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The Genius of Mike Leigh’s System: Leigh & Cast on Gorgeous ‘Mr. Turner’

The Genius of Mike Leigh's System: Leigh & Cast on Gorgeous 'Mr. Turner'

Mr. Turner” (December 19) is a lushly mounted period biopic about a globally beloved painter, but it is also about art and commerce, creative integrity, institutional hypocrisy, damaged children, personal generosity, inspiration and love. At its center is a great romance. And all this from famously cranky Brit auteur Mike Leigh, who many tend to take for granted. (The film is now nominated for seven London Film Critics awards, including Best Picture.)

We shouldn’t, just because he always delivers. At 71 he’s at the height of his powers. Labor of love “Mr. Turner” was not easy to get made. It’s the apotheosis of the Leigh Method, the creative –and hugely influential–process he has honed and refined over decades, which allows his actors to collaborate for months–or a year even– on building their characters and his screenplay. Think about the filmmakers, from Richard Linklater to Bennett Miller, to name two of his award-season rivals, who have been inspired by Leigh’s pursuit of authenticity. 

Leigh started thinking about doing a movie about Turner after “Topsy-Turvy,” around 1999. “I want to explore the man, his working life, his relationships and how he lived,” he told me back then. “But what fascinates me most is the drama that lies in the tension between this driven eccentric and the epic, timeless world he evoked in his masterpieces.  I also see rich tragic-comic potential in his often turbulent relationship with the English Art Establishment, especially in his later years, when his increasingly radical work was misunderstood and derided.”

But the filmmaker always worried that his second 19th century biopic would be impossible to finance. “We made it possible because we made it for far less money than we wanted to,” Leigh told me at Cannes. The movie cost only $15 million, and was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics in March, 2013. “The thing is, I have mixed feelings about it, because morally we should have made a bad movie so that we could say ‘see if you would have given us enough money it would have been good.’ Well next time they say you can do it. It’s sort of a double edge.”

One sequence that had to go for budget concerns was Turner in Venice. “Going anywhere on the continent was a tall order, but filming in Venice, anyway, is wildly expensive,” Leigh says. “We looked into it every which way. In the end we can still tell a story about Turner’s life and not worry about that. The importance is to get to the essence of it and I think we have done that.”

But the film is stunning visually. D.P. Dick Pope talked endlessly for years about the film with Leigh. And he researched the palette Turner used in his paintings on public display at the Tate Britain, he said at Cannes, “his colors and the way he used them and devised a palette based on that, to try and serve the story and the pictures with the colors he used at that time. The best light in Britain is in Cornwall, where we filmed Margate, which has been famous with artists for generations. We were blessed with wonderful glorious weather, every day. It was the most magic summer I’ve ever experienced.”

“The light in Kent is fantastic,” agrees Leigh. “Turner went there as a small boy to school, he came across the light, it’s extraordinary there, across the water from France…A painter paints what he sees. Turner stands on a cliff top and paints a seascape and the sky. Infinite numbers of people paint pictures of what they see in a photographic way, but when Turner does that he sees beyond the sea andy the sky, he brings to it an experience and shares with us and make us see an experience that goes above the surface. It’s about living, dying and life, what life is about. That’s what I would mean by spiritual.”

The paintings themselves kept the filmmaker going. (He talks to David D’Arcy about Turner’s art here.) “When I was growing up I didn’t really know about Turner–Constable, landscapes, chocolate boxes, biscuit tins, you know. When I was an art student I looked at the Turners and began to realize the radical, dramatic, versatile painter he actually was. For me in my innocent nineteen-fifties, it was all about Picasso. I even took Salvador Dali seriously. Surrealism was great. But when you start to really look at the range of Turner– that’s not the stuff of a movie, it’s a character. Making a movie about Turner is only interesting up to a point. What I think is worth having a go at is the tension between work and this eccentric complex character.”

Being character-driven is Leigh’s supreme talent–besides getting the best from cinematographers, production designers, costume designers and composers such as Pope, Suzie Davies, Jacqueline Durran and Gary Yershon, respectively. The root of his genius has always been his collaboration with his actors. 

