Don't mess with Mike
Mike Leigh knows how to hold a grudge – just ask the Sunday Timesjournalist he publicly lambasted earlier this year. He tells DONALD CLARKE about his new film Another Year, his disappointment at leaving Cannes empty-handed and ‘desperate, middle-aged women’
THE LAST time I saw Mike Leigh he was engaged in a very impressive strop. We were at a press conference in Cannes and Richard Brooks, writing for the Sunday Times, had just delivered the first question. Brooks muttered something about earlier differences between the two men, before going on to say that Another Year, Leigh’s latest film, was one of the director’s very best.
Suddenly waking up to the situation, Leigh shook his hanging jowls and directed a crooked finger at Brooks. “I don’t want to answer any of your questions and you know why,” he said. “On to the next question. I don’t want to answer any questions from you, and you know why.”
Brooks is not the first journalist to receive a telling-off from Leigh. Now 67, ever more reminiscent of Droopy, the cartoon basset, Leigh has long had a reputation for suffering fools with a minimum of gladness. He’s earned the right to his high horse. Over the past 40 years, with films such as Vera Drake, Nakedand Secrets and Lies, he has – the work of Ken Loach noted – developed into the most durably engaging British film-maker of his generation.
On the other hand, given how well- received his pictures have been, one might wonder why he so often seems so grumpy with the press.
“At the risk of seeming obvious, it depends who I’m talking to,” he says. “There has been rather a lot of press recently. But it’s mostly good. The truth is, this is when you find out what kind of film you have made. We’re not Trappist monks. We don’t retire to a monastery after making them.”
So what about that outburst at Cannes, then? “Richard Brooks is a special case. It would be wrong if that was taken as a slight against all journalists. That’s old hat. He got off lightly. I’m not going in to that. I’m really not.” He then proceeds to explain the background in some detail. Alas, without risking the wrath of lawyers, we can’t relay the precise nature of Leigh’s accusations against Brooks, but it is clear that the director knows how to hold a grudge.
Is he still smarting that Another Yearfailed to win a single prize at Cannes? The film was the most positively reviewed at the event and most pundits were astounded when it left La Croisette empty-handed.
“You get to be disappointed because everyone says it’s going to win,” he says. “The weird thing is that you go home after the screening. Then you pack your bags, ready to fly back if you’re called. There’s this bag in the hall with a tux in it, and life ends up like a Fritz Lang film. You watch the clock ticking away and wait for the call. Then it never comes.”
A brief glance at the first publicity image for Another Year will leave you in little doubt that this is a Mike Leigh film. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, Leigh regulars, shelter from the rain in a suburban allotment. Investigate further and you discover that Another Yearalso features such returning members of the stock company as Lesley Manville, Peter Wight, Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis. A desperately moving piece that flits between misery and wry humour, the picture finds Sheen and Broadbent playing a happily married couple who serve as the stable hub around which their wounded, miserable friends desperately flail. Improvised by the company in the director’s familiar style, the new picture could be seen as the quintessential Mike Leigh film.
“I know what people mean when they say that,” he says. “I don’t think of it in those terms. It contains at least one spectacular performance from an actor I’ve never worked with before – David Bradley. When you get to the likes of Lesley Manville, who I’ve worked with nine times, part of the commitment is ‘let’s not repeat ourselves’. You dig deeper to make the piece more rounded and complete.”
As you may gather, despite his occasional huffs and puffs, Leigh is actually pretty engaging company, capable of endearing rages against the world and occasional outbursts of self-deprecating wit. He still, despite a half-century living in London, retains traces of his Salford accent. Leigh, raised as the son of a doctor, always knew he wanted to do something creative. After leaving school, he studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
How come acting didn’t take? “Well, I never wanted to be an actor,” he snorts.
But he must have been quite good to get in to Rada? “I won a scholarship,” he shrugs. “That was one of the great mysteries. I wanted to find out about acting. But I reckoned I wanted to do something like write and direct films. Look, I went there when I was 17. How much do you know about what you want to do at that age?” As Leigh acknowledges, the “1960s” hadn’t really started in 1960.
Still, he revelled in the cultural opportunities that the capital offered. He loved the jazz. He loved the theatre. He also finally got an opportunity to glance at contemporary world cinema. Discussing his early days in the corduroy-attired, Gitanes-wreathed art-house cinemas of north London, Leigh recalls seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
One can hardly imagine a trio of films better suited to help solidify the Mike Leigh template. Godard and Cassavetes offer roughness and improvisation. Reisz points towards the provincial locations.
