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Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh interview

Mike Leigh

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MIKE Leigh talks about finding his happy side on Happy-Go-Lucky, working with Sally Hawkins and why all elements of humanity captivate and inspire him.

He also reflects on some of his earlier career choices, why he made the decision to adopt such an innovative approach to filmmaking and why he still shits himself with each new project…

Q. Did Happy-Go-Lucky stem from the single idea about of such an optimistic character?
Mike Leigh: No, I don’t make films based on single ideas at all. I would say that what I start with – and certainly what I started with on this film – you could describe more as a feeling than an idea. But I can’t say any more about the feeling other than the spirit of what you get from the film.

Q. Both Poppy and Vera Drake have an intense compulsion to help people, is that an aspect of humanity that captures you?
Mike Leigh: Well, the truth of the mater is that all aspects of humanity fascinate me and that’s obviously one of them. I mean what depresses me is when people say as they have as a reaction to this film is that up to now all my films have been grumpy, miserable, negative and dour. But that’s rubbish basically, it really is, because actually I am fascinated by how we are in any… people say to me “where do the ideas come from?” Well, the fact is I can embark on a film without knowing many aspects of what I was interested in purely because everybody is interesting… everybody. So yes, [to the question] but not exclusively so.

Q. At what point did you think Sally Hawkins was the one?
Mike Leigh: Well, I didn’t because I don’t have the character and cast the character. I collaborate with the actor to create the character. Obviously, there was a point at which she wasn’t there and then after a conversation she was. So, if your question is “did I start from the premise that she would be the central character?” Yes, I did. Having worked with her on the two previous films – Vera Drake and All Or Nothing – and having got to know her and knowing her other work and so on it seemed to me to be very, very obvious and natural to make a film where she would be at the centre of things. And to tap into her energy, vivacity, warmth, humour and intelligence. So, that’s what we’ve done. Although she is not Poppy. But what they have in common is that vitality.

Q. How much of Poppy’s happy-go-lucky philosophy do you take on yourself? If someone stole your bike, would you shrug your shoulders?
Mike Leigh: Oh, yeah actually I suppose I would if I’m honest. If they’ve nicked something, there you go bascially. What are you going to do about it? But I wouldn’t want to make too much of that.

Q. You’re not like Scott then?
Mike Leigh: No, but we’ve all got a bit of Scott in us. I wouldn’t say I was devoid of Scott. But this is the point. None of these characters are simply X or Y or Z or black and white – and none of us is that. So, there’s lot of bits of us in these characters.

Q. What was your driving instructor like?
Mike Leigh: Well, a friend taught me to drive in the first place. I remember I failed the test in Lichfield… it was a very, very snowy day and I failed it completely. But the guy was actually very nervous for some reason and I don’t know why. When he got out he made me park in a sort of mud bath and he dropped his notes – having told me I’d failed – in the mud and I was delighted [laughs]. But then I actually drove for a while illegally. I was once driving up from Birmingham to London in this mini van and I was having terrible head gasket problems, so I had a whole van full of bottles of water. I was driving very slowly down the M1 at a time when there was no traffic on it and it only went from Watford to somewhere over near Coventry. But there I was without a driving licence – I drove for 10 months without a driving licence – and the cops pulled me in and they said: “Is everything alright?” I said I had a terrible head gasket problem and they said: “Well, look, take it steady and just fill up as soon as you need to and you’ll be fine…” And off I went.

But then I took some lessons in London with BSM and he was an extremely nice man and I passed the test and have since been driving for 41 years. But I must say that any notion that Scott is a stereotypical driving instructor is balls. There are some extremely nice people out there teaching the rest of us how to drive and I think the idea that this is a statement about driving instructors when we’ve created the most extreme, idiosyncratic nut case who should never be a driving instructor at all is preposterous.

Q. You factored in a class of 30 kids with this. What was that like?
Mike Leigh: Oh, no problem. If you pay close attention to it you’ll see that the film is constructed in such a way that there’s no action, really, that relies on 30 kids all acting out the story. It’s very much them reacting and just being there. The main kid is brilliant. He’s from that school and the best decision we made was not to get those awful stage school kids, who are a pain the ass and I can’t bare them! I usually avoid having children in films for that reason. But this kid was great and they were all very nice. The teachers were very helpful and very friendly and, to be honest, it was kind of common sense really. But certainly, if I’d thought for a split second of doing a film where you had to have a class full of kids actually systematically doing a whole complex story I wouldn’t go there basically. So, we get away with it basically by deftly showing them in situations in which they simply are reacting to what’s going on.

Q. Do you always have total control over the films you make?
Mike Leigh: In the sense that nobody interferes in the wrong way, yes. Obviously, film is a collaborative process. I think there has to be a general on the battlefield and a film has got to have a coherent, cohesive vision, and in that sense it’s important for directors to actually direct, and a writer-director like me who makes films that come from a personal feeling or view of the world has to have sole control because committees can’t make such films. I don’t think committees can really make any kind of film. Having said that, I don’t make films in the privacy of my own bedroom with nobody else there! I collaborate with actors and it’s very much about their input as much as mine, I collaborate with cinematographers, production designers, editors, composers and so forth, so it’s very much about the sharing from that process.

