Few other working filmmakers are as skilled at creating an immersive, lived-in world as Mike Leigh. Part of this can be attributed to his unusual, and now-famous, rehearsal process. Leigh is known to take weeks, sometimes months, rehearsing with his actors, working on scripted dialogue, throwing it away, and creating new material on the spot so that the finished film feels vital.
Leigh’s body of work is formidable — for my money, “Naked” and “Vera Drake” are highlights — and it is exactly this uncompromising commitment to the stories he tells that makes him one of the most valuable artists working in movies today. Fans of Leigh’s, and they are legion, will rejoice in this newly unearthed collection of short films. Each is around five-minutes-long and they all showcase themes, concerns, and motifs that blossom and reappear over the course of the director’s decades-spanning career.
Leigh had only directed one film (that would be his tempestuous debut, “Bleak Moments”) in 1975 when he was commissioned to direct five short films for the London-based T.V. heavyweight BBC. He had this to say about the shorts, which sadly never made it to air (via Open Culture):
“I thought it was a cracking idea, and I would have done forty of them or fifty – so you’d see them all the time, and sometimes you might see a character you never saw again, sometimes you might see somebody popping up for a moment and then be a main character in another one, or there’d be a couple of ones that would run on to a narrative. It would be a whole microcosm of the world.”
Dang. Wish we could have seen more of that, but what we have for now is pretty damn cool. Leigh’s first short is a droll, ultimately sad minor-key affair called “The Birth of the Goalie of the 2001 F.A. Cup Final,” wherein a middle-class London couple debate the pros and cons of having a child. Leigh’s deliberately flat, conversational style acts as a sort of artistic blueprint to indie-film renegades like John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, and although the production value obviously isn’t great, Leigh’s command of his actors and many of his pet themes — malaise, class, and the mundane nature of the day-to-day — are there in full effect.
His second short film, “Old Chums,” is a squirmy slice of black comedy about a mild-mannered Londoner on crutches who fights off an endless torrent of anecdotes and inquiries from a thoroughly obnoxious neighbor named Terry while on the way to his car. The third short, “Probation,” is also excellent, and all three are required viewing for Leigh’s die-hard fans.
Check out all the shorts below. Mr. Leigh’s latest film, “Mr. Turner,” will be released on DVD and Blu-ray May 5th.