As we were about to settle into our conversation, I told British writer-director Mike Leigh that this wasn’t the first time I had sat down in his presence to hear him answer questions about his work. About five years ago, he spoke to a student program I attended at the Telluride Film Festival on the occasion of Mr. Turner’s U.S. premiere. Before I could even finish my sentence, Leigh let me know that he didn’t plan to participate in such student symposiums again since “it’s always for half an hour, and you should schedule at least two hours or an hour and a half, because you can’t say anything” in that amount of time.
This episode foretold much of what was to come in my interview with the esteemed filmmaker, who was in New York to promote the theatrical release of his latest feature, Peterloo, a dramatization of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. First, it’s impossible to cover all the nuances and intricacies of his famous improvisational character-building process in a short period of time. Second, Leigh will speak whatever is on his mind, be it a simple one-word response when such an answer will suffice or a grandiloquent refutation of a question’s premise. And, to be clear, it’s a right that the seven-time Oscar nominee has more than earned.
During our chat about Peterloo, Leigh discussed how he incorporated authentic historical speeches and writing into his characters’ dialogue, why he dispels academic notions while directing, and the seemingly counterintuitive process of making a period film more contemporarily relevant by fully embracing the past.
The last time I heard you talk, you described your approach to Mr. Turner being to look at a contained period of time, drop an anchor, and investigate everything. Did that also hold true when you set out to make Peterloo?
How does your improvisational process mesh with a project like Peterloo where both the historical record and oratory play such a large role?
Well, the oratory is a part of it, we’ll come back to the oratory. You can research, read all the books in the world until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t make it happen in front of the camera. We’re talking about flesh and blood, every moment being lived, three-dimensional characters. The fact that it may be a dramatization of a historic event may be true, but all the use of improvisation and exploration of character still has to happen to breathe life into it. You can read about the Peterloo massacre in some considerable detail about what happened, and we drew from it very copiously. But that doesn’t make it actually happen. People are going to get on their feet in their costume and talk and act. Improvisations are the way to do character work and bring events into existence, which we call scenes.
As to the fact that one of the elements of it is what people actually said, that isn’t news in my period films either. Turner on his death bed apparently said “the sun is God.” Constable actually said when Turner went up to his painting and put a red blob on it to turn into a little boy, “he has been here and fired a gun.” Those were in the script. There’s a scene in Topsy-Turvy where Gilbert and Sullivan are sitting on a sofa drinking tea, and Sullivan is saying he just wants to write operas, and Gilbert is trying to read him the librettos. A substantial amount of what they say to each other in that conversation was taken from letters that they wrote to each other in correspondence, but we’ve made it natural dialogue.
All of which is to say is that the overall series of events that are Peterloo was a whole lot of stuff that people say that comes from speeches they actually made, things they actually said, things they said in letters. We’ve researched those and assimilated them into the script, stitched them seamlessly in and made them an organic part of the whole. We’ve edited them a lot, we’ve reorganized them, we’ve made them work for the characterizations the actors we’re doing. But we’ve still stuck to the spirit, and in some cases the actual substance and words, that people actually said. So, what I’m saying to you is, don’t get sidetracked by the idea that there’s a contradiction between the improvisational approach to making it all happen and the fact that some of the material is original text.
In terms of the incorporation, you’ve spoken to what you do on your end—is there anything different for the actors?
Yes, of course there is. They’re doing the same thing with me, and we’re doing it together. There’s a difference between everything that comes out finally in the rehearsal, the written scene that comes out of something organic that the actor said spontaneously as a character in a situation, and reading something. But then we’re talking about where people are making a speech. So, the very fact that that’s what they’re doing is different from ordinary domestic behavior because the action of making a speech isn’t the same as sitting around having a domestic conversation about the weather.
Was it harder, or just different, for your actors not to know the motivations of other actors’ characters in the process of Peterloo given the way the film builds toward a single event? Did you make any alterations to your process in response?
Well, they don’t know about the other characters except what they experience normally when we’re making the story up. It’s different in the context of a story where everyone knows what we’re dramatizing, so it doesn’t really apply.
Peterloo opens with the Battle of Waterloo, which you and DP Dick Pope shoot at first as a sweeping shot surveying the carnage around a soldier that gradually becomes a close-up on his face. How did you all come to the decision to portray such a consequential event in European history in such intimate terms?
Well, because we say here’s the Battle of Waterloo, first there’s a label that says the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington, all of that. You think you’re watching another movie and it’s a battle, but in fact, we know that the function of the scene is to focus on this guy. This individual. And pretty swiftly, it will be important whether you did it with lots of shots and cut to him or whether we did it the way we did it, you pretty soon need to get down and say, “On June 18, 1815, there was this famous battle and there was this particular guy.” And we go with the guy. It’s simply that that’s what the scene is about. It purports to be about the battle, but pretty swiftly, it turns out to be about one individual. And then, when you then see him gradually making his way back to England—and they did do that. There was no way they took anybody home. When the battle was over, they were left to their own devices, and a lot of people died on the way back. It took months; it was a real hassle. And while all that’s going on, other things are happening in Parliament and all the rest of England.
