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An Interview with Mike Leigh

Photo: Myrna Suarez

Mike Leigh is one of Britain’s most prolific and acclaimed filmmakers. From his 1971 directorial feature debut Bleak Moments to his 2018 epic film Peterloo, an extraordinary piece detailing the events of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, Leigh’s uncompromising approach to making films has provided us with an impressive canon of works including Meantime, High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Career Girls, and Happy-Go-Lucky. Throughout his career, Leigh has received three BAFTAs, the Golden Lion at the 61st Venice International Film Festival for his 2004 film Vera Drake, as well as the Palme d’Or at the 49th Cannes Film Festival for Secrets & Lies. He has been nominated for the award a further three times for Naked, All or Nothing and Mr. Turner. He has also been nominated for seven Academy Awards in the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay categories.

I spoke with Mike about his rehearsal process, his thoughts on CGI, his favourite part of the filmmaking process, and the difficulties he faced making Four Days in July in Northern Ireland during the troubles.

What are your thoughts on the London Film Festival this year?

I saw maybe a dozen or so films. I saw Martin McDonaugh’s, Banshees of Inisherin. I really like what he does, but for me, and indeed a few others, there was a disconnect. He shoots as though it was an epic Hollywood movie, in a great sweeping way, but it is a very intimate story. It would have been better if he had been more intimate with it, but there you go. I like what he does in spirit.

At the recent BFI retrospective of your work, I noticed you watching Happy Go Lucky along with the audience. Do you enjoy re-watching your films as part of an audience?

To tell you the truth, there are filmmakers, and I heard one at a Q&A at the London Film Festival, that say I don’t make films for audiences, I make films for myself. Well, I don’t get that at all. I think that’s absolutely unfathomable. I make films for audiences. That’s what it’s about. I’m in showbiz. I make plays and I make films and it’s for audiences. I want to communicate and share. It’s good to watch my films every so often. Occasionally, there might be a reason to watch the DVD, but to watch in an audience, especially if you haven’t seen it for a while and you are going to do a Q&A, just helps to remind you what it’s about. You learn new things with each audience. I don’t do it a great deal, but it is quite a healthy thing to do. Unlike a lot of filmmakers, I have what I suppose you could call the privilege of liking all my films. There are loads of filmmakers, I know them and maybe you do too, if you say of a particular film that they made would you watch it and they say absolutely no fucking way, I never want to see it again. The reason is that it’s not the film that they wanted to make. They didn’t have the cast they wanted, or somebody messed about with the script, or interfered with the edit, made them change the end. All that kind of stuff never happens with me because I only make films where nobody interferes. In a way, what’s on the screen is what I want to be there and therefore I don’t have the horrible thing of hating my children as it were.

When you set out to make a film, do you begin with a clear story idea and characters, or do those things emerge organically from workshops with the actors and other collaborators?

They emerge. There are obvious exceptions, such as the three historical films Topsy Turvy, Mr. Turner and Peterloo. Obviously, they were going to be about those subjects. I knew when I embarked on Secrets & Lies that was going to deal with adoption. I knew when I embarked on Vera Drake that I was going to make a film about an illegal abortionist before the 1967 Abortion Act. Still, even with all of those films, a great deal of it emerges through the exploratory nature of how I prepare the films, which as you know, means there isn’t a script to start with. I often cast people without knowing exactly what they are going to be doing. The thing grows, much as work grows for painters, novelists, poets, composers, sculptors and others, by the journey of doing it. To answer a specific aspect of your question, apart from the historical films where we knew that this was going to be about this period in the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan and we knew we were going to deal with the Peterloo massacre, probably starting sometime earlier with the battle of Waterloo. Apart from those specific things, and they are only frameworks within which to explore, the idea that there would be a story in it is absolutely not the case at all.

What’s it like working with CGI on films, such as Mr. Turner and Peterloo?

Great. Having spent quite a long time being pious and a 20th century celluloid man, some of my films, if you look carefully, there is a little logo with a pair of scissors and sprockets saying edited on film. We were very religious about that and we weren’t going to edit digitally. It’s all bollocks basically because the fact is that some extremely clever people have developed this incredible medium where you can do all sorts of things. I would suggest that certainly to the standards that were achieved, that you couldn’t make Peterloo without the kind of CGI that we were able to deploy. Of course, crowd replication is all just the movies, but there were about 60,000 people at the Peterloo massacre and we only had 200 extras. 200 extras in that big space we shot in at Tilbury Fort looks like a few people standing around. The CGI guys went back to the plans of Manchester in 1819 and they built a virtual model of Manchester as it would be. So, any direction you looked in you got perspective of what was there. Where we shot it, there was absolutely nothing there at all. It’s a fort surrounded by space.

