A fan of his work, I go into the interview armed with much admiration and one premise: Mike Leigh is both a great and a greatly underrated director, ranking among the giants in the pantheon but deprived of the auteur status and the wide recognition offered his fellow titans. I leave 30 minutes later with the fresh knowledge that someone else shares this view even more fervently than I do. Yep, Mike Leigh himself.
First, let's make the case. If the mark of artistic greatness is sustained quality over a range of genres and subject matter, then consider just the list of his most prominent features: Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Career Girls (1997), Topsy-Turvy (1999), Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), and his just-released Another Year. Now, align them on a spectrum and they stretch from raw contemporary yarns to distant period pieces, from existential tragedy to sly comedy, from youth's bloom to age's decline, from the deeply tormented to the truly contented, from adoptions to abortions to Gilbert and Sullivan. Yet, whether funny or sad, young or old, modern or historic, what's consistent throughout are the rounded depth of the characters, the credible snap of the dialogue, and the nuanced performances of the actors.
No doubt, the quality of that list is generally conceded, and not just by critics. Secrets & Lies won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and that picture, along with Happy-Go-Lucky, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake, have attracted 13 Oscar nominations in various categories. But if the merit is recognized, the range isn't. Somehow, the whole canon gets dumped into the dark bin marked Social Realism, and the director right along with it - oh, that dour Brit, the melancholy and brooding Mike Leigh.
Well, the animated and expansive Mike Leigh - the shortish man with the khaki jacket, the trim white beard, and a puckish face that belies his 67 years - is sick of the misconception: "It's ridiculous. It's quite absurd. Whether it's a function of Philistinism or naiveté or laziness, I don't know. Maybe it's because of the inevitable preoccupation with how I do what I do. And that gets in the way of seeing the differences in what I do. But I don't let it keep me awake at night. The job is to get on with it."
Actually, that's not how he talks. It's more like … this, in fits and … starts, thoughtful silences followed by eloquent bursts of speech. In a sense, then, Leigh speaks much the way he works - first, periods of contemplative rehearsal; then the efficient buzz of the shoot itself.
Indeed, that "preoccupation" he cites is precisely with his unique method of moviemaking. Leigh writes his own films but in a very particular way. The script arises only after months of rehearsal with the cast, when the story is plotted and the dialogue mapped out. However, beyond that point, everything is essentially locked in place. Leigh explains (as he's had to explain too many times before): "It's fixed when I shoot. You will occasionally find odd passages that are improvised on set, but that's rare. In Another Year, for example, there's not a word of improvisation. Instead, we arrive with something that's very distilled."
Ironically, his idiosyncratic working techniques, widely known in the industry, have had two contradictory effects. On camera, they give each of his films an unmistakable Mike Leigh stamp - there's always much talk but it never feels stagy; the tragic is invariably accompanied by an infusion of comedy, the comic by a darkening hint of tragedy. Off camera, however, these very techniques seem to have robbed Leigh of his full status as a genuine auteur. Every movie is a collaboration, but, in his case, the finished product is perceived as art by committee and he's just the guy sitting at the head of the table.
Clearly, that rankles him, which may explain this: Not once but twice, in the course of our short discussion, he displays an insecure tendency, almost poignant in a man of his age and accomplishments, to - how to put this delicately? - toot his own horn, subtly but emphatically.
Another Year, in which a happily married couple are an island of calm in a sea of emotional shipwrecks, unfolds over the course of the four changing seasons. So I ask if Eric Rohmer, who used the same seasonal structure in a celebrated quartet of films, may have been an influence, and get a curious response: "Not consciously. But I loved Rohmer's stuff, and I gather, incidentally, that it was mutual, actually." Ditto when, in a different context, Robert Altman's name comes up: "Yes, loved him, and that again was a mutual thing."
What's interesting here isn't that Leigh deserves to be spoken of in that exalted company - he's earned it - but that he feels the need (incidentally, parenthetically) to do the speaking himself.
That doesn't mean he isn't eager to credit others, notably the repertory cast who so regularly appear in his films. Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville - they're all back for Another Year, once more a part of that extended rehearsal process. "The fact is I'm blessed with actors who can do this sort of thing. Anybody who is good, you come back to, because they're good. Lesley is the record-holder - it's her ninth time. So there is a strong sense of family among the people who are members of this peculiar, esoteric club."
It's a club whose origins he can trace precisely: "The roots go back to when I was watching movies as a kid in Manchester, British and American movies, and thinking in my innocent way, 'Wouldn't it be great if you could see a film and the characters were like real people,' because in the end you never actually did, not really. Later I went to RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] did the actor training, and the conventions of that time were all hideously external and more about overacting.
So my methods are a reaction to all of those things, to the problems of unreal characters and overacting. Those problems evaporate once you deal with some kind of truth. We create this three-dimensional reality, and that's why the comedy bleeds into the tragedy. There are times when it just isn't funny, but it is. That's life."
More precisely, that's life as he portrays it exclusively on the British screen. His entire career has been spent in his homeland - that's where he married actress Alison Steadman; where they raised their two sons, Toby and Leo; where he now lives in Camden with his second wife; and where he regularly commutes between work in the theatre and his truer love in film.
Home has its advantages. From British producers, Leigh continues to receive carte blanche and total independence: "I feel lucky. I get to make films without even showing a script." What he doesn't receive is a budget nearly large enough to indulge his passionate wish "to paint on a bigger canvas." Perhaps that's why his next planned project is a biopic of the artist J.M.W. Turner - if you can't have the canvas, at least get the painter. And, to his credit, Topsy-Turvy proved what he can squeeze out of even a modest budget: a backstage musical, complete with onstage production numbers of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, all for a cool £10-million.
Of course, the really big money is only available in one spot, a place that wouldn't look kindly on his trusted methods or his faithful actors, a place that thinks "three-dimensional reality" comes with plastic glasses. Oscar might welcome Leigh, but Oscar's hometown would not. Here too, though, the feeling is mutual. As he once famously remarked, "Given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in my eyes, I'd prefer steel pins."
By now, it should be apparent that Leigh is what he specializes in - a complex character. Because his protagonists are complex, he manages to create empathy for every one of them, making the most despicable emotionally engaging, and the most happy-go-lucky dramatically interesting. We applaud their virtues, understand their flaws, feel grateful for their humanity. Surely the director, with his lofty achievements and his ingrained insecurities, deserves the same treatment. The conclusion is obvious: In 30 brief minutes, Mike Leigh has proven himself a terrific subject for a Mike Leigh film.