The characters in Mike Leigh’s new picture, All
Or Nothing, are so fully realized, so three dimensional, that
at times you’ll want to question whether you’re watching fiction
film or documentary drama. This story about a working-class couple
raising their two teenaged children in a depressed London housing
estate is stark, honest and unflinching, but for all its blunt realism, All Or Nothing is ultimately a film about love, hope and
redemption. Starring Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville as a couple
refusing to face the poverty of their troubled relationship, the
picture features the sort of rich performances that fans have come
to expect from a Mike Leigh project.
On a recent visit to Los Angeles to promote the new
film, Mike Leigh sat down with MM to chat about
his unique approach to moviemaking and how it all came together
on All Or Nothing.
Phillip Williams (MM): How did you stretch
yourself on this picture in ways that you hadn’t done before?
Mike Leigh (ML): I feel-I don’t want to be
too self-congratulatory-that what worked in this film better than
any film previously is the complexity of the narrative and the integration
of the narrative with thematic dynamics of the film. There are,
technically speaking, two kinds of narratives: cumulative narratives,
where you have an event and another event that aren’t necessarily
related to each other causally, but by accumulation they become
the narration of the film. And there are causal narratives where
everything has a dramatic function which effects the next thing.
[In All or Nothing] I’ve got a number of different stories,
[each of which] moves in its own orbit, but they’re all interlocked
and interrelate to each other and therefore add up. So in that sense,
I feel I’ve been able to carry out something that I haven’t quite
achieved with such complexity before.
MM: Could you talk about the atmosphere
during filming? Were the actors in character all the time, or were
they able to lighten up between takes?
ML: Well, I am very strict about how actors
operate when doing this kind of work. As you know, we spent a considerable
amount of time doing a huge amount of improvisation. It’s a very
complex and very involving kind of acting, and the actors have to
be able to really inhabit those characters-be in their skin-and
really take off. The characters are quite different from themselves,
although each actor plugs into his or her emotional battery. I make
sure that people are disciplined about going into character, staying
in character while they are in character and then coming out of
MM: Do you ever have a clear idea of who
the characters are going to be when you start the process, or do
they evolve during it?
ML: I make films like other people write novels,
paint pictures, make sculptures and so forth: All art-real art-is a synthesis of improvisation and order. I discover what my
films are by the journey of making them. So no, I don’t know anything.
I have a starting set of conceptions, but these evolve and grow
organically as I start to work into the material.
MM: What is your relationship with your
cinematographer like? You’ve been working with Dick Pope for several
ML: It’s special. It’s the same as with some
actors, a designer and so forth, we have a very special relationship.
We talk the same visual language and we like each other. so that’s
the number one ingredient. He’s great because he is a cinematographer
that understands what I am about and what I am trying to do, but
he also has taste himself. He is not the kind of cinematographer
that needs to do elaborate pyrotechnics to justify his existence.
He is as in love with a static, subtle shot in which things happen
(and making that work and painting with light to make that precise
and atmospheric) as he is with complex and elaborate things if that’s
what it needs.
MM: In the movie there is a lot of depression
and anger. I wonder if that was in your original conception of the
ML: Yes. The film obviously establishes a status
quo of pain and despair, and there is anger, repression and depression.
But ultimately we move on from that. As far as the core journey
of the film is concerned, that depressing status quo only has any
meaning when viewed from the point of view of where the film goes:
the hope and redemption and fulfillment and potential possibilities
that I hope the film points at.
MM: Even with your years of experience,
I assume that it still takes a certain amount of courage to make
a picture the way you do: pulling a group of people together to
undertake a journey in which you aren’t exactly sure where you’re
ML: First of all I have to say that it’s not
that I’m not exactly sure where I’m going. The truth is I don’t
know where I’m going at all! And it is always dangerous. So your
question is right on the button. The truth is, it is always, always
dangerous, and in some ways it gets more dangerous because when
I was doing work in total obscurity the world would not have blinked
if I created a disaster. If I perpetrate a disaster now, the world
will want to know about it-and so will the backers. So it is dangerous,
but in a way, all art is dangerous. And actually, dare I say, all
filmmaking is dangerous, except that the danger element is in some
way apparently taken out of it when it becomes an industrial
process. But it is dangerous in any real sense. So yes, I’m inviting
a load of people to come and juggle balls in blizzards on Vaseline-covered
MM: But you must bring certain tools to
the process which give you, if not safety, but something to stand
ML: Yes, sure. The fact is it’s a) very hard
to talk about what I do, and b) harder still to talk about it in
the sort of shorthand that these short interviews require. Obviously
I’m talking about a very intuitive process, imagining things and
communicating things; making things happen between people which
are in themselves psychological, emotional and in some way-without
sounding too pretentious about it-kind of spiritual and psychic.
Apart from all that, there is a whole system of technical
craft which I have invented in order to make it all happen. Even
that is constantly under review. On any new project I will suddenly
think of a whole new way of getting things to happen. But at the
end of the day what matters most is the process of filmmaking, and
a way of creating action and finding ways of looking at it cinematically.
Film is about time: the control of time and the drawing of moments.
It’s about rhythm; the tempo of life.
MM: Speaking of time: why did you choose
to shoot the final scene in real time? You took a lot of time with
that, shooting for perhaps 10 minutes without cutting.
ML: There seemed no other way to do it. In
a way [single shot] is no less or more real time than if you’re
intercutting. But if it’s in one shot you feel like it’s unquestionably
“real time.” It just seemed very natural. I’m not just letting it
happen; it’s still very distilled, very carefully constructed. And
because we are talking about traditional 35mm film as opposed to
DV, it couldn’t be any longer than 10 minutes because of the length
of a roll of film. The point is it just seemed right; it seemed
natural. It seemed natural to see a man and woman in a room, and
to stay with them and gradually and imperceptibly move in on them
until it’s a very intimate close-up.
MM: When you look back at the films that
you’ve made, are you sometimes surprised by the issues you’ve dealt
with? Do you learn about yourself in retrospect?
ML: Well, yes. The first thing is I actually
look back at my films and think ‘How the hell did we do that?’ A
few weeks ago there was a retrospective in Sarajevo and I sat through
all of my films because I had to discuss them at the end and I needed
to refresh myself. It’s very exhilarating to look at a film-at the
age of 59-that I made when I was 29, and to see how I was dealing
with quite mature things. To be quite honest, I don’t really know
the answer to that question.
MM: I do think that your films are treasures
in that, as time passes-in 100 years, for example-there will only
be a select group of films that has actually recorded the whole
strata of society that exists now and won’t exist then. Do you feel
like there will be people around in 100 years like the characters
ML: Yes, sure there will. Absolutely.