Interviewing Mike Leigh is a daunting prospect, not because of his intimidatingly central plinth in the pantheon of British cinema – well, maybe a bit of that – but because he is extremely exacting. You just couldn’t work the way he does – his scripts are improvised, not written, resting on collaboration, trust, instinct, bravery – without weighing every word, cross-examining every sentence. Otherwise it would just be baggy. He takes this perfectionism into every interview, every conversation: Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, a close textual and visual reading of his life’s work by Amy Raphael, reissued next month, bristles with this energy.
Then there’s the incredible range of his output: since 1971, he has not just been making films and TV dramas, but breaking and recasting the expectations of form and genre. It bugs him when people always talk about the same few works – Abigail’s Party, Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies – and neglect the films of which he is equally proud – Peterloo, or Meantime, a magnificent 1983 exploration of the hard edges of Thatcherism, which maybe didn’t launch, but certainly put a rocket under the careers of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. The British Film Institute (BFI) has a retrospective this autumn that includes every film he has ever made – “including the Play for Todays,” he says, as if the world has finally recognised that you have to watch them all, like film-Pokémon – and a remastered Naked, which will go on general release in November.
In person, he is so warm and curious that even though it’s true about his unsparing nature, you don’t really feel unspared; it wasn’t until I read back the interview transcript that I realised how often I got told off. I wonder if the success and originality of his method, going to the brink of an actor’s mind for the intuitively truest line, might be rooted in this: people who can be frank in an affectionate way can say almost anything.
We meet in central London in Soho House, the private members club on the same street as his erstwhile office, which he has recently given up. Was that because of the pandemic? “No, we had to give it up because we couldn’t afford the rent, but yes, right, because of the pandemic.” Leigh loves and hates the fact that even now, at 78, with three Baftas and a Palme d’Or, and countless nominations for every other prize, he is still the scrabbly outsider he was when he started out. He hates it because it means he really has to sweat blood to raise money, and yet loves it as a badge of his independence. “My late producer, Simon Channing Williams, dead for about 10 years, would come back from meetings with potential backers, Americans, and say: ‘They don’t care that there’s no script, they don’t care that you can’t say what it’s about, but they will insist on the name, meaning an American movie star.’ And we’d walk away. Every project I’ve ever done has been embarked upon on the watertight understanding: leave me to it, and everybody involved, and we’ll deliver this work. Whether it’s been historical, and we could say: ‘This is about Gilbert and Sullivan’ [Topsy Turvy]. Or: ‘This is about the Peterloo Massacre.’ Or whether – like nearly everything else – it’s been: ‘We can’t tell you anything about it, just give us some money.’ Provided they accepted those conditions, and they have, it [the relationship between Leigh and his backers] has not been an issue.”
Just that point on casting is a radical act: when producers want a big name, with a few exceptions, that means one thing. Movie stars have to be movie-star handsome; in Leigh’s films, sometimes actors are beautiful, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes they are but only from some angles. Timothy Spall would never be described as a classic leading man, and yet he has been the hero, to the extent that these ensemble works have heroes, in six Leigh films. It’s hard to imagine Abigail’s Party, the exploration of class and suburbia that rocked 1977 in mirth and dispute, peopled by perfect, symmetrical faces. It’s hard not to connect this to the depth of the performances in Leigh’s work, not because ordinary-looking people are better at acting than beautiful ones, but because it’s just a numbers game: you’ve got a much larger, more varied pool of talent if not everyone has to have a ski slope nose. Photogenia, Leigh says, “is one culture, and I’m creating a different culture. I’m concerned with real people out there in the streets.”
The debate about Abigail’s Party – it was mainly critically acclaimed, the argument more of an internecine playwright-on-playwright skirmish – was whether or not it conveyed “rancid disdain, for it is a prolonged jeer, twitching with genuine hatred, about the dreadful … lower middle classes”, in the memorable phrase of Dennis Potter. Does Leigh view suburbia with contempt? Are his portrayals of the working class patronising? What about his own background? Did he even belong on the kitchen-sink or angry young man scene when his father was a doctor, and therefore he was middle class and grew up nowhere near the margins? These charges have ebbed and flowed for the past 40 years, and he has always greeted them a little irascibly. We come at the conversation circuitously, chatting about Michael Ashcroft’s biography of Keir Starmer: “The poor bugger was being accused of the most ridiculous things.” (Ashcroft’s fundamental charge is that Starmer isn’t as working class as he makes out.) “I think I resonate with some aspects of that. I’ve got a long history of being accused of pretension – that I was affecting to be working class. It so happens that I grew up in a very working-class area, because we lived over my dad’s surgery. And I went to a very working-class school, Salford grammar. But I’ve never affected to be anything other than what I am.”
