Mike Leigh and His Affinity for Writing Brilliant Female Characters

2008-10-10 (Limited release)

Immediately after seeing Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, and being gobsmacked over just how much I thoroughly loved it, I was inspired to seek out Mr. Leigh for comment. I did not think that would be an easy task, but it turns out he was available and utterly engaging (explaining that my PopMatters, column Suffragette City was about women in film, he retorted “well, you’ve come to the right place!”). I spent time with Leigh in Manhattan on the day he was to receive the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Director, and two days after Happy-Go-Lucky swept the National Society of Film Critics awards.

For me, as a film journalist and student of film, this was an especially delicious privilege, to have full access to the artist from whose mind this all sprang, who created my favorite film of 2008. We chatted about the talented Sally Hawkins (of course), “quasi-feminism”, and his affinity for writing brilliant female characters and working closely with great actresses (including one of my favorites, the late Katrin Cartlidge). We even managed to cover Angelina Jolie in Changeling. Talk about your master classes.

I would like to begin by talking about color. I wondered what the starting point for Happy-Go-Lucky was, in terms of the look of the film, for you – because the color choices are so expressive and alive. Is it painting or art, or just simply a shock of color?

That’s an interesting question, about painting and art. I mean, I am very visual and indeed have an art school background myself, amongst other things, and am very conscious of “visual” things, I think. I conceive things visually, but I think the primary answer is that it doesn’t come from “painting” at all, it comes from life. The “color” in Happy-Go-Lucky is an expression of the spirit of the film.

I, as you probably know, spend some considerable time sort of cooking up the premise of the film and the characters and the relationships and everything else, with actors over a period of time. There’s always a stage when I’ve been doing that for a bit. I really discover what the film is by the process of making the film, actually. There’s always a stage when, once I have the hang of the general conception of the thing, in however punitive a form that is, I sit down with the cinematographer and the designers, principally the cinematographer and the production designer, but also the costume designer and the team I work with, the make-up designer who is very sophisticated, and I share with them the film, such as it is, that’s starting to formulate in my head.

In this particular case, I said to them, “look, it’s about Poppy”. I described Poppy. I described her energy. Her ebullience. Her sense of humor. Her positivism. Her joie de vivre. I said “I think the film has to burst with color. And we decided to shoot it widescreen, which we had never done before. And we also, as always, we started to shoot tests to try out things, to find the palette, to find the visuals for it.

It just so happened that Fuji brought a new film stock called “Vivid” onto the market at exactly the point we were about to shoot the tests. Literally, that week, they announced it at a trade fair in London. And so we tested that, and in fact, it’s a stock that lends itself to primary colors.

So that allied with all kinds of other visual decisions, not least amongst which is Poppy’s wardrobe, Poppy’s collection of costumes. Which of course, are all off the peg, I mean, nothing that Sally is wearing in the film couldn’t have been bought by Poppy on her budget and nothing was made specially, I mean, that’s important. It’s about the spirit of the film in the first and last analysis.

When I made my very first film, Bleak Moments, we talked a lot about Vermeer, for example. I don’t really make films about painting. I’m not a filmmaker, and I know there are lots who make films about it, that makes films about films. I don’t subvert, of course we all do it in some way, we are all are informed by our sense of cinema and our sense of other things, but I am not a genre referencer or pastiche merchant in that sense.

One of the scenes that truly sent the film into orbit for me was Poppy’s interaction with the homeless man. It had me on the edge of my seat. It felt so dangerous because you didn’t know if you should laugh or expect something horrible to happen to this character. Can you talk about the preparations for the scene, and what it means to you?

Of course, I can and I will! The truth is, the interesting thing about, I think, my work in general, and that scene, in some ways in particular, it turns out, is that it grabs any number of people any number of different ways. I think that it’s important that there is something kind of implicit, and this goes back to something we talked about at the beginning of this conversation, because my films are not renderings of something as such or as life on a page, they are actually conceived and executed in an organic, plastic way. The language, the meaning, the codes and metaphors are not always very clearly explicit, they’re implicit and they grab people in different ways.

In that scene, interestingly, it’s evoked a very wide range of reactions, including people saying “I cannot see what its doing in the film” or that sort of thing. The scene is about Poppy, about her ability to not be judgmental, her courage. She doesn’t think twice, and people talk about danger, she doesn’t think about that at first, she’s interested — she hears this strange chant, and she’s just immediately, naturally, and unaffectedly intrigued.

At that point in the story, she has gone off to kind of meditate a bit, but she’s sort of being reflective and then this happens, and she is just immediately open to this guy, is listening, is attending to him and connects with him. So, it’s about her ability to connect. It’s about all of those things. It’s blessed, the scene, you talk about preparation, with an extraordinary performance by this guy, Stanley Townsend, who is a very distinguished Irish actor.

