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Mike Leigh on 'Another Year': 'I'm a realistic filmmaker'

January 11, 2011 |  6:00 am

Mike Leigh 
Mike Leigh does not suffer fools gladly. Whereas most filmmakers approach Q&A sessions like benevolent pedagogues, Leigh treats them as bloodsport, cutting rambling questioners off at the knees and peppering his responses with words like "stupid" and "irrelevant." He’s equally combative one-on-one, but much of his ire is (thankfully) focused on targets outside the room. In describing the process behind his recently released film, "Another Year," the Oscar-nominated writer-director succinctly delineated his disdain for the way most movies are made and the reasons actors are keen to sign on for his "grueling" but ultimately rewarding shoots.

 Your films don’t have messages, but they do have themes. What was the spine of "Another Year" for you?


The truth of it is that this film was a tough film to make, and it remains a tough film to talk about — for me and for you and for everybody else. It’s reductionist to talk about "the thing it’s about," because it’s about a lot of things, which are very personal. To be specific, "Happy-Go-Lucky" was generally thinking about youngish people. I’m 67 right now, and I felt I wanted to deal with issues about where we’re up to. The film is about different people looking at the future and at the past: for some of them, the joy of the future, and for others, the black hole, the horror of that. So all of those things are on the go, and they inevitably inform the decisions I make with the characters and investigating their relationships. But at the same time, it is the case that, always, making the film is a journey of discovery as to what it is. This is not news. This is how people write novels, paint pictures, create music. These ludicrous questions about knowing in advance only derive from the industrial process of how films are normally made. All I do is what artists do.

So do the themes emerge from the process of making the film?

It’s always nonsense to talk about it coming out of the process. The process is simply a box of tools to pull out what it’s actually about. The process itself is not a kind of magic egg that produces the subject matter. The process is there so that, like an oil painting or a novel, there are processes, there’s a medium to work. And the medium connects with the message.

Actors differ as to whether they need to understand their character better than they understand themselves. What do you think?

That’s a very interesting question in this context. In the way that we work on these things, we don’t sit around trying to rationalize and intellectualize or work out things in the elaborate and often totally unhelpful way that people do on plays and films. The paradox is that these actors understand their characters completely, but at the same time, there hasn’t been a whole analysis of everything. In that sense, it hasn’t been dealt with as something that has to be understood. My particular genre of dramatic storytelling on film is that things happen that are implicit. A lot of stuff happens, in this film in particular, where you the audience aren’t going to know exactly why you felt what you felt. It happens by a kind of telepathy. You can talk about Zen and the art of "Another Year," really.

"Another Year" marks your fifth time working with Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, and your seventh with Lesley Manville. Is it easier to get people you know to sign on to the seven- or eight-month process of making one of your films from the ground up?

The truth of the matter, if I’m honest, is that these days there is no end of actors who’d be very happy to do what I do. There was a time a long time ago when I had to struggle to find people who would give up that amount of time — or indeed, more importantly, who would trust what was going to happen when there wasn’t a script. But those days are decades away. That sort of commitment, people are up for it. They know it’s going to be tough. You can’t fall back on anything. I can’t. They can’t. You can’t phone it in, as they say. I can’t say, "Just learn the lines and don’t fall over the furniture." There are no lines to learn. There’s always a tough time somewhere along the line for everybody. It’s grueling, it’s demanding, it’s dangerous, but it’s a roller coaster, and we have a lot of fun. Woe betide anyone without a sense of humor.

Lesley Manville’s performance is at a significantly higher pitch than Broadbent’s or Sheen’s. She’s a kind of manic female character who appears often in your films. Is that deliberate?

It depends whether you think that’s a matter of stylistic differences or whether you see, and this is what I think, it’s simply behavioral differences. Some people are more over-the-top than others. This is an old business with my films. It’s partly because of the conventions of movie acting that this crops up at all. On the whole, people are used to, with marginal exceptions, Hollywood movies where you see actors behaving like actors. Not like real people.

Sally Hawkins, the star of "Happy-Go-Lucky," says the theatrical quality of your movies is often overlooked. Do you agree?

What we’ve just been saying about behavior and style is true, but on the other hand, one is choosing to put a character on the screen who is in some way extreme, although that extremity is real. The same with "Happy-Go-Lucky." To cut a long story short, I am not a naturalistic filmmaker. I’m a realistic filmmaker, but it's not naturalism.

— Sam Adams


Photo: Director Mike Leigh. Photo credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times.