CANNES, France — “I always have a problem giving films titles,” Mike Leigh says, thinking about it. “That comes last, and this film was a real tough one, a bummer. At some stage we thought we should just call it ‘Life,’ but you can’t call it that, it’s bloody pretentious.”
“Another Year” was the appropriate title eventually selected, but the truth is that Leigh’s exceptional new film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, really is about the turning wheel of life as dramatized by the hand of a master, about the pleasures and jealousies, disappointments and insecurities, destroyed dreams and rekindled hopes that make up our daily lives.
“Another Year” is also further proof — if proof were needed after six Oscar nominations for writing and directing, a Palme d’Or and best director award from Cannes and a Golden Lion from Venice — that Leigh is a filmmaker like no other, a writer-director who uses his own singular method to go so thrillingly deep into character on screen that it frankly makes your head spin.
Starring Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a happily married couple and an exceptional Lesley Manville as their tightly wound friend, “Another Year,” is, like all of Leigh’s films, “very personal, subjective, about things that preoccupy me,” he says. “I am 67 and in part this is a film about time getting on and all that stuff. The last film (2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky”) was very much from the perspective of younger people and with this one I decided to look at some things from the perspective of my age.”
But if Leigh “can’t help working from a subjective overview,” he also continues to be engaged in what he describes as “this ongoing investigation into putting some kind of distillation of reality onto the screen.” Which means continued use and refinement of his process of working with actors to create those superbly delineated individuals his films are known for.
Though any attempt to generalize about Leigh’s method is doomed, in the broadest possible terms they involve the intense, months-long process of forming formidably detailed people from the ground up before any attempt is made to put them into a script — or even a plot. “What we do,” Leigh says, “is the very long and elaborate construction of what in conventional Hollywood terms would be called ‘back story.’ What we do is start at the beginning and work forward.”
This process can be enormously time-consuming, and Leigh remembers actress Brenda Blethyn asking him, after a full three months of this kind of work for 1996’s “Secrets & Lies,” “will we ever get up and do ordinary acting?” But the results bear out Leigh’s belief that once this process is complete, “it’s all there, the resonance of relationships, their actual layers, the hidden, implicit aspects are instantly there.”
As Leigh is the first to acknowledge, helping this process enormously is that “it’s been my privilege and luxury to work with the most brilliant actors: intelligent, sophisticated, informed about the world with a sense of humor about their lives. They’re supreme individualists with the ability to be part of an ensemble without any ego crap. They’re great character actors who don’t go in and play a version of themselves.” Which is why Leigh can use them again and again: “Another Year” is his seventh film with Broadbent, his ninth with Manville.
Despite lots of inquiries, these actors have never been Americans, and Leigh’s explanation of why offers additional windows into how his process works. One reason is simply that as a British filmmaker, he’s not had an idea that specifically called for Americans, but another is that “every actor ever seen in any of my movies joins in not knowing what the characters is, not knowing the size or weight of the part. Also actor Zed may have to do nothing for some weeks, do some research or just be patient, until I sort out actors X and Y. It’s almost impossible for some actors to sit waiting like that.”
And though people have asked, it is once again the nature of Leigh’s process that has kept him from taking on proteges to learn how to do it. The fact that “having anyone around is a damn nuisance” aside, Leigh insists on making sure that “nobody ever watches actors really getting used to being real. I don’t allow people to watch them formulate how to do it. I’ll often go off myself and leave them to it.”
More than that, Leigh is at this point in his career frankly skeptical that his methods are teachable. “I used to encourage others, I used to say anyone could do it, but I now feel that that’s absolute and total bollocks,” he says. “What I do is so idiosyncratic, so esoteric, so telepathic, so intuitive that if I had to explain it would be difficult.
“When people say, ‘Just tell us how do you do it,’ I say, and this is kind of smug, it’s like asking ‘Mr. Van Gogh, I want to paint some sunflowers, can you tell me how to do it.’ I practice a craft that can’t be copied.”
“Another Year” is the last film on which Leigh’s longtime colleague Simon Channing Williams will be listed as a producer: He died in April of last year, just as rehearsals were about to begin. “It’s an absolute cast-iron certainty that I would not have been able to make the films I’ve made since the 1990s,” the director says, “films with no script, no commitment as to subject matter and a refusal to discuss casting, without Simon as the producer.”
Leigh and Channing Williams’ longtime associate, Georgina Lowe, produced “Another Year,” but Leigh has a suspicion that his old producer pitched in as well. “We shot four seasons in 10 weeks and there were days when it had to be not raining and major storms were predicted,” the director relates. “We’d get to the location and it would not rain. After a while, I started to think that Simon had gone to heaven thinking ‘I’ve let the guys down, what can I do?’ And in his schmoozy way he took care of the rain. That was very much Simon’s posthumous contribution to the film.”