“That’s right,” he agrees. “I went to film school and began to develop my style through theatre – because it was a cheap way of doing that. I also worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and that helps if you intend to write.”
Leigh finally managed to make his first feature film in 1971. Bleak Moments, a characteristically sombre family drama, won some good reviews, but unfortunately its release coincided with the beginning of the British film industry’s decade-long hibernation. Like contemporaries such as Stephen Frears, he retreated to the BBC.
Classic plays such as Abigail’s Partyand Nuts in Mayfollowed. In retrospect, it looks as if cinema’s loss was television’s gain.
“You’ve perhaps hit the nail on two heads. It did end up being a sort of golden age. Power was devolved to the head of the channel. Each producer could do what he liked. They’d say: ‘Here are the shooting dates, now go away and make a film.’ It’s true that the play only went out once, but remember that you would get figures of five, six or seven million. Abigail’s Party got 16 million viewers. That would never happen now.”
When the industry ground back into action in the 1980s, Leigh returned with pictures such as High Hopes, Naked and Life Is Sweet. His methods had not changed since a decade earlier and they have not altered since. The actors, who are allowed only a few clues as to the film’s concerns, improvise the dialogue over a lengthy, intensive rehearsal process. The results are invariably authentic, wry and touching. But it remains a very exhausting way of working. Has he never been tempted to direct somebody else’s script? It would be an interesting experiment.
“That would just be a waste of time,” he sniffs. “More than anything else, I am a writer. I make things up. Why do that when we can do what we do?” Throughout his career, Leigh has cultivated fecund professional relationships with his actors. In the early years, the most conspicuous was with the indomitable Alison Steadman. Creator of the horrendous Beverly in Abigail’s Party, the Liverpudlian actor was also married to Leigh for nearly 30 years. Though they divorced in 2001, they remain pals.
“Well, we’re knocking on a bit at this age. I think you do stay that way at our age.” Though male actors such as Jim Broadbent and Phil Davis reappear in Leigh’s films, it is the female characters who tend to dominate the action.
Another Yearfinds Lesley Manville playing Mary, a terminally dysfunctional woman who has a fatal habit of offending those who love her most. Alternately overbearing and hopelessly crushed, the character is, as the director acknowledges, a familiar figure from Leighland.
“They are all made-up characters, but they draw from sources in my past,” he ponders. “They resonate. There is certainly a line in my films – not consciously done, but there – where but you can trace desperate, lonely, neurotic, middle-aged women. Mary is certainly the latest in that line.”
Mike Leigh makes it easy for biographers to piece together the building blocks of his singular method. He remembers endless “aunties and spinsters” from Salford who later found echoes in characters created by Steadman, Sheen, Manville and Brenda Blethyn. Later, glimpses of Cassavetes and Godard helped him conceive loose structures within which to place his characters. The joy is that such odd, occasionally troubling films have, despite economic dips and troughs, continued to receive financing and make their way into cinemas. Mike Leigh films come along about as often as James Bond films, but they do a better job of maintaining quality.
Realistic, if not overly modest, Leigh can’t quite feign surprise at his durability. “If I may say so, I am not surprised that the films travel well overseas,” he says. “These films are not about London. They are not about England. They are about the human condition. That is proved by the fact that they have always travelled well.”
At which point, there is a knock on the hotel-room door. “We’ll be another few minutes!” he snaps tartly at the creaking hinge. Ah! There’s the slightly grumpy Mike we love.
Same old faces Directors and their pets
Few directors have been quite so loyal to their stock company as has Mike Leigh. Another Year sees Lesley Manville making her ninth appearance in a Leigh project. Jim Broadbent and Phil Davis have also clocked up repeated appearances.
It’s a powerful approach. Directors who repeatedly hire the same actors create a family feeling that can bind together an oeuvre.
Think of John Wayne, Ward Bond, Harry Carey and Victor McLaglen striding through the westerns of John Ford (right, with Wayne). Think of Ingmar Bergman. The true landscape of that director’s films are the haggard faces of such actors as Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. Robert Altman returned again and again to Shelley Duvall, Rene Auberjonois, John Schuck and Keith Carradine.
Seeing such faces again and again, the viewer begins to believe that the director has created a vivid alternative universe. Altmanland is full of interweaving stories. The Ford Territories are peopled by men’s men. Bergman’s island sags beneath neuroses made flesh.