Mike Leigh: I want to make only films I want to makeWritten by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
English director Mike Leigh (1943) has pretty unique style of work with actors and making his films. Often his films start without script and develop through improvisation of actors. Nomination for Academy Award, winning Palm´d Or in Cannes or BAFTA award shows that his films are critically acclaimed and find their audience.
What made you want to become a film director?
I grew up in Manchester and there were 14 small cinemas and they showed various films from all over the world. There were also cinemas where they showed films non-stop so basically one could stay there the whole day. I was watching mainly English and American films and up until 17 years of age I haven´t seen a foreign film. Then I went to London and first foreign film I saw was Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman. He showed me the way that one has to discover something by making films. I also saw Lauren and Hardy live on stage in Manchester and they were of course in color. I saw Oliver Hardy having a laughing fit and he couldn ´t continue in sketch since he couldn´t stop laughing. So all these various aspects formed me into becoming a film maker and use my fantasy.
You are known for unusual approach to the actors, could you tell us something about that? It is said, you don´t tell much about the plot or script, why?
I don´t tell them anything. When I approach actor with an offer I ask him if he wants to play in it or not.I also tell him, that although I don´t know what the film will be about but we will know that when the film is finished. I don´t tell him more apart the character he should depict. So obviously some actors refuse that offer straight away.It´s because actor must play only character he is supposed to play and he must be real in real time. Actor must be disciplined and while he wears the costume he is allowed to do only what his character would do. Sometimes we can shoot scene number 32 and then number 27, but sometimes we can´t shoot scene 31 before we create and live through scene 30.I can change dialogues only when I am physically and mentally present at the set, at the location. I have very good crew and sometimes my film doesn´t even have main character. In my new film which will have premiere in September 2018 I have 160 actors and none of them is main character.
Sometimes actor gets a costume and he feels the character differently than the costume so he talks to designer about the character and he changes the costume according to requirements of the actor so he would feel comfortably in it.
I require strict discipline at the set. Actor has enough time to get into the character but once the shooting is over that day, I insist actors speak about their character as about third person. When actors don´t manage to get out of the character they could get crazy and wouldn´t exactly know who they are, which is bad.
You don´t use classic scripts, so how do you create the whole film then?
Creating the film means combination of various procedures when everything is part of whole thing. I believe that story must be well written, must have great structure but I do it different way. I take film as organic medium. I find location, create characters, then improvise and rehearse. I don´t know the outcome but I can change things. It´s like making a sculpture, you have a piece of stone and you know what you would like to create and slowly work on it.
So how does it work in editing room, when you are so perfectly prepared and only you know how film should look like?
Since actors are well prepared, well rehearsed and deeply into character,we don´t have to do many takes. So in editing room I take the best and the most appropriate scene rather then cut out the bad ones. Sometimes while editing I realize that certain shot is more meaningful somewhere else so I shift it there.
Obviously the music is important for the film, how do you work with composer?
Composer watches the first copy of the film and we work together, only us two. He has bigger emotional responsibility for film since music strengthens experience. This works since no one disturb us and even producer leave us alone so it´s only us to working on it.
Did you set up your production company Thin Man to have artistic freedom and independence?
Yes, since I want to make only films I want to make. Sometimes I found potential backer who didn´t care there is no script and they didn´t care about what the film was about but they insisted on me having an American star in it. So we parted our ways and went elsewhere where they gave us money and let us work our way. Man always has a choice. Through my production company I don´t produce films of any other directors and honestly I wasn´t asked to do so.
Obviously producer has important role in film, how does it work in your case, when you do what you want?
Good producer protects my work and me against outside world and he does things the way they should be done. He understands process of filmmaking he understand why I do such and such things and there are things which I don´t understand but he does so he takes care of them and I concentrate on making film.
What basically do you want to show in your films?
In my films I use my personal experiences or my personal life feelings. I want to show how people live and what they have and what they don´t have, about unemployment during Thatcherism. Take my film Vera Drake. I was born in 1943 so I am old enough to remember when in England and Wales the abortion was still illegal. Very often poor girls got into troubles and were seeking the help from ladies who made the illegal abortion. Where I used to live there was living a lady called Nurse Valence who had visitors in the evenings and sometimes disappeared for some time and later I realized it´s the lady doing illegal abortions. So for 40 years I had this film in mind. I can´t believe that 25 years after I have made this film it is still such hot issue. I obviously support ladies having a choice if they want to have a baby or not.
When you sit with people in the cinema and watch your films with them, what do you focus at?
I observe the reaction the people. I very seldom watch my films at home, I must sit among the people since it is them for who I make my films.