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Mike Leigh: The Guardian Interview (1983)

On sadness, clichés, influences and pre-production

Main image of Mike Leigh: The Guardian Interview (1983)

Mike Leigh was interviewed by Gavin Millar at the National Film Theatre on 12 August 1983.

1. Presenting the world in a sad light

ML: I think what each of us does is very limited, really, and...

GM: I think he's saying of you that you would somehow insist on a broader or some other object...

Audience: To be fair, that's part of my question but not really the main thrust of it. My question really was to get you to say why you chose not - if you in fact agree that that is the case - why you chose not to present what I decided to call joy, more positive aspects of the world. Because you present us with a type of world on that screen, and it's a very bleak type of world. I asked you in my question why you choose that world - I don't think you've answered that question.

ML: Well, it is the world - it's merely my unconscious, unaffected response to the world, really. I don't go out of my way to avoid looking at... I suppose I do in a way, but that's because I also avoid a whole lot of other things too. One is possibly drawn towards looking at people in that kind of perspective, because that's the way it connects itself...

GM: I think there are differences in tone - for instance, Nuts in May is in a different tone. I don't know whether you find that as depressing...

ML: I find it slightly difficult - I'm sorry, I'm not being very good at this Guardian thing - because I'm somehow thinking of all of the work as a piece, and it's very hard to do that. In Nuts in May - thank you for that - you get Honky and Finger and Ray actually enjoying themselves. That is to say, they go off, they have a jar, they sit in the tent and tell jokes and they're funny. There's nothing especially depressing or bleak about any of that. In the context of what's going on, they're just getting on with it and minding their own business. Does that ring bells with you?

Audience: Yes, it's a long time since I saw it.

ML: We did a play called Ecstasy, a stage play at Hampstead, which some people said was the most depressing piece, but at the same time it did involve - I don't know whether anybody saw it, but it did involve, in the end, it isolated people finding happiness in a very bleak situation. Then again, invariably within each piece, one sets up in the way of dramatic works characters that have different primary functions. For example, in Bleak Moments, let's say, Hilda, who is the mentally subnormal one, the sister, there are times when she quite simply has fun and enjoys herself, far more than anybody else does, because actually the parameters are narrower for her, the actual range of awful problems is much narrower for her and therefore she, ironically/paradoxically, is the one who has proportionally more times when she can actually enjoy herself.

2. Clichéd characters

ML: One of the things that I like to do is to take ideas which people think of as being clichés, social clichés - you know, like a postman and milkman go round and going into houses and having it off with people's wives - it's a cliché. The fact is, however, that the minute we started researching...

[Loud laughter]

...that it's not really a cliché. And Beverly, if you like, or any of these people, the Keiths and Candace-Maries and whatever, and all the characters in Who's Who, of course they are clichés, they embody things that we don't like and all that, as you say. But they exist, it is there, and one likes to take those things to, in a way - this perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but to take a cliché, to take the character and breathe life into it. In a way, to create a character, if you like, like Beverly, who is gross, but you don't see her only in one dimension. You see her being put through various kinds of experiences right to the very end, so that it hopefully becomes in some way three-dimensional. But the fact is that on another level, because I'm certainly personally not much in the business of creating heroes and things... In a way - I've never tried to articulate this, but I suppose the thing of looking at anybody that you may come across, that I may come across in life and society, but looking at them with wide-open eyes so that you do see the flaws and you do see the twitches and all those things, which I believe I've probably been saying already this evening. By definition you then focus on those things, and what I hope it's about is then to make that interesting, to go beyond that and to put it in its context and to make things happen which make you care and make you think about those people. I don't think I'm saying very much that I haven't said already this evening, other than that the premise is that it's our flaws, not their flaws. It's not them, it's the same thing that I was saying over here: it's our flaws that I'm talking about, it's our vulnerability, it's our imperfection, it's us that I think we're talking about, not them. Does that make sense? You still don't like the lady next door!

3. Influential films and filmmakers

GM: I know that this is a part of your work which actually doesn't get talked about so much: what the film influences are and where the... for instance, earlier this evening in NFT1, La Règle du Jeu, which I know is a favourite of yours.

