Two years ago when 'Happy-Go-Lucky' was released in the United States, I got the opportunity to interview writer-director Mike Leigh via telephone for the film. Although it produced a fairly entertaining interview for readers, the ten minutes it took to do the interview ranked among the most difficult of my career, thanks in no small part to Leigh's notoriously articulate, if equally cantankerous personality. Leigh not only fought tooth and nail not to break down or reveal his creative process, but contradicted and corrected my questions as I mostly unsuccessfully tried to get inside the mind of one of the best filmmakers in the world. Suffice it to say, when I was offered the opportunity to sit in a room with him for 45 minutes to talk about his latest film, 'Another Year,' I said yes immediately.
'Another Year' tells a singular and yet amazingly recognizable story, following a married couple throughout a single year as various friends, relatives and colleagues enter and exit their orbit. Although Leigh aggressively declined the chance to analyze the process by which he developed and made the film, he remained remarkably engaging as he offered insights into his collaborations with his actors and fellow filmmakers, observed the shortcomings and opportunities of being a director largely uninvolved with commercial moviemaking, and highlighted the reasons why he feels that asking about his artistic choices and inspirations is not rewarding for him, much less for readers of interviews like this one.
Cinematical: Does the formation of a relationship like the one between Tom and Jerry require those actors to do work separate from the other actors, or how do you develop each relationship?
Leigh: Definitely, but then any relationship you've ever seen in my films is done separate from the other actors; no actor ever knows anything about any aspect of the entire film except what his or her character would know. So in the weeks and weeks and weeks and months where we were exploring, first of all, it was Ronnie, and then Ronnie and Tom, and then Ronnie and Tom and Ken, and this is when they were all growing up in Darby. Then Tom – by this time I'd separately invented Jerry - Tom meeting Jerry at university and their lives, and Ken coming in having to do with them, and then Ronnie getting married to a character not played by an actress, and then having this kid and the whole relationship with the kid as he was growing up. All of that's gone on before we ever get around to Leslie Manville's character. But nobody knows anything about any aspect of the film except what the character would know, so to answer your question, yes, obviously. It's all about the world of Tom and Jerry.
Cinematical: Mary's consumption of alcohol could be a movie unto itself. But is there a different sensibility to the film that it is supposed to be a component of her life, or was that something that at some level you didn't want to explore more?
Leigh: Well, you know, there's no such thing as alcoholism as a separate standalone issue. Alcoholism, like drug abuse, is a function of people's needs and the inadequacy of their lives, and plainly that's the case with this woman. I mean, you could sleep through three-quarters of the film and you'd still know that she had a tough life, that she was abused by men and all the rest of the shit. But she's a victim of her own mistakes and vanity, but at the same time she can't help it because she's had a hard time, et cetera et cetera. So, therefore implicitly, she simply drinks because drink is her best friend.
Cinematical: How do you determine how hopeful the film's themes ultimately are? Because at the end of the film, the fact that Mary's with her friends, that can be seen in a more hopeful light, but it also seems very melancholy.
You know, the truth of the matter is that it's not for me to say anything about that at all, because what's happening by the end of the film is so complex that that is what I want you, the audience to walk away with. So I'm not supposed to say anything about that, which would merely be reductionist, really. But these questions that everybody asks, and you're asking lots of them too, about was that the intention and was it the plan to do this, as I constantly say, of course it's all intentional in the sense you make the film you want to make, but it comes out of intuitive, emotional, subjective feelings about things and it is the working out of a whole lot of stuff, and in the end it is about making a film which one arrives at by the process of making it. You flush out what you care about by the choices. I mean, artistic processes are all about making choices all the time, and the very act of making a choice is the distilling down and the getting to the core of what it is that you care about and what you want to say really.
Cinematical: At what point do you start to see concrete themes emerging, particularly because you have characters like the Imelda Staunton's, who is not directly tied to the main story?
Leigh: It's a slightly chicken and egg question, because at what point do I see concrete things emerging through the characters, but of course, my decisions that lead to who the characters are and how they are comes from a sense of the themes of the film. So that's also important. But Imelda Staunton's character, from a practical point of view, is a part that we asked her to be in the film, but it turned out that she couldn't do so because she was in a television series that had been written especially for her and she was kind of committed to it. But we realized that she was going to wrap this shoot three weeks before the end of my rehearsal period, so I said to her - and I've done this before on other occasions – "come and join us, and it will be as a bonus to me to have a relatively minor character up my sleeve because it's useful." By that stage, I knew that I wanted to see Jerry operating as a counselor because we developed all that stuff, but I didn't have a patient for her - and I also wanted to see the character who is a doctor doing stuff. So that led me in the direction of that. But then, on a much more profound level, I realized that this had a greater currency than simply a person that Jerry and Tanya are dealing with. I realized that this could give me a kind of emotional prologue to the film that is a kind of boot camp for the audience that prepares you in some subconscious subliminal way for whatever is going to come. If you didn't have that sequence there at the beginning, you would meet Tom and Jerry and you would see them in their allotment and feel very comfortable and know everything would be hunky dory - you'd be off the hook - whereas because you'd be put through this being plunged into the center of this woman's agony and helplessness, you know that somewhere this is about something and this is going to come up. What you don't know is it's not about her at all and she's going to clear off as fast as possible, because she doesn't want to know about this treatment and she's never going to come back.