But the important thing is that the irrelevant people, like backers and producers who don’t know what they’re talking about and all that kind of thing, don’t interfere and compromise anything like they do with so many films. We cut this film in a cutting room around the corner and in another cutting room adjacent to this particular room was another feature film that will remain nameless but they were a little bit ahead of us and were getting towards the end of their cut and we’d sat down and cut the whole of this… but then they were into the whole process of having finished it, and being very comfortable with it, it then went through this whole daft process of going backwards and forwards across the Atlantic and being tested and people coming over, producers coming into sessions…

My editor and Jim Clarke, who’s 77 and who has famously cut everything from The Mission to God knows what, said the joy of working on this was that, for once, we haven’t got all these people trooping in and out and screwing up what we do. We’ve done it, we’ve done the cut and actually the film that you’ve seen is pretty much the first cut with our own refinements. So, being in control is all about that more than it is about any kind of paranoid control freak stuff – although you can’t be a director without being a paranoid control freak obviously [laughs].

Q. You have a wonderful eye for your actors in front of the camera. Have you ever seen somebody in a role and then proved yourself horribly wrong?
Mike Leigh: Yes, occasionally, it has happened. Very, very seldom… maybe half a dozen times. Only two things happen in that case – either they end up with not very much to do or, as has happened on the odd occasion, we part company. But the whole thing that I do – and this applies to all kind of work obviously – although with my stuff it’s more acute, the whole thing is a risk. We’re all putting ourselves on the line because, really, for me making these films it’s a journey of discovery through which I discover what the film is. And that is, by definition, dangerous. The kind of filmmaking where everything can be worked out like a military campaign with total precision before anything has happened, which applies to a lot of films, because someone has written a script and all of that fluid work has gone into the definition of the script, [contrasts] to my films where the script is the making of the film. So, we go on being adventurous and taking risks all the way down the line..

I mean it was only a late decision to end the film the way I do on the lake. For various reasons I kept it open until I knew what it should be and then we kind of did it because it makes absolute sense… it’s an end that works very well. It starts with a bicycle and ends on a boat and in the meantime here we are with this car. So, what I’m asking actors to do is dangerous and risky and if, from time to time, there are people that for one reason or another don’t cut the mustard, then that’s the way it crumbles. I’m just lucky for it not to have happened more times than it has. But I go to great lengths to get the right people and there are a lot of very talented, sharp, intelligent, creative, committed, hard working, risk taking actors out there.

Q. You mention it’s always a risky situation but is it always a fixable situation?
Mike Leigh: In the end film is about making things happen in front of the camera and creating moments of truth that you can take away and stick together so they will add up to a coherent, believable story. So, most things are fixable. Your question really is that inevitably, is it not that it won’t work out with some people? Sure. But everything else is fixable unless there’s an actual endemic flaw, everything is fixable. I mean, we made Happy-Go-Lucky last summer. And you remember last summer, it was a bugger from the point of view of the weather. But you’d never guess it from the film. And why is that? Because we stood around getting wet and then as soon as it stopped, out we went again and did it. The bloody weather drove us nuts and we were constantly changing the schedule. And changing the schedule on a film shot all around London… you don’t just say “oh welll, let’s do it…” Those are the days we were in the school, that’s when we’d booked the flamenco lesson with all those people in Shoreditch Town Hall. You can’t just randomly do it on another occasion, so it’s a nightmare from that point of view. But hey, that’s filmmaking.

Q. How did you find the confidence as a young filmmaker to work in the way you do?
Mike Leigh: I made my first feature film when I was 28, called Bleak Moments – which is on the box set that’s coming out next week that includes everything from Bleak Moments to Vera Drake. By the time I did that I’d been making plays in the theatre, mostly on the fringe, and developing my way of working. I also knew about filmmaking because I’d been to the London film school and I’d been in films a bit, so I didn’t really… it’s not like it would have been if I’d made a film when I was 19 or 20. So, I’d been around the block a bit. Also, I’d worked with other people and we were all in it together. Again, you don’t make films by yourself. Having said that, if the question is “did I shit myself when I made that film?” The answer is yes! And if the question is “do I still shit myself when I make movies?” The answer is yes! The day you stop shitting yourself is the day you’re in trouble basically because you’re only as good as what you’re actually doing. And the fact that this is my 18th full-length film doesn’t guarantee anything. You’ve still got to get out there and justify your existence on the planet.

Q. You’re clearly a huge observer of character, so do you find yourself sitting in a cab looking out the window and thinking, there’s a bit of that person I’d like to put in a film?
Mike Leigh: Oh, all the time. Of course. Even in this room now as we speak [laughs]. I’ve been doing that. I’m a good drawer and characerturist and my dad, when I was six, actually banned me from drawing relations because I might offend them. But yeah, I am a compulsive people watcher. Sometimes, I’ve actually had people say: “What are you looking at mate?” And I’ve now got a stock answer, which is: “I’m so sorry, you look like somebody I know.” It sort of gets you out of it. You can’t say “I’m a filmmaker”. But what I do is kind of intuitive and instinctive and you don’t consciously always know where it came from.

Read our review of Happy-Go-Lucky

Read our interview with Eddie Marsan