Interview: Mike Leigh from “Happy-Go-Lucky”
Interview: Mike Leigh from “Happy-Go-Lucky”

The Massie Twins recently had a chance to sit down and talk to director Mike Leigh, the man responsible for such contemporary classics as “Secrets & Lies,” “Vera Drake,” “Topsy-Turvy,” and “Naked.” His latest picture, “Happy-Go-Lucky,” hits theaters October 10th, 2008.

Mike Leigh: I’ve never been interviewed by twins before. Have you seen my film Life is Sweet?

The Massie Twins: Unfortunately no.

ML: You have to see it, because there are twins in it.

MT: We were really impressed with Happy-Go-Lucky, so now we want to go back and watch the films of yours that we missed. We wanted to watch them all beforehand but time didn’t allow it. Can we start by having you tell us about your incredibly unique method of building up characters and the script?

ML: Yeah. It’s all about embarking on a journey of discovery and discovering what the film is. It’s about going out on location and shooting a movie and making it up as you go along – but preceding it with a long process of working with the actors. Building up relationships and assembling the premise of the film. Really discovering the details of what happens and developing it. To me the idea of sitting in isolation and putting words on paper and trying to find actors to match it – it’s not interesting at all. To me what’s interesting is working in a three-dimensional organic way; being on a location and using it. Apart from anything else, because there’s no script and because there’s no discussion of casting with the backers [producers] nobody knows what I’m going to do because I don’t declare what I’m going to do. I discover what I’m doing by really doing it. Unlike American Hollywood films we don’t end up in a situation where the whole film is being made by all kinds of meddling idiots before anything’s even been shot. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not how you paint a picture; it’s not how you sculpt a sculpture.

MT: What inspired you to make the film and what was the basis for the characters?

ML: Honestly I just had a feeling – had a sense for where I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to make a positive film because we’re in a very negative time. It’s very easy to be negative and I’ve made films that have looked at the negative side of things. While we’re being gloomy, people are out there getting on with it – not least of all teachers, so that’s important. On a different level, I was absolutely committed to making a film with Sally Hawkins at the center of things. She was in both my previous films, we get along very well and she’s very versatile. She’s just hugely talented. Give her the spotlight. Poppy’s a screen creation. We all know someone like her. But she doesn’t feel like that because I like to make movies where this feels like it’s actually going on – these people actually exist.

MT: The realism behind the characters and the conversations feel incredibly authentic. In the improvisation process, how do you instruct the actors?

ML: The actors are not playing themselves. We’ve done a lot of work to do the characters, be the characters. The improvisation is authentic for the character. That’s the chemistry. The other thing that makes it all work is that the actors never know anything about the movie except for what their characters know. They haven’t got an overview of the whole thing. I teach them very quickly not to be purposefully interesting or to make dialogue. Do whatever they’d do normally including nothing if that’s what they would do. That makes it very real. I can convert their interactions into specific details or dialogue.

MT: I read that a lot of people felt that this was your happiest and most cheerful film to date. What’s your reaction to comments like that?

ML: I think it’s a reasonable comment as far as they go, but it’s limited. It displays a limited view of my films. On an obvious, obvious level, it is. Given that the film has darker undertones and things going on, it’s altogether too simplistic of a description. The other thing is that I deliberately do something different every time I make a film – within the consistency of the genre. If you find my film Topsy-Turvy it’s massively different from anything else I’ve done. If you see Vera Drake, it’s obviously different. I try to do that because every time I invite you around for dinner, I don’t want to serve up the same dish.

MT: When we left the theater, we both agreed that the scene we enjoyed the most was the tramp scene. Others mentioned that it was a little unbelievable, due to the lack of conceivable violence in a situation like that [Poppy finds herself in a bad part of town, at night, and stumbles upon a deranged bum].

ML: The notion that it’s unrealistic is absurd of course. I said to the production designer, “it’s got to be somewhere where you don’t know where it is, and it’s got to be enigmatic in a way, and the audience has to be pulled out of their comfort zone.” I’m not sure what it’s like in Phoenix, Arizona, but those of us who live in really old urban cities, its not extraordinary to find yourself in odd places even though you thought you knew the landscape – talking to vagrants. It’s no big deal. But the scene really is about Poppy’s openness and generosity of spirit. Her ability to not be judgmental. Her lack of concern for danger. It’s not naïve or foolhardy. She’s got an inquiring mind. She connects with the guy in a way.

MT: It was brilliant to see them communicate as if in a foreign language, even though the tramp utters indecipherable gibberish.

ML: When she goes back to the apartment and Zoe asks where she was, she doesn’t say. It’s not a big deal; just that some things are private and she feels that even though she’ll never see him again, she doesn’t want to betray him.

MT: That’s perhaps the pessimism of people from rougher cities – the idea that if you’re in a dark ally, something bad is bound to happen.

ML: The Phoenix audience in last night’s screening was very sympathetic towards that scene.

MT: Is there a difference in reaction between US and UK audiences?

ML: Not really – it’s mostly positive. We premiered the film at the Berlin Film Festival where it had a huge international audience. It went wonderfully there too, so I think it works for all audiences. In the end it’s a film of universal meaning.

MT: The film at times both condemns and supports adulthood and maturity. What’s the separation between childhood and adulthood?

ML: The film doesn’t condemn adulthood or maturity. Poppy is very mature and very adult. Somebody asked me the other day if I thought the end sequence in which they go off in a boat was a metaphor for Poppy and Zoe being drifters. Are they drifting? It’s ridiculous. They’re not drifters at all. They’re adults, mature, focused people who make choices. They’ve been to Thailand and taught, and they take responsibility. The film is not a critique of maturity, but when she gets the confrontation from her frightened sister who talks from her own insecurities, she’s simply someone who has a balanced view of one thing from another – between responsibility and being mindlessly conservative and truthful.

MT: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ML: For me, it was maintaining the story. It’s not a simple causality of A happens then B happens. A lot of it is from the nuances of Poppy’s behavior – sustaining that and getting it right. On a technical level, it was shooting the driving lessons, for real, in a car where whichever actor was driving was actually driving. We used a combination of a 35mm camera and high definition lipstick cameras which was technically complicated but definitely worth it, because we worked on the scenes very thoroughly. The joy of filmmaking was the acting and directing and technology all coming together.

MT: What will inspire your next film? Do you do a lot of reading, or newspaper articles, or TV?

ML: That’s my business. I never talk about it and I have all kinds of things on the go. But on the whole they come from the heart.

MT: You got really great reactions out of the little boy who played the bully at school. How different is your approach to child actors?

ML: First of all, the important thing is that I will absolutely not get that horrible thing called a child actor, which is a deeply repulsive and horrible, subhuman apparition. Eight going on fifteen is awful. The kid is out of that school and we selected him and I just explained the character and he did it.

MT: How similar is your outlook on life to Poppy’s?

ML: It is and it isn’t. Life is