Mike Leigh by Bette Gordon

BOMB 46 Winter 1994
046 Winter 1994
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Mike Leigh, director, on the set of Naked. All photos by Simon Mein. Courtesy of Fine Line Features.

Mike Leigh’s unique vision and methods have informed more than 40 works for the screen, television and stage. He has collaborated with some of Britain’s most talented actors to create character studies of seemingly ordinary people coping with everyday life. His films, described as “painfully funny” explore the details of the human condition. His latest film Naked centers around the magnificent performance of David Thewlis as Johnny, a complex drifter on a journey through London’s bleak world of outsiders and disconnected characters. It runs the emotional gamut from comedy to violence to love in unexpected mood shifts. Naked won awards for Leigh as Best Director and David Thewlis as Best Actor at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.

Bette Gordon My reaction to your film was quite visceral. How did you make an unlikable character so attractive (notwithstanding the actor … )? We’ve seen unlikable and compelling characters before: Cagney, Brando … But in Naked something different is operative. What’s attractive about your character is not romanticized. It’s more real.

Mike Leigh This kind of film that I make, very much comes from the real world out there. There isn’t the usual business that goes on in the making of a film, where people sit around and debate what sort of a film it should be, and what kind of a market it should be pitched at … All of that is completely absent in this way of filmmaking which is absolutely about creating characters, dealing with situations which come from out there. There is no pressure on it to be attractive or saleable or commercial. It is whatever it is because of my own natural response to life, which is emotional and optimistic and pessimistic. That leaves the way open to create a character who is the way people are. They are always a little bit larger than life in a sense, because that is what it’s about for me, to distill the essence of things. It’s because I am working with an actor who is no more inclined to romanticize, to embellish than I am, that we are able to create a character who is as multidimensional, as multifaceted as we are.

BG Do you find him—unlikable is not the right word—he’s something beyond that … charismatic?

ML It varies, because sometimes he’s charismatic, sometimes he’s gentle, caring and indeed philanthropic. I’ve driven up the motorway and picked up guys like him, and had incredibly interesting conversations.

BG Well, I’ve fallen in love with them.

ML So you know.

BG I can understand it.

ML Sometimes he is a guy whom I would like nothing more than to kick his head. The premise of the question has to do with what other films do. But this film’s commitment, as with all my films, is to put on the screen, the heightened projection of people like you and I.

BG Ordinary people.

ML Or extraordinary ordinary people. Or ordinary people being extraordinary.

BG And to look at their struggle with life.

ML There is no question that this guy has not come from a happy home. He’s plainly a victim of an inadequate education system.

BG But he’s so incredibly intelligent—beyond every other character in the movie.

ML Well, that’s right, certainly. The truth is that he would have been immediately responded to by his teachers as a troublemaker. There never was a teacher who thought, this is a talented and intelligent guy whom I must help. Therefore, he’s dropped out and spends all his time educating himself voraciously. It’s all going on in there.

BG You’re speaking about the personal history of this character, which leads me to ask about the organic process … the organic process by which you not only work with actors, but by which you make movies. We don’t see this character’s personal history in the film. But it’s something that you and the actors know quite well, so let’s talk about that.

ML It really is a question of bringing into existence their whole world through a lot of discussion and research, a huge amount of improvisation—characterization. Doing all that in order to discover the characters, the premise. That earns its keep. There are resonances and layers there which we believe in totally, because they exist. The cast and I do all that as preparation. What is most important is what we do when we actually shoot it.

BG You have an incredibly long rehearsal period which differs from any other director’s rehearsal period I’ve ever known about.

ML We don’t rehearse in the sense that we don’t build scenes. Later, during the period of shooting, I actually do rehearse. I bring into existence each sequence, structuring and writing all through rehearsal. The preliminary period, the four months previous to shooting, is the period in which the characters, their relationship and their whole world, come into existence through, as I’ve said, a lot of research, improvisation and discussion.

BG You live with the history of the character.

ML Yes, we invent the characters in every single particular detail of the character that you could imagine. You name it, we get out there and find out about things that we don’t know, whatever that is. I usually pick somebody as the jumping off point for the character. There is some root, some reality so that the actor’s got something to work from. And that means that for a long time, there is a criteria, a focus, a yardstick by which decisions can be made. But it’s just a device, part of a process of inventing a character. The characters we wind up with are all very much an evolution from the original persons. They are very fictitious. And of course, what defines them is how they interact with the other characters. In this particular film, there is rather less of that since in the narrative structure, most of the people meet each other once and that’s it. There was no previous investigation because that is the occasion, except for Johnny’s relationship with Louise, Archie’s relationship with Maggie, and the girls in the flat.

