After years of talking to Mike Leigh, whether at the Carlton Beach at Cannes, on a gondola at Telluride, or a plush hotel suite in Toronto, I’ve gotten used to being reminded that — in his eyes — I don’t know enough about his movies. That’s how he rolls. (Only at one rooftop post-Oscar party, with no transactional imparting of information required, did the brainy auteur and I enjoy a lovely chat about our grown children.)
Here’s what I do know: At age 76, Leigh has delivered the most ambitious, gorgeous, and expensive period recreation of his storied career, “Peterloo.” And, at $18 million, the film stood very little chance of making money for Amazon Studios. While he is deeply respected as one of the finest living auteurs with his exacting and unique creative process, his top-grossing movie was “Secrets & Lies,” back in 1996. That film, which received five Oscar nominations for October Films, made $26.4 million in today’s dollars — and it was released more than two decades ago, when independent films occupied a different place in our culture.
Spoiled by decades of rave reviews, Leigh’s average Metascore (now an amazing 81) was actually brought down by mixed reviews for “Peterloo” (Metascore: 68), with reviews that suggest the period film about an 1816 British massacre is too long, and he should have trimmed some of the endless speeches. He’s furious at this suggestion, nor was he satisfied with three key “Peterloo” fall festival slots at Venice (where he won the Golden Lion in 2004 for “Vera Drake”), Telluride, and Toronto. He has played in Cannes competition five times, and took home the Palme d’Or (“Secrets & Lies”) and Best Director (“Naked”), but Cannes rejected “Peterloo.”
“Cannes is its own quirky thing,” he said. “It’s not a sexy red-carpet film.” But while he memorably opened the New York Film Festival with “Secrets & Lies,” he did not go to NYFF 2018. “Being rejected by Cannes is one thing,” he said. “Far worse than that, more offensive to me personally, was being rejected by the New York Film Festival. In my multiple experience, the most sophisticated, most intelligent Q&As, which I happen to like very much, are in New York.”
After tackling biopics on famous Brits like Gilbert and Sullivan (“Topsy-Turvy”) and the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner (“Mr. Turner”), the filmmaker took on an arcane event that even he and most people he knew who grew up in the Manchester area did not know about. In 1816, British troops attacked a peaceful protest to reform voting laws, killing 15 people and injuring 400–700 more. After reading about it as an adult, “suddenly, I got the idea we should do it,” he said. “And while preparing it, it became clear daily that it was relevant.”
That’s because the movie “is about democracy,” he said at the film’s Toronto Q&A. “I want to leave you engaged with your emotions, feelings of sorrow, sympathy and anger. It was iniquitous what happened. Here is democracy in action, here are genuine hopes that come out of genuine things in people’s lives. To be dealt with in this destructive, chaotic, blind, insensitive, self-serving way by people in power — all those things remain resonant, as far as I’m concerned.”
Audiences haven’t seen it the same way. Now in its second week of release, “Peterloo” has grossed just $66,000 domestic. Some of the reasons for that disappointing result may seem self evident, such as the lack of name actors. “There’s never any of that, never is on my films,” he said. “The minute there’s any suggestion that will be the case, we walk away. So it never arises. These actors in the Northern UK, they do everything — some TV shows, theater, film stuff, and radio acting. When making characters drawn from real people, which we began doing in ‘Topsy-Turvy’ and continued with some of characters in ‘Mr. Turner,’ we research the character, putting in flesh and bones and the breath of life to make an actual character who squares with our interpretation of what we read.”
Nor does he deal with financiers that presume any say in the final product. There’s never a script to read; working with Leigh means accepting that he and his cast make it up as they go. (Nevertheless, he’s received five screenplay nominations; “I do it after the film’s finished…. I don’t draw any distinction between the script and the film.”) With Film4, BFI and Amazon Studios behind “Peterloo,” Leigh made the movie on his own terms. “Amazon was fantastic,” he said. “Ted Hope was supportive, he never interfered in any aspect of the production from the earliest to the end. There was absolutely no pressure of any kind.” And Amazon accepted his two-hour and 34-minute cut, which was longer than the contracted length. (Hope now reports to new Amazon chief Jennifer Salke.)
That $18-million budget helped Leigh create a massacre sequence that took five weeks to shoot with 200 extras, pounding horses, swinging sabers, and spraying squibs. Leigh and his team, including long-time cinematographer Dick Pope and producer Georgina Lowe (“without her, I couldn’t do a film”) was as “improvisational” as his previous films.
“This was no more or less organized than any of my other productions,” said Leigh. “Despite its scale, it is as much a film about individuals as it is about community and society. Like ‘Mr. Turner’ and ‘Topsy-Turvy,’ my normal way of working applies. We are serving and interpreting and distilling actual historical events, added to created and invented scenarios. We made the family up. The inspiration for the boy who is at Waterloo and killed at Peterloo, were guys at Peterloo who were Waterloo veterans. If you actually break down the day of the massacre, the 16 of August at St. Peter’s Field, we had magistrates, people on the hustings, and other units of action on the ground. We develop the characters and rehearse and fix the scenes separately and then integrate them into the whole thing.”
As to the scale of the operation, he said, “it’s a massive collaboration with a group of intelligent and committed people pulling in the same direction. In the massacre scene, we have avoided falling into many movie cliches. It’s important that we are constantly seeing individuals doing things, even though there’s mass activity going on. We have characters played by actors, stunt people, extras. We allocated time before any sequence to go in with the extras and explain to them in clear detail how and why they were there, so they were not corralled around. They were actually motivated.”
While Leigh leans into realism, the movie did not shoot in Manchester. “They built it into a big Victorian city later in the century,” said Leigh. “It’s now a big, modern city, with streets where the area of St. Peter’s Field used to be, right in the middle of town, with a Radisson Hotel and coffee bars. We shot all over the place, in places where you can see the half-timbered and Tudor buildings they had in Manchester at that time, which have disappeared. We shot in Lincoln and Gainsborough and at the Tilbury Fort, which was built by Henry V and extended by Charles II, with a big empty parade ground with some buildings around. We built some stuff to the right size and scale, and were able to control it for some months. And we shot on the moors along the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire border.”
Nor does Leigh resist evolving with the times. “Peterloo” is his second film shot on digital, and also includes the director’s first-ever drone shot. (Prior to that, he’s used only one helicopter shot in all of his films.) He mocks “The Favourite” for only using sunlight and candles. “I don’t know how you shoot that film without being lit. I’ve got no time for that, it’s absurd! That’s like saying this is a better novel because it’s written with a quill as opposed to a word processor. I shot digitally on ‘Mr. Turner.’ It’s a great medium, which a lot of bright people took years to develop.”
Similarly, Leigh is grateful for other technological advances. In “Topsy-Turvy,” a shot of the theater orchestra pit featured a man in the foreground wearing a modern watch. “Somehow it slipped through the net and no one spotted it,” said Leigh. “It cost us $10,000 to remove it frame by frame. Now, it’s a lot easier … What you can do in post-production! There’s a massive amount of CGI in this film. Now it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, like old-fashioned opticals. CGI is all over. [In the film] St. Peter’s Fields is surrounded by factories and churches — they’re not there at Tilbury Falls, there’s sky. We didn’t have 100,000 extras, only 200. That technology, developed by people like Peter Jackson, can be deployed in the context of a film that is about making it look like it’s real.”
Finally, a full-on expensive theatrical release may not have been the best way to bring “Peterloo” to the global cinephiles who could appreciate the movie’s finer virtues. Hopefully, they will catch it when it finally reaches in-home play. Next time out, Leigh may have to offer audiences something more alluring to pull them in.