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Oscar '09: "Happy-Go-Lucky"'s Mike Leigh

By Erica Abeel | Indiewire February 11, 2009 at 4:42AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the two weeks leading up to Oscar, indieWIRE will be republishing a series of interviews and profiles on the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Over the two weeks leading up to Oscar, indieWIRE will be republishing a series of interviews and profiles on the nominees for the 81st Academy Awards.

In the opening scenes of "Happy-Go-Lucky," Poppy, a thirty-year-old teacher dressed in flea market duds and fishnet stockings, pedals through London dispensing cheer -- then ends up getting her bike stolen. Instead of going ballistic like most of us, Poppy regroups in the time it takes to say Shit happens, and decides to take driving lessons. Turns out Scott, her driving instructor (the superb Eddie Marsan), is her polar opposite, a fount of sulfuric rage, spouting semi-coherent opinions on the world's dire state -- and of course falling for radiant, irresistible Poppy (Sally Hawkins, winner of best actress at the Golden Globes).

At a moment when most Americans are reeling from the gyrations of the free market, Poppy's sunniness feels downright subversive. She's especially disorienting coming from the shop of Mike Leigh, who tends to work the miserablist end of the spectrum (his first film in 1972 was titled, fittingly, "Bleak Moments"). But the English filmmaker and playwright has always been a - oops, let's avoid the now tainted "maverick" in favor of hard to categorize.

Best known for brilliant and iconoclastic films exploring family dynamics among working class Brits, Leigh shifts easily from the hilarious antics of "Life is Sweet," to a scathing indictment of Britain in "Naked" (its David Thewlis howling at God a cousin of "Happy"'s Scott), to the weepy laffer "Secrets and Lies" (winner of the 1996 Palme d'Or.) At the same time, Leigh can upend expectations by throwing into the mix "Topsy-Turvy," an eccentric biopic about Gilbert and Sullivan.

Generally, though, Leigh tends to foreground the banal conflicts of plain folk, the spaces between the heroic gestures favored by Hollywood. He captures the lived moment -- via actors who sound and look little like actors -- promoting the sense that he's making it up as he goes along. The style has been widely copied of course, yet Leigh, it's well known, achieves realism by his method of hunkering down with his cast and improvising for six months or so before shooting. Leigh can also be famously prickly to interview, and not averse to greeting the hapless journo's question with a quick upper cut to the ego. At the New York Film Festival's press conference following the screening of "Happy," he appeared to have mellowed. Still, if the writers gathered at the Regency were expecting a blast of the old vitriol, Leigh didn't disappoint -- though he took great pains to detail his working methods for iW.


indieWIRE: How do you make a film about happiness?

Mike Leigh: Well, it's not a film just about happiness, that's simplistic, and I'm sure you agree. You know as well as I do you have to give a film a title. "Happy-Go-Lucky" evokes the spirit of the film, rather than a precise description of what's in the bottle. It's a film about positivism and coping with life in a mature, intelligent, focused way - not sort of mindlessly looking on the bright side and just being happy, as though she'd eaten magic mushrooms or smoked a lot of dope.

iW: Yet another person might be disgruntled with what Poppy lacks. She lives very modestly, doesn't have a boyfriend...

But she's a professsional, she's got an adequate salary, and she ends up getting a boyfriend. What's significant is that money isn't important to her. She doesn't buy into the mindless "right" way of living. Central to her life is the major responsibility of nurturing the future - and she's a good teacher, as you can tell. She's positive and she's fulfilled.

iW: Yet even when she's in pain after throwing her back out, she's still chirpy...

Look, there are people who the least little thing, they grumble and complain, and their world falls apart. On the other end of the spectrum there are loads of people around who say, c'mon, my bike's been stolen - but all the crying in the world won't bring it back. And my back's gone out, let's get it fixed. There's a certain mythology about this film. Because when she finds she has a kid in her class who's plainly disturbed, she doesn't say, hey, so what, she deals with it. It's not accurate to talk about her in terms of this relentless cheerfulness.

Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins at a New York Film Festival press screening of "Happy-Go-Lucky." Image courtesy of the New York Film Festival.

iW: "Vera Drake," your most recent film, seems a lot more structured than this one.

"Vera Drake" is not actually more structured, it's just that it follows classic narratively causal events: this happens and then that happens, and you sit on the edge of your seat -- will they find out? Are the cops onto it? It's that kind of storytelling. ["Happy"] is a different kind of storytelling, where it's the accumulation of things that begin to add up to a portrait of somebody. It's more fluid, like Poppy and her world. In a way it's kind of a comparison that doesn't really get us anywhere particuarly, I don't think...

Actually, it does the film down a bit to suggest that it's just completely cumulative. There's a story there, and the story follows a logical progression. Poppy's bike is stolen, and therefore she takes driving lessons. She meets the guidance counselor and goes back to his flat, and the next morning she has the climactic scene with Scott, who of course has completely fallen in love with her and is obsessed with the question, was that your boyfriend. And at the end of the film when the two women are in the boat and they're reflecting on life, it feels like the conclusion of the film.

iW: I sense in your films an underlying anger.

