Mike Leigh on His Uncompromising Approach to Filmmaking and Aversion to ‘Message’ Movies

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These days, it’s refreshing to speak with someone like Mike Leigh whose vocabulary hasn’t been corrupted by the latest Hollywood trends. For example, when Leigh uses the word “content,” it’s doesn’t mean the same thing as 98% of his peers, for whom the term has come to describe the swill that fills the various streamers’ pipelines.

For Leigh, “content” refers to the substance of a film or play, as I found when asking Leigh, who is the subject of a 14-film, career-spanning retrospective by New York’s Film at Lincoln Center — from “Bleak Moments” to “Peterloo,” with two shorts  thrown in for good measure — where he thinks audiences unfamiliar with his work ought to begin.

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“I certainly don’t think anybody should be preoccupied with seeing my films for the first time in chronological order,” he says. “I think you could drop anchor anywhere and start.”

A similar London-based series organized by the BFI last fall brought audiences out in a big way, which Leigh found encouraging.

“Young people respond well to ‘Meantime,’” he observes, referring to the 1983 feature, Leigh’s second, about two brothers coping with unemployment in Thatcher-era England. But it’s the 1996 movie that earned Leigh the Palme d’Or at Cannes which seems to resonate with most everyone: “For various reasons, ‘Secrets and Lies’ has been my most successful film on the international stage because of its subject and its content.”

And there you have it — the notion of a film being about something, even if the magic of Leigh’s method is to give audiences a realistic and rich enough time with a group of characters that everyone takes away something different from the experience.

“There are movies about life, and there are movies about movies, and there are movies about form,” explains Leigh, who has dedicated his career to the former. He makes movies about life, a great many of them — from “Bleak Moments” to “Career Girls” to “Vera Drake” — focused on women and feminist issues.

“My films are all political in some sense, but not overtly so,” Leigh explains. ‘‘Meantime’ is not a film where anybody stands on the barricades and makes long speeches, but it’s a political film.” Still, he challenges, “I defy anybody to say what the message is at the end of any of my films. I leave you with stuff to go away and talk about, argue and reflect on when they’re over.”

In the case of a commercial success like “Secrets and Lies,” Leigh observes, “It remains illegal in many countries, including in most of the United States of America, to trace your birth mum if you’re adopted. For years, I would receive letters from all over the world saying, ‘I’ve seen your movie,’ and then either, ‘I gave my child away’ or ‘I’m adopted and decided to trace my mother.’ So that’s really why it was so successful.”

Just how Leigh arrives at the content of his films — the characters and situations, what they say and in what order — is at once a trade secret and a matter of considerable fascination for his audiences since no other director works the same way.

Each time Leigh embarks on a new project, “There’s no script, and I really don’t say anything about what the film’s going to be, but we explore and arrive at the film,” he explains. Writing comes relatively late in the process, the result of a close collaboration with his cast, even though — and this is key — he always tells each performer the same thing: “At no stage in the entire process will you know anything except what your character knows.” In that sense, acting in a Mike Leigh film is a leap of faith.

Early on, Leigh asks each actor to describe a number of people they know, whether closely or casually, and from these, he picks one — or some combination of several — for the actor to embody. Then he creates lively dramatic situations in which to put these three-dimensional personalities.

“Had I not trained as an actor and spent time in the theater, I wouldn’t have had the experience of learning to use rehearsal to make it all happen,” says Leigh. “Of course, there is virtually no convention in movies of rehearsing, of preparing. People say, ‘Oh, it’s great. We’re doing a film, we’ve got a week’s rehearsal,’ which is laughable.”

By contrast, Leigh insists on carving out a rehearsal period of six months, during which the cast and crew come and go as required, workshopping their characters’ names, backstories and behavior. “We don’t rehearse in the sense of precisely what happens in the scenes, but we prepare and improvise and build our background so that we can then go on location and structure it scene by scene, sequence by sequence.”

