Mike Leigh on Realism, Hollywood and This Crackpot Government

As Oscar talk swirls around Another Year, the king of improvisation opens up the benefits of a lack of interference and the ridiculous decision to abort the Film Council.
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Salford-born film-maker Mike Leigh has made one of the films of his long career with Another Year, a riveting tale of happiness and loneliness as contented married couple Tom and Gerrie (played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) deal with the damaged friends and family who flit in and out of their life. As Oscar-talk builds around the film and Lesley Manville’s terrific performance as the screwed-up Mary, Leigh explains what motivated him to make it, and what makes him tick.

Another Year features happy people surrounded by chaos. It’s a similar scenario in which Happy-Go-Lucky’s Poppy found herself. Are they companion pieces?

They are and they aren’t. All my films, as is the way with personal work, add up to a continuous idea on some level. But yes, that’s an interesting take on the relationship between the two films - I actually wasn’t conscious until I finished Another Year that the two central female protagonists are the kind of people disposed to nurture and doing good. But Happy-Go-Lucky is a very “young” film, and what defines Another Year as a progression is that I wanted to make a film which starts where “we” are. ‘We” being senior citizens!

It does very much feel like a film about the pleasures and terrors of growing old.

Oh, absolutely it is. Tom and Gerrie have obviously been very good parents to their son, and they can, barring accidents or misfortunes, look forward to a comfortable, fulfilled old age - which you can argue they’ve earned. The Marys of this life look back with disappointment and woe and look forward to a black hole of terror and horror. Ageing is a frightening prospect for her.

Tom and Gerrie are so nice, in fact, film convention tells you something terrible must happen to them.

Well, this is what people said about Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, too. The truth of the matter is, plenty of terrible things surround Tom and Gerrie, they just don’t happen directly to them. It’s not a portrait of a romantic, pure happiness in my view - it’s only interesting to put people who are fulfilled on screen if they’re juxtaposed with people who aren’t. That’s where the drama lies. Tom and Gerrie's life isn’t inherently interesting, but nothing is without context and dynamics.

So does, say, a stray thought about the nature of happiness inform the decisions you make when you’re beginning the process of making a film?

I can see where you’re coming from, but there’s no preoccupation with happiness. My films have consistently returned to the same themes, just from different angles; of family, relationships, parents, children, work, sex, hopes, joy and pain, loneliness, togetherness.

And the result of that is we get incredible performances like Lesley’s, which we believe pisses all over someone from Hollywood. And I rather suspect she’s going to!

Famously, you improvise the characters with the actors. Is the alchemy of creating a life what makes you tick as film-maker?

It does, but before I even get to that, it’s important to understand what makes me tick as a human being. I am endlessly fascinated with people, and that’s what motivates me - along with a passion from the medium. It’s nice to have this conversation in Manchester because these are the streets I grew up in - except they were all black at that time. I have a very strong sense of place, time, seasons, atmosphere, cars, people. It’s that I want to capture and do things with. That’s the arty side of the answer. The other way of looking at it is that I’m bored shitless with the idea of taking what someone else has written and trying to interpret it. I prefer making things up as a writer, director and storyteller. So this medium lends itself to shaping whole worlds, which then involves then creating entire lives, which comes out of an ordinary, endless, passion for people and life.

Is it easier to be a film-maker in 2010 than it was when you started?

That’s a complicated but very important question. It’s never been “easy”. Film-making in the UK was completely constipated - if not dead - until Channel 4 started and opened it up. Films are made now, so that’s progress, although not enough unfettered indigenous films, films that are not leaned on consciously or unconsciously to be quasi-Hollywood films. There is not enough funding for films. So it is tough. And this crackpot government has decided to abolish the Film Council - so who knows what’s going to happen with that. But yes, it is hard. It is risky. It is dangerous both commercially and, for us, creatively. Don’t forget we do these films without scripts - which I believe is why they work, but you have to go to the wire in the process!

So do you worry for the future of film-making in this country?

Well, there is now in existence this wonderful, high-quality, democratising, and crucially, cheap equipment which young people can get their hands on, get out there and make films of all kinds. I’m very involved with young film-makers because I’m Chair of the Governers of the London Film School - where I was a student myself in the 1960s. And the good news is, film-making lives. There was a time where people said it would die. It hasn’t, and it won’t.

Realism is often a by-product of being able to make films cheaply. Do you enjoy being labelled a realist yourself?

My job is to be accurate and real and truthful. To involve people in the drama, and to make people believe in it. But it has to go beyond that. I want my films to be rich, complex, stimulating and in some ways a confrontational emotional experience. So you take away from it the sense that it was real but that you loved those people, you cared about them, you worried about them. You were horrified by them, even.

And can you pick out a film of yours where all of that comes together?

I don’t know a film of mine that hasn’t. Not really. That sounds facetious, but there are film-makers who very legitimately don’t like all of their work - because they were in the mainstream. So they got interfered with, they didn’t get the actor they wanted, they had to reshoot the ending and so on. I’ve had none of those problems. I’ve made 19 feature films and no-one’s interfered with a frame of them.

That’s very rare, isn’t it.

Yes, I’m very lucky. I don’t take it for granted. But if there’s one word of advice I give to film students, it’s never compromise. If we’re asking for funding for a film and the stipulation is ‘you can have the money but you must have an American lead’, we walk away. And the result of that is we get incredible performances like Lesley’s, which we believe pisses all over someone from Hollywood. And I rather suspect she’s going to!

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