Mike Leigh's secret

By John Nathan, April 18, 2008

An illuminating new book on the director of Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake reveals how Habonim helped him

Mike Leigh On Mike Leigh
Edited by Amy Raphael; Faber £16.99

Amy Raphael’s Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, the latest in a series on film directors each written by a different author is, in effect, an exposé. It contains detailed descriptions of one of the most guarded secrets in world of professional performance — the Leigh working method. This starts with no script and evolves into six months of rehearsals preceding three months of filming. It is what Leigh refers to as “a sophisticated way of developing an inner world”.

The book is the result of nine days that Raphael spent with Leigh in his Soho office discussing the one thing which he hitherto has rarely discussed: his work. He also talks about his life, his insecurities, and his Jewishness — though always in the context of how these feed into his work.

The book charts a career that started with Bleak Moments, made in 1971 when Leigh was 28, via his breakthrough BBC film Nuts in May five years later, right up to Vera Drake. When Raphael was writing, Leigh’s latest, Happy-Go-Lucky, was known only as Untitled ’06, which is a shame because, shot in vibrant colour, it represents a change of mood in Leigh’s world.

Most of the book’s 400 pages are transcriptions of Raphael’s revealing conversations with the director, dealing chronologically with his entire body of filmed work. Also included are his plays — the ones he wrote as well as the nine he directed but did not write. Film, however, is what is most important to Mike Leigh.

The text does not simply consist of reams of answers to a list of questions. It is more naturally conversational, with Raphael quick to respond to Leigh’s answers. Each conversation is introduced with a breakdown of the film’s narrative, which frankly does feel like a poor substitute for actually watching it. But Leigh talks candidly about how ideas form, revealing, for example, how the notion of a film about adoption had been “festering” in his mind for 20 years, before Secrets and Lies. The success of that movie (it was nominated for five Oscars, though it won none) led to an offer from Hollywood, which Leigh turned down with a characteristically terse: “Out of the question”.

Possibly more than any other interviewer, Raphael elicits from Leigh his most frank acknowledgement of his Jewish background. “The ghetto mentality hang-up of hiding the fact that you’re Jewish is my problem, no one else’s,” says Leigh when talking about his play Two Thousand Years, his first foray into Jewish subject matter.

“It’s only us Jews who have the fear of the yellow star on our gaberdines and want to have our noses fixed and change our names and be seen eating pork or bacon sandwiches. To pretend we’re not Jewish.”

He says his time at Habonim was formative, giving him the leadership skills to direct — “everybody was open and democratic and working together towards a goal, the spirit of which goes right the way through my productions”.

“But do you feel Jewish?” asks Raphael. “Sometimes, by default. One feels very Jewish. Yet when I’m in a very Jewish situation, I feel decidedly un-Jewish. It depends.”

John Nathan is the JC’s theatre editor

Last updated: 4:48pm, May 13 2008