When I talked about the scene, planned it with Mark Tildesley, the production designer, and the cinematographer, Dick Pope, I said “it has to be somewhere where we don’t know where we are”. The audience needs to be pulled out of their comfort zone, a bit. Which is what you obviously express. And so, we actually shot it the bowels of Battersea Power Station, which sits on the south bank of the Thames, with four very famous chimneys, and nobody knows what to do with it. You can’t tell that’s where you are, that’s because we shot it in such a way. You know, people have actually said “now that scene under the bridge”, or “that scene in the old factory”, “that scene by the railway” – people actually supply where it was. But what’s more important is what it is in relation to Poppy.

At one point she does say “What I am doing?”, so she’s aware, she really connects with the guy and something kind of happens in a way that happens in life, with people, and you take something from it and you move on. When she goes back to the apartment, which she does next, Zoe [Alexis Zegerman] asks her three times “where have you been?” and she doesn’t say. In Hollywood terms, that means that’s “plot”. We figure that something private has happened between her and this guy, she doesn’t know who he is, and she’ll never see him again, and she doesn’t want to betray that in some way. But all these things, in a way, when you put concrete labels on them, it sort of devalues them slightly, but that’s the way it is.

There are such striking moments of what most people would call “normality” – whether it is the married, pregnant sister in the suburbs judging Poppy and the overall perception that everyone wants that kind of life and sees it as the ultimate ideal of fulfillment. As though originality and individualism are bad traits. Are these Poppy’s great fears? To be normal or average?

I don’t think she fears anything. I don’t think it’s about fearing. You could see perfectly well, that for example, were she to get together with this guy, Tim [Samuel Roukin], whom she hooks up with, and plainly starts what could be a healthy relationship, were they to get together or were they to have kids, they would probably do it rather well. Neither would lose their sense of humor nor their spirit.

The important thing is, and this is a contemporary thing, but here are women, and I am speaking about her and Zoe, who are around 30 and who are professional, who are getting on with it, and who are not fettered by the received wisdom that you have to comply with the dumb thing. They will do it in their own way, when the time is right, and healthily and wholesomely. When she does it, and I don’t need to say if she does it, because I don’t think there is any doubt she will do it – I mean, she’s good with kids, she’s a nurturer. When she does it, she will do it a damn site better than her neurotic, paranoid sister, with all due respect, whose whole classic hang-up is to do with herself, not with Poppy. She is threatened by Poppy’s security, actually. But all that’s obvious, really.

Sally said of you: “I went up to his tiny little office, and there was just paper everywhere,” she laughs. “And in the middle of it all was Mike, hair on end, his beard out of control, looking like he hadn’t slept for 10 days. But there were hundreds of drawings stuck to the wall, in sequence; he’d storyboarded the entire film in stick figures, down to the last minute detail. And that essentially was our script.” I really liked this image. How important is a storyboard?

Bless her. She’s not describing something that’s not true, but I don’t have a story board. All I’d done there was, on that occasion, uniquely, I’d done a number of little drawings and had put them up on the wall. I build structure before I shoot the film but I never have a storyboard. A storyboard being a plan of shots and things. I build structure and I make the film up as I go along on the location.

We’d been in rehearsal for six months and then took a few days out before she saw that to just do the structure. I normally don’t share it with an actor, but because she was carrying the film, I wanted to check through the through-line of the thing, the dramatic story with her, so it made sense to her. So I do a structure and then I really go on location and invent the film from there on in, drawing from what’s in my head and what we’ve been doing, but discovering new things as we go, so to me, the storyboard doesn’t exist, and I don’t have a storyboard, what’s important is structure. But really what’s important to talk about is that I get out there and make it up. I can only do that with the most creative people, of whom Sally is the zenith.

Women hold a special place in your filmic universe – and these are not the kinds of women who would typically populate a Hollywood or American film…

(laughing) Well, actually I am tickled at this question, but let me just interrupt that question, by pointing out, course, that since I am not either American nor do I make Hollywood films, and that fact that I am an independent European filmmaker, there is absolutely no reason I should have anything to do with Hollywood. Notwithstanding all of the celebration the film is getting on this side of the Atlantic… Please continue.

When I look at films, I like well-rounded female characters. I like to see real ages, real looks, real jobs, and that’s what we get in your work. I think that is something that is usually missing from films that are made here (in the US). When you are writing and creating female characters, what are the most important elements for you to capture?

