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Issue: January 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Mike Leigh's 'Another Year'

By: Iain Blair

HOLLYWOOD — For the past 40 years, since his aptly-named 1971 feature debut Bleak Moments, British director Mike Leigh has amassed a body of work — including Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, All Or Nothing, Secrets & Lies, Life is Sweet and Naked — that is distinctive and idiosyncratic, and created “under rather curious conditions,” as he puts it himself. 

In a sense, he operates much like a British Woody Allen, a one-man cottage industry outside the main loop, turning out highly-personal and beautifully-crafted films set in a very specific world, and with the same amount of complete and exacting artistic control, albeit with a much grittier edge than Allen’s.

His latest film, Another Year, is another ensemble drama about joy and sadness, set in four seasons and starring such Leigh regulars as Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen and Imelda Staunton, Oscar-nominated for her starring role in Vera Drake. 

Here, Leigh, whose credits also include Topsy-Turvy, Hard Labour, The Kiss of Death, Grown-Ups and Home Sweet Home, talks about making the film, and his conversion from die-hard film fan to the digital world.

POST: How do you go about deciding what your next project will be, and what made you choose this? 

MIKE LEIGH: “It’s never easy as all my films are about an ongoing range of preoccupations, so I have a feeling for what I want to do, even if I don’t have the specifics mapped out. I’m 67 now, and after Happy-Go-Lucky, which dealt with youngish people, I just wanted to do a film about life from the point-of-view of people who are getting on in age. It’s about relationships, time passing, caring, loneliness, parents and children, work and the environment — all things I keep coming back to.”

POST: You’re famous for your exhaustive research into character and lengthy preparation of a script for each film, so how long did you spend working with the actors on this one before shooting?

LEIGH: “About five months — a bit less than usual as this had the lowest budget I’ve had in a long time.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of making this?

LEIGH: “In terms of the script, the usual thing: creating characters, building their histories and exploring their worlds and relationships, all the research. And then this film spans a whole year, unlike most of my films which take place over a few days or weeks, which is a challenge with a low budget, but all my key people — DP, production designer, editor and so on — did a great job.”

POST: You assembled a great cast, including a lot of regulars. Is it like having your own repertory company?

LEIGH: “It is, and there are huge advantages for me in working this way. Because it’s about character acting, and because these actors are intelligent, versatile and very committed types, it means we can go to a different place every time. We just know we can dig deeper and go further.”

POST: It’s your eighth collaboration with Lesley Manville, who gives a truly heartbreaking, devastating performance as the lonely alcoholic, Mary. She deserves to be nominated.

LEIGH: “It never ceases to amaze me, the people who do win the prizes compared with the actors in my films, because I don’t think there’s much better acting kicking around.”

POST: Where did you shoot and how long was it?

LEIGH: “We shot it in just 12 weeks in London, and the funeral sequence in Derby.”

POST: This was shot by Dick Pope, who has shot several films for you, including Secrets & Lies, Naked and Life is Sweet. What does he bring to the mix?

LEIGH: “He’s simply a brilliant DP, and it’s interesting that he used to shoot documentaries in the wildest parts of Africa and illegal sweatshops in Hong Kong, so he’s great at getting out there into the environment. But at the same time, he’s a classicist, with a huge knowledge of cinema.  

“I’ve been blessed with great cinematographers for a long time now. Basically I like to work with people with whom I have a close personal relationship, people who talk the same language, share the same jokes and enjoy spending time together, and that’s Dick. He’s very smart, very inventive, and we have a great rapport.” 

POST: Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

LEIGH: “We did it all in London at Goldcrest.” 

POST: Do you like the post process? 

LEIGH: “I love it. I loathe the whole preparation of the project, and love shooting and post and all the editing. What’s now so exciting in post is digital grading, which we did at Pepper Post. They’re very good and I’ve worked with them a lot now.”

POST: You’ve worked with editor Jon Gregory on many of your films. How does that relationship work?

LEIGH: “I hadn’t worked with him for some years, as he wasn’t available. He’s a great editor, and for me a great editor is someone who could cut my film perfectly even if I’d been knocked down by a bus, and Jon is exactly that. He starts assembling while we shoot, and he really understands the material and what I want. So he does his cut and then we discuss it. 

