Like his movies, British filmmaker Mike Leigh is confrontational and acerbic, with a dark wit and strong opinions. But Leigh, who first came to prominence in America in 1988 with the critical smash High Hopes, has earned the right to shoot off his mouth. He followed High Hopes with Life is Sweet another dark edged slice-of-life, and his new film, Naked, earned him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Naked tells the story of a young drifter (brilliantly played by David Thewlis, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes), who wreaks havoc on almost everyone who crosses his path. Like his earlier films, Naked was conceived by Leigh and developed through improvisations with his actors. The result is a film that’s brutal, explicit and controversial, but it is also the latest example of a remarkable and original cinematic talent, the work of a filmmaker who is a true independent in the best sense of the word.
MM: You’ve been making films for over 20 years now. Why do you think that you’ve just caught on in the U.S. in the last five years?
ML: I don’t know the answer to that. I suppose if you stick with anything long enough (laughs)… It’s partly because I made a feature film in 1971 called Bleak Moments, which was quite successful in a very limited way, though it had no real commercial life. It won a couple of prizes in international festivals. And between that and 1988, which was 17 years, I, like a huge number of British filmmakers, didn’t get to make feature films, but made feature-length films for television. And it wasn’t until High Hopes, in 1988, that I made my first proper, albeit low budget, theatrical film (since Bleak Moments). And it’s really only since that, in the last five years, that the possibility has been there to have any international profile.
MM: What enabled you to make the jump from television to features after all those years?
ML: There was a change in the circumstances in the U.K. All three of the films you’ve seen were backed by Channel 4, and until Channel 4 came into existence in the early ’80s, it was not possible to get feature films up. They simply changed the rules. They changed the approach to television films, and did what we all had been talking about for years, which is to say, make the films on 35mm film, give them a theatrical life, and show them on television two or three years later.
MM: Your films have proven quite popular in America, yet they’re distinctly British in subject matter. What do you think American audiences see in them?
ML: I don’t know. I just do these films. They are not in any way exclusively English or British or London films. They are in that milieu, obviously, but the issues in the film arc issues that I intend to and expect to cross any barriers. As to why they’re popular specifically in the United States in so far as they are, because they’re only popular in L.A., New York, Seattle and a few other cities- maybe it’s because they’re good.
MM: Unlike many Hollywood films, they’re about real people in real situations.
ML: I feel that’s entirely true, implicitly. Every film I make is implicitly an anti-Hollywood statement.
MM: Stephen Frears, who also got his start on British television, has become a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Could you ever make that jump?
ML: No. I think it is neither desirable, attractive or feasible. Stephen Frears does so, and he does it very well, and I admire him for it. But he’s a different kind of filmmaker. What defines what I do as opposed to what he does is not a question of budget or scale, it’s that I make very personal, idiosyncratic films of a particular kind, of which I am author. He is, in the best possible sense, an eclectic, craftsman-like, jobbing, versatile director. He can take any kind of screenplay and make it work. I can’t do that, and I’m not interested in doing that. It’s not my job. I’m an authorial filmmaker. I plough this particular, slightly mad, lone furrow. So there’s no logic to me going to Hollywood to do what I do. If Hollywood wanted to hand over the money with no strings attached for me to do the films that I do, fine. That is what they should do, actually. But they won’t do that. They can’t do that. They’re pathologically incapable! But it’s not an issue for me, really, provided I can keep getting the money from elsewhere to carry on developing my own particular rantings and ravings.
MM: Your films are developed in a unique way. Can you discuss that?
ML: It boils down to, essentially, that I start with no script. I do a brief of the film for myself, which is usually pretty fluid. Then I work with the actors for an extensive period creating the characters, through conversation, research and improvisation. Then we go out and invent the film on location, and structure it and shoot it as we go. To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s about using film as a medium in its own right, not as a way of including the decisions of various committees.
MM: That’s certainly a different method of filmmaking than what other filmmakers, especially those in Hollywood, employ. How did you arrive at it?
ML: Maybe I’m wrong, but to me it’s entirely logical. How I arrived at it- it’s like asking Alexander Graham Bell how he invented the telephone.
MM: Is it the way you made Bleak Moments?
ML: Oh yeah, I started developing it in 1965, in some plays. The difference is it got more sophisticated. It was born in the first place (and this is still what defines it), from a desire to write and a desire to direct, and a fascination with actors. There are directors who are not interested in actors and acting, and I obviously am. I’ve tried to advance the whole possibility and scope of what acting can do. I found at a very early age that I was inherently bored by directing scripts that already existed. I also found it inherently arid to sit in a room writing. So add all these things together and you’ve got the way I work.
Look, what we’re talking about is fine, but it’s not really the matter of my style of filmmaking. It’s all about what happens creatively with the camera, with the cinematographer, with the editor, with the people on location. Everything that goes on with the actors is very important, but only by way of background and preparation. In the end, it’s a complete process that grows organically and involves everyone.
MM: What was the brief you went into Naked with?
ML: It’s hard to say, really, because the film comes into existence through the investigation of making it.
MM: Do you have a specific target audience, or are you aiming for a general audience?
ML: A general one. The battle, really, and I don’t think it’s one we’ll win with Naked, at least not in the United States, is to get the films across to a really popular audience. The problems in making films like I do reaching a wide audience are exclusively problems of distribution and exhibition. The battle is to try and make films like mine be perceived as commercial films. Because I don’t think audiences are stupid. I don’t think audiences are congenital idiots and children who need to be pandered to. I think anyone can get Naked. My assumption about my audience is that they are an infinite-sized group of people who are at least as intelligent as I am. I think I make populist entertainment films. But that doesn’t necessarily mean soufflés and trifles.
MM: So many people go to movies for escapism and light entertainment. Do you really think a film as dark as Naked can reach a mass audience?
ML: Yes, I do. I think the only barriers are the prejudice of the exhibitors and distributors about what a film is. I think it would be ridiculous if every single film was a Naked. Just like I think it would be ridiculous if all someone ate was steak. You’ve got to have a mixture in your diet. I think films like Naked should sit alongside other kinds of films. If a film is not entertaining it’s a disaster; I’ve
got no time for a film that’s not entertaining. But when you talk about escaping, that’s a complicated question. When you go beyond the mindless definition of escaping, the Hollywood definition, I would suggest to you that if you go to see Naked, you are going to escape for two hours and 11 minutes. Not that you’re going to escape the problems of life; of course you aren’t. But it’s actually rich and fulfilling to concentrate on things that matter to you. That’s also escaping.
MM: Your films are quite pessimistic. Are you a pessimist?
ML: Yes, I suppose I am a pessimist, as well as being an optimist. I’m pessimistic about some things. Naked is to a certain extent about now, and the future, and whether you believe in the future, and I find it very difficult to be very optimistic about many aspects of the future given the way the world is today. As a parent, I worry about what the future will be like in 10 or 20 years’ time. About those things I’m a pessimist. About humanity, on the whole I’m an optimist, derived from the way that people (can) behave toward each other.
MM: Naked won the Best Director and Best Actor awards at Cannes. Do awards mean anything to you?
ML: Of course they do. I mean, I’m in the movie business. It’s important. I don’t want to be an obscure name in the middle of the index of some esoteric tome about European cinema. So anything that happens that is part of all that and helps it along, is good news, and I enjoy it, I embrace it, I encourage it and I want it. No problem. Give me more of it. If David Thewlis is nominated for an Oscar, which I think is just about feasible, I will be delighted. If I or my film is nominated, which I think is less likely, I will be thrilled. I will be there, in Los Angeles, in my tuxedo. That’s not a problem for me. MM