Mike Leigh, the acclaimed director of bleak movies, tells Stephen Applebaum that his gloomy days are over
For more than 30 years, Mike Leigh has mapped the tragicomedy of everyday life, in the process uncovering universal truths about the human condition. His film work in particular, as in Naked and the Oscar-nominated abortion drama Vera Drake, can be disturbing, bleak and emotionally gruelling. If there is hope, it is usually of the faint variety.
Inevitably then, people wanted to ask Leigh what had changed when his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. An out-and-out comedy, positively overflowing with warmth, optimism and a lust for life, the film dashes at every turn expectations that the title will ultimately be revealed as ironic.
So while other directors plunged festival audiences into darkness, Leigh, who made his feature-film debut in 1971 with the aptly titled Bleak Moments, emerged as the unlikely standard bearer of optimism and good cheer.
The Salford-born director says that he has always tried to make his films different, but that they always bear his signature. “My problem is I can’t avoid making Mike Leigh films,” he laughs. “And that’s why when people say ‘Happy-Go-Lucky is really different, it’s not like a Mike Leigh film,’ that’s rubbish, actually. It’s very like a Mike Leigh film.”
The same thing happened when Leigh made Topsy-Turvy, about Gilbert and Sullivan, he recalls. “But that film’s got all the characteristics of a Mike Leigh film all over it if you look. It happens that the subject matter is unusual, and the milieu is a bit different. Maybe that’s true of Happy-Go-Lucky, to some extent.”
Leigh says that like all his films, the new one is a reflection of the way he feels about life. It is “absolutely a comedy”, but its intent is “absolutely serious, and it has its dark side as well”.
The project grew initially out of his desire to do a film with the actress Sally Hawkins, who had had small parts in All or Nothing and Vera Drake. He liked her “positive energy, openness and humorous-but-serious take on things”, and felt that he could harness these qualities to say something about modern-day life.
An actor’s personality is important to the way Leigh operates. He does not work with a script but instead collaborates with his actors individually. Scenes and dialogue are constructed through months of intensive improvisation. Actors meet each other only if their characters have scenes together, and they only know as much as their character knows.
In a new book published later this month, Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, Leigh says he regards his time as a team leader in Habonim, the secular Jewish socialist-Zionist youth movement, as a crucial influence on the way he works as a director.
“Having that leadership experience was great and has absolutely informed not only how I am but also how I’ve worked,” he says. “Everybody was open and democratic and working together towards a goal, the spirit of which goes right through my productions and the way I work.”
Actors frequently find Leigh’s technique daunting, demanding and exhausting, but almost always come away having learned something.
“He instills in you a discipline and a focus,” says Hawkins. “He asks you to use your brain as an actor. You think you’re doing good work and then you meet Mike and you think: ‘OK, I’ve got to step up my game’. I hadn’t even been scratching the surface.”
Hawkins’s collaboration with Leigh produced the character of Poppy, a happy North London school teacher who dances through daily ups and downs with a love of life and her fellow human beings. As a teacher, she is compassionate, understanding and creative. She undoubtedly embodies the virtues that Leigh considers important in an educator. He was a creative child but after primary school found his artistic urges being stifled by the rigidity of the
systems in place at Salford Grammar and then Rada.
At home, his father, Abe, a Manchester GP, looked down upon his son’s creative pursuits, emphasising academic work. He was furious, Leigh says in his book, when his young son ignored his wishes and entered a cartoon called The Blowing of the Shofar (he thought it was blasphemous) into a drawing competition in the JC. “They wrote about it and gave it a commendation. He was shocked,” recalls Leigh.
Never one to follow the herd, Leigh explains that Happy-Go-Lucky is a response to what he regards as the miserabilism that a lot of people seem to be wallowing in right now. Certainly it was hard to disagree with him in Berlin, where the films on show included Paul Thomas Anderson’s violent There Will be Blood and Damian Harris’s harrowing child abuse drama Gardens of the Night.
Leigh feels well placed to comment. “You’re talking to a filmmaker that’s shown the dark side plenty. That’s me. That’s who you’re talking to,” he laughs. “I’m not someone who’s disposed to take an escapist or ostrich approach to these things, bury my head in the sand of oblivion.” Current film releases may suggest these are dark days, but there is another story, too, he says.
“I just feel it necessary to reject the growing fashion to be pessimistic and gloomy, because while the world is in a bad way everywhere, people on the ground are being positive and getting on with it, and that’s what this film is about.”
He believes there are Poppys in every country: “People who have that positive sense not only of their own worth and of the worth of their work, not only in their positive attitude to children, but who are plainly being optimistic about the future. If you were really pessimistic about the future of the world you wouldn’t be able to walk into a classroom and nurture children. So the film is about all of those things interlocking with each other.”
Ultimately, he says, Happy-Go-Lucky was an experiment to see if he could make a film that crept up on people so that “you start to be enriched by it in some way”.
There is no word at the moment what Leigh’s next cinema project will be about. It is unlikely that even its director knows at this stage. But one thing is for sure — it will, above all, be a Mike Leigh film. The man cannot help himself, after all.
Happy-Go-Lucky is released on April 18; Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, edited by Amy Raphael, is published by Faber on April 17, priced £12.99