That way, only Leigh (and his crew) can see the big picture. Each actor makes his or her own artistic contribution to the process from the outset, but it’s not a Robert Altman- or Judd Apatow-style film, where the cast improvises freely during shooting. “There is no screenwriting committee,” Leigh clarifies. “That means that having an objective discussion or collusion with everybody about the ideas of the film never arises because the actor is never involved in that way.”

On “Vera Drake,” in which Imelda Staunton embodied a woman who performs illegal abortions in mid-20th-century London, Leigh did not tell his cast the film would be dealing with that subject. “To Imelda Staunton, I did say, ‘Look, this will be about an abortionist,’ because you can’t ask someone to play an abortionist without them being comfortable about it. But all the other actors in the family, none of them knew she was an abortionist.”

Leigh and the ensemble underwent months of improvising en route to a breakthrough session, which went for nearly 11 hours. “It was when the brother and sister-in-law come around. They’re getting engaged and they’re having a party, and in the middle of it, the police showed up. The actors didn’t know there were other actors playing police. They didn’t know she’d done all those other things. She didn’t know that the last abortion she’d done had gone wrong. All of that is conducted in a very disciplined way. And when we had this long improvisation when the cops showed up, it was dynamite.

“That was two and a half months before showing up on location in the east end of London,” he explains. “By the time they’re playing the scene, we’ve had the experience of the discovery previously, and that’s solid. Then we need to organize it in a structured way — to script it and shoot it — but we couldn’t have done that if we hadn’t had the exploration, the improvisation to draw from, which is based on their not knowing what it was in the first place.”

Even though Leigh’s been perfecting this approach over more than half a century, that doesn’t make it easy to find financing. In fact, it’s been harder than ever lately. Amazon produced “Peterloo,” but has gotten more conservative about backing indie features since then. Even distributors who’ve had success with Leigh’s films won’t develop the next one.

“It’s always been a bit of a struggle, but there’s a lot more reluctance and resistance for backers to take that on board now,” he says. Add in the pandemic, and it’s been five years since Leigh has made a film. Given his method, he can’t just retreat to a room and write a screenplay. His process requires collaboration with actors who have the patience, time and communal spirit to develop a film together. At times, would-be partners have tried to suggest a certain star.

“If it’s ever cropped up, if there’s ever been any pressure of anybody that I may be involved in a movie that I’m going to make interfering in any way, I walk away,” Leigh says. “My late producer, Simon Channing Williams, would come back from meetings with potential backers, and he’d say, ‘They don’t mind that there’s no script, they don’t care that they don’t know what it’s about, but they will insist on a name,’ by which he meant an American movie star. And I’d say, ‘We have to walk away. … Any compromise is not worth it.’ So I’ve never done that, and therefore wound up making films with never enough money.”

That limited the scale of his work to small, domestically-centered independent films for years — a trend he broke with “Naked,” the first of his movies to be invited to Cannes. Now, he has a strategy: “We try to raise as much money as we can, and however much money it is, we work backwards from that,” he says.

He made an exception on his three historical projects — “Topsy-Turvy,” “Mr. Turner” and “Peterloo” — since they required considerably bigger budgets, so he’d tell backers just enough about the subject to raise what they’d need, then workshop the scripts in his usual way. “With all three of them, we were able to say in a sentence, ‘It’s about this. It’s about Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s about Turner the painter. It’s about the Peterloo massacre of 1819.’ And we’ve been able to raise quite big budgets relative to my other films,” Leigh says.

“Now, what I’ve never done, and what I desperately want to do, is to get the interest for that kind of budget, but to make an exploratory contemporary film without saying what it is,” Leigh confides. “That’s my chief source of frustration. With quite a sizable budget, I could do something really interesting on a bigger scale.”

And while Leigh is, er, content with the career retrospective in New York, “It’s just that I wouldn’t mind making another film to go with it,” he says.

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