Cinematical: Talking about Imelda's character sort of being sort of a boot camp for what the audience's expectations might be–
Leigh: Well, what an audience's feelings are going to be.
Cinematical: But this film does have a number of characters that appear for one sequence and they're not necessarily connected to others. Did you feel any sort of temptation to loop around with some of those things and make this character connected to this in a way that puts them in the whole film as opposed to just keeping them in one scene?
Leigh: It's a dramatic storytelling. I mean, all those characters, especially Ronnie and Carl's son and Ken, they were available, I could have them pop up all over the place, but this is simply the ordinary business of storytelling - dramatic construction. I mean, the strength of the film, I suggest - or one of the strengths if it has any - is that in each of the four acts, we introduce a new character. And that is a very clear and refreshing thing, but it is a dramatic requirement. I mean, the entire counter of cinema, theater, literature and everything else is full of main characters and characters that only crop up in certain [scenes] is because that's the story. The fact that they've worked and they're available to do [other things] in the end is tough shit basically.
Cinematical: Well you talk about you know, the editing process and that sort of being the final – is that where you decide where the end of the story is?
Leigh: No, no, no. That was decided when I shot that final scene. I knew that was the end. There was no question in my mind that was the end from that moment.
Cinematical: How did you decide that was where you felt like the end of this story needed to happen?
Leigh: I don't know; I can't tell you that. I really can't. I'm not dodging the question, I can't answer that. I just did because that's what happened.
Cinematical: How quickly in between films do you start sort of thinking about another one?
Leigh: Well, it depends. It varies. There's so many different factors involved, because I've got ongoing preoccupations ongoing, so at any given time I could make a film. And indeed this film suddenly happened very quickly - I suddenly got a green light and we had to leap in and do it. I wanted to shoot a great, get-on-with-it British film partly because we were asked to, but also because my producer, Simon Channing, was going to die of cancer and I wanted to get the film, make the film while he was still with us. In fact, he died three days before the rehearsals began. But there are some films that are a very long gestation. But on the whole, I'm best at thinking about one thing at a time really.
Cinematical: At what point do you think about actual structure of what the story is?
Leigh: Well that's my job. I'll just answer that question in just a slight elliptical way. If I was to say to you, "I don't think about structure at all until the last minute, I just let it grow, and then I think about structure." If you thought about it, you would say, hang on a minute, that sounds like nonsense; how is that possible? And the truth is, that's exactly the opposite of what happens. I'm developing the stuff all the time. There's a film in my head. I'm imagining a film. That's my fucking job you know, to imagine a film, and that is imagining what can happen in this film. So I've got possible things on the go, which is to say, structure, plus I made a decision about the seasons, and that was a decision about structure. But even apart from that, even with all the films I make, you think about, well, what can happen? I think, for example, we've got a character on the go. There is Ronnie's wife, - that's to say, she only existed because we talked about her. So it was powerfully obvious to me to that I knew that I would kill her off at some stage. Killing her off would be a useful part of what would happen in the story. So in other words, built into all the decisions I'm making in the development of the premise of the film are implicitly putative structural decisions. At the same time, I write a sort of structure before we start shooting, just before we start shooting, but that's there to deviate from and to challenge and subvert as we go. Because in the end, it's arriving at the perfect thing ideally.
Cinematical: Because you start with a feeling or an impulse, do you feel a sense of artistic or emotional catharsis from completing the film?
Leigh: Absolutely. That's what it's all about.
Cinematical: Well, maybe more specifically, do you feel if you're ruminating about age, as in the case of this film, do you feel some sense of enlightenment or understanding from having explored it?
Leigh: Well, I guess so. I mean, I don't know how much I can say, "ah, I've learned this, therefore my life..." I don't know about that. It's more complicated than that. But I'm going to screenings and people are coming up to me at a Q&A or whatever and say this film means so much to me. It happened last night at a screening - there was a couple last night who said, "We want to thank you, because we're going through a lot of difficulty in our marriage." They literally have just seen the film and it just ended about half an hour before, and, "we both feel that this has been really helpful to us." Now, for me, in answer to your question, that's the moment that I most feel what you're asking me about. It's not about what I feel about the film, because I know the film's the film, and I made the film, so there's a circuit set up between me, the film and them. And if something life-changing occurs for me because of the film, it's what they said. Does that make sense?
