DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Secrets and Lies: Mike Leigh Exposes the Truths and Subtleties Behind “Vera Drake”
by Anthony Kaufman
[EDITORS NOTE: “Vera Drake,” which opened in theaters in October, will available on DVD this week (March 29, 2005).]
What makes Mike Leigh‘s “Vera Drake” so extraordinary is not simply Imelda Staunton‘s stunning performance as the cheery, working class good Samaritan, benevolently offering tea and abortions to young women who can’t afford a proper operation, but the way in which the film captures the fragile textures and hushed voices of post-World War II London, circa 1950.
There’s a conversation that takes place early in the film, introducing the Drake family — Vera’s husband Stan, their grown-up children Sid and Ethel, and Reg, a possibly shell-shocked neighbor — that subtly conveys the traumas of the war and the Blitzkrieg. It’s a quietly devastating scene — sweet and sorrowful — that brings these characters to life and sets the tone for “Vera Drake,” an utterly compelling and concise drama that shows how even the most forthright, morally composed survivor can be torn down by the State.
Combining the charged class politics of “Naked” and the warm family dynamics and dysfunction of “Secrets and Lies,” Leigh has also created in “Vera Drake” a deeply humanistic look at the shades of the abortion debate that is anything but stuck in the past. Palpably contemporary and emotionally harrowing, “Vera Drake” won both the best film and best actress prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
During his trip to the New York Film Festival, the British master spoke with indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman about making politics without propaganda, his extensive development and research, rhythm and editing, and abortion.
indieWIRE: Let’s start with a little flattery. I agree with what a lot of people are saying that “Vera Drake” is an excellent film, and in fact, one of your best. So I wanted to ask you, do you feel like you’re getting better at filmmaking?
Mike Leigh: At the age of 61, this is my 17th full-length film. One would hope that one is getting better, because if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. I think so. The more films you do, the more the ones you’ve done define what you then do. And I feel that having decided to make a film that is, in many ways, a conventional Mike Leigh film, but at the same time, trying to find a way to deal with a difficult issue that doesn’t drag me into uncharacteristic realms of propagandist, black and white didactic nonsense… Having managed to do that, I feel that I have progressed.
iW: How do you achieve that: political statements without being didactic?
Leigh: I am by nature, more inclined to ask questions and consider the things from various points of view, in a Talmudic way, rather than to simply land on simplistic statements. When it comes to the issues of this film, we are posing a moral dilemma, and so I’ve tried to find a way of using dramatic language through which to express something about good and evil and morality, which confront the audience with the question rather than simply bludgeon the audience with a polemic.
iW: Isn’t it achieved, in large part, due to bringing such humanity to the people who are enacting this moral drama?
Leigh: I take that for granted.
iW: Could you discuss the creation of the character Vera Drake with actress Imelda Staunton?
Leigh: I do what I do, which is to collaborate with the actor by the various esoteric means at our disposal (that I don’t talk about) to bring this woman to existence. The important thing is the character is an entirely good person and the challenge is to do her with complete, organic, three-dimensional plausibility. I have to say with regards to Imelda’s extraordinary qualities that she brings to the character is that Imelda, herself, was being extremely compassionate and humane, and thank goodness, has not a grain of sentimentality in her. And it would have been a struggle with an actress of lesser mettle to do it without sentimentality. The great thing is there’s no sentimentality and it’s absolutely the way a woman is: a real working-class woman.
iW: One of the reasons why I think the film is so strong is this concise quality to the scenes. They all seem to end not a beat too soon, or a beat too early, ending on an extremely succinct note. Was this something that you were especially keen to create with “Vera Drake”?
Leigh: Each film finds its own rhythm, tempo, palette and timbre. For example, “Naked” works because it has these quite definite cadences of languages and vistas and aggression. So, in a way, it’s just that. Part of the joy of making the films the way I do where the writing and the structure and rhythm is inextricably wound up with the definition of the story is they’re not separate, like they are in conventional movies, so I discover the rhythm in an organic way by actually working it out on the floor. And the joy of that is that it is that it’s all integral. So I define the scene, the action, and I can only create a scene — i.e. write it, i.e. write it by rehearsal — by actually seeing it. So you are able to get the essence of scenes and find the right compound language, the film language and spoken language, in a harmonious way. One can imagine a parallel universe version of “Vera Drake” made conventionally where the script could suffer from passages of exposition, which would not fit with a need to shoot simply.
iW: How much of this brevity and concision of the scenes was developed in the creation of the scenes versus discoveries in the cutting room?
Leigh: Honestly, it slotted into place. The editing was cutting to the rhythm of what was there. Of all my films, it contains almost no extraneous material. There were no sequences where we went into the cutting room and we had to work out what to make of the material and what to select. I also worked for the first time with a veteran and rather brilliant editor, called Jim Clark (“Marathon Man,” “The World is Not Enough”).
iW: How did he help?
