Mike Leigh: ‘I’m not a jobbing director. I’ve only ever done my own thing’

The acclaimed British director’s first feature film, Bleak Moments, is 50 years old

He started as he meant to go on.   Made in 1971, and cobbled together with unused film rolls from If . . ., Bleak Moments was Mike Leigh’s first feature film. The late Roger Ebert greeted the film with considerable enthusiasm. “I’ve never heard of Mike Leigh or his actors before. I don’t know where they came from, or what pools of human experience they were able to draw from,” wrote the critic in 1972. “But if [the Chicago Film Festival] had given us only Bleak Moments, it would have sufficiently exercised its mission.”

Fifty years on and the film has been remastered as part of a complete Leigh retrospective at the British Film Institute. A 4K version of Naked recently premiered at the LFF; Bríd Brennan will soon appear with Leigh to discuss Four Days in July, a 1984 drama concerning the lives of two couples on either side of Northern Ireland’s religious divide. Leigh – who has never bothered with the blandishments of Hollywood – describes it as the most exotic project of his career, taking place, as it does, “in a very foreign country called Northern Ireland”.

One might reasonably expect the details of Leigh’s many films, plays and at least one opera to have faded over the subsequent years. But career retrospectives are less daunting when one makes films in the unique way that Leigh makes films.    “Because of the sort of films I made, which are kind of personal and very involving, you don’t really forget,” says the filmmaker. “I mean, you might forget details. Bleak Moments is 50 years old which does make one feel rather like Methuselah. But I’m not a jobbing director. I’ve only ever done my own thing. My films are kind of like children.”

Much of Leigh’s virtuosity as a director lies in his methodology. While it is not uncommon to happen on non-professional actors or workshopped scenes in cinema, Leigh’s preparatory work with his actors involves the creation of extensive character biography, most of which never figures onscreen. Each actor works in collaboration with Leigh but away from the other players before converging to improvise. A 20-minute sequence in Vera Drake (2004) in which the police arrive to arrest the titular abortionist required an improvisation that lasted 10 hours.


“For all my projects, we go into a long period of preparation before we shoot. And the same is true with my stage plays. And in that time, not only do we develop the characters and their relationships in their background, and all the rest of it, but I work without the discipline of how to deal with the character. One of the core disciplines is you go into character and you very much stay in character until you come out of character. That way, we can talk about what happened in the improvisation and how to deploy it in a responsible way. In other words, it’s not the so-called method. Twenty-four seven is counterproductive, and not really what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned.”

Method mythology

Leigh may not subscribe to Stanislavski but that hasn’t prevented Naked, for which Leigh was named Best Director at 1993’s Cannes Film Festival, from developing its own method mythology. David Thewlis and Ewen Bremner almost got arrested while improvising one scene, requiring a skulking Leigh to jump out and cry: “Come out of character!”

Naked was criticised on release by Julie Burchill and Suzanne Moore in The Guardian. The latter wondered about Thewlis’s antihero and his unfortunate encounters with several female characters. “What sort of realism is this?” asked Moore. “To show a misogynist and surround him with such walking doormats has the effect . . . of justifying this behaviour.”

It remains a film that is generally characterised as “dangerous” almost three decades after it premiered.

“After High Hopes and Life is Sweet, I felt the need to get out there and be under something which was more aggressive, and yes, absolutely, more confrontational. But I defy anybody to say what they think the film is about. And it certainly wasn’t misogynist. There is a misogynist landlord, but I don’t think David’s character is misogynist. He’s got issues. Some feminists said: all the women are doormats. Well, that just isn’t true. It’s far more subtle than that. But, you know, it still stimulates controversy. I’m delighted.”

With the exception of Leigh’s sublime historical pictures, notably Topsy-Turvy, Mr Turner and Peterloo, his process precludes the possibility of pitching the plot to financiers and the casting of box-office-friendly A-listers.

