Mike Leigh: 'This is the most deeply personal film I’ve made'
The veteran director talks to Dave Calhoun about how 'Another Year' was a film born out of his own memories
Mike Leigh has a dicky tummy courtesy of an especially hot Chinese meal with his son on Shaftesbury Avenue the night before. How do I know? Because when I ask the plain-speaking 67-year-old director how he is doing, he looks me squarely in the eye: ‘Fine – apart from the diarrhoea.’ It’s 10am, we’re standing in his spartan Greek Street office in Soho, with its posters of ‘Naked’ and ‘Secrets and Lies’ and framed black-and-white photos from all of Leigh’s 12 feature films on the wall, and bullshit is off the menu.You shouldn’t expect anything else from Leigh. If he thinks you’re talking rubbish, he’ll tell you. It’s there in his films, too: life in all its guises, ugly and beautiful. But Leigh’s frankness, on and off screen, breeds misconceptions, and the two biggest ones are that, firstly, he’s a miserable git and, secondly, he lacks compassion. The first, I imagine, he couldn’t care less about. The second must really irritate him.Why? Because his films live and die upon whether you find them compassionate or not. From ‘Bleak Moments’ in 1971 to his new film, ‘Another Year’, which has its British premiere at the London Film Festival this month, Leigh has built a career out of a sensitive approach to characters recognisable from all our lives. He crafts each of his films through intense periods of improvisation and research with his cast, building up a life for each character from birth, whether it’s Poppy in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ with Sally Hawkins or Johnny in ‘Naked’ with David Thewlis. A close collaboration between director and actor, based around a complete understanding of the character, is key.‘Another Year’ is undoubtedly one of Leigh’s best films. It deals, partly, with folk of a similar age to Leigh, and it feels like one of the wisest and richest of his films. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, both Leigh regulars, play north Londoners Tom and Gerri, a professional couple (she’s a therapist, he’s a geologist) in their sixties who are happy survivors of the 1968 generation. We meet several of their friends and family, some of whom aren’t finding life so easy. There’s Tom’s old friend Ken (Peter Wight), who’s unhealthy and depressed. There’s Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley), who’s near silent with sadness. But most fully in the spotlight is Mary (Lesley Manville), a nervous, chatty colleague of Gerri’s who is terrified of getting old, uneasy with her place in the world and, we fear, very lonely.The film is more explicitly meditative, calmer even, than many of Leigh’s works. We move through the four seasons, from spring to winter, and there’s a feeling, as the title suggests, that we’re dipping in to 12 months that could be the year before or the year after. The characters are specific and believable, but, above all, you feel one thing: that all life is here.‘Another Year’ throws up so many themes that it’s hard to pin down what it’s about. I assume you think that’s a good thing?
‘I do, and it’s not only difficult for you, it’s immensely difficult for me. Of all the films I’ve made, firstly, it’s the one that is the most difficult to talk about; secondly, it’s frankly the one I’m least inclined to talk about. Ideally, I’d like never to talk about anything I make. But it was tough to make because it is elusive.‘Also, and this is the hardest thing of all for me to talk about, it is the most deeply personal film I’ve made, with the exception maybe of my first film, “Bleak Moments”, in 1971. Somebody said to me recently, are you any of the characters in “Another Year”? Of course, there are no self-portraits in there, but, yes, I am… I mean, I do relate very closely to Tom and Gerri and Mary and Ken and Ronnie.’The film feels like it’s about relationships, love, friendship, time passing…
‘It’s also about loneliness and disappointment and ageing. I mean there are personal things in the film for me; the relationship that the two main characters, Tom and Gerri, have with their son Joe, is very much in the spirit of my own relationship with my two sons.‘Having done “Happy-Go-Lucky”, where obviously the focus is on young-ish people, I thought that I needed to look at us – my generation. I’m 67, so I’ve got friends who retired ages ago – a word that’s not in my vocabulary, obviously, and I’ve got a sister who thinks that it is ridiculous that I don’t have a retirement plan.’The concept of retirement doesn’t really exist for filmmakers, does it?
‘Yes, well, they say you’re only as old as you feel, and all that stuff. But at the same time, I’ve got a very close, old, old, old friend who’s just about as old as me; he’s nearly 70, but that’s the same age at our age – who is not well, and I go and sit in a cottage in Wiltshire with this guy, and we just sort of make each other laugh and I take him out in his wheelchair, and we just go for a walk, and we are in that context two old codgers… I was with him this weekend, in fact. So there’s all that stuff on the go, which I wanted to deal with on some level in this film.’You say there’s a lot of you in the characters in ‘Another Year’. How about Gerri, played by Ruth Sheen? She’s a therapist who explores emotions and backgrounds with people, one on one. Is there a bit of you in Gerri, in terms of how you work with actors?