Leigh: I haven’t worked with any bad editors, but you don’t always know the answer to that. We worked in a very direct and shorthand way, arrived at conclusions very quickly because the material was fine and we were very much on a wavelength and it’s a very cleanly cut piece of work.
iW: Aside from “Topsy Turvy” and “Vera Drake,” all of your films take place in the contemporary moment. In terms of creating the period milieu of “Vera Drake,” how helpful was “Topsy Turvy”?
Leigh: If the question is if I hadn’t made “Topsy Turvy,” is it the case that I wouldn’t have made “Vera Drake,” that isn’t relevant. Because the motivating factors of “Vera Drake” go beyond the mere indulgence of making a period film. I’ve always had a notion that I would one day make a film set around the time I was a kid, around 1950, and plainly, this film had to be set before 1967 in the legal context of the story. But having said that, what is certainly true is that when I and my team set out to make “Vera Drake,” we certainly were much advantaged by the experience of making “Topsy Turvy.”
iW: In terms of making a film set when you were a kid, that must have been a different experience from your previous films: trying to evoke something from your memories.
Leigh: Unlike Terrence Davies‘ films, it’s not a strict exercise in nostalgia or directly reconstructing my memories. It’s a complete fiction and it’s not about the specific social milieu or concerns in which I grew up, although because I grew up in a very working class area, the general ambiance of the film is what I recall. There was a certain sense of nostalgia on my part when they wheeled in the old cars. So it helped, having recall. But the real meat and bones of the thing, which we did with “Topsy Turvy,” is to have absolutely everybody thoroughly engrossed in massive research, so that everybody was involved, on both sides of the camera.
iW: But there’s that mood. How much can research recreate that post-war, post-Blitz malaise?
Leigh: That’s as much as anything about research. For example, there were two guys at the Imperial War museum in South London, who were permanently available for actors to talk to and piece together their war experiences, in collaboration with me, of their characters. We built the whole backstory. Some of which surfaces when they talk about it…
iW: It’s such a quiet, devastating scene…
Leigh: Yes, it’s real and it’s resonant. It’s like they had been there by us having gone through it in various ways. In the endless improvisations (which I don’t talk about) during the development of the film, with a contemporary piece, we have real radios and real televisions, but you couldn’t actually do that if it’s supposed to be 1949. So we had CDs of music from the period; that was an ambient thing. It’s not in the film, but it was fed into the atmosphere of the thing. They read magazines, read books, and watched movies — we had loads of movies floating around that they would have gone to the pictures to see. Anything that needs to be researched gets researched fully. Even though 95% of it may not be extant in surface terms in the film, it’s there like the foundations of a building. It informs the proceedings and it’s there in the substance of the thing.
iW: How long was the research and rehearsal period?
Leigh: Six months. And three months shooting.
iW: We’ve discussed period details. Let’s talk about how it’s anything but a period film, in fact, very contemporarily relevant. Obviously, there is this abortion debate, but I also wanted to ask you about the post-war period and whether you see any parallels with a mood or a feeling that’s going on today?
Leigh: No, I don’t. I think the general ambient mood in 1950 anywhere where World War II had happened was — and you see this very much in the central characters — this feeling of having been through the trauma and now really rebuilding and coming together in a very positive, forward-thinking and wholesome way. That’s not a description of 2004. Here, I would imagine, give or take any obvious differences, this feels far more like 1938 or 1939 than 1950.
iW: In 2004, there is a tendency to paint things in black and white terms, so the film, in a way, answers that.
Leigh: My natural inclination is to deal with these things in a subtler way; this arises from the actual issue and what I feel about it. Of course, I’d take a pro-life position. Of course, I think it’s an overpopulated, shrinking planet and I think it’s disastrous that unloved children are born in this chaotic world. But on the other hand, [abortion] is traumatic, disastrous and you are destroying life. But I’m concerned with filmmaking, not politics. I’m concerned with making a film that confronts the audience with a dilemma.
iW: The reality of the abortion issue is that — and the film abundantly makes this clear through class issues — that abortion is going to happen, whether people outlaw it or not, and the wealthy will have access to it in a certain way and the poor will have access to it in a certain way.
Leigh: Absolutely. And the point about Vera is that there have always been Veras, in all societies, everywhere, and that’s not to say there’s been men or women who have done it for money or exploitation, but there’s always been women who were down the block who know how to deal with it; the woman you go to, quietly, and do what is very straightforward, which is to introduce an alien body into the uterus and cause an abortion. And there have always been such people and there always will be. The question, obviously, is if that’s what you want, or whether in the end, if it’s better to happen cleanly and healthily?