A Conversation with Mike Leigh
52nd Annual New York Film Festival
Oct. 5, Walter Reade Theatre
By Lisa Reznik
Last Sunday I had the great pleasure and a bit of luck to be sitting three rows away from one of the most innovative independent filmmakers of the last twenty years, British cinema icon Mike Leigh. The event was a Directors Dialogue at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Mr. Leigh has earned acclaim as a director who begins his projects without a script, from a basic premise which is developed through improvisation by the actors. Outspoken, confident and at times acerbic, Leigh makes the impression of a filmmaker uninterested in the trappings of fame or stardom.
Mike Leigh’s newest work arrives in the form of a portrait of Britain’s greatest artist, J.M.W. Turner. Mr. Turner explores the last quarter century of the life of the early 19th century landscape painter.
Amy Talbot, who facilitated the conversation, called the collaboration between Mr. Leigh and actor Timothy Spall who plays Mr. Turner amazing and described the tension as extraordinary. The new film was an official selection of the festival and played to two sold-out audiences. When asked what inspired him to direct a period drama Leigh explained, “Turner was a great, eccentric artist, on the international stage, a visionary who produced epic work.”
Mr. Leigh, who was born in Manchester, England in 1943, said a strong sense of the 19th century and the Victorian era influenced people of his generation. Leigh believes it’s important for filmmakers to make films coming out of their own experience. “I want to make films that are universal,” he continued. Mr. Leigh may be best known for his critically acclaimed drama Secrets and Lies (1996) which also features Timothy Spall. “All of my films are set in England. I hope that I don’t make films that are insularly British,” he stressed.
Leigh spoke about how accuracy of the world of Mr. Turner was monumental in the realization of the artist’s story. “A great reference is Turner’s work as a visual reference for the whole period." Leigh grew passionate as he discussed pre-production of the film. "The look comes out a sense of us trying to interpret, visually, his paintings, but also the spirit of the two periods that the film moves through: the late-Georgian and early-Victorian periods.”
“The character was developed through research, pulled from various sources, and integrated into an organic form,” Leigh said. “What I’ve tried to do, apart from making sure we look at the various paintings and bring them into focus, is also implicitly to talk about what Turner’s preoccupations were, what Turner’s sense of life is in his paintings.” It’s not only Turner's character and time in history that is of focus, but how Turner's personal interpretation of his time influenced his work, Leigh emphasized.
Mr. Leigh explained that for each of his projects, prior to filming, he sits one-to-one with each of the actors, developing a character based on someone he or she knows. "The world of the characters and their relationships is brought into existence by discussion and a great amount of improvisation during a lengthy rehearsal period to attain a sense of naturalism. And research into anything and everything that will fill out the authenticity of the character,” he elaborated. It is only after months of rehearsal, or preparing for going out on location to make up a film, that Leigh writes a shooting script. Then, on the shoot, after further real rehearsing, the script is finalized, he explained.
For Mr. Turner, Mr. Leigh said the time was right to make the transition to digital filmmaking. “With digital, the color choices are like an artist working with a palette. We got to do our post-production digitally too which enabled us to enhance the images.” Mr. Leigh said he believes strongly that editors are collaborators. “The story is told in the cutting room. You go into the cutting room with a huge number of choices in the construction of the film and derive the essence of the film right there,” he said, smiling.
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Leigh’s well-known films include Life is Sweet (1990), the comedy-drama Career Girls (1997), the Gilbert and Sullivan biographical film Topsy-Turvy (1999), and the bleak working-class drama All or Nothing (2002). His most notable works are arguably Naked (1993) for which he won the Best Director Award at Cannes and Secrets and Lies. Leigh has been nominated for five Academy Awards.