BG Johnny is in a sense, on a journey, and along the way meets a group of characters …

ML In the context of Naked, the year long relationship of Johnny and Louise was investigated. In Life is Sweet, the relationship between Wendy and Andy, the mother and father, was investigated first of all. Their own characters were created, then their teenage relationship was investigated, and quite some time later, we introduced the girls and we investigated the whole history of the family from when the twins were babies. Now that is much more elaborate.

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David Thewlis as Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked.

BG When you talk about improvisation, it’s not what people imagine traditional improvisation to be. How does it work for you?

ML Well, first of all, what it isn’t, categorically, is people sitting around trying to create a script. A girl at Columbia University asked me whether the actors have acting objectives and agendas. I said that as far as I am concerned, that tradition is anathema to art. In my situation, the one thing the actors absolutely must not concern themselves with is trying to make anything happen. It is an investigation. It is about real people, it’s got to happen in real time, with real discipline. We have improvisations which go on for hours, all day sometimes, in which, if somebody decides to go out for a walk to get a paper and a pack of cigarettes and come back, then that has to happen. I have sat through, bored to death, more improvisation than anybody else in the world. But it has to grow organically, you’ve got to allow art to happen. Because not only is the actor being real but also it’s character-acting, people are not playing themselves. So all the time, the improvisation is investigating and experimenting with, and sorting out, how to play the character. After a certain point, the character becomes very solid and you are there. Which is to say, how the character thinks, walks, talks, speaks, moves, whatever it is. And all improvisations are done in costume, right from the word go, because it’s about being the people, people who have hundreds of props, people who watch real televisions and read. There is no point in just pretending to be reading a paper. If a character reads books, newspapers or magazines then the actor, both in improvisation or for homework, will read the stuff. For it all to work, the things that are in the character’s head have to be in the actor’s head. So work of all kinds goes on which I am not necessarily disposed to talk about. Building up the conscious, the history, the attitudes. In the end, the thing that is the most important of all is the inter-relation of people, which I deal with through a number of devices. Exercises that make it possible to investigate all kinds of things, including what happens when people fuck each other. Which I can’t do by actually having them fuck each other because that’s not acceptable. But there are ways of investigating it. What all this boils down to is a highly disciplined way of having improvisations which are as new as you can get. Sometimes it’s very difficult to bring simulations of actuality so that there grows into existence a complete experience which becomes the world of characters. Now, built into that, there are all kinds of things going on, which are a matter of my pushing and pulling, and leaning on it, and manipulating it, so that it’s not just whatever it happens to be, but is the dramatic premise of the film. But all of the stuff we are talking about is nothing more than preparation for the actual job. This is what I say the very beginning of the first day to the actors—in four months time, we are going to go out with the crew and invent, we are going to make a film up on location. And so the real nitty-gritty is what happens when we get there. But by the time we get there, of course, you have a set of actors who know their characters inside out, and relationships that are absolutely there, therefore actors who are absolutely secure and confident in what they are doing, and therefore, you can concentrate on the mechanics of shooting without neurotic actors around the place. But you’ve also got, as well, the serious and fundamental contribution of the production designer, the costume designer, because they are working adjacent to rehearsal. If somebody lives somewhere, then the whole thing is absolutely worked out: What would be there, the costumes have been worn, the actors have gotten used to them. Nobody is wearing anything that they don’t think is right, and at the same time, I am colluding with the costume and the production designer to make sure that we are not merely getting what the actors want, but we are getting the things that work. Both in Life is Sweet, and Naked, there is a very strict, visual discipline. To get that look we shot tests … and all these things come together as a work. But what I write at the end of the rehearsal period is a structure, a four-page script. The film is called, Untitled ’92. There’s no title. Scene 1—Night, Exterior. Scene 2—Johnny takes the car. Scene 29—Office block, Johnny meets Brian. Scene 30—Johnny and Brian see woman in window. In fact, this scene might be a shot. Scene 29 might be a twenty-minute sequence divided up into Scene 29a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k …

BG (laughter)

