for British television), Leigh’s distinct oeuvre has been deservedly showered with prizes but quite modest commercial success. His most widely seen movies (Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake) picked up Oscar nominations; his most controversial, Naked, was infamously pilloried by feminists. His latest, Happy-Go-Lucky (opening October 24 at the Uptown), is a paean to optimism and maybe a sign of a softening of the salty Brit whose 1992 MoMA retrospective was titled "Life Could Be Better."
This month the Walker Art Center is feting Leigh with its own retrospective, highlighted by last night’s Regis Dialogue with the sixty-five-year-old writer/director whose curmudgeonly reputation precedes him. Regis Dialogues are formatted a bit like Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio but handier for revealing outsize egos than James Lipton’s lovefest. LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas successfully wrangled director Milos Forman at April’s Dialogue, but was outmatched this time by a droll, occasionally testy Leigh whose meandering monologues and frequent plugs for his new movie made for a fun but disorderly dissection of his craft.
The evening’s frequently one-sided conversation kicked off with Leigh’s stories of his youth as a theatrical doctor’s son, growing up in a working class neighborhood of Manchester, England. A voracious consumer of American films (the only ones playing), he wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great to sit in a movie and see people acting like people and not like people in movies?”
At seventeen, a scholarship sent him to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he trained as an actor (but rejected the school’s rigid pedagogy). He also sampled for the first time a world cinema that had much more in common with the movies he wanted to make than those he grew up watching. His drive to make relatable narrative films drawn from life seemed square to some of his contemporaries in the 1960s London scene who were watching Warhol’s films just like their counterparts in New York.
Leigh paid his dues working in the theater (onstage and off) throughout the decade until actor Albert Finney, also from Leigh’s hometown of Salford, financed his first feature, Bleak Moments. Released in 1971 to great reviews, the comic study of four awkward, lonely singles previewed some future themes. “One endless preoccupation is the collision of people with a sense of humor and those without a sense of humor,” Leigh offered following a clip of Bleak Moments’ excruciating botched seduction.
The film also showcased his particular talent with actors, who he works with in an unusually collaborative (and as he pointed out several times) misunderstood manner. When Leigh first casts his films, there is no script. “The film doesn’t exist. We’re going to discover the film” is his proposition to his casts, by now a repertory for great character actors (Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, ex-wife Alison Steadman).
Occasionally, Leigh begins with a particular idea he wishes to explore. In Vera Drake it was the notion of a 1950s London housewife who has a secret life as an abortionist, and in Secrets & Lies it was the journey of an adopted woman who seeks out her birth mother. For films like Naked and All Or Nothing, Leigh acknowledged “I just had a sense of the spirit of the thing” going in.
In all cases, he starts by working privately with each actor to build a character from the ground up, work that’s informed by research and the creation of elaborate backstories that will inform the final performances but likely never make it into the movie in any overt way. During the many months of rehearsals that follow, the characters meet for the first time and improvise within situations Leigh devises, often in the lived-in locales from which the films are eventually shot. From all of these improvisations, narrative possibilities unravel and are shaped by Leigh into a final, tightly choreographed shooting script.
Recalling the ten-hour rehearsal for Vera Drake’s climactic scene in which Imelda Staunton’s character is arrested at her daughter’s engagement dinner, Leigh said it “was very traumatic for everyone involved, including me” to be there when the movie’s central concern was revealed. His actors never know anything that their characters aren’t privy to, so Staunton didn’t know her character was going to jail at that moment and the actors playing her family didn’t know of her secret life . . . only Leigh, juggling each of their trajectories in the weeks preceding, waiting for the big reveal.
So how can Leigh’s longtime producer (and Thin Man Films partner) Simon Channing Williams court investors to bankroll pictures made in this way? “I’m the guy with no script. I can’t tell you the story. And I won’t talk about cast,” Leigh told an audience member who asked about the limitations of finding financing for his films.
Adding that Williams is “out there now with a begging bowl” try to drum up money for their next film, he acknowledged that his organic, actor-centered approach has put a definite ceiling on the scale of movies he can make. It’s also given him incredible freedom. I feel lucky, he said, “to have made eighteen films where no one has interfered at any stage.”
Screenings of Mike Leigh’s films continue at the Walker through Oct. 25.