“Frankly, if you’ve got to sit next to an editor all the time and look over his shoulder, it’s not as creative. You’re too close to it. It’s important to be able to respond to his cut. And after five months of intensive rehearsal and three of shooting, I’m completely spent, so it’s good to relax a bit and gradually get to know the film you’ve just made. We cut on Avid, and I love that too.”

POST: But you once told me you hated digital and all electronic editing systems — “I will go on editing on a Kem or whatever until they drag me to a computer. I think all electronic editing is bad for you creatively.” What changed your mind?

LEIGH: “Here’s what happened. I was in the middle of shooting Topsy-Turvy in baking heat, with the threat of an actors’ strike because of some misunderstanding, we were behind schedule, everyone was complaining — and right in the middle of all that, the producer and editor came to see me, both ashen-faced. I thought something else had gone horribly wrong! They told me, almost ducking for cover, ‘We really feel you should cut this on Avid.’ I said, ‘Is that all? That’s the least of my worries — you can cut it on a sewing machine as far as I am concerned!’ 

“The truth is, I used to talk at length about the dangers of digital editing and so on, and it’s all rubbish! I was wrong, because it’s actually a wonderful invention. The same is true of what you can do digitally, not only with the picture, but with the sound too. In fact, I just shot a shortish film using the Arri Alexa, and it’s very exciting. The look we got is just extraordinary. So I’m a huge fan now.” 

POST: You must have been the last British holdout.

LEIGH: (Laughs). “Not quite. When we were cutting this — and I say this with great affection — Ken Loach was also cutting his new film down the corridor — 16mm, cutting with a Steenbeck, like we did a thousand years ago. He’s the real Luddite! 

“I’m also the chairman at the London Film School, which is an important part of my life, helping younger filmmakers. One day Ken — who doesn’t look at anything until he’s shot it — popped in and asked me, ‘I want to watch my film and we can’t find anywhere that can screen 16mm. Can you get us into the London Film School?’”

POST: Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?

LEIGH: “Pepper did them all and we had quite a lot, although most of them were enhancing stuff and getting the right look for the different seasons.”

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

LEIGH: “Crucial. We did all the mixing at Goldcrest and it’s so amazing what you can do in post now with all the digital tools. When we did Vera Drake, we shot the interrogation scene at a real disused cop shop in London, and this interrogation room had hard white tiles with a glass roof, and it went brilliantly except that it pissed down the whole time, so we had all this rain noise, and I didn’t want to post sync a scene like that. But our sound editor Nigel Stone, who also did this film, was able to remove all the rain noise from the original track using Pro Tools, and I was thrilled. You could never have done that before digital.”

POST: Did you do a DI?

LEIGH: “Yes, at Pepper, and it was very important for getting all the different looks and palettes of the film that I wanted. Each season has a different look and tone, which is how we shot it, with different stocks and exposures, and then in the DI we were able to take it even further and tweak and enhance it. So I’m a huge DI fan.”

POST: Is film dead?

LEIGH: “The jury’s out. It’ll survive in some form, but I think its days are numbered.”

POST: How’s the British film scene?

LEIGH: “Financially, it’s always struggling, but creatively, I think it’s very healthy, and with my involvement with the London Film School, I’m very committed to helping young filmmakers. The problem is, not enough young filmmakers are given the support and encouragement they need, and when they are, they’re interfered with. 

“On the other hand, all the new technology is fantastic, and they can get cheap, very high-quality gear and make films of all kinds. So given that, I feel quite optimistic about the future.”

POST: You films have received numerous Oscar nominations over the years. Have you ever been approached by Hollywood?

LEIGH: (laughs) “Not a lot. It has happened, and I do get backing from companies like Focus, but the idea of doing a Hollywood movie is really a red herring for me. I’m part of World Cinema, and the British film industry, and the whole point for me is that I have total control, which I wouldn’t have in Hollywood. Of course, there’s a price to pay — low budgets — but for me, it’s a worthwhile bargain.”

POST: But if a big Hollywood studio offered you a $250 million budget, as long as they had final cut, wouldn’t you make the deal?

LEIGH: “No! I wouldn’t do it. I’ve had similar offers but I wouldn’t touch it.”

POST: What’s next?

LEIGH: “I’m going to direct a revival of Ecstasy, a play I wrote in the ‘70s, and do a film about the British painter Turner. I’ve been trying to do it for years, and we need a big budget, so we’ll see what happens.”