Over the course of 40 years, and some 30 films, 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 has cemented his reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in movies today, thanks to his unorthodox working methods, and ultra-realistic and gritty approach to his material.
But apart from the Gilbert and Sullivan film Topsy-Turvy, he’s avoided any attempt to make a biopic, until now. His latest film,
Mr. Turner, has been a long-gestating project about the last 25 years in the life of the prolific 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner, known as “the painter of light.” It stars Leigh regular Timothy Spall as Turner in a much-buzzed about performance that won him the best actor prize at Cannes, along with an ensemble supporting cast, including Lesley Manville, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey and Ruth Sheen, who are also regulars in his de facto repertory company.
Here, Leigh, whose credits also include Hard Labour, The Kiss of Death, Grown-Ups and
Home Sweet Home, talks about making the film, his love of post and editing, and his conversion from die-hard film fan to the digital world.
You’ve talked about making this project for many years. What took so long?
“It’s never easy getting financing for something like this, but when we did my last film, Another Year, we decided to just go for it. I first thought of doing it back in 1999, after Topsy-Turvy, but that long wait was good as it gave us a lot of time to think about it and do all the research, and for me and [DP] Dick Pope to figure out how we’d shoot it.”
Making films about artists and the creative process is notoriously tricky to pull off. How did you approach the true life story of Turner?
“I think the problem with a lot of films about artists or musicians and so on is that the focus is on the work instead of on the character and artist himself. They’re about idealized ideas and notions of artists, when the actual process of painting or composing music isn’t all wonderful inspiration — it’s basically bloody hard work. I watched a lot of films about painters, and you rarely see the down-and-dirty business of doing it. And to me obviously, because of what I’m naturally drawn to and am concerned with — no matter what the film — it’s the characters, the people who should be center-stage. Turner’s work is fantastic, and I’ve been a huge fan for years. And it’s also very cinematic, which is important, too. But once I started to really investigate this complex, sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes passionate, sometimes conflicted man, I thought, this is a great character — irrespective of the great paintings. He’s grubby and difficult at times and very visceral, loved and hated — perfect for a Mike Leigh film.”
Was Timothy Spall born to play Turner?
“Well, he gives an amazing performance, and I think it’s because he’s a character actor. I knew he’d be right for it and be able to really get at the grain and dig deep. He’s a Londoner, like Turner; he’s got those working-class roots. He’s very good at 19th century stuff and Dickens, and I also knew that he had some amateur pretensions towards painting, so we sent him off to lessons for two years — if you’re going to play Turner, you’ve got to really be convincing with the brushes and paint and so on.”
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?
“About six months — the usual. I don’t know any other way of making a film.”
What were the biggest challenges of making this?
“Apart for making a very expensive-looking film for a very low budget, they were the usual — exploring all the characters, building their histories and their worlds and relationships, all the research. And my films generally span a few days or a week, while this film spans 26 years. So the big thing then is, what do you decide to keep in and what do you cut out? And then you have to distill it all down. And all my key people — DP, production designer, editor and so on — did a great job.”
You assembled a great cast, including a lot of regulars. Is it like having your own repertory company?
“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.”
Where did you shoot and how long was it?
“We shot it in just 16 weeks, all over Britain — even the scenes in Holland. I deliberately don’t put labels all over it saying where we are, so you can just allow it to flow. Turner did travel all over Europe, especially the Alps, and you get a sense of that, I think.”
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?
“I think he's a brilliant DP, and we had a long time to be able to look at all the paintings. There’s a scene where Turner refuses to sell all his work to this millionaire, the 20,000 pieces that are now mostly in the Tate, and in that bequest there are all his color charts which we studied. And ultimately we decided to shoot digitally, on the Alexa, which is a fantastic tool. So the job for Dick was to inform the film with the look and feel of Turner, including specific images that reference particular paintings, or evoke his imagery. 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.”
Where did you do the post? How long was the process?
“About four months. We did it all in London at LipSync Post.”
Do you like the post process?
“I love it. I loathe the whole preparation of the project, and love shooting and post, and all the editing. And what’s now so exciting in post is digital grading, which we also did at LipSync.”
You've worked with editor Jon Gregory on many of your films. How does that relationship work?
“He’s a great editor, and as always, the film really gets made in the cutting room. In the first place, the film’s structure takes its lead from the chronology of events in Turner’s life. But once we began cutting, we made certain decisions and reorganized some of the chronology for better dramatic effect. And Jon makes great suggestions and you collaborate, and he pulls out the film and makes it better. He wasn’t on the set, and like most editors, doesn’t like visiting sets, because they only want to react to the footage. If you’re on-set and see the hassle that goes on to achieve a shot, it influences you in the cutting room. You’ll go, ‘I don’t really want to lose that shot,’ but the editor will just say, ‘Not interested in that.’ And that’s why editors are so important. And they’re always right. 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. We cut on Avid and I love that, too.”
But you used to hate digital and all electronic editing systems. What changed your mind?
“Well, the truth is, I used to talk at length to people about the dangers of digital editing and so on, and everything l said was rubbish! I was wrong, because it’s actually a wonderful invention. And the same’s true of what you can do with digital cameras now. The look we got on this with the Alexa is just extraordinary. So I’m a huge fan now. I’m no Luddite!”
Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?
“LipSync did them all and we had quite a lot, including one massive one for his most famous painting 'The Fighting Temeraire.' It’s a complete concoction. We shot Turner and the guys in the boat, and then the sunset, and then the CGI guys added the rest, including the old battleship being towed to its final resting place. And there are a lot of VFX shots enhancing stuff subtly and getting the right looks.”
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
“That’s impossible to answer, as for me the journey of making a film like this is also a journey of discovering what the film is. You never know exactly how all the contributions of your actors and crew will affect it, but I think it’s a better film than the one I had in my head.”