My films are motivated on my part by a passion for life, by compassion, by a caring - and also by an anger at the way the world is so screwed up. ["Happy"] is a reflection on life, y'know. A reflection of the world with all its comedy and tragedy, its pain, its suffering and joy.

iW: What drives Scott's rage?

He's so deeply frustrated and unfulfilled. So unloved and devoid of a cuddle. And he's utterly devoid of a sense of humor. What happens to Poppy is what happens to all of us who have a great sense of humor: it brings out the worst in her, she can't help winding him up.

iW: Are his teeth really so yucky?

No, dear, that's called make-up.

iW: You're known for creating films through improvisation and rehearsal. How do you put the whole thing together?

That's a complicated question, but here's the thing. You're a novelist. And what you do, I would suggest, is in one way or another you improvise onto the page. And then you put order on that and you distill it and structure it and move it around ... That's exactly what I do. That's what artists do. Long ago I decided it would make sense to shift the divisions around a bit. Rather than make a screenplay for a putative film and then try to find actors to interpret the thing, I find it far more exciting and productive for the writing and the work of the actors to be part of a whole creative investigation that leads to the material. That's the principle of it. How I actually do it is a very long and complicated trade secret. You think I'm going to tell you how I do it? You got another think coming.

iW: So you give the actors a premise --

No, I don't do any such thing.

iW: So what do you give them?

Well, that's my business what I give them, but I certainly don't give them a premise. In every film of mine I always say to each actor: I can't tell you what it's about because we're going to find that out on the journey of making the film. I can't tell you what the character is because we're going to invent that character. And also you will never know anything about any aspect of the thing other than what your character knows. And those are some of the main ingredients that make it possible to explore relationships and all kinds of things through improvisation. Then, after copious months of work to create the characters -- and because each actor sees his character as the center of the unviverse, as in real life, and is liberated from an overview of the film - they [the actors] really feel they have an ownership of that character. And through all this you get something completely organic and fresh and spontaneous.

But of course as a writer, my job is not to just let anything happen, then stick it on the screen. The whole process, from the very beginning, is one of guiding it and pushing it and responding to it and taking from it and then in-putting it. And I make the film as I shoot it, after having prepared it six months before that. So I'm able to be totally in control of the material, but at the same time give people complete creative freedom within the discipline.

iW: How does your work differ from that of Ken Loach?

Ken makes very wonderful politically prescriptive films. You're in no doubt at the end of a Ken Loach film what he thinks, what he wants you to believe in. Whereas with my films, you canot walk out with a very clear and simple notion of what it's about. There's a great deal to debate and ponder and reflect upon. In some ways they are inconclusive -- at least I hope they are. But from a technical or practical point of view, Ken loves to let things happen spontaneously on camera. He likes the documentary quality of that. While my films - although I want you to believe it's real - are very heighened and distilled. The writing is very sophisticated I would suggest. And on the whole you will find virtually no improvisation on camera in my films. It's all distilled, sculpted and very precisely scripted.

iW: Yet there's no script.

That's right, we've rehearsed it so it's absolutely precise, we pin it down to the last half syllable and semi-colon. I write through rehearsal. I don't go away and put it on paper and come back and say okay, this is the script. I think the point about this is that the writerly qualities, the literary aspect of my work is as important as with any other writing. You just have to listen to it, and you realize it's written dialogue; there are all kinds of appositions and balances and sonorities and cadences and flights of fancy. At the same time it's always organic to the character, never gratuitous. If you attend to the dialogue of "Topsy-Turvy," which is heightened, it's in the same style as in all my other films.

iW: You've been known to take a swipe at Hollywood. What's your main gripe about it?

I actually grew up watching Hollywood movies and I loved them, they were part of my life. What I'm saying is I do make films without a script. I will not discuss casting. Nobody can meddle about with my films while they're being done. But you know, this is unexceptional in world cinema. This is what we do in Europe. This is what they do in Asia. This is what filmmaking is about outside of Hollywood. If I went to Hollywood it would be a nightmare. Because people are not able to say, okay, here's the money, go away and make the film, we won't interfere. But I have no reason to be in Hollywood. I'm a European filmmaker, I make films in Europe, and that's where I belong.

Can you talk about your next project?

No, absolutely not. For two reasons. 1: we haven't gotten the money in place; and 2: I absolutely never talk about a new film because it doesn't exist in itself, and why that is, I've expalined to you. Although the project that I want to do is a movie like "Topsy Turvy" about JFW Turner, a great painter, a great character, and the father of Impressionism. I could make a wonderful film about that. But it will be very expensive and no one one will contemplate giving me the kind of money it would take. Which is a tragedy.

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