Mike Leigh: Playing Cowboys & Indians
To celebrate Mike Leigh’s 66th birthday, FilmInFocus republishes an extract from Faber’s Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh in which the writer-director discussion his unique creative process.
Mike Leigh was born on February 20 1943, in Salford, Greater Manchester. The only British director to have won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes (for Secrets and Lies in 1996) and the Golden Lion at Venice (for Vera Drake in 2004), Leigh is also a six-time Academy Award nominee, and this year he is once again Oscar-nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category for his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky. The inimitable method that Leigh has developed in order to devise his film and theatre productions has been much misunderstood and misreported, but in the definitive career-length interview book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, edited by Amy Raphael and published by Faber and Faber in 2008, Leigh addresses the huge interest in his working methods that exists among film fans and would-be filmmakers alike.
AMY RAPHAEL: What sort of specific techniques were evolving [when you first started directing]?
MIKE LEIGH: I will happily talk about some of the techniques I use to get things to happen, but others I simply will not discuss in any circumstances, partly because they’re a trade secret (laughs), but mostly because they involve elusive things like inspiration, intuition, and telepathy.
In principle, I’ll say, “Let’s start with this particular real person,” and then I ask the actor to start to act the character by him- or herself in a room, without making anything interesting happen – just to get him or her into the character.
If, as has evolved over the years, I do a character with an actor that is based on maybe three people, then there are ways of going into character, going back and forth and mixing them together through acting, rather than just talking about it. It’s about saying to the actors: “Just do whatever you like. You’re by yourself, you’re not pretending you’ve got an imaginary friend.” So when the actor gets very used to being the character on his or her own, he or she can go and inter-react with the other actors in character, who’ve been through the same preparation. With some solid basis: they know who they are, what they’ve been through and everything else about their character.
In the early days - and this certainly lasted as far as Bleak Moments  - I would encourage the actor not just to be the person alone, but also to talk to themselves. I was at least partly motivated by having dabbled around with Shakespeare and all his soliloquies, and also by [David Halliwell’s] massively influential Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs, in which the central character talks to himself relentlessly. Not forgetting that I was massively in love with Beckett, where there’s all that stream of consciousness talk. I still use that device in certain circumstances to bring out certain things.
But I had to learn the patience and the understanding to negotiate the difference between something that I found attractive or interesting as an artefact, and something that merely had to happen as part of the foundations of where we were going to wind up. In my early improvisations, I wanted to see the characters in evolution, to see the wheels going round. I wanted to enjoy the image of them talking to themselves. Somewhere along the line I spotted that this could be extremely counter-productive. I had to learn the difference between the foundations of the building and the building itself.
The generally received convention of what a director does with actors is that you start to manufacture the end-product as soon as you commence rehearsals. What I had to learn - and it’s the hardest thing to explain to people - is that a very large proportion of what I do is merely preparing the conditions in which the end product will eventually be created.
I don’t think that I would have been able to do what I do at all had I not spent time, brief as it was, at art school. I have the ability to draw character and the details of a character’s face with a very fine pencil. When I went to Camberwell Art School, we’d sit around in the life class. There I’d be with a finely-sharpened pencil, drawing the lines round the eye of the model. This wonderful teacher called Chris Chamberlain came up once and said: ‘Give me your pencil’. He snapped it in half and told me to draw with the blunt end. ‘Understand the structure of what you’re doing’, he told me. ‘Don’t worry about the detail till you’ve got the bigger picture.’ It was a major, major educational moment. Whether I’d have learned that if I’d done an English degree at Oxford or Cambridge… probably not.
All art is a synthesis of improvisation and order. It’s what artists do. But I was lucky enough to have to learn to understand that. I’m now talking about the method of what I do. You can break down what goes on in the evolution of one of my films in terms of creating the characters, building up their history and their relationships, doing all kind of research to inform the whole experience, then structuring it through rehearsal and finally shooting the material.
But built into all that is an exploration of the unknown, an investigation of things in a way and for reasons I don’t necessarily know about when I initiate them. Things happen because actors are being spontaneous and creating in an organic way. So it’s completely unpredictable. You’re talking about things that could only happen because a very particular and special kind of rapport is constructed, whereby everyone, including me, operates in a completely free condition without being inhibited or driven or motivated by any sort of compromising, preconception about what it should be.
If you want to know why I am generally reluctant to talk about what I do, it’s because you can’t really describe it; you can’t really do it justice, any more than Van Gogh could explain the sunflowers, other than by describing technically how he applied the paint.
AMY RAPHAEL: What do you tell an actor working with you for the first time?
MIKE LEIGH: When I gather everyone together at the start of a film, the first thing I always say is: “On such-and-such a date in six months’ time, we’re going to go out and make a film. Anything we do between now and then is merely preparation so that we can embark on that creative journey.” It’s only during the shoot – on Naked, say, when we’re rehearsing at night in the office block with Johnny and Brian, knowing that we are going to shoot again in a few nights’ time – it’s only then that I can see the images and the event. Only then can I get down to defining it, to writing it.
The actor is going to experience the magical mystery tour when it happens. But I’ve rarely had to sell it to an actor. On the rare occasion I have sold it, I’ve wound up regretting it. There are people who don’t get it; a few walk away; a few I’ve chucked out. So the trick is to make sure you get the right sort of folks in the first place. You might think it’s no big deal; surely this is what actors do? But it’s not.
There are plenty of actors out there who wouldn’t have a clue in hell what I was talking about. “Acting” for them is carrying out a job; it’s not about getting inside real people in the real world. The truth is, large proportions of actors aren’t really pretending to be someone else in a make-believe situation; they’re just being themselves in an actual situation, on a stage or in front of a camera. But I’m looking for actors whose level of total immersion in their character and whose imaginative commitment allows them to know exactly what to do when, for example, the police come round to arrest Vera Drake. That scene was the result of a ten-hour improvisation that took place three months before we shot it. To ask grown-up people to dress up for ten hours and pretend to be somebody else, with all the commitment and willing suspension of disbelief of a group of little boys playing cowboys and Indians in the woods… it’s a massive thing.