ML And each scene is worked on by going to the location—and I can only do this at the location. Previously, in the rehearsal period, we’ve been in some old building or other. I’ve been out a bit in locations, but usually we’ve been working in a warehouse or office building. But now we go to the location and plug back into the kind of work we’ve been doing previously—improvisations—from the improvisations we build up and rehearse and write structure for the scenes. But I cannot write unless I do it through rehearsing in the place because I have to be able to see it as well. It’s a visual as well as a literary thing. And that structure, that scenario, always, always runs out of steam at a certain point. That is to say, I never know the end. I’ve usually shot two-thirds of the film before I’ll really know what the end is. Which is what happens if you paint a picture, or write a novel, or write a play, or whatever other people do except that we happen to be doing it in film. It’s most particularly discussible in terms of Naked. The final end is as much as anything else, a function of not only what happens but what needs to happen thematically for character as well as cinematically, the visual. So that, for example, blessed with a brilliant production designer and very fine location scouts, they came up with this extraordinarily appropriate Neo-Gothic house on the East End which you could view from various angles. And as I was struggling with the impending end of the film, I would arrive every morning in a car and see the house at the end of the street. We’d shot everything in close-up and medium shots. But suddenly I thought, God, how wonderful, rarely in the middle of London, can you have a decent shot from what would seem to be the other side of the road, but we’ve got a house situated so that you can come further away and further away and further away …

BG Its high up on a hill—so you could do extreme long shots.

ML And out of that evolved the ending—I mean Johnny could have walked away, he could have been shot walking out of the frame. But the last shot, Johnny walks in this extreme long shot, away from the house.

BG The house generated the ending.

ML Absolutely, so it’s a fusion, a synthesis, of the cinematic, and the dramatic, and the writing. I couldn’t sit in a room and think of that… . But by the time the camera rolls—there is only one camera—it is absolutely precise.

BG So you have all this written down?

ML It may or may not be written down… . There’s a scene where he meets the chauffeur with the Rolls Royce …

BG Did that just happen on the spot?

ML I didn’t really know what the scene would be. I said, let’s have a chauffeur and a Rolls Royce and we’ll go to a smart corner of Cohn Park and we’ll do it. It took us about fifteen minutes. We did some improvisations, we scripted it, we did it and that was it. It was absolutely there. Now, you can only do that kind of thing when you’ve been shooting for ten weeks, which we had been. When you’re really buzzing …

BG Yes, the crew is so in tune with each other.

ML From my point of view, I know what I’m running. But it was structured completely, and then we shot it. I don’t like shooting improvisation, actually, I mean I don’t like improvisation as such. It’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.

BG So by the time you actually shoot, you’re no longer improvising.

ML Certainly not.

BG It’s absolutely defined by everything that’s gone before, and everybody knows exactly what they’re going to say. Even if it’s not written down.

ML Although it is written down, obviously, because you work with a very good continuity person who happens to write it down. But in principle, it is not a first principle to write it down. Because the writing down of dialogue is irrelevant as such. What’s important is that they know what to say. And, of course, a lot of what happens isn’t about dialogue. I mean dialogue is a part of what people do.

BG You spend an enormous amount of time with each actor individually before you bring them together.

ML I spend time with each actor but it’s not necessarily an enormous amount of time. It is the amount of time it needs. Each character needs to be created individually, obviously. But also, the channel of communication between me and each actor, the exclusive channel of communication, stays open ‘til the last shot is shot, ’til the film is wrapped. It’s important for an actor to have the security of knowing that his or her performance and acting problems, whatever they are, are nobody else’s business except his or hers and mine. We can be shooting, and I’ll just say to an actor, could you just pop out for a moment with me. Not only is it private, but it’s essentially private because nobody knows anything about anybody else’s character that their character wouldn’t know, and that includes motivation. They don’t want to know about each other’s motivation because those are the tensions that make the thing work. All of that is the descendent of the original sessions where we sat just one to one in a room. But in the end, it is about filmmaking and it is about that which involves other people, not just actors. As I’ve already said, what’s so important is that it works if it works at all because the actors have got the security and the strength from working in an organic way. Therefore, they can cope with the exegesis of filmmaking so that I can structure a scene, and then we look at it and say, what actually needs to happen is that we should change it … We haven’t got some fucking hack sitting there saying you can’t cut that line. I don’t have that problem, it’s up to me. Sometimes the actors will say that doesn’t work and I say fine. You are talking about filmmaking, it’s plastic, it’s pliable, it’s organic … and not only is the camera there to serve the actor, but the actor is there to serve the camera. That’s important.

BG You are saying that film is not literary, film is something else. And the notion that you can have this perfect script is fine, but that’s not a film.

ML Exactly.

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Katrin Cartlidge and Lesley Sharp in Naked, directed by Mike Leigh.

BG In your previous films, Life Is Sweet and High Hopes there’s a sense of optimism that in the face of all odds people can pull together and somehow continue to exist In Naked, I feel a sense of overwhelming despair. Did you begin with that notion? Or tell me, if you can remember, what was in your head?

