An Icelandic Masterclass with Mike Leigh

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Mike Leigh, 2008
Mike Leigh, 2008Photography by Retts Wood, courtesy of Dazed and Confused

The definitively British auteur gives a unique perspective on his life and art at the Reykjavik International Film Festival

Mike Leigh’s school report read: “Mike is a nonconformist. And a stubborn one, at that.” At 71, the legendary director continues to follow his own, brilliantly unique path. Responsible for the likes of Naked, Secrets & Lies, Abigail’s Party and Vera Drake, he’s a master at tragi-comic distillations of contemporary Britain, with a compassionate, enduring curiosity about the human condition. Last week, AnOther met the director at the enchanting Reykjavik International Film Festival, where he received its Puffin Lifetime Achievement Award from the president of Iceland. Earlier that day, as sleet battered the windows of Reykjavik University, Leigh held an illuminating masterclass, describing a film process notorious for its obsessive research, improvisation and lack of script. As he prepares to screen his latest Cannes-winning character study Mr. Turner at the London Film Festival, we reveal some highlights from his Icelandic masterclass.

Mike Leigh on... drawing caricatures as a kid
“I was always drawing caricatures of adults as a child. When I was six my father stopped me, saying it might embarrass them. For me the fascination is not about theatre or film or art, it’s about life. My disease is that I see people in a kind of 3-dimensional way – I see you and you are all ridiculous. You’re all gorgeous and ugly and good and bad and you are all different.”

“I was always drawing caricatures of adults as a child"

Mike Leigh on... a revelation with a nude model
“I went to drama school and that was a profoundly negative experience. I think you’d describe it as dead. I went there at 17 in 1946 and it was locked in this old fashioned, respectable theatre, with the traditions of the great Shakespearean actors. No improvisation at all. You learned the lines, you didn’t fall over the furniture and that was it. We didn’t discuss, who is this character? What’s the backstory? I then went to art school and had a revelation; everybody was drawing a nude female model and I looked around and thought, everybody is being creative, looking at real life and finding a way of expressing it and connecting with it.”

Mike Leigh on... on making his first film
“Given that I never have a script and absolutely refuse to discuss the film with anybody, I’ve been extremely lucky. I made up all these plays with no money in the 60s, and then the actor Albert Finney had been in Tom Jones by Tony Richardson and he won Oscars and a lot of money and decided to invest some in my first feature, Bleak Moments in 1971. My next was 17 years later, and in the meantime I made films for television, mostly the BBC. Abigail’s Party got 16 million viewers because it went out during a strike on another channel, on a very stormy night, and everybody in the British Isles watched it.”

Mike Leigh on... how an actor gets his attention
“To get my attention you have to stand outside my house, take all your clothes off and set fire to your hair (laughing). I’ll run into an actor in Soho who says they’ve just been for an audition and they’ll say, ‘I went into this room and there was a casting director and two assistant casting directors and two producers and three exec producers and some guy from America and somebody with a camera. They talked about the movie, and about Tom Cruise who they’re hoping to get, and then I left.’ I’ll say, ‘Did they ask about you?’ And they’ll say ‘no’. I’m very strict; when an actor comes to see me there’s nobody else in the room, it’s at least 20 minutes and we just talk. What I’m really concerned with is character actors who are excited by playing real people out there.”

Mike Leigh on... hiding in the back seat for Happy-Go-Lucky
“The deal is that the actors will never know anything about the story except what their character would know. In Happy-Go-Lucky, Eddie Marsan was very, very successful at playing a completely deranged lunatic. The guy was mad. The only way we could rehearse and develop the action through improvisation was by being in the car and doing improvisation down a real street with me lying on the back seat trying not to laugh.”

Mike Leigh on... convincing the money-men
“I do make these dangerous films where we don’t know what we’re going to wind up with. When we go to somebody and say, ‘Give us the money, we can’t tell you anything about the film or the casting,’ either they say, ‘Fantastic, here’s the money!’ or they say ‘Fuck off!’ Mostly it’s the second thing. If we had got yes’s from all the films we’ve applied for, I would have made 5,000 films by now.”

Mike Leigh on... his favourite Mike Leigh film
“I have two sons and I can’t tell you who I love more. I can tell you Life is Sweet is my least favourite. I made a film called Meantime about unemployment, it’s on a box set and I’ve got a soft spot for that. I’m not like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, I don’t watch my films every night. But I look at Vera Drake and think, ‘How on earth did we manage that?’ I’m impressed by the extraordinary thing we seemed to have got away with. So I think that’s all right. I hope, without sounding pretentious, that the themes of my films, which are about living and dying and being parents and being children and work and survival are in some way universal.”

Mr. Turner is part of the programme for the 2014 BDI London Film Festival.

Text by Hannah Lack