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Vera Drake - Mike Leigh Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. Can you tell us about the inspiration for Vera Drake. Clearly it's a fascinating topic, and one that's not too well appreciated by today's generations, but I can remember, for one, just how appalling it was, at the time, that anyone should have an abortion.
Mike Leigh:
Well I think that's a very narrow view of the issue, frankly. I think, universally, it's as much an issue for today as at any other time. I mean, obviously what you're saying is that in some places, including here, and although it's a British film and that's our setting, plainly, so far as we're concerned, we're dealing with a universal issue, that even though it's trrue that someone that needs it can get an abortion, that doesn't diminish the pain of the whole thing.
And there is a moral dilemma involved and what I've tried to do with the film is to confront the audience in a subtle and gentle way with the moral dilemma, and rather than to sort of bludgeon anyone. In many countries, it's not easy and it is still illegal and since, obviously, this film, as much as any that I've been involved with, is a film for the international film audience, it's very important.
As to your question, as to where it comes from, it is an ongoing major issue. Obviously, I've set it in 1950, partly because obviously it is set before the law changed in 1967, here, but also it feels like a right period to set it, because there's a kind of wholesome innocence in that immediate post-war period, which feels right for what the film is about, and what happens in the film.
And really, it felt like a very good way to create a metaphor through which to look at the moral dilemma, really. And also, you've seen me consider matters to do with being parents, not being parents, having children, having parents, families and indeed unwanted pregnancies and abortions quite a number of times previously, so the idea for the film has been with me for a very long time.

Q. There's a dedication in the production notes to your parents, who were a doctor and a midwife, which suggests that perhaps it's no accident that this is a subject you were familiar with?
Mike Leigh:
Well, that's true, but I mean the honest truth is I put that at the end of the film, I would have loved to have talked to my dad, who was a GP in a very working class practice in Salford, for quite a lot of my childhood we lived over the shop. I would have loved, last year, while we were doing the picture, to have talked to him about it, about related matters because there's no doubt he would have had to certainly deal with pregnancies and, certainly, the aftermath of abortions that had gone wrong. I would doubt that he would have performed abortions himself - I actually don't know that - but I would have seriously doubted that. Although I talked to him about other things, I never was able to talk to him about that. He died nearly 20 years ago and so I felt the need to put that.
And although my mother was a midwife, again I didn't really talk to her about these things and so it doesn't come from any direct experience of that and he certainly didn't come home at tea-time and talk about it. Although he did talk about things that had happened, I mean I remember, very distinctly, a story about a chicken bone stuck up somebody's arse - a wishbone coming out this way and getting stuck on the inside of somebody's bum! But that's the kind of stuff... Abortions not; not in front of us.

Q. It's full of things that people can remember from the 50s, such as a snatch of workers' playtime, the Dairy Box chocolates, the ritual sharing of the beer. It looks as though you spent, as usual, an enormous amount of time on researching?
Mike Leigh:
Yeah, I mean the truth is, as I say, you can research anything, and we did and, in fact, we give the researcher a very, very prominent credit.

Q. Was the revelation of Vera's crime in any sense a surprise in the way it was revealed to the other actors?
A.
It's a standard procedure with making these films that nobody knows anything, at any stage, other than what his or her character would know. So when we reached the stage of rehearsals, not to be confused with the filming some months later, where the day when the cops came round to arrest her at the party, that actually all happened and the other actors didn't know she was an abortionist, even though we had done a lot of work with other actresses for those abortions, and indeed, you didn't know the cops were above you - you didn't even know that there were actors playing police, let alone that they'd done all their research, and they'd done their work with the hospital characters... And so, it was a quite nailbiting and fantastic seven or eight hour improvisation.
And she also didn't know that we'd rigged up a whole police station down at the other end of this dis-used hospital where we were rehearsing. So everybody... there were shocks all round, and that's yielding up the raw material, with a considerable amount of careful planning and structure to get it all in the right place to see what happens, out of which a couple of months later we were able to restructure the actual action in the actual locations, where the actors - and not least Imelda - could draw on the emotional recall of that event - and that's as much as we can say about how we do these things.

Q. How much did you wish Vera's secret could also be kept from the audience in the way that it's kept from her family?
Imelda:
Well that's up to the press...
Mike Leigh:
It's a nightmare. The truth is I've had the privilege of showing it to people when it first saw the light of day who absolutely did not know what it was, and occasionally, I mean in the States, there was a journalist who had been away and came back and hadn't had time to read the notes or anything, and it's a great privilege to see this film not knowing anything about it. But as you say, how can you possibly deal with that? It's a shame, but I guess that's true of a lot of movies.

Q. Did you only ever envisage Phil Davis to play Stan?
Mike Leigh:
Well the truth is I only really ever envisage whoever you see doing whatever it is, for the most part, because you get someone that feels right and I collaborate with them and you then make the character. So, yeah, basically.

Q. Equally so, Adrian Scarborough, it's incredible how much he actually looks like Stan, his brother?
Mike Leigh:
Yes, I have to say it's not a complete fortuituous coincidence. But once having had that idea, which was actually crystalised by Nina Gold, who is a very brilliant casting director that I work with, it seemed like a good wheeze. I've done it lots of times. I mean the two fat kids in All or Nothing, and the two brothers in Mean Time, and the twins, played by Jane Horrocks and Claire Skinner in Life is Sweet, who aren't twins at all, of course, I do think it's a good wheeze to be able to do that. Once we'd got Adrian and Phil to shave the back of their heads and to work on how they both walked the same way and that kind of thing, and do a lot of real fraternal, emotional stuff, they looked like each other.

Q. Was there any borrowing of characteristics from people you grew up or lived with when it came to making the characters?
Mike Leigh:
That's just part of all sorts of.. yes.

Q. Were there elements in different characters that had, perhaps, an echo of people from your own recollection of the period?
Mike Leigh:
Yes, absolutely.
Imelda: No because you're creating this character that has nothing to do with you, or your family, or anything like that, so it creates a distance. I can't look at it and say, oh that was my auntie or anything like that. The look and those women in those aprons and hairnets....
Mike Leigh: There is a moment when Vera is with Lily and then Ethel comes in and Lily turns round... that moment, to me, is the most evocative of the whole trunch of semi-identifiable memories of adults who.... I came from a family where nearly everyone wore specs and everyone smoked, and that sort of look. She reminds me, somehow in a half-conscious, subliminal way, of all kinds of grown-up moments when I was five, six or seven. So that does happen.

Q. All the girls that Vera helps are helpless, lost souls, but even more so with the girl from the West Indies - because I'm sure at that time, this was fairly new, that people were coming into Britain. They're in a strange country, their language is very different, so were you making all those subtle points very quickly in that one small scene?
Mike Leigh:
Yes and of course there would only have been two or three boat-loads of people at that time and there was no West Indian support community to speak of for a girl like that. So yeah, she's a very long way from home as they say. But they're not all lost souls, I mean there's a couple of rather cynical girls.

Q. Throught the film, there's no class barrier to this situation, when you have the Nicky Henson character charging his 150 guineas... And the hypocrisy, that it would be alright if you could prove there was some kind of mental illness going on.
Mike Leigh:
That was enshrined in the law.

Q. Why do you think it's less of a political here than in America?
Mike Leigh:
I don't know the answer to that except for the fact that, in a way this kind of lunactic, medieval, religious fundamentalism that has gripped American right-wing politics plainly has a great deal to do with it.

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