Guest of Honor

Conflict and Crop Circles with Mike Leigh

Lauded filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for coaxing emotionally rich performances out of actors through unusual technique. His newest, "Mr. Turner," offers more compelling evidence of this skill.

Ian Langsdon - Pool/Getty Images
Ian Langsdon - Pool/Getty Images

Filmmaker Mike Leigh, known for films such as “Secrets & Lies,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and “Topsy-Turvy,” has earned four Oscar nominations for screenwriting and two for directing. He’s known for guiding actors to riveting, emotional performances — and his new historical drama “Mr. Turner,” which opens Friday Dec. 19, is no exception. His star Timothy Spall won Best Actor at the Cannes film festival portraying the title character, the great, very gruff, nineteenth century British painter J.M.W. Turner.

Rico Gagliano: You are known for a unique film-making technique in which you and your actors improvise scenes for months before you write a final shooting script. What specifically makes for a great Mike Leigh-style actor?

Mike Leigh: It is specific. I mean, in the first place, it really only works with what I would define, in a straight-forward way, as ‘character actors.’ That is to say, people who don’t just play themselves, motivated simply by narcissism. People who are really excited by — and can do — all kinds of different people, real people, like the people out there in the street. Actors who are really motivated to do that and are excited by that.

It only works with actors who have a sense of humor. It only works with intelligent actors and, let’s face it, not all actors are intelligent. I only work with sophisticated actors. There you go.

Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s turn from general questions about your technique to this specific film. Why did you pick this artist to make a film about?

Mike Leigh: I have always been a great fan of Turner’s work. So I got the notion of doing something to do with this very cinematic painter just after we had done the film “Topsy-Turvy,” which is also about the 19th Century. When I started to investigate Turner the personality, the man, this complex, sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes profoundly honest, sometimes scruffy, really interesting character, I just thought what a great character and how extraordinary that this guy painted this sublime, spiritual stuff. It just seemed like a good subject for a movie.

Rico Gagliano: I went and did some research and I came on this quote where you admit to having both a “bourgeois suburban side” and an “anarchist bohemian side.” Turner also pretty much leads a double life almost along those lines. To what extent is he you?

Mike Leigh: He isn’t me! There are themes that run through all my films to do with conformity and non-conformity, being an insider and an outsider. Because, you know, I grew up frightfully respectable. I was a teenager in the 50s and we all let our hair down and escaped from our highly respectable parents lives and thier obsession with order, because of the hell they had been through in World War Two. In a way, this look at Turner, who is both socially an insider and an outsider, striving for recognition which he, of course, absolutely had, and acceptance, but, at the same time, is completely his own man. I suppose, in some way, sub-consciously, it is consistent with my ongoing preoccupations.

Rico Gagliano: Do you find him admirable, or is this a cautionary tale? Because in a lot of ways, he hurts a lot of people around him, leading that double life.

Mike Leigh: He does. I mean, the truth is, I take a fairly objective view of it. I mean, a compassionate view, I hope. He is what he is. I think the whole thing is not to make a film that judges moralistically. I leave you, the audience, to consider what you feel about this guy.

Rico Gagliano: As an audience member, let me ask you, though, as somebody who has that conflict in you, what do you learn from this guy about to or not to balance those two sides?

Mike Leigh: I don’t know the answer to that. I think that’s a question with no answer, really.

Rico Gagliano: One final question about the film before we ask you our two standard questions that we ask everyone. There is a scene that leapt out at me, and I think probably a lot of people, probably because it’s the funniest scene in the movie, involves this young, rich, snob who is a big fan of Turner’s, and just obsequiously over-praises and over-analyzes his work. And I suspect this scene is informed by some first-hand experience with critics?

Mike Leigh: No, it wasn’t at all, actually. This is, of course, the great and famous Victorian critic John Ruskin, portrayed here as a very young man. Ruskin was an extraordinary, great critic and great supporter of Turner, but at the same time, he was an extraordinary [expletive] prude, and what we’ve done is dramatized, with a slight tongue in cheek, we’ve dramatized the way we think this guy was. Some of what he says is actually what Ruskin said.