The way to understand what I do is really to see it in terms of what other artists do, and the painters or novelists, or poets or musicians or sculptors

“You either say, I can’t tell you anything about it, give us the money. And they either say yes, or they tell you to f**k off, basically. I need hardly tell you that the majority of times the latter has happened. But the main thing is not to have any interference at all.”

I wonder how far the material can stray from the original idea? There must be projects that became radically different between the initial conception and final execution?

‘Formed idea’

“Your perfectly legitimate question presupposes that there is a formed idea. But in many cases, there hasn’t been a formed idea in the first place. For a large number of my films, I’ve discovered what the film was on the journey of making it. Having said that, two films in particular started from, at least, from a concrete premise. Secrets and Lies arose from the fact that people close to me had adopted kids. And I decided to investigate that and I realised that what was important was to not make a film about people who adopt, but the kids who are given away and the mothers are giving them away. And Vera Drake dates back about 40 years. Because I’m old enough to remember what it was like before the 1967 Abortion Act in the UK.

“I always say that the way to understand what I do is really to see it in terms of what other artists do, and the painters or novelists, or poets or musicians or sculptors. You interact with the material and you follow the thing. And that’s really what I do.”

The winner of a Palme d’Or, a Golden Lion, three Baftas, and a seven-time Oscar nominee, Leigh has been variously described as the great humanist and – by film critic J Hoberman’s reckoning – the Charles Dickens of British cinema. There was little in his background that might suggest the artist he would become. Aged 12, nonetheless, he felt his directorial instincts kick in.

“I was at my grandpa’s funeral,” he recalls. “It was a cold winter’s day and old men with drips at the end of their noses were struggling downstairs with the coffin. And suddenly I remember thinking: this would make a great film.”

Leigh’s paternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who settled in Manchester. The family name, originally Lieberman, was anglicised in 1939. Growing up in Salford, his father, Dr Abraham Leigh, was opposed to the idea that his son might become an artist or an actor.

“It’s very interesting because I’ve got one son who’s a filmmaker, the other one’s an illustrator. And the latter has got a four-year-old son who is showing terrible signs of thesp. My dad’s dad was a commercial artist. And that’s what grandpa did for a living until the slump when that couldn’t feed the family. So my dad had the horrors of me being any sort of artist. And it was obvious from a very young age that I was some sort of creative kid. He would have done anything to put a stop to it. But that was unsuccessful.”


Aged 17, Leigh got a scholarship to RADA – “by some peculiar means”, as he has it. He found his training there – and later at the RSC – to be very old-fashioned, with little room for character background.

“The things that were going on, in around the early ’60s, was a way of reacting and thinking about how things could be different. I knew I didn’t want to be an actor. I wanted to make things up and write and direct. So I went to Camberwell art school to study theatre design, and then the London Film School, and then was lucky enough to get a job in Birmingham in the new Midlands Arts Centre. And there I was able to make up plays and put my ideas into action. And I did that through the ’60s until I could make a film in the early ’70s.”

It is still illegal in many countries to trace your birth mother, including 50 of the 52 United States. And I think that's one of the reasons Secrets and Lies travelled

After Bleak Moments, Leigh didn’t make another feature until 1983’s Meantime, featuring youthful turns from Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. But he did become one of Britain’s most recognisable directors during this period, having crafted nine television plays, including the influential Nuts in May and Abigail’s Party. Sixteen million viewers tuned in to watch the latter in 1977.

Aged 78, the director, who is hoping to produce his 154th feature, says he hasn’t gotten any better at predicting which projects will find more mainstream appeal.

“My most commercially successful project was Secrets and Lies. And I think there are two reasons for that. It helped by winning the Palme d’Or and five Oscar nominations. But over and above that, it is still illegal in many countries to trace your birth mother, including 50 of the 52 United States. And I think that’s one of the reasons the film travelled. Beyond that, it’s very hard. I mean, we were massively disappointed in Peterloo, which we thought would resonate with people. But of course I’m not in the business of manufacturing a piece of work to suit some predetermined commercial criteria. In the end, it remains an enigma.”

Bleak Moments is released on Blu-ray and digitally on November 29;  Naked  is at IFI from November 12