by Anthony Kaufman
To read the beginning of this interview, click here.
An Interview with Director Mike Leigh, Part II
Politics and Production
When Mike Leigh, the 54 year old director of "Career Girls", asks you if the film works, British accented, greying hair and wise eyes staring you
in the face, what do you say? You say, "Yes." Not out of obligation or
respect, but because it's true. The film does work and it works on both
emotional and social levels. This conscientious mix of personal and
political motivations make the films of Mike Leigh resonate with their
audiences in often deep and meaningful ways.
With the Academy Award nominations behind him and the funds rolling in,
Leigh gets ready for his next project and his biggest budget ever, a 20
million dollar period piece set in the late 19th century. What this
director of working class stories of the late 20th century will say
about the 1890's is anybody's guess, but surely they will have rich
characters living in a complex social environment.
indieWIRE: How political, if at all, is this movie?
Mike Leigh: How political is the film? As we both know, political is not
something for which a currency or a measurement exists, but a question
that really has to be asked in order to deal with that question is, "In
what way are my films political anyhow, at all?" On the one hand, they
are films always about how we live our lives, films in which the
characters always are seen very precisely in their socio-economic,
cultural context. Which politics of various kinds figure, of least among
them, which is sexual politics. In all those senses, as far as I'm
concerned, the films are inherently political.
On the other hand, those people on the hard left, for example, who
always complain to me that my films were apolitical and reactionary,
whilst I think they probably talked a lot of rubbish, just like the
people who called "Naked" misogynist talked a lot rubbish, nevertheless,
for the purposes of this discussion, they were right in the sense that,
in no way are my films propagate in an overt manner any political
position. Nor would I wish them to. And I make no bones about that. As
far as I'm concerned the active politics in my films, if there is any,
is that people will walk away from them, with matters that are
unresolved, matters which deserve debate, matters to be argued about,
things to care about, things that will suddenly occur to you weeks
later, and all of that stuff, and to me, as far as I'm concerned, that
interaction with an audience is as political an act as I, as you can
get. . . .
Therefore, you come back to "Career Girls", how political is "Career Girls"?
Well, that's as political as it is. How we are formed, defined, by that
which went before and the way we were before. . . Ricky in "Career Girls"
is obviously intelligent, obviously has potential, has got down to
London, has got down to a polytechnic, but can't hack all sorts of other
stuff and drops out. The system can't deal with guys like that, they
defeat, they neglect, they shit on guys like that, the system shits on
guys like that. Hannah, I'm still talking about the politics, is a very
interesting case. Hannah, for me, is the most 80's character in the film
in the sense that she has all the natural questioning and anarchy and
stuff of a potentially seriously politically motivated person, but in
the end, when she's young, all the energy goes into debunking and being
anarchic, rather than actually channeling it towards a direct political
end. And one could argue, hypothetically, that such a person, for
example, had she been around in the 60's and probably the 70's, would
have probably have been more tangibly, political active. By the 80's,
you could sit around, kind of, playing at it. By the 90's, far from
having sorted out her politics, as she says at one point, "from where
her heart is." She's kind of, in a very 90's way, in a quite cynical
way, thought right, okay, can't beat the system. Join it. She's a
propagated capitalist. So in all these terms, implicitly, yeah! It's a
iW: What about working with these specific actors and women, who you've seemed to work very well with in these last films?
Leigh: Well, I have nothing useful to say about the question of working
with women, because it seems to me, that I work with women and men, men
and women. These sorts of interesting questions and preoccupations about
my working with men and women get dished up in different forms, when it
was a question of NAKED, everyone said it was a women-hating film, that
it's misogynist,. . . it was seen as a male thing, well it isn't. It
iW: And the women characters, Katrin Cartlidge's character was incredible, just as vivid as David Thewlis's character. I guess it's
unfair to say that the women characters you create are more vivid than
the male. I think maybe the preoccupation with your women characters, is
because, in American films, we don't have many good parts for women.
Leigh: No, we don't in British films mostly. No, that's right. People are
bemused in some way by the fact that I'm a guy. With all due respect to
everybody, I think that anybody who is good at it, is good at it, no
iW: From "Bleak Moments" to "Career Girls", how easy is it now compared with then?
Leigh: Well, it's easier now then it was then, that's for sure. Because
people know who I am and they let me do what I do. But having said that,
I mean I did make those films because someone let me. . . It's
progressed, it's never progressed out of proportion. Curiously enough,
including "Secrets & Lies", it was the most expensive, about
5 million dollars ("Career Girls" was a much lower budget) and even a film
that I'm going to do next which is going to cost considerably more than that,
are still low budget. Because it's what you do with it. The difference is
only that if there's more budget, you just expand certain aspects of
what actually you do, really, it still operates on the ground. Tight. .
. That principle, that sort of low-budget principle still obtains.
Therefore, the thing about more money is merely more money on the same
scale. It's only relative. Do you see what I mean?
Frankly, to have put on screen what we did with "Naked". Given the scale
of it, I mean, again, there's nothing in the desert, there aren't any
armies being blown up, but we took time to get it right, shot it in the
winter, the days were short, we shot it at night, it was a real kind of
an arctic epic experience. Just the sheer time it took to shoot some of
that verbal stuff cinematically. And the commitment in the crew and all
that to do it, we had to have rehearsals on the shoot to get it right
and all that. . . . So it's all about still operating in the spirit,
with the spirit of ensemble, low-budget filmmaking. And just using the
resources when you can get them to do ever more extraordinary things
within the limits of that kind of film.