Straight No Chaser: "Another Year's" Arch Melancholia

Director Mike Leigh

We present an exclusive round table interview with Another Year director Mike Leigh and actors Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen, getting a crash course in the intricacies of the patented Mike Leigh filmmaking process from the maestro and his players.

One of the most essential lessons I’ve taken away from the work of veteran director Mike Leigh is that taking one’s time is of paramount importance, both in life and in cinema. In addition, learning about the way Leigh makes films has impressed on me that the word compromise – except between close collaborators – is not part of an artist’s vocabulary. The director, whose fabled six-month immersion method of production is equally renowned and scrutinized, is a master filmmaker who is both deliberate and uncompromising in his vision, and the proof, as they say, is onscreen in the proverbial pudding: Another Year reveals the filmmaker and his frequent collaborators – Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (Iris, Topsy-Turvy), Lesely Manville (All or Nothing, Secrets & Lies), and Ruth Sheen (Vera Drake, High Hopes) – taking their work to new, daring directions. By illuminating the interiors of their middle- and working-class characters with a focused, powerful spotlight that exposes the flaws, the ugliness, and the complex beauty of their everyday lives.

Another Year ponders the point at which people realize that they have found contentment but still must deal with others who haven’t yet and who are far from realizing it. Even worse is that some of them, some of whom we know best and love the most, will never find it. Watching a person unravel can be like watching a train wreck. It can be infuriating. Sometimes it can be riotously funny. The universality of this theme will immediately draw in the viewer, because, hell, we’ve all been there: What do you do when one of your friends is lost, full of regret and wishes? What happens when as the giver, you’ve simply had enough of the takers? How much are we expected to take from those we love, who may be fundamentally damaged? At what point do you pull out of toxic relationships? Another Year is a film full of introspective questions such as these, a lean, delicious cinematic treat for those cinephiles who don’t like to have obvious, cliché answers shoved down their throats.

Leigh and co. thoughtfully examine the toll that giving takes on a good person, before the tenuous bonds snap like the thin black ice that coats a freshwater lake in early winter. They suggest that one must tread carefully in these kinds of relationships, which go through cycles very much like the motif of the four seasons, visually echoed in beautiful symmetry with the film’s four part narrative structure. In these thematic spaces, the director experiments with different rhythms within scenes that allow characters to behave in awkward, funny, tender, and natural ways that shed a warm light on all of the questions being asked, allowing countless interpretations to flourish alongside the full bloom of Tom and Gerri’s hearty, prized community garden.

As the key desperate character here, Manville, who recently was awarded the National Board of Review’s Best Actress citation, is in heavy contention for an Oscar nomination for her poignant performance as the drunk, addled, yet still-sweet Mary. Her name has been mentioned as frequently, deservedly, alongside as such heavy-hitting Hollywood movie stars as Annette Bening and Julianne Moore (The Kids are All Right), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) in one of the most hotly-contested races the category has seen in many years. While Manville is indeed dynamic in the role of Mary, Broadbent and Sheen – as the lonely Mary’s frustrated defacto parental figures Tom and Gerri -- equally deserve to be recognized by awards voting bodies and critics for their committed, full-bodied turns as a happily married middle class couple who provide a calm center of respite for the audience from the blowsy force of Hurricane Mary.

Leigh, who has been nominated for six Oscars to date (for writing and directing Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, and for writing Topsy-Turvy and Happy-Go-Lucky), is also working at the top of his game with Another Year, masterfully blending pathos, humanity, and comedy with a bruising exactness that comes from forty years of refining his craft. There are few – if any -- directors in the world that are afforded the artistic luxury of beginning a project sans script, but Leigh’s legend allows him complete artistic autonomy from beginning to end, allowing his cohort of actors and technicians (notably cinematographer Dick Pope) the freedom to make bold, inspiring artistic choices. Though he insisted the last time we talked that he didn’t feel destined to take home the Academy Award any time soon, two years and one masterpiece later, the time finally feels right to reward this consistently excellent director’s singular vision.

Tucked away in a bright booth in a posh hotel’s dining room, during the media blitz madness of the Toronto Film Festival in September, I was able to get a revealing, guided tour through the process of making Another Year from Leigh, Broadbent, Manville, and Sheen.

* * *

The last time we spoke you were headed to the New York Film Critic’s Circle dinner to pick up your deserved Best Director award for Happy-Go-Lucky. Was Another Year gestating at that point?