You mentioned Happy Go Lucky. Happy Go Lucky was shot on film, but when we did those driving lessons scenes, we had three versions of the car. We had the 35mm camera in the backseat of the estate version. Dick Pope, the cinematographer, put tiny lipstick cameras, which are digital cameras, in the front, shooting the actors from the side and from the dashboard. To integrate that footage with the celluloid footage of the film was quite a sophisticated thing to do. Because of the nature of what you can do digitally, Dick was able to compromise. By using digital technology, we were able to make it soft, so it looked like film. There were all sorts of levels, including things you can do with sound as well. So, I embrace it, it’s great stuff and not to be sneered at.

Your films feel very traditional in a stylistic sense, in that there isn’t any obvious camera movement and, if so, it’s very subtle. Why do you choose this approach?

It’s not true that there is very little camera movement, that’s just not true at all. What is true and what you are talking about, is with rare exceptions, the camera is always motivated by what’s going on. It is an organic style. In other words, the camera doesn’t take off and do its own thing, irrespective of the rhythm or dynamics or content of what’s happening. The centre of the answer to your question is that I’m interested in people and what’s going on between people and place. The places they are in and all of that. That gives you all the answers as to what the camera should do. There are occasions where the camera will move of its own volition and discover things, but that has to be motivated and have some sort of organic reason. It is no big deal. Any notion that the way that my films are shot is boring, or uninteresting, banal, or flat, I would reject completely. It’s about the succulence and the enjoyment of people in places and environments and the moment.

How involved are you in the editing process?

Completely. Like the way that I work with actors, or designers, or cinematographers, or composers, the same is true with editors, in the sense that I can only work with a really inspired editor who is his or her own man or woman and brings their own thing to it. I certainly don’t go away and disappear and come back after three months and see a finished cut. I’m in and out, but the editor has to make decisions. I’ve cut film obviously, but I wouldn’t dream of editing a film by myself any more than I’d think of shooting it. It’s about collaborating with very good people, who bring to it their own, not only skills, but vision. John Gregory, who has cut a lot of my films including the last two, unfortunately died last year. He got the Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri incidentally. He was a very incredible, painstaking, hardworking and original filmmaker. The stuff we shot for the actual massacre sequence for Peterloo was a huge amount of footage. All of which I very much directed. To sort that out is an editor’s job and John Gregory spent days and weeks at it. With all the films I’ve done with him, I’ll say it’s Thursday, go away and come back on Tuesday and take the weekend off. I’d go in on Tuesday very early morning and he’d already be at it. He’d say look I’ve done something, see if you like it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll take it apart and start again. Occasionally, I’ll say not that, or it’s important to see this and not that, but mostly you go wow, what he’s done is to go further to the essence of what you were trying to do because it’s a collaboration, but to answer your question, I am very much part of the process, of course.

Which part of the filmmaking process do you enjoy most?

Well, I can tell you the part of filmmaking process I enjoy least. As you probably know, I spend months and months with the actors, creating the characters and doing all sorts of stuff with improvisation and the search and all the rest. People say to me that must be your favourite part. It isn’t. I love filming. At the end of the day there is something to show for it. What we are doing in the preparatory period is merely establishing a premise. We are preparing for what we are going to do. It is quite gruelling, that long process of getting it together. It is quite insecure. It is merely processing something to make later. I love shooting and I love post-production. You don’t have to get up at four in the morning. It’s quite civilised strolling in and out of the cutting room and working with a composer and all of that stuff. Filmmaking is a gas. I enjoy all aspects of it really. The sound is very exciting and the sound mix and working with the sound editor.

Career Girls I noticed has a very different music track from the rest of your films.

Definitely, yes. That’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste. It’s more of a jazz score isn’t it? It just felt right. We had worked on Secrets & Lies and we were in the States flying from New York to LA together and I said what do you want to do next? She’s musical and she said, ‘well I’d like to do a film score.’ I said why don’t you do the next one? And she did this really very beautiful and evocative and appropriate score. It only makes sense to work with composers, including her, who work with their emotional reactions to the film, as opposed to the kind of composers who produce movie music that sounds like movie music. All the voices and choices of instruments were always a little bit quirky and different, but it is appropriate in each case to the film.

Do you ever work with actors who have very different approaches and methods, and how do you manage that?

Do you mean actors who don’t work the way I do? Most actors before they come and work with me, haven’t worked the way I do because the way I work is what I do. There are actors, of course, who run a mile because there is no script and improvising, but they are not in the films. I trained as an actor at RADA in the early 60s. I’ve been around actors forever. In ‘67 and ‘68 I was assistant director at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. As time has gone on and fashions have changed and all sorts of things have changed, it has become easier and easier to find actors who are up for the kinds of things I do. In the early days, when I first started filming, it was as much as I could do to persuade anyone to take part in something where there was no script. There were a lot of old-fashioned actors around. The actor that played Gilbert’s dad in Topsy Turvy (Charles Simon) was 89 when we did that and he went for it completely, improvising and all the rest of it. To answer your question, if you get the right actors, as opposed to the wrong actors, they are up for it and they will do it. There is never a question of well I don’t work like this. If it did happen and it doesn’t happen, they would be shown the door. They don’t walk off the street. I do elaborate auditions and test out what people can and can’t do. That’s really important.

