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Mike Leigh’s gloriously inefficient filmmaking process
“I can’t tell you about the character because there is no character.”
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Mike Leigh (b. 1943)
Last week, I was sick for several days—fever, sore throat, fatigue, ugh—so I did all the usual comfort things I do when I’m sick: napped on the couch, snugged my dog, drank tea with lemon and honey, and watched at least one Mike Leigh movie per day.
What is it about Mike Leigh movies that are so comforting? They’re not exactly upbeat. The 80-year-old English filmmaker specializes in what Freud once called ordinary unhappiness: the everyday drama of boring jobs, ungrateful children, baffling romance, and occasional awkward attempts at transcending it all.
But there’s something hypnotic about them, and I think it has to with the characters—these fucked-up, funny, vain, beleaguered, petty, noble, querulous, pretentious, and deeply familiar characters, whose foibles line up with their fellow characters’ foibles in such a way that it creates, inexorably, the drama of the movie. How does he do it? I mean, how does Leigh get such fully realized, fully human characters onto the screen?
In fact, Leigh’s method is sort of famous. All of his films begin with an extended process of “rehearsal,” which goes on for months. But these aren’t typical rehearsals, in terms of actors learning lines and working out the nuances of scenes. Rather, they begin with—nothing. No script, and typically not even an idea for a story, or only the vaguest idea. Just Leigh and one actor at a time, sitting together, talking. When he invites actors to embark on this process with him, Leigh tells them three things (as recounted by him in a 2022 Q&A):
“I can’t tell you about the film because we will find out what it is by making it.”
“I can’t tell you about the character because there is no character, because you and I will collaborate to create a character.”
“You will never know anything about anything [i.e. about the larger project] except what your character knows.”
From that starting point, Leigh and the actor begin to create a character together, through an ongoing dialogue that he described in a 2022 interview with the film critic Amy Taubin:
The first thing that I do on any project—and this goes right back to my earliest—is I sit down with each actor individually for a long time and I get them to talk about real people they’ve known. What I do is to listen and understand and to make notes, because what I’m doing is to think about a possible character in relation to other possible characters and ideas and so on.
Leigh goes on to say that, in the rehearsals for his 1993 movie Naked, the lead actor, David Thewlis, talked to him about 110 different people—which was the record until Sally Hawkins, for Happy-Go-Lucky, talked to him about more than two hundred (!).
Once Leigh and the actor have settled on a character for the film—and these characters are usually an amalgam of different aspects of a few real-life people the actor has known—then begins a process of free-form improvisation, with the actors doing their best to embody this character, to discover how they walk, how they drink a cup of coffee, how they put their keys in their pocket, and on and on. (These improvisations have been known to go on for as long as twelve hours at a stretch; while they’re underway, the actor is forbidden to break character until Leigh gives them permission to do so.) Leigh explains:
Gradually, then, these characters come into existence, in a very physical way as well as the ideas that they embody. And we put them together and build worlds, relationships, a whole microcosm, out of which, finally, my job is then to distill and construct the film, which we script, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, location by location, through rehearsal. I never go away and write things down on paper and hand it out. We fix it by improvising and then whittling it down and just organizing it into a detailed structure.
I’m fascinated by this process because, well, can you imagine a less efficient1 or more time-consuming way to make a film? Weeks of sitting around talking about people the actors have known, then further weeks bringing a composite version of these people to life through improvisation, then gathering the principal actors together, in character, seeing how they interact, and through that coming up with a story, scenes, sequences, and locations—and only then fixing it in the form of a script. Incredible! That’s why there are literally no other movies like Mike Leigh movies, because literally no one else can afford to work like this—indeed, even Mike Leigh can no longer afford to work like this. As he said in an audience Q&A in New York last year, during a career retrospective at Lincoln Center:
I am having immense difficulty in raising money to make a film at all, which is unfortunate. And there is a certain irony in there being a celebratory retrospective going on while no one seems very interested in backing a Mike Leigh film. So that’s just a hint for anyone who happens to have five dollars in their back pocket.
A depressing note to end on, though I am somewhat hopeful to see the following entry on his IMDB page, a sign—perhaps—of at least one more fabulously comforting Mike Leigh film to come.
WHERE TO START WITH MIKE LEIGH
If you’re a subscriber to the Criterion Channel, you have a wealth of options: Seven of Leigh’s features and his complete run of BBC television dramas are currently available to stream. I like them all? I guess if I had to pick a favorite it would be Topsy-Turvy, his elaborate period piece on Gilbert and Sullivan’s fragile creative partnership, though I also really like the BBC teleplays I’ve watched, especially Grown-Ups and Nuts in May.
I said above that no one works like Mike Leigh, and as far as I know that’s true—I’m not aware of any other filmmaker who begins each new project with an extended process of conversation with actors. But plenty of other filmmakers have relied on improvisation to build scenes and craft dialogue. I wrote about one example in 2021: the English filmmaker Joanna Hogg, who has said that she’s interested in “having an idea and not knowing how to realise it” (me too).
Another caveat: After writing the above, I re-watched perhaps Mike Leigh’s most celebrated film, 1996’s Secrets & Lies, and I have to admit that I found it . . . slightly hokey? Perhaps that’s part of these films’ appeal, too—their occasional hokeyness, the way they can feel a bit like very sophisticated after-school specials for adults. I used to love after-school specials! All those witless teens knocking each other up and getting hooked on drugs after a single night of partying, god love them. Mike Leigh is never that sensationalist but there is a similar love of trouble, of the real-life trouble that lurks in living rooms and pubs.
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