An Interview with Director Mike Leigh, Part I
by Anthony Kaufman
“Career Girls” is the fifteenth feature film by British writer/director
Mike Leigh, whose consistent work in independent filmmaking has spanned
a period over 25 years. His theater background and organic storytelling
style, together with a sense of social concern, has made for many a
resonant tale of working class woe and whimsy. With “Career Girls”
(opening today in Los Angeles and New York) Leigh turns to the story of
two former university roommates who are seeing each other for the first
time in 6 years. Juxtaposing 80’s flashbacks filled with the wailing
voices of The Cure and collegiate heartbreak, and 90’s Career Girls’
concerned with finding a flat and a mate, Leigh probes memory and
friendship in his own straightforward style.
indieWIRE: There is definitely a theatrical element to your movies. Do you have a different way of developing for theater than developing for film?
Mike Leigh: I ought to preface answering that question by saying two
things really: one is that I don’t do theater very much, and the second
is, I don’t do theater with anything like the passion and enthusiasm
with which I make films. I am a reluctant theater maker, and I’m in
love with films and I’m not in love with theater, really. . . Yes, I
learned a lot of my skills originally in the theater context. The whole
notion of rehearsing a film for six months and the basis of my work is
that I trained as an actor and I know about actors, but that’s a
separate issue…In principle, the way in which I make my plays and
the way in which I make my films, is, on the whole, pretty damn
similar. Which is to say huge amounts of exploration, leading to a
point where then you structure it, define the material in a precise
IW: What about when you put the camera in front of them? Does that change the scenario?
Leigh: Oh! That is in the nature of filmmaking, I mean, if an actor acts in
front of an audience, that is the chemistry, that is the event.
Filmmaking is about the relationship between the actor, the camera, the
location, and everyone else involved…So you see the premise of
your question would sound as though, there is a scenario and when you
put a camera in front of it, does it change the scenario? But the point
is the whole realization of the conception of the film, is, as much as
anything, the camera working — it’s a filmic manner. Film defines the
material. I rehearse for months with the actors and arrive at the
premise of the film, and a sort of foundation, or amorphous thing where
something has happened and we’ve defined characters and relationships.
But only by going out and starting to see it in film terms and define it
as a narrative, does it really start to have any meaning, and that
meaning is the film.
IW: Can you talk more the flashback structure in “Career Girls” which I don’t think you’ve used before?
Leigh: Never. The reason for doing that is that the subject matter
demanded it, rather than artistic considerations. How we age and change
and how our memories effect us and how we’re rooted in our past instead
of our present, fascinates me endlessly. My films always involve
detailed exploration of background, and I just felt it would be good to
kind of, rather than it be something that’s either just there or
referred to, that we actually see it, explore it. And I’m particularly
interested in the journey in this film, in the specific journey you make
between 20 and 30. It’s quite a long journey. In my film “High Hopes“,
Cyril says toward the end, “From 25 to 35 are the best years of your
life.” I think there may be something in that, actually. . . It just
seemed natural to do it in that way. Because I wanted to share with the
audience in “Career Girls” a rounded picture…, rather than merely
report the chronological history as such. For that reason, it felt like
good sense to tell the story of the short weekend they’re together in
conventional, chronological, forward moving narrative terms, but to be
much more fragmentary and kaleidoscopic about the past, you go backwards
and forwards and keep leaping about, because somehow it’s just grabbing
moments that give the sense of it, rather than report it in a systematic
way. And also helps give a sense of it as fragmented memory.
IW: Did you like the technique? Will you use it again?
Leigh: Oh, yes, it was great fun. Every film, this goes back to what we
were saying earlier, the joy of film is that every film affords
opportunities. When you find something that gives you a chance to
explore the use of film. It’s great. The problem for someone like me
is that I’m pretty strict with myself. I don’t like to do things
gratuitously, just for the sake of it. It has to really serve the
moment in an organic way. That’s why on the one hand, in “Secrets & Lies“, for example, you will find famous scenes where the camera is very,
very static and it’s very controlled. Which is a great opportunity to
explore that cinematic device, which has its own qualities, power.
IW: What about the specific stylistic technical choices you were doing
to work organically [within “Career Girls”]. . .
Leigh: First of all, the decision, is a collaborative decision. But the
actors, the designer, costume and production, and the makeup designer
who was a very regular, important contributor to my films, but above
all, the cinematographer, Dick Pope, who has shot all my films since
“Life is Sweet“. Looking at say, okay, these women, this world in the
90’s, it’s kind of crisp and sleek, together, hard-edged, graphic, this
we’ll shoot in a disciplined way…Then we said, to shoot the past:
we shot it all hand-held, we used different filter stock, much bluer and
colder; those two things were partly to do with it being contrasting,
partly to do with it being fragmentary memory. But also, it helped give
it an 80’s look. The sort of grittier, grungier student atmosphere was
better served by those colors. And I kept hearing The Cure. And I sort
of thought, we could have The Cure. So we approached The Cure and they
turned out to be fans of mine and they said, as long as it was always
them, and nobody else, we could pretty well have it for nothing — which
made it possible to do, cause those things can be exorbitant and
prohibitive. Does it work? I don’t know. Do you like the film?
For part II of this interview, please click here!