ML I can’t exactly. But I certainly wanted to make a film that somehow looked at the times.

BG Do you feel more despairing now, in 1993?

ML I do feel despair—I worry about the world my kids are going to be living in when they’re my age, in 2020. That’s Johnny’s preoccupation with the impending apocalypse. You can laugh about this, but a fair number of people have been born since this conversation started and the planet hasn’t gotten any bigger. There’s AIDS, there’s wars everywhere, there’s pollution … But Life Is Sweet is life is sweet and it deals with things from that perspective. I’m somewhat amused by this endless commotion that somehow there must be a linear progression from one film to the next. Each film hitches a different set of problems and deals with them.

BG When you began this film, was the idea of despair in your mind?

ML No, I’m not an intellectual filmmaker. These are emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films. And there’s a feeling of despair … I think there’s a feeling of chaos and disorder. Having made Life Is Sweet and High Hopes previously, where women were the tower of strength, assuming control of things, I felt it was important to investigate perspectives about men and women in this apparently post-feminist era in which women are still put upon.

BG And women, no matter how smart they are, seem to get involved with men who aren’t always the feminist ideal of a mate, if there is any such thing. I find that there’s something terribly real in the psychosexual, violent nature of the relationships in Naked. Has this come under discussion? I imagine that there are some people who are very upset by …

ML Angry and upset …

BG By the way these relationships unfold in the film.

ML Some women have criticized the film saying that their role is stereotypically weak and that there’s no fighting back. Why aren’t women beating men up? I am depressed by that rather defensive or ivory tower, romantic idea of feminism. It’s simply immature.

BG Or idealistic. Louise, in fact, is an incredible character. She’s strong and vulnerable, and she’s smart, and she understands him. Yet she is still her own person. It’s a very interesting relationship that they’ve created.

The look of the film—the envelopment of night permeates the whole film. The dark, the street, the naked faces, this is the first time that I’ve seen you work in that visual style.

ML We all talked about night and the journey until we started to get a feel for it. We talked at one time about shooting it in black and white. Finally, we decided to use a bleach-bypass process, which is literally just that—you miss out on the bleaching process. It’s been used quite a lot, very seldom on contemporary subjects, more often in period pieces. Tarkovsky used it originally. The British film, 1984 used it, Terence Davies used it in The Long Day Closing. We broke new ground by using it for a contemporary, location film.

BG Does that process make the image more resonant?

ML Saturated …

BG You used Agfa film which gives this bleachy, greeny feel, very different than the Kodak.

The scene that epitomizes, for me, the center point in the film is where Brian, the night watchman, meets Johnny. They’re inside and they’re outside at the same time in a futuristic building. And as they circulate this enormous structure, this society, they talk about what it means to be inside and outside. What they’re talking about is evolution, man/woman becoming extinct as we know him/her. Was that idea generated by the location or rather, was the location as important as the idea?

ML No, it didn’t come from being in that space. It was part of the whole conception that evolved. I can’t talk about what we began with. I mean, obviously, the film on one level is about a preoccupation with our destiny, our origins, our fate, and what life is about. But, of course, there is this tension between the place where they are and what they discuss.

BG If it had happened anywhere else, it would not have been so powerful. Something that happens in your other films as well is that they are talking but not communicating. And yet there’s this sublime communication, maybe through the fact that they’re looking voyeuristically through a window at someone else. Johnny is talking about himself while he is talking about everything else.

There’s a question of class relations particular to Britain. Your films are so much about those class issues. Is the film’s reception here missing something because of that?

ML No, the question is whether the film’s reception in the U.K. is missing something because of that.

BG How do you mean?

ML The only place where my films consistently get a negative reaction is in England. And I mean England, not Scotland or Ireland. But that’s not what you’re asking me about.

BG No, in a way it is. The notion of class …

ML I’ll have to say this about it, that in all the films I’ve made which is to say …

BG Many for television …

ML Although I never draw a distinction between the ones for television and the ones for theatrical release. I’ve really only made one film that was directly concerned with class as such called Who’s Who, in 1978. Now the existence of class culture, tensions, morays, all the rest of it, is inherent in, endemic to, ethnic British film. By definition you can’t help that because of the nature of society. But oddly enough, I’m not—it does crop up because my father was a doctor in a very working-class area, so I was a middle-class kid growing up in a working-class part of Manchester. So there is an inherent concern, but it’s rather less an issue in my films than some people seem to think. High Hopes, is a whole load of things ranging from how to do deal with old parents, to what to do with your kids, whether to have kids, and what about socialism?

