At this moment, in this sparse, soulless Beverly Hills hotel suite, and onscreen in his latest movie, director Mike Leigh seems to have stepped totally outside the contexts in which we‘re used to finding him. Having grown up watching his early films on the BBC in 1970s Britain, where he was already a household name, and having always pictured him as an almost unreconstructibly British filmmaker, I find it faintly bewildering to hear his gently flattened Lancashire vowels punctuating his exchanges with the publicity reps, all of them as Californian as he is not. “It’s nice, though,” he tells me, “to occasionally just come over and visit, sit here, do this, and then fuck off back home.”
Amid the soft-shoe PR bustle, and despite the cups of milkless tea and ersatz-Edwardian cucumber sandwiches, Leigh looks for all the world like a rip in the picture. And Topsy-Turvy, his splendid new movie about Gilbert & Sullivan and the creation of The Mikado in the 1880s, is at first sight just about the last place you‘d expect to find the hitherto determinedly present-tense Leigh. One is accustomed to thinking of him as the creator of frenzied kitchen-sink miniatures and indoor emotional epics, not as an Ivoryesque “heritage” filmmaker wrangling a million bushy beards and miles of taffeta and lace. Confounded as one may be by the notion of Gilbert & Sullivan & Leigh, one is more astonished to find that Leigh has reached into the morass of material surrounding Gilbert & Sullivan and come up with — again, just about the last thing one expected — an archetypal Mike Leigh film, with its habitual mixture of emotional rawness and high comedy.
It is also, not inadvertently, a celebration of collective, collaborative theatrical creativity, the very thing his films have practiced, preached and embodied for three decades, with their organic, character-based development process and their origins in extended actor research and rehearsal. “It’s a Mike Leigh film all the way,” he says. “All the things that are going on in Topsy-Turvy, you know, it‘s the same old crap, really.” He chuckles loudly.
Leigh has a reassuring face with sleepy basset-hound eyes and lifelong beard. There is something pleasingly gnomic about his appearance, as if he should be sitting on a toadstool with a fishing rod, but I detect also a mischievous, benignly Merlinesque cast of feature. One asks oneself what manner of wizardry was required to adapt his uniquely flexible working process to hard invariables like historical accuracy and biographical fact.
“I think the only thing that makes a real difference is the fact that we’re dealing with real people and real events and not making them up. The joy, usually, is in creating characters from scratch. And actually there are some characters in Topsy-Turvy who we‘ve either invented or where there’s so little known about the real people that we pretty well invented them, like Temple, the actor that [Timothy] Spall plays. But at the same time, with a character like Gilbert, about whom there‘s a huge amount available — and we read everything there is to read — the job of then bringing him to life and using all the kinds of techniques that we’ve been using for years to invent people was equally stimulating. It‘s quite a wheeze to actually get up and run at someone you’ve read about.”
For Leigh, there is a link between time past — as in Topsy-Turvy‘s evocation of the 1880s — and the pasts of his many characters, which exist as an offscreen but always detectable hinterland of habits, memories, experiences and pathologies that underpin and enrich them. It’s a dense, detailed approach: “Everyone researches everything,” explains Leigh. “For Naked, David Thewlis read all those books. For Secrets & Lies, Marianne Jean-Baptiste learned how to be an optometrist and Tim Spall learned to be a photographer. You name it, it all gets researched. We always work through the characters‘ pasts, all those years, only normally it’s all left behind when you drop anchor in time present. ”Having worked up detailed back stories for his characters in Career Girls, Leigh was disappointed that the months of work on the two women‘s histories would only register subliminally in the completed movie. “I thought, we’re going to lose it all because it‘s in the past. Then I thought . . . why should we?” His solution was a dual time frame, presenting the same characters in the present, 1997, but also in 1980. “So although we had Topsy-Turvy on the go at that time, we were already inadvertently doing a period film.”
Despite his years of fringe drama and stints as an acting teacher in the 1960s and ’70s, Leigh says, “I‘m very much a film person. I don’t like theater much. I find it insular and not as grown-up as film. In fact, I got more interested in theater through making a film about it than I‘d ever really been through actually doing it.”
Seventeen years elapsed between Leigh’s first feature, 1971‘s Bleak Moments, and his second, High Hopes, in 1988. In the meantime, he found freelance work available in the Plays Department of the BBC, then an extremely vital and fertile forum of creativity and political dissidence, but one able to engage a sophisticated national audience every night. So many directors and writers emerged from the department — Alan Clarke, Ken Loach, Peter Watkins, Stephen Frears, John McGrath and John Mackenzie, plus writers G.F. Newman, David Mercer, David Hare, Alan Bennett and Dennis Potter — that it has been called, by Hare among others, “the last studio.”
“It was fabulous,” says Leigh. “I mean, I make films with no script. I’d go in and I‘d say, ’I dunno what it‘s going to be. Gimme the money.’ And they‘d allocate me the money, and I’d bugger off and make it. My last film was Four Days in July — all about Northern Ireland, a real political hot potato — and it was made without any interference whatsoever, and shown unaltered.”
The BBC didn‘t bat an eyelid at Leigh’s total-immersion development process, signaled then by the credit “devised and directed by Mike Leigh.” The results — excruciating tragicomedies of social embarrassment, such as Nuts in May, Grown Ups and particularly Abigail‘s Party — spoke for themselves, and loudly. “By the time it became possible to make movies for theatrical release, I’d established the principle of how I work, and it became possible to do it. So I regard that period as being really important.”
Looking back, Leigh admits, “The fact is that I have been fantastically lucky. That I can deliver the goods is one thing, but to have been fortunate enough to get into situations where it was possible to establish the principles of what I do, that is all a fluke.” Now he‘s backed up by a group of regular collaborators, including producer Simon Channing-Williams and cinematographer Dick Pope, whose presence allows Leigh to function in an atmosphere of creative sympathy and relative financial security. The result has been the sustained burst of creativity that has lasted from Life Is Sweet through Topsy-Turvy, with Naked and Secrets & Lies as its high points. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leigh doubts he will ever work from another writer’s script.
“I am a storyteller. I tell my own stories — okay, here we‘ve gone and added some history — but I’m a writer, and I like writing in a particular way, using my own tricks. Language is a very big thing for me, and whether it‘s the language of the articulate or the language of the inarticulate, it’s still language and idiom and dialect and usage and the poetry of what people say. So I‘m not really interested in other people’s scripts. I mean, painters don‘t paint other people’s paintings, do they? That‘s how I feel.”