Leigh: There's a lot of that goes on with this film, but then my films always do, to be honest. And this film really does. And on the whole, thus far, pretty much such as press has been written about it has been positive. But somewhere along the line there will be some winching naysayers, just as there always are, but I know what the film is that we've made and I know how people are actually reacting to it at this level.
Cinematical: How difficult is it for you to sort of keep the fire in your belly – the passion for filmmaking? Does it come naturally?
Cinematical: There's no diminishment or through the maturity, the refinement of your process, or any of that?
Leigh: Nothing. Look, the process is not what it's about. The process is no more than anybody else's process, it's just a process. It's not about the process. I mean so much time is spent waffling about the bloody process. A process is just a box of tools. It's what it's about that matters, you know - what our films are about, not the means by which they are rendered into existence. No, I mean, I'm motivated to keep at it really, and in some ways it might even be getting better. I don't know. It's difficult really to assess that. I'm old enough to have friends and contemporaries who have long since retired, and that's their prerogative - enough is enough; it doesn't mean a thing to me. But I haven't got any money, so, you know, I just keep on working.
Cinematical: Do you put any sort of pressure on yourself to continue working, or do you just sort of work when the inspiration strikes you?
Leigh: I've got plans to be doing things for the next four years. I mean, it's not an issue really. You just keep working and doing what you do, whilst I'm lucky enough to be able to walk about and breathe.
Cinematical: So you're able to have the freedom to creatively do what you want. You're not under commercial pressure.
Leigh: No, but I pay a price for that freedom, which is that I make very low budget films. And you know, over the years my producer would always see people with big bucks come back and say, because I always wanted to make bigger budgets, "well, they don't care that there's no script, they know that you can do that. They don't care that they don't know what it's about, that's fine. But they will insist on a name." By which they mean an American star. And I'd say, fine, let's walk away. Let's go. I don't want to know. So fuck it - we'll find the money. And 'Another Year' has the smallest budget I've made a film for in ages. It cost substantially less than 'Happy-Go-Lucky' or 'Vera Drake.' But if they said you could have $20 million or a thousand million or a billion dollars, but you have to have X, Y, I'd say forget about it. That's not what it's about for me. Especially with American stars. I mean, I come from world cinema; I'm a European filmmaker.
Cinematical: You don't feel the same about English actors who are maybe more recognizable? I mean, is there any of that pressure as well?
Leigh: I mean, it's cropped up occasionally, but there are some very good English actors. The people you're talking about, and I've worked with some, I've worked with Ben Kingsley and I've worked with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman and Julie Walters. But this is all academic. I think Michael Caine is a perfectly good actor but it's obvious he's not going to be in one of my films. But the fact is we're blessed with amazing actors, and I mean there are specialists, like the Jim Broadbents and Leslie Manville, who is the record holder I've worked with her more than anybody. And with Leslie Manville I had finally decided as I did with Sally [Hawkins], okay, let's get on the go and get Leslie in a part that gives her some opportunity to get a prize or two and be taken seriously. And hopefully that will happen. I hope so; I'd like to see her nominated, because she's a very extraordinary actor. But this thing of commercial considerations, my films are what they are, they do what they do, they've got their own niche, in a way, and I've always been very insistent that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We don't start compromising on fundamental principles and wind up doing something that doesn't achieve anything basically. And that's what happens to people. People do it all the time in the movies, consistently. People do things they don't really believe in because they think, well actually if this is commercial that will lead to something, and it's a fatal mistake. I'm very involved with young filmmakers. I'm the Chairman of the Governors of London Film School, which is a very fantastic school. It's been on the go since the 1950s. I'm very concerned with young filmmakers. And you know, sometimes they say, "What is your main advice?" And it is, "never compromise."
Cinematical: Well, with the idea of being able to have complete freedom, what sort of constraints do you feel like help you? Does the fact that you have lower budgetin some way help?
Leigh: Well, yes. It's always true that restrictions focus the mind. But it's a complicated issue, because that's to say it would be unhelpful to have bigger budgets. I mean, you know, we made 'Topsy Turvy,' and it had the biggest budget that we've had so far. It was actually £10 million. In fact for what you see on the screen it's peanuts, it really is peanuts. It was 12 and then 11.75 million, and then it disappeared because of the Southeast Asia crisis and the Korean backers pulled out and so on and so forth, and we had to be very, very inventive to make that film, as with 'Vera Drake,' for the money we had basically. Now if we had the money we started looking for in the first place, which was on the order of 25 million, the question is, would it have been a better film? I think the film we would have made would have been interesting, but whether it would have been a better film, who can say? So that's quite a hard one really because you do what you do. I mean, the truth of the matter is, I'm making films much more sophisticated and elaborate and more expensive than the films I was making 20 or 30 years ago. Are they better films? They probably are better films, but were the other films so substandard as to be irrelevant? I don't think they are, or were. They were okay.