BG And gentrification of a neighborhood …

ML But that’s a class thing, and that’s something that happens here. In England one of the regular misguided criticisms of my work is that I patronize the working-class characters—now this is rubbish basically, not true at all. What I actually do is put on the screen very accurate depictions of working-class people. And that is what you do not normally get on the screen. And because of that it’s seen from the perspective of non-ordinary i.e. non-middle-class characters that it seems to be a statement about class tensions when it often isn’t. It’s just that that’s who they are, basically. Johnny’s a classic, you can see that. One of the things that’s inherently important about Johnny and Louise is that they come from working-class backgrounds. But the minute somebody perceives that as being what is extraordinary about this character, is when it becomes converted to being a statement about that which it isn’t necessarily.

BG Those responsible for funding British cinema and television seem to be more interested in social satire and criticism than their compatriots here. Stephen Frears’s films, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, or My Beautiful Launderette. Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective. They seem to be, within the BBC and Channel 4, more tuned in to films about the underclass.

ML First of all, there’s a tradition in England of making things about ordinary life. It’s a tradition that goes back decades; it doesn’t exist anywhere else, really. I’m messing up, you could argue that with Upton Sinclair. But in principle it’s very much an English thing. Secondly, the period in which a number of us participated—Frears, Lousch and I—you couldn’t get feature films made in the U.K. at all. We all did these films for the BBC for television. And in that period, everybody made films about ordinary lives. Here there is no such tradition in television films. There is also this other institution which renders such activity impossible, the slightly-known, generic term: Hollywood. (laughter) End of statement.

BG Whatever you’ve made—films for television or films for theatrical release—you’ve been consistently working, and doing exactly what you want to do.

ML On the whole, yes. I’m not sure what your question is.

BG The means with which to make films has always been at your disposal, largely through the experimental Channel 4… . Are you satisfied by the ways in which you can work in film in Britain?

ML Wow, that’s a complicated question. I, personally, have been very lucky. Certainly I have never made a film yet and on the whole I don’t intend to make a film where I’ve in any way had to compromise what I wanted to do. I’ve had complete freedom including the final cut. With the single exception of my first film Bleak Moments which was backed by Albert Finney, every film I’ve made has been funded primarily or completely either by the BBC or by Channel 4. And therefore, in the strict sense up ‘til now, nothing has changed, whether it be making television films or these Channel 4 features for television with an initial theatrical release. In the end, they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which is fine. That means that that freedom has continued to exist. However, a) I’m not sure what will happen when I get funding from elsewhere which looks as though it may happen—it seems to be more complicated in terms of less freedom but if I don’t get freedom I shall walk away from it. b) We’re talking about what I do. Actually, the situation overall is very unhealthy indeed, and I particularly worry about young filmmakers. I want to see people begin to make films, not even as I was lucky enough to do when I was 28, but younger than that. c) Britain is the only country in Europe where there’s a government who is strict on what they call non-interventionist policy and what I call non-supportive.

BG Non-interventionists, therefore what?

ML Well, they don’t support the film industry and they should.

BG But on the other hand you have America which is interventionist and supports the film industry but to make an independent film not with a major or mini studio, it still takes two or three major stars’ names in order to get the financing.

ML Well …

BG Same in Britain?

ML Yes, that’s the way business is.

BG So that’s the world. You take a similar position of another filmmaker whose work I admire, Fassbinder. Which is that things are presented as they are, and hope lies in the audience.

ML Absolutely. That’s right. It’s not what happens to Johnny, it’s what is happening to you that’s the thing.

BG Which brings me back to my initial reaction, my physical reaction to what happens to Johnny, is what happens to me at the end of that film. And the questions that you raise, as you said, are more important than the answers.

Bette Gordon is a filmmaker who lives in New York.

Tom Noonan by Alison MacLean
Tom Noonan 1
Olivier Assayas by Alex Zafiris
Olivier Assayas 1

Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.

Lawrence Michael Levine by Gary M. Kramer
Lawrence Levine 1

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Kelly Reichardt by Gus Van Sant
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Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon.

Originally published in

BOMB 46, Winter 1994

Featuring interviews with Haruki Murakami, Ileana Douglas, Dan Graham, Mike Leigh, Campbell McGrath, Dona Nelson, Tran Anh Hung, Julius Hemphill, Stephen Wright, Robert Schenkkan, and Lawrence Gipe.

Read the issue
046 Winter 1994