You know, with all due respect, that’s honestly a question without an answer, because I approach all characters, women and men in my films, in the same spirit. I see every character as indeed I see people; each of us is the center of his or her universe. Everybody is as valid as everybody else.

Incidentally, any character, any minor character, could be a central character in a film. I can’t really answer the question “what I am looking for in my female characters”, because to even try and answer that question about the central women in my films, there isn’t really a universal quality. One of the most famous ones is a woman who is completely fucked up, completely disingenuous, has made a complete mess of her life, and that’s Cynthia in Secrets and Lies [played by Brenda Blethyn]. I mean, she is the antithesis of Poppy or indeed Vera Drake. Poppy and Vera Drake certainly have a lot in common with each other in that they are both givers and nurturers and care for other people, but obviously, their circumstances are entirely different and obviously Poppy’s somewhat of a more sophisticated kind of person.

Again, if you look at, and no film of mine has invoked more argument, discussion and debate about the female role than Naked, in some feminist or quasi-feminist quarters, when the film was released it was castigated for being a misogynist film, which is of course rubbish. It’s the very antithesis of that, indeed.

Apart from that, I couldn’t have made the film without the actresses – obviously, the actresses who acted in the film were nothing if not a bunch of feminists. You couldn’t have made the film if they weren’t. The idea that all of the women were doormats and that Johnny [David Thewlis] is violent to everybody isn’t true. It’s nonsense. And within that film, you get a quite different, quite diverse spectrum of women, including again, a classic performance from the late, lamented Katrin Cartlidge as Sophie, who is, in fact, completely screwed up. In a way, I can’t generalize, it spans the spectrum, and you know, maybe Poppy’s got something in common with Wendy [Alison Steadman], the mother in Life is Sweet.

It’s very hard. My mother had no sense of humor at all. I’m divorced. I’ve just ended a relationship. I have two extremely sophisticated and delightful and wonderful sons, and I can’t tell you anything else other than to say women are a part of our life. I’m straight (laughs).

The other thing I really should say about this question is that I do see it as one of my parallel agendas to make good parts for women, because they don’t exist. On the whole, even the so-called good parts for women in films are subservient to or are a subordinate to men, or to plot. I’ve just seen Changeling, have you seen that?

(with disdain): Yes.

Without passing a comment on the film, which is a perfectly respectable piece of filmmaking, I’ve heard it’s a career-defining performance. I think she [Angelina Jolie] does perfectly well, but all she can do and all she does do, is tell the story and react to a whole range of situations that go on.

You could argue “well she takes the bull by the horns and she goes all the way with challenging the status quo”, but that’s not really an explanation of character, apart from the fact that it’s based on something that actually happened. You don’t really find out what she is like as a personality. You actually don’t in my terms. She is a cipher, really, and that’s not a criticism of her [Jolie] or indeed, of the film. It’s a fact of that convention of filmmaking. It’s not about character acting or an exploration of personality, or the nuances and complexities of how an individual is.

It’s interesting to me that you would bring up that film, because I’ve been very curious throughout the whole awards season hoopla, about why people are responding so strongly to that performance…

What I’ve just said, without a question, it’s because she’s a “character”, a heroine. She occupies the center stage and she carries the pictures and she challenges the status quo and all of those things but it’s not about, in the end, and it’s no disrespect to her or the film, its an intellectual thing, its not a performance of any exploration or complexity.

Therefore, in a way, and I say this cautiously because I am not supposed to criticize other people’s work, whoever they are. But it’s not, and therefore it can’t be, a three-dimensional characterization in terms of my films, where you, whatever character you’re looking at, you are looking at someone who is absolutely a real person, with all of the surprising, quirky things that real-life people are and that real people manifest. That isn’t to say you couldn’t tell her story. One hundred percent of the time, she is a function of the plot. You don’t have any deviation from that. Anyway, we digress…

Your films seem to resonate unusually well with Academy voters and the American critics/public, more so than other contemporary British indeed filmmakers, as far as I can tell. What would winning an Oscar mean to you?

Winning an Oscar would be wonderful. I’ve never won an Oscar. The only time we ever got one was for the costumes and make-up for Topsy-Turvy [in 2000].

I’ve actually been nominated quite a few times and have been to the Oscars three times with Secrets and Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. I have never won, and I don’t expect that we would win with this film. I don’t think so, because at the end of the day, we are independent, low-budget outsiders from the Europe.

But it’s great to be nominated. The point is that anybody celebrates your work. Indeed, any such celebration promotes the possibility of the public seeing the work, which in the end is the only thing that matters, is good news, basically.

Happy-Go-Lucky will be released on DVD March 10, 2009.

Sally Hawkins and Mike Leigh on the set of Happy-Go-Lucky