The celebrated director talks about how his refusal to compromise causes him anger, about the ‘fascist box-ticking culture’ and the importance of sex scenes
If Leigh has a reputation for being a prickly interviewee, it’s not fully supported today via video chat. He’s not so very grumpy, but straightforward and kind, although he obviously doesn’t like being fooled.
Mike Leigh has never been the one to chop up words. “It’s about integrity and creative freedom,” the experienced director tells me when I ask about his unique approach to making films. “It’s about not being fooled by others.”
To say his reputation precedes him in the UK film industry is to risk the obvious. The filmmaker in charge Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Mr. Turner (2014) and many others was celebrated everywhere, nominated for seven Academy Awards and won the Palme D’or in Cannes.
He began his television career in the early 1970s with several prestigious films in the BBC Play for Today anthology, including the caustic exploration of class consciousness, Abigail’s Party (1977).
The key to his long career was a complete refusal to compromise his vision. As Leigh describes it, “When I and others were shooting for the BBC, there was never any interference; it was totally liberal. And by that I don’t just mean political or thematic rules: there was no interference at all. There weren’t all those script editors, producers. We just put the stuff in. “
For decades, his cinema has presented audiences with piquant and socio-political challenges, highlighting gaps and misunderstandings regarding sex, class and gender, and wrestling with remarkable performances by actors such as David Thewlis, Tim Roth and Sally Hawkins. It is well known that his approach has always been to make his actors aware of the bare essentials in the script.
“When I ask an actor to do it, I say from the start, ‘We can’t discuss the character because there isn’t one. You and I will work together to make one. And you will never know anything about the whole project except what your character knows. ‘
“It means they explore situations in real, truthful ways because they react the way people really do. In my experience it was never a problem with a single actor because they understand and embrace it. “
His renunciation of creative compromises, he says, is simply part of being an artist. “That’s how people write novels, paint pictures. This is how they make sculptures and compose music. And that’s how we filmmakers should make films. “
Still, that steadfast integrity caused some headache for Leigh. “I am finding that I am having trouble getting funds. People want to know what it is and why it is, ”he says. “Netflix just turned me down, which is a shame because they have a lot of money. They said there was no way they could think of supporting it without knowing who the cast is or what it is about. It’s nonsense because if they could do it, people would see it – because it was there. “
I ask what this new project is about and Leigh, of course, disagrees. “It’s not just you; I’m not telling anyone. “
It’s not a good sign that he’s keen on his project – but it’s an indication of the contemporary film ecosystem. Leigh is known for his idiosyncratic production decisions – an unpredictability that can be anathema to an algorithmic world.
His most recent film was in 2018 Peterloo – an epic drama about the 1819 massacre in Manchester and a key point in British labor history. It didn’t sound like a surefire bet for financiers, but Leigh says, “Amazon never got involved. Even when we had a final cut that was about 20 minutes longer than its shortened length, they supported it. “
A retrospective of Leigh’s work is being held this month through both BFI London and Home Cinema Manchester. Perhaps the most talked about movie is a 4K restoration of Naked. It is a seditiously unpleasant sight of Thatcher-era chuggers in an apartment in Dalston, east London; the kind of film that is so dusty in atmosphere and character that you feel the need for a hot shower afterwards. When she was released, she was confronted in some corners with allegations of supporting misogyny and sexual violence.
“In 1993 there was a small, vocal feminist objection that it was a misogynistic, cynical film,” he says. “But that was pretty much gone by the late 90s. I think young, intelligent viewers can see it for what it is, in its complexity and contradiction. I’ve never made a film with a black and white message. I always leave you with things to go away and think about. Naked is no exception. “
Leigh is understandably adamant when it comes to single-minded readings of his filmmaking. “Social media can spread simple, easily digestible, crude ideas. It’s great that diversity is an issue and understood at all levels. But of course that also has a downside. It spills over into the fascist box-ticking culture. Someone asked me in a Q&A the other day if I thought Naked could be done now. I hope so.”
I ask Leigh about the other hot topic in the movie: sex scenes. Some have requested that they be abolished as they are often “unnecessary” to the plot. “If you assume we want to bring a true representation of life to the screen, then sex is part of it,” he replies.
“But there is a clear line between portraying sex in an honest way and portraying sex in an exploitative way. That leads to what you mean. But that’s like showing people while you’re eating and telling them that it will encourage gluttony. “
Just as Leigh succinctly criticizes everyday assumptions about his filmmaking, his films also challenge those who would pigeonhole him as a kitchen sink realist, left-wing agit-prop artist or filmmaker “too British” elsewhere. In truth, his retrospective shows a research-based, humane work from historical musicals (Upside down) to a drama about an abortionist (Vera Drake).
“People talk about my films having English peculiarities, and of course that’s the milieu,” says Leigh. “But first and foremost, my films are about life.”
The Mike Leigh Retrospective runs through Tuesday at home in Manchester and BFI Southbank. The BFI’s 4K remaster of ‘Naked’ is now in theaters and on BFI Blu-ray from Monday. StudioCanal’s 4K remastered Blu-rays from ‘All or Nothing’ and ‘Vera Drake’ are now available
Collaborative Trial Leigh on the set of his abortion drama ‘Vera Drake’; Above, David Thewlis and Lesley Sharp in the controversial ‘Naked’