Rico Gagliano: But you do take on that particular scene with what seems like an awful lot of glee.

Mike Leigh: Absolutely! That was a gas to do! A joy, a delight.

Rico Gagliano: I’m trying to get you to dish on terrible critical responses that you’ve had in the past.

Mike Leigh: No, actually, it’s strange you say that, because it never occurred to me. This is really interesting. It never occurred to me for a split-second that it would be taken as a general statement about critics. When we showed it in Cannes, there is a very distinguished French film critic who took great umbrage and thought it was an attack on critics. I was amazed! It never occurred to me!. Actually, because Ruskin is such a major figure, all we were concerned with was that we were dealing with Ruskin.

Rico Gagliano: This is what happens. When you screen a film, the first people to see it are critics and, if you have a character of a critic, they all laser-like focus in on that one guy.

Mike Leigh: There you go.

Rico Gagliano: Sorry. Alright, we have two standard questions that we ask everyone on this show. The first one is, if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask?

Mike Leigh: [Laughs.] I haven’t’ thought about that one. What question can you not ask at a dinner party? I mean, there are probably a zillion things that, really, you better not ask at a dinner party, things of a very private nature. I am not prepared to share with you precisely what techniques and in what order I use my hands when I wipe my [expletive].

Rico Gagliano: Well, let’s assume you’re at a nice enough party that no one’s going to ask you that question.

Mike Leigh: Well I don’t know! You didn’t specify what type of party it was going to be. But is the question, what question am I thoroughly fed up with asked?

Rico Gagliano: Sure. A version thereof. Yes.

Mike Leigh: I’m afraid to have to tell you, that question is, “Tell us how do you do what you do with the actors? Can you explain your technique to us?”

Rico Gagliano: Oh, man.

Mike Leigh: The point about that is, because I’ve been doing this work since 1965, I therefore have been asked this question any number of million times. And I sit there, and, every time I get asked it, I think, “Bloody hell! I’m 71 years of age! Well into the 21st Century, still being asked the same old!” And the interesting thing is, actors who work with me, they have a great experience, it’s life-changing for them, and they go and then, of course, what they realize is they are lumbered with them getting asked the same question endlessly, forever and ever. And they are sick of it.

Rico Gagliano: You’ve passed on the plague to them.

Mike Leigh: Yes, exactly.

Rico Gagliano: I’m sorry. It’s such a unique way of working, first of all. And, second of all, the audiences that each of your interviewers are speaking to might not have heard about it.

Mike Leigh: Of course, of course, we know that. But, if the question is, do I groan at having been asked, that is it.

Rico Gagliano: I’m sorry to have contributed.

Mike Leigh: Not at all!

Rico Gagliano: The second question, more of a demand really, is tell us something we don’t know.

Mike Leigh: Well, actually, here is a thing. It’s not so much what you don’t know, but it’s something you may be surprised, about my own take on it. Crop circles. Generally taken to be hoaxes, things that people make.

Rico Gagliano: These are, like, patterns that have been pressed into cornfields that you can only see from above. Some say it’s supernatural.

Mike Leigh: Well! This is the thing! I am not a religious person. In fact, I’m a non-believer. I’m not a hippie-dippy. But I have experienced these things. They do occur quite a lot in the southwest of England. You go into them, you have a definite feeling of something very different, your mobile doesn’t work. There’s an energy you experience. All of that! And they are extraordinarily sophisticated in the way they’re laid into the ground, the way they sit in the landscape. I began from a position of, like everybody else, ordinary cynicism about it.

Rico Gagliano: I’m certainly a skeptic.

Mike Leigh: I was a skeptic! But the ones that are hoaxes that people sort of go in and make, you can tell the difference immediately. They’re just not in the same league. The most remarkable thing about it, in my view, is that it remains a matter of total cynicism for the general public. In the UK, it’s always reported with a high degree of cynical skepticism.

Rico Gagliano: You’re like, “Here’s finally something I can believe in, and you guys are being cynical about it”?

Mike Leigh: That’s right. So, there you go.