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With J.M.W. Turner film, Mike Leigh looks to a new landscape

December 9, 2010 |  4:10 pm

   Leig
Fans of the emotional realism of Mike Leigh will be keen to see the director back on his game with his  twilight-years drama "Another Year," a movie that drew a strongly favorable reaction at Cannes and opens in the U.S. this month.

But Leigh's next movie could take him far from the working- and middle-class lives he chronicles in "Another Year" and, indeed, in most of his films over the last two decades.

The indie filmmaker told 24 Frames he's marshaling new interest and funding for a long-planned film about J.M.W. Turner, the influential 19th century British landscape artist.

"We want to make a film about Turner the painter, and that’s all I have to say about it," Leigh, in his charmingly irascible style, told us this week on a publicity swing through Los Angeles. "It would have to be an expensive project, so we're working to make it happen."

Turner, a Romantic painter known for his images of natural landscapes and disasters, was an eccentric figure who left a sizable artistic legacy. Leigh's interest in Turner would make the director the latest in a line of single-minded artists making art about other single-minded artists.

"I'd like to paint a bigger picture. I've only done two period films," Leigh, famous for working without stars or scripts, said of his interest in the subject. (One, "Vera Drake," is a 1950s abortion drama; the other is "Topsy Turvy," his 1999 film that's also centered in the world of art -- namely, the behind-the-scenes dysfunction as Gilbert & Sullivan prepare to stage "The Mikado.")

Making movies about a famous artist might seem a shift for him, Leigh said, but it isn't, or at least it wasn't with "Turvy."  "The conceit there was to take these famous people and subvert the whole thing by saying they're real people with problems and issues and relationships and vulnerabilities," he said.

But Leigh said that the budget remained an issue for the Turner movie. "With 'Topsy-Turvy' we were able to cut the budget by cutting the exteriors," he said. "You don’t make a film about Turner and cut the exteriors. This is a guy who strapped himself to the mast of a ship to paint a storm. He’s for real. So, yes, expensive."

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Mike Leigh. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

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