Irresistibly, when there’s a retrospective of this depth, one is drawn to consider not just the films alone or their trajectory, but also how they fell at the time they were released, and how they’re likely to be interpreted today. Naked, released in 1993, was the focus of a complicated ire for its gender politics. The film centres on Johnny, played by David Thewlis at his most committed, who roams about, hating everyone, but women more than men; he is violent, pretentious, but also powerfully disappointed. The crushing sadness of the character almost redeems him, but in a complicated way. You couldn’t draw a neat map of which bits have been redeemed. There was a degree of feminist backlash – one writer hated it because she found the female characters doormatty, and many were angered by the sexual violence (there’s also a rapist landlord). Both then and watching it again now, I didn’t object to the misogynist violence – it’s problematic when it’s done aesthetically, or erotically, not when it’s the unlovely brutality in a story about misogynist violence – but I could see the ambiguities that would at least open up a discussion about where its moral compass was. Leigh can’t see that at all. “There was a screening at [north London cinema] Screen on the Green. And I went on to do a Q&A and I got jumped on by a bunch of feminists. What they weren’t ready for were Katrin Cartlidge and Leslie Sharpe and Claire Skinner and Deborah MacLaren, all of whom were in the film, all of whom are nothing if not feminists. You couldn’t make the film with actresses who were not feminists. They jumped up and gave them a bloody mouthful. That was in 1993. At the end of the decade, there was none of that. I think people now will get what it really is. I think they’ll read the central character, Johnny, in an intelligent way.”
Leigh now rationalises his improvised scripts in a wry, workmanlike way. “Yes, it is about going on a creative journey to discover what it is that you are doing. That isn’t to say people who write conventional scripts don’t do that. Except that when it comes to movies in particular, as we know, you can write the most brilliant script in the world but then everybody else is there to fuck it up. So they’re going to collaborate whether you like it or not. You might as well do it deliberately.” He treads a delicate path between ceding himself utterly to that process, and being completely in charge of it. “To say I’m not a control freak at all would be preposterous. You have to be a control freak,” he says. Yet he never talks about any of his films at any length without mentioning a particular performance, or the set designer (Alison Chitty was his mainstay) or someone else, always by name.
Where he’s not delicate at all is in his hatred of rules and compromise, which sounds fearless turned upon a faceless executive producer but different – less fearless, a bit Daily Express – when turned on wokeness, though the word itself doesn’t come up. “Not wanting to drag myself into the quagmire of these issues, I am predictably irritated by box-ticking on political correctness. I’m concerned about young film-makers. They have a hell of a bloody time, being told what they can and can’t do, that they ought to have different kinds of people working with them, different subject matters. Nobody disagrees about diversity. But when it becomes prescriptive, that’s dangerous.” I was quite surprised, since the question I thought I’d asked, obviously not very well, was about Britishness, his long fascination with the minute differences in class and outlook that become cavernous when characters are juxtaposed. It’s striking how often his films have a greater impact abroad – in France and the US, in particular – than in the UK, but he doesn’t find that especially interesting. “My work is rooted here, in our culture, but that’s not what it’s primarily about. It’s about humanity.”
Secrets & Lies, which is an incredible portrait of an adopted optometrist tracing her birth mother, did especially well in the US and, commercially and internationally, is his most successful film. “As much as anything, that’s because tracing your birth is illegal in 50 of the 52 United States. In many countries, it remains illegal. So it’s not just about me and my brand, it’s about the specifics.” Just as the wind is in his sails on a film that did particularly well – his 2014 painter-biopic Mr Turner, for example saw some of the best reviews of his career – partway through, he’ll recall some work that was less well-received, or languished in partial obscurity, and make the diversion to talk about that.
He sees his films as though they’re his children – not with a progenitor’s narcissism, that they’re all perfect, but rather, that it genuinely troubles him when the world prefers some over others. The intimate, familial atmosphere that he brings to his creative process might seem to make sense of how many of his leading actors he has been married to – well, one, Alison Steadman, and a long-term relationship with Marion Bailey – but actually the relationships are the normal bit; the unusual bit is how well he can work with people he’s married, during and after. “I’m very professional. They’re very professional. We talk the language of what we’re doing. And of course, the process might sometimes be between me and the actress, but most of it is about everyone working together.” As if to land this point, he adds, “I worked with Alison Steadman after we ceased to be together.” And then concludes, “It’s not a very relevant matter,” though whether he’s talking to me or himself is not completely plain.
Covid wrecked his recent projects – there is no way he could have made “socially distanced” work. “It takes time to develop a scene, time and patience, long improvisations in character, allowing things to just stay a little too long, not trying to make anything happen. This can result in fantastically boring improvisation, but that’s part of the organic growth.” He won’t tell me what his next project is. He won’t tell me why he won’t tell me. Does he think he’ll be working till his deathbed? “I’m sure I’ll be working after I’ve died.” This answer, something in his manner tells me, is a work in progress.