After seven films in 33 years–the same length as his marriage–Timothy Spall is one of the great practitioners of the Leigh technique. “With Mike you build it up from ground zero, we all love him,” he says. “When you see a chimney blow up and fall down, it implodes on itself and then you reverse it and speed it up? It’s a pile of dust when you start, with a brilliant idea and a chimney you are supposed to build in very slow motion, like being rebuilt after an explosion, it comes back up there and you have whatever he hopes to get.”

As torturous as this was for Spall–working on one character for a year–“I always feel like a pile of shit whenever I start,” he says, although It’s better than a Hollywood picture, where “rather than three years you get three minutes. There might have been a run-through, and they lit it for two hours, and bang, ‘lets shoot the rehearsal.’ That’s one of the clueless oxymoronic phrases you could ever hear.”

With Leigh, “it’s about the work,” says Spall, “and how the technique makes it work for the audience. There’s a mystery about it. The reality of what we’re trying to do is present something completely original, believable and tragicomic, like life is, in a weird way.”

And Turner does seem like the role he was born to play, and not just because he’s a strange-looking overweight man. Another aspect of Turner is that he was a working class autodidact who deepened what Leigh describes as a “basic, rudimentary education. His father taught him to read and write. The main thing about Turner was that he was talented; he could draw from a very early age. That’s the bottom line.” Spall, of course, had to learn how to paint. And to appreciate how Turner saw both the beauty and the horror of nature, he says. Turner also knew how to work the art world, and was willing to pander to wealthy patrons and critics alike. (Some critics have taken some offense to Leigh’s attack on their profession.)

Spall plays Turner as a wounded soul who was damaged by his schizophrenic mother, who expresses himself often with expressive grunting. “Turner’s character is based on his repressed joy, fashion, fun, hate, despondency, boredom,” says Spall. “So what he does, he’s a philosopher by nature, due to the knot in his heart from his relationship with his mother,” says Spall. “The grunt is the embodiment and manifestation of some form of non-expression that fed the engine of his soul, that built up from when he was a child. His mother was a lunatic and didn’t love him. The grunts, which I didn’t know were happening, became some sort of strange Morse Code to express what he’s really feeling.”

Oddly, Turner was a magnet for women. “He’s got a kink in his soul as far as women concerned,” he says, “supplied by his mother, who created this terrible stunted growth in him, that kernel in his soul created a powerhouse of activity, and is why he’s popular with women. They see, under his carapace of despair and genius, a hurt toddler.” In one scene, the emotions released when he visits a prostitute produce a burst of weeping. 

Dorothy Atkinson plays Turner’s almost silent housekeeper who is also deeply in love with him. At the start of the movie, when we’re getting the lay of the land, we are shocked when he returns home and greets his delighted housekeeper and then suddenly claps his hand on her breast. The two actors had figured out their communication with a lot of improvised touching. “I’d like to think that he did love her on some level. Actually, practically, he left her in charge of everything when he died. He left her a lot of money.”

Marion Bailey plays the mature widow who marries Turner and takes care of him late in his life. She first worked with Leigh in 1981 on the West End play “Goosepimples,” on a film called “Meantime,” on the Cannes entry “All or Nothing,” and the National Theater play “Grief.” 

She embraces Leigh’s process, which over the years has remained similar but different, it evolves. “There is nothing like it,” she says. “It just makes sense to me. You start from a point of working out with him who your character will be and he brings in a list of people you have known in your life. He’ll choose one person– Mrs. Booth was a composite of five people to start with, but that’s only the starting point. She ends up a long ways from any of those.”

“Then you put in their life history and then he puts you together with other actors and you start with the improvisations and create a history between you. Then he has his quiz day. All of us sit in a room together and he asks, as it were, our character’s questions. We don’t have to answer out loud, we just think in our head. It might be questions anywhere from what is their favorite food, favorite color, and the most traumatic thing that’s ever happened to them under the age of five, to what sort of adolescence did they have. By the time he starts really working, you know these characters so well. It’s very calming, by the time you start to shoot you feel very safe and grounded. You kind of know what you are doing.”

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