‘Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. In 1985 I was working on my film “Four Days in July” with Brid Brennan in Belfast, and she was talking about her dad, and I was talking about my dad. I was saying he was a local GP in Salford, and we were having this conversation while we were on a rehearsal set. She was lying on a bed and I was sitting at the end of it and talking about my old man, and she said, “Well, you’ve clearly inherited his great bedside manner.” And, in a way, I think there is some of that going on.’We should talk about Lesley Manville. Her performance as Mary is very strong.
‘Well, first of all, Lesley is a record holder now: she’s worked with me more than any actor. I think that’s important. She is a delight to work with. She is so sharp, adventurous and yet professional and precise.’This is your seventh film with her. Do you take it somewhere new each time?
‘Yes, we have to. It’s a given that whenever I work with somebody the second time, I say that, whatever we do, we are not going to repeat ourselves. It’s an ongoing, ever-more-in-depth investigation. I mean, I can never, as you know, talk about exactly what we do and how we do it and all the rest of it, because people wouldn’t understand – and you’re one of the few proper journalists who doesn’t waste time asking about it. It does involve some sort of creative telepathy, and I’m only ever as good as my actors.’
You always develop younger actors, like Katrin Cartlidge and Sally Hawkins. In this film, you’ve cast two actors from ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, who play Tom and Gerri’s son and his girlfriend.
‘Absolutely, and the great first-timer in this film is David Bradley, who is 68. I’ve never worked with him before, but, you see, the thing about working with people for the first time is, if it works, which on the whole it does, by day two, you’ve forgotten it’s the first time. You just get on with it, and David Bradley is the most fantastic actor.’Is it easy for an older actor to get used to your way of working, to the improvisation, the months of research?
‘Well, that’s a very interesting question, and Jim Broadbent reminded me that there was a time when my problem was I couldn’t do old characters because there weren’t any who could do this sort of thing. But of course we’ve moved on from those times.’So it’s a generational thing?
‘Totally. I went to Rada exactly 50 years ago yesterday or today, which I think is an important historical landmark. It was September 26 1960 when I came to London from Manchester to live and study. But to answer your question, no disrespect to any of them, but of my generation at Rada, very few, and that’s putting it politely, very few of those guys can do this. Some of them will protest and say, “Well, you’ve never tried,” but the fact is we never did any improvisation. If you walk into Rada now, this sort of thing is second nature.’Your business partner and producer, Simon Channing Williams, died shortly before you filmed ‘Another Year’. Was he involved at the beginning?
‘Well, he was involved in the early shenanigans that led to the raising of the money, and it was Simon who called me from London, when I was in New York at the beginning of last year, to say it was green-lit. Actually, we leapt into action quickly because we wanted to make it while he was around, but sadly he died before we got into it. He knew the cast, but he was very, very, very ill by this stage.’I want to ask about Cannes. Everyone expected ‘Another Year’ to win a big prize, but it left with nothing. Were you surprised?
‘Well, no! Look… The point about this is that I’ve been there before, I’ve been on the jury in Cannes, and been through it all. But the hype and expectations were so total in their conviction that we would get the Palme d’Or. However, the truth is that I know that the jury will do whatever it wants to do, for whatever reasonable or idiosyncratic reasons. And there is a case, without prejudice, for arguing that the decisions made this year, not just in relation to my film, were fairly idiosyncratic.‘But to be in Cannes with that degree of celebration is good news whether you win the Palme d’Or or not. For me, to have won it twice, after winning it for “Secrets and Lies” in 1996, would have been lovely, but of course the real disappointment at a certain, completely solipsistic level was not getting the Golden Bear for “Happy-Go-Lucky” in 2008 because I would then have won the top award at all three of Venice, Cannes and Berlin.’It must have been gratifying to see Sally Hawkins win a Golden Globe and an award at Berlin for ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’?
‘Yes, all those things – and yet no nomination for the film in any category for the Baftas! I repeat, no nominations in any category! The Baftas completely and totally ignored “Happy-Go-Lucky” and were very cross when we grumbled about it. I mean, it’s ridiculous; it’s absurd. But that’s another story – and of course it was wonderful for Sally.’So it must be pleasing to see Sally on the sides of buses for ‘Made in Dagenham’?
‘I had that same thought on the way here when I saw a bus on Charing Cross Road. I love it. I love it! Whatever Sally does, and she’s done relatively small parts in dreadful films, she just never fails to hit it. She is just brilliant.’