Have any of your cast ever had any encounters with the public while in character?

Oh, yes. Lots of times. If they get into character and they go out and potter around in character, which has happened many times. You can’t do it with the period films! You can’t suddenly be in 1885, but with the contemporary films, yes quite a lot. If you want anecdotes about serious and major encounters, I can’t give you any of those. It’s all part the exploration that is the growth of the characterisation.

I find moments of your films are very comical, but also very tragic. One of my favourites of your films is Home Sweet Home, which blends those together so perfectly.

Is that a question or a statement? I’m glad you like that film, I’m fond of it too. Those tragic and comic moments happen all the time throughout the films. That’s because life is both comic and tragic.

Stan is a very likeable character…

That’s got nothing to do with it at all. I’m not talking about character; we are talking about people. Real people and real life. People are heroic and profound, ridiculous and vulnerable and comic and tragic. That is life. That’s what we are talking about.

I’d like to discuss your film Four Days in July. What difficulties did you face while making the film?

Making a film in Belfast around the troubles in 1984. It could have been worse. I spent a whole year there and I never actually saw anything blow up, which was extraordinary as there were things going on all the time. It’s a very volatile place. It is now, but it certainly was then. At one point we wanted to film in East Belfast, in heavy loyalist territory. The assistant director said we had to go and meet the guys from the hard loyalist right, the ulster boys. We’ve got to meet them because we need their blessing to shoot in the streets, otherwise they’d give us a hard time. So, we were going to go meet the big white chief. We had to wait in a room and there were heavy duty guys on the stairs. We knew from all our research that this was where they kneecapped everyone. Finally, we got into the room and this guy was very aggressive. I thought fuck, it was really terrifying. We sat there and the assistant director saw the bookshelf behind the guy and saw a copy of Who’s Who. The assistant said, ‘Mike’s in that.’ Well that completely changed the guy’s tune and he was like a kid. So, they let us do what we wanted to do. It was a good experience.

We shot the stuff for the 12th July on the 12th July. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, as it was then, let us have one corner with the marches going past. We could only shoot on one corner, with the guys in the military vehicles. Having said that, we just got on with it. Where we were shooting, the squaddies would go past quite regularly on their manoeuvres. We were absolutely under strict instructions not to film them. Whatever you do, don’t point the camera at them. It’s a drag, so we got extras doing it. All of a sudden we were shooting in that house and the 1st AD rushed in and told us to stop, go outside and set the camera up because the guys are going to come past. He’d done a deal with the military at Ballykinler and they will let us film them once. So, we rushed out and set up the shot. The guys came past. We shot it and then the squaddies jumped over a wall and came back again. We didn’t ask them to, but they did it three times, so we got three bites of the cherry at shooting it. When we were filming those scenes, the guys in the military helicopter above, were bastards. They knew if they hovered over us and came down that they would fuck up filming. They did it quite a lot, but there was nothing you could do about it. I’m very pleased with that film. I’m very fond of it.

I said to the BBC that I’d never been to Belfast, but it had been suggested by people that I make a film there. If I could have six months under contract with the BBC and without having to do anything except research, with a research budget, then I’ll start casting it and we’ll do it. The BBC agreed and said fine, so I had complete carte blanche all over Ireland, north and south, researching and drinking a lot of whisky and getting into quite a few tight scrapes which I’m not disposed to talk about on record. Collaborating with actors who knew the territory helped. There’d been a bunch of television dramas filmed about the troubles, but my main thing was nobody was going to get shot. It’s not about that. It’s about something more profound. Two babies born at the same time that were going to go in these two diametrically opposed directions seemed to me to be what it’s all about.

The cinematographer, Remi Adefarasin is black. Boy, they gave him a hell of a time. It was pretty nasty. That was one of the rare occasions where I’ve got actors improvising in a real situation, as opposed to structuring it more formally.

Do you read reviews of your work?

Yes, absolutely. I know there are people that don’t read reviews, but it’s important to know what people are reading about and how it affects you. Sometimes it makes you really angry, but sometimes it is really flattering that it goes to your head. The important thing is that reviews really help or hinder the progress of the film.

Roger Ebert was a big admirer of your work...

If I had a strict rule not to read reviews, I never would have read Roger Ebert’s reviews and that would have been a great loss to me. He was a great guy actually. Right from Bleak Moments he was on it.

I once asked you for advice some ten years ago and you told me never compromise. Would you still give me that same advice, and has not compromising been challenging in your career?

What do you think is the answer to that? I’ve struggled recently in the last few years, getting the backing to do what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean there is any compromise.

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