A question from your own film’, a Belgian man asks as I enter the room, ‘what has been the best moment of your life?’ ‘The best moment of my life?’ Mike Leigh deadpans without batting one of his heavy lidded-eyes, ‘This moment.’ The room rings with laughter, ‘I’ve never had such a good time as I’m having in this conversation’.
And so begins the process of talking to this sparky British filmmaker, not necessarily known for his optimistic outlook, or fondness of platitudes. This self-effacing remark is delivered warmly, but like so much of what Leigh does, it is tinged with the sardonic; the bitter and the sweet.
He sits in a leather chair, often animatedly only using the edge of it, clad in blue chords and a loose-fitting linen jacket. We are in the Soho Hotel, in a stylish room that has had its bed removed, leaving the plush padded headboard attached to the wall looking rather strange and lonely. Leigh doesn’t seem to have noticed, probably because all these hotels have begun to blur into one: he is on the long publicity road of his latest film, Another Year, and as whispers of Oscar glory grow stronger, he is set to see many more.
As we start, more initial questions regarding the personal nature of this film are gymnastically dodged, such is Leigh’s belief that the focus should be on the work and its audience, not the man behind the curtain. ‘In the end,’ he says ‘it’s not about me – it’s about you.’
Another Year is a slice of life, set in middle-aged, middle-class London. Like his most successful films – including Vera Drake (2004), All Or Nothing (2001) and Secrets and Lies (1996) – it treats issues of loss, love, loneliness and marriage with the kind of sensitivity that normally derives from experience. ‘Obviously one draws on one’s own sense of life, there’s stuff that resonates with specific things that I know about or have experienced, but that’s not particularly important to anybody else.’
Having successfully swatted this away, the 67 year-old becomes more enthused, his hands unfurl and he leans in, ‘What’s important is what you feel, and what you take away from the film for you.’
All very ‘Death of the Author’, but I now begin to fear for the direction of the discussion, because we haven’t come to talk about me, or literary criticism for that matter. He goes on, ‘When its finished as a piece of work is when its life starts, because it has no meaning until its in front of audiences, and its then that it will change and grow by virtue of its inter-reaction with audiences. That’s the joy of it really’.
This is beginning to sound like a lesson on art theory, in which Leigh – schooled as an actor with the RSC – is well versed. But he goes beyond the theoretical, willingly handing jurisdiction over to his viewers.
So much so, he insists, that there is no ‘inappropriate’ reaction to his films. The desire to hop over the next row and throttle the guy giggling at a serious moment is one that most cinemagoers have shared. Not here though, where humour and pathos are such close dancing partners: ‘I make the kind of films that are complex’ he explains, ‘you can only react to them in a personal way. So [the reaction] can, by definition, never be wrong. ‘
Leigh has his own notions of what Another Year is, but much like the famous style of its manufacture (no script, no pre-planned scenes) they are closely guarded and nothing is set in stone. ‘This isn’t really a film where you can identify one thing that its about. Its about growing older and time passing; its about love and relationships; togetherness and loneliness and responsibility and nurturing’. All in a mere 129 minutes, these issues are knitted together; occasionally one thread is picked at for our scrutiny, some tied up, some left as loose ends.
Pausing, he adds, ‘It’s also about the planet. ‘ In the film, the environmental issue roots itself in an allotment that breathes health into its gardeners. So does Leigh put his home-grown greens where his mouth is? ‘I live in a (London) flat there’s no way to grow anything, which I’m very comfortable with – I’m a very urban person. But I have the greatest of admiration for the Toms and Gerries of this world who do’.
Tom and Gerri are the green, philanthropic, happy couple who anchor the film. Their presence disproves the unwritten rule that the contented do not make good content.
So is filmmaking Leigh’s contribution then, albeit different? His films are the most ‘organic’ in the business after all. ‘Well,’ he laughs, ‘now that you’ve supplied me with that way of solving the problem: yes, I’ll grasp it with both hands’.
He holds my eye and continues in his soft Lancastrian accent, ‘Fortunately you’re not only asking me how I justify my existence on this planet, but you’re also supplying me with the answer – and indeed my contribution to the welfare of the world is my work. Thank you very much’. I tell him he’s welcome, and as he chuckles with satisfaction one sees where his films get their earthy sense of humour.
And Leigh’s films are definitively organic. Or perhaps free-range.
‘The deal is: the actors never know anything about any aspect of the film except what their character knows…This is a very enabling and ennobling sort of thing for an actor’. Also vital is that rehearsal is on location. Simply memorising lines, arriving on set and regurgitating them would be insufficient: ‘The dialogue doesn’t exist by itself. I can never rehearse and therefore, through rehearsal, script a scene other than in the location,because to me the visual is part of the literary.’
‘When I make a film or a piece of work I go on a journey to discover what it is, and so the entire operation is full of surprises. I can have a notion about a character, but as soon as you start to make it happen and we start to create the character then plainly things will happen that will be a constant series of revelations to me’.
‘There’s a backwards and forwards relationship between you and the material; and you gradually distil it down and arrive at the thing and discover what it is.’
Leigh, now into his stride, emphatically delivers his fullest answer, ‘The reason we’re even discussing it is because we’re talking about movies, and because of the conventions of Hollywood after the Talkies’.
Midbreath, he asides, ‘Because don’t forget in the days of the silent cinema, it was standard for them to go out there and say, ‘Ok. So what shall we do today? Let’s create something, Let’s make it up’. (I sense that without the constraints of time, a comprehensive history of cinema would be continued.)
‘It’s because of Hollywood procedures’, he resumes, ‘that we assume that all films are like buildings that have been planned down to the last brick and duct before anybody digs the foundations. I’m talking about a kind of film-making where you arrive at something that has to be as precise as a cathedral, but in an organic way and arrived at by experiment and adventure’.
At this moment, delivering his speech so fluently and expressively, the former actor is visible beneath the veteran director. But also evident within his artistic temperament is a firm belief in discipline. ‘The fact is,’ he summarises, ‘that all art is a synthesis of improvisation and order.’
And without the order, he says, the improvisation is worthless – ‘The privilege I have which many of my writer friends and writers generally don’t have, is that I cannot say, ‘Today I’m going to have a day off.’ I have to get out of bed every day and be there, because I have to make it happen not just for me, but for other people as well.’
There is again something humble and self-effacing, ascetic even, about Leigh’s view that the strength of his own work ethic is one of his greatest blessings. ‘This discipline is a great luxury to me because it means I have to find the truths and make it happen. Because if I worked conventionally and had those choices, you would never have heard of me actually – I’d still be procrastinating and masturbating through life’.
That this is not happening is something for which all should be grateful, for many reasons.