It seems like a good distillation…
The opening is a real contrast to the Peterloo massacre itself, which is shot with a tremendous number of cuts for a director like you who often prefers to film as much of a scene in a single take as possible—
I think that’s a bit of a generalization. I think sometimes I do. But I would reject the notion that it’s a characteristic. There are famous occasions when I’ve done exactly that. If you go back and look at any number of sequences, I sometimes do it when it’s appropriate. When Hortense and Cynthia meet for the first time in Secrets & Lies, and they sit by side by side in the café for a continuous take uncut for eight minutes, you can say that’s good discipline to shoot the take like that. But there’s no way you’re ever going to shoot the Peterloo massacre in one take! It’s academic and not worth talking about, really, because if you’re going to shoot that, you’re going to obviously have a massive amount of footage of hundreds of things, shot some of it with three cameras at the same time. There’s no way, and I wouldn’t want it to, because apart from anything else, the rhythm of that event in the café lends itself to that. But the chaos and mayhem of what happened at Peterloo wouldn’t lend itself to even considering that, even if it were possible. It’s kind of an irrelevant question, really.
You’ve said that you don’t make films about other films, but you have mentioned being a student of Eisenstein’s work. Given that it also involves government forces turning their bayonets on unarmed citizens who are advocating on behalf of the proletariat, was the Odessa Steps sequence at all an inspiration or touchpoint?
No! I’ve been asked that quite a lot. Nor was Ran of Kurosawa. I know those films, they’re in my DNA, but I never thought about Battleship Potemkin for a split second at any stage of doing that. Now you say it, and I think, “yeah yeah yeah,” but it never occurred to me. It isn’t that I don’t know the film. I know it backward, actually! But you don’t think about those things. They’re there, maybe in your subconscious.
What are you thinking about then?
The content! What it’s about. Telling the audience what’s going on. It’s as straightforward as that, no matter what the film. This is what’s happening, and let’s work out how to investigate this cinematically in order to tell the story to the audience. That’s what’s in my mind. I know it’s unbelievably uninteresting, but it’s true.
It’s interesting! If you’re not focused on it—
No, no, no. That’s also true. But what I’m saying is, I’m not thinking about what is the genre, what other movie is this like, what am I referencing or any of that crap because it’s irrelevant.
You’re focused in this sequence on the pain of the victims, not on making a spectacle of the violence. Is this a projection of your normal guiding principles onto a battle sequence?
Yes, it’s not incidentally a battle sequence. A battle is two opposing forces—
Well, yes, it’s a very mismatched battle.
Well again, you see, it’s hard to answer that question because it poses a premise that isn’t really relevant. It just seemed that everything that happened in the scene seems the natural way of telling what happened.
When looking at your filmography on the whole, your earlier films looked unflinchingly at the contemporary, while your more recent films tend to be more focused on portraying the past. Is that a conscious shift?
I made my first period film with Topsy-Turvy, followed by a contemporary film, All or Nothing, followed by another period film, Vera Drake, followed by another contemporary film, Happy-Go-Lucky, then another contemporary film, Another Year, then another period film, and then another period film. All you can be saying is that the last two films are period films, and I’m more interested in them.
But why start making them at all?
Just seemed like a good idea.
You say that you don’t make movies about “themes.” Was that any harder given how the history of Peterloo seemed to echo with the present moment?
It would be wrong to say that Peterloo isn’t a film with themes. What I meant when I may have said that is that my films, and I think Peterloo is no exception, do a whole bunch of things within the overall subject matter. These aren’t films with no themes, but they aren’t simplistic black-and-white themes.
I don’t mean to imply that your films are without themes, only that you seem to start with the content and the characters.
Of course. I have the sense of what it’s about, but these things are all compounded. They all come together, part and parcel. You can’t separate one from the other.
But was it harder to keep it rooted in its time? So many filmmakers making period pieces will make a movie set in the 1800s but wink and tell us that it’s about right now.
I think you’re right. A lot of filmmakers fall into that trap. They start to compromise what’s in the film. They say, “Let’s not make the dialogue period, people won’t understand it. Let’s not have the women in corsets, let’s lower the necklines, it’s more sexy.” And in doing that, they aren’t helping the audience believe they’re looking at something that really happened. Even though it’s something that’s happening now, 200 years ago.
Apart from the fact that I and my collaborators enjoy the challenge of capturing how people spoke, behaved, what they wore, what a place looked like, et cetera, well, when I started to make period films with Topsy-Turvy, I said, “Let’s make a period film that doesn’t look like just a costume drama. Let’s make it so that you really believe these are real people with real issues and real preoccupations. Doing a job of work like we all do.” So those are the criteria.
The job of a period film meaning something to a contemporary audience can be best achieved by making it as period-accurate as possible. The thing about a contemporary audience understanding it can only be in contemporary terms. The audience only knows how to interpret anything in terms of their own experience. They all just walk into a museum and look at a piece of sculpture from two thousand years ago, and you can only really decode, understand, and empathize with it in terms of how you are now. In the end, history can only be understood from the perspective of the contemporary world anyway. In a way, the currency of a period film as to how it will have a meaning for contemporary audiences looks after itself.
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