ML: Yes, Renoir, Ray - Satyajit Ray, not the other one -

GM: Milos Forman?

ML: Yes, the early films.

GM: Olmi?

ML: Yes. It's quite a long list, actually - they don't want me to reel it off!

GM: When you left RADA and were working as an actor in films briefly, did you see yourself at that point as going into film rather than...?

ML: Yes. That was the time of... Here, not here, but in the other one, there was a season called French Cinema: Left Bank/Right Bank, and it had all kinds of strange things, including a lot of those documentaries of Resnais and Agnès Varda...

GM: ...and Jean Rouch...

ML: Yes, that was very important. And I was only going to say, purely anecdotally because you were asking about that, I acted in a very bad film directed by Michael Winner in which I had to eat doughnuts, and I don't like doughnuts. And I used to... it was only a bit, a few days, but it was filmed in the Troubadour at Earl's Court which I think is still there, and I used to rush from that appalling philistine experience to this ivory tower where you could get in for four bob if you queued up. But I think that's the end of that topic, really.

GM: But that was also the time of Woodfall and Northern writers...

ML: Yes, it did seem at that time that because of those Woodfall films, it did seem as though it ought to be feasible to get into filmmaking. But what one didn't know was that that was all going to collapse, that television was going to blossom and change, and of course the important thing that did happen, although our particular generation was too young to be part of it, was The Wednesday Play revolution when BBC2 started, which produced the Tony Garnett and Ken Loach kind of company. And in a way, looking at it objectively, though one couldn't have really perceived this at the time, what had happened is that the impetus, I think, of the Woodfall films and the so-called British New Wave films, had become dissipated, I think when they started to do things like The Charge of the Light Brigade.

GM: I think it was a bit before that, with The Knack, I think, which was strangely enough...

ML: About the swinging sixties?

GM: ...about the same time as Up the Junction on television, so they moved over.

ML: Television picked up the serious impetus, and the British... I don't know whether anyone would like to join in with what we're saying - it seems very private and nostalgic!


4. Pre-production

ML: Because of the way the BBC is organised, it's very difficult to get the cameraman, for example, to be involved very much in the thing very much more than a week before the shooting starts. In the case of a very good cameraman like Remi [Adefarasin] that shot Home Sweet Home and Grown-Ups that's not really a problem because in the end the job is creating the film when you shoot it and not before that, but having just made a film outside the BBC which is in the cutting room at the moment, which is a film made with Mostpoint Productions for Central Television for Channel Four and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all... one was able to have a freelance crew, and it was possible for the cameraman, in amongst other things, to be able to be involved and come and go and potter and go round the location area with his own 8mm camera and generally breathe in the atmosphere of the thing even without making many concrete decisions - though some decisions were made because of his own ideas which informed the actual content of the footage shot. So that was an advantage and obviously it's much better because it means that at the time you get to shoot there's a greater sense of the environment, and of the possibilities, and so forth. But in the end the actual business is what happens when you turn over and start shooting on the first day of shooting, and all the rest simply makes it better if possible. But there has to be a time when you say, "right, this is when you're going to start shooting," and then that has to start happening, and you have to build up to that so that you then can schedule the thing. Otherwise it would be anarchy and chaos.

External links

Interview on Vera Drake with Sandra Hebron, 2005 (BFI)
Interview on All or Nothing with Derek Malcolm, 2002 (The Guardian)
Interview on Topsy Turvy with Michael Billington, 1999 (The Guardian)

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
1. Presenting the world in a sad light (4:12)
2. Clichéd characters (3:11)
3. Influential films and filmmakers (4:29)
4. Pre-production (2:19)
Knack ...and How to Get It, The (1965)
Grown-Ups (1980)
Home Sweet Home (1982)
Nuts in May (1976)
Up the Junction (1965)
Garnett, Tony (1936-)
Leigh, Mike (1943-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Winner, Michael (1935-2012)
British New Wave
Wednesday Play, The (1964-70)