Mike Leigh: Actually on that very day – literally – we got the green light for this film, which happened on quite short notice. We’d rather given up. Until a thing is green-lit – I’ve got ideas floating around.

When you begin writing, do you have specific actors in mind?

Mike Leigh: No I don’t, because I don’t write! We don’t have a script. We collaborate and make the film up as we go along. Obviously when the actors take part in it, I have vague notions of it, very vague, because it is in the nature of life. You’ve got these extraordinarily talented people sitting around the table. They’re all incredibly versatile. You just know that there is an infinite cornucopia of possibilities as to where you might go.

Where does the idea for the seasonal theme come from?

Mike Leigh: Well, actually, it’s the coming together of a whole lot of different things. I was trying to find a way of expressing that apart of being nurturing people – these two (gesturing towards Broadbent and Sheen) growing things and all of that, being sort of greenish, you know, you can’t dramatize an environmental film (laughs). That’s boring. So that was one thing, and another thing was that I had a kind of sense of the spirit of the film which I shared with Dick Pope, the cinematographer, who did what he always does, which is to shoot tests. There’s a certain kind of feeling, but we weren’t sure exactly what we were looking for, so he shot three different looks.

At the same time as all those things were going on, we got the idea of Mary coming around to visit these characters [Tom and Gerri]. Someone you wouldn’t normally tolerate. So the film couldn’t have been set in a short time span, plainly. When I sat down to watch this test that he’d shot, it suddenly occurred: “I know what this is! It’s the four seasons!” And so he said “which color, which of these possibilities, where should we go?” Once we got the idea of the four seasons, it really liberated the whole thing. It came out of all of those things together and it seemed to make absolute sense. I didn’t realize that thematically, the whole thing is about time passing and cycling around, the endless nature of things. They’re endless except there’s a limit in life. That’s the short answer!

Moving on to one of my favorite topics: research. (To Sheen and Broadbent…) How do you begin researching your character’s occupations since that is a substantial part of your preparation?

Ruth Sheen: Well, first of all, we decide what the character is going to do. We sort of talked about what sort of person Gerri was and what she would like to do, and we decided that she would go to university and study psychology and eventually become a counselor. So our research led to different therapies and lots of different psycho-dynamic therapies, person-centered therapy, Mike gave me this great big book on psychology. So I did lots of reading, lots of research. It was quite difficult because I have no idea…but eventually I started getting it. But we decided that she would, because of her nature, be more interested in people. So in some ways, the in-person counseling was her thing, but she did it in her own way, although she had three or four different therapies that she studied and knew about and was qualified in. She actually took it upon herself to use her own common sense, her own feelings, in with it, in with the therapy, and we discussed it quite a lot, where she would go.

(to Broadbent) And what about with geology?

Jim Broadbent: With Tom, it was initially building up the character, and building up what sort of boy he is, when he’s a little boy, when he’s a teenager, he lives in the industrial Derbyshire that also has the pig district, and a dramatic, rural side to it, with quite dramatic geology. So, a part of his youth would have been spent traveling in that area. It seemed a natural thing for him to pursue the idea of geology, but he does have a degree in geology and engineering. We pursued engineering for a while, but it didn’t quite sit easily with the character.

Mike Leigh: Actually, I got a kind of message – from wherever you get these kinds of messages from – to do with what would…actually, what I’ve just talked about, which is a certain environmental, planet aspect. Which helped me to help us to go to geology. (To Broadbent…) And I think made sense to you…

Jim Broadbent: Absolutely! Studying engineering…the more I got into it, the more it was going to be problematic for me to get my head around sophisticated engineering. Geology is something very exciting, particularly as it applied to people who were brought up adjacent to the Derbyshire pig district, you know? So it all made a great deal of sense. Then you go down the usual route: which A-levels did he take? Which year did he graduate in? Where the universities offering geology course are…So, you pursue that. We went up to Manchester, once we had established that [Tom and Gerri] had met at university. The two of us went up to Manchester and researched and went around and the university and imagined what they had done there and where they would have been…

Mike Leigh: (To Manville…) You had less scope, the more interesting kind of research, as dictated by the nature of the character…

Lesley Manville: Yes, I did on this particular project. The research into Mary’s job was not that complicated. She’s a secretary with some small leanings towards having a kind of medical sense, so that wasn’t a big deal.

Mike Leigh: (To Manville…) So you got the short straw!

Lesley Manville: (Laughing) I did research Pinot Grigio in depth.

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