Cinematical: What aspect of your filmmaking do you not get asked about that you enjoy talking about? Or that you would enjoy talking about?
Mike Leigh: Well, the cinematic, the visual, that I do talk about quite a lot. But I suppose the answer to that question mostly is people tend to want to talk about the acting and the improvisations and all that shit. Somebody before, about an hour-and-a-half ago, in a phone interview started talking about my films, about naturalism, and 'Winter's Bone,' which was very nice film – I've seen it. But I said, hang on a minute - there's no relationship between naturalism and my film. I make tragicomic films, and the comic basically supports the tragic. I make films that have got their roots not in documentary naturalism, but as much as anything in vaudeville and the theater and the absurd and strip cartoon humor and stuff. And my films are much more heightened and much more in a way what I would call symphonic, because you get great passages, you get highs and lows and all of that. And when I hear my films talked about as social realist, naturalism, or social naturalism, it's nonsense really. Of course there's a dimension in which they are real, and I want to believe in them just as much as they would believe in something that was actually was a documentary, but they work through a whole lot of other more sophisticated tragicomic visual and literary devices.
Cinematical: Notwithstanding the fact that you are asked about it, do you understand why people are so interested in your process?
Leigh: Obviously I do. Of course I do, and apart from this it's fascinating. And the truth of the matter is, that much as they ask about it, and as much as I talk about it to a greater or lesser extent, nobody ever really finds out anything about it at all because what we actually do and how we do it and what actually happens is a complete trade secret that is nobody's business. So there. You're wasting your time.
Cinematical: Are you resistant to the idea of trying to make concrete an intuitive process, or is it a concrete process that you just are reluctant to discuss?
Leigh: No, no. I mean, you can analyze in some concrete practical terms all artistic practice or craft - there are craft elements there in the things you have to do and procedures and the order of doing things and techniques and all the rest of it. But you are talking about something which is intuitive, which is telepathic, which is esoteric and which is in some ways, I hesitate to use this word, but I guess it has to be used, magical. But that is true of all creative processes that artists deploy and practice. And they are always very private. And perfectly legitimately, the premise of all discussion about what we're talking about, including in this conversation to some considerable extent, is based on the notion of me knowing what I'm doing. And that misses out on the major ingredients in what any truly creative artist does - and that is the part of it that works because you don't know what you're doing. You're finding out what you're doing and even when you find out what you're doing and you do it, you still don't know what it is you're doing or you've done. Now that's important.
Cinematical: Are you reluctant to analyze that after the fact?
Leigh: No. That is, whether I am or I'm not reluctant, one thing is analyzing it. But the other is whether I'm prepared to discuss that with all and sundry, and the answer is, I'm not.
Cinematical: Why is that? I mean, I'm not asking you to explain this film, but–
Leigh: Well, I'm not going to. But for the reason I have already said - these things are private and esoteric. But I'll tell you the truth - if I go an talk and do a long session with a bunch of film students where I talk to student actors or something, I will talk about things in much more detail than I will ever talk to a journalist. So you have to put on a disguise.
Cinematical: Do you feel like codifying the filmmaking process inhibits the creativity of filmmakers? Whether it's looking at Robert McKee's rules of screenwriting or-
Leigh: Well, that's a whole different question. I don't think, I mean, no disrespect to the man, but I don't think you need formulated quasi-science or a book to tell you, for example, that a film should be conceived in three acts, because I defy anybody to make a narrative film which isn't in three acts. Because if you never think about three acts, you set up the premise, you deviate from that premise in some form, and then you resolve it - that's the three acts. That's what happens and you can't help it, but that's a different thing from what we were talking about because that's talking about this sort of generalized formula about how to do it, about how to make films, how to write films, whatever it is. But what you've got me talking about here isn't how to make films, it's how I make my films, which is a whole different ballgame. But anyway, apart from anything else, each film I make is a different experience, including the practicalities of how it was made. Are you ever going to end this interview, do you think?
Cinematical: Well, that's everything that I had to ask. I really do appreciate your time.
Mike Leigh: Not at all.
Cinematical: And I think it's a really wonderful movie.
Mike Leigh: Thank you. And I hope this isn't spoiled by too many people [writing about] my endless discussions about these entirely peripheral matters like how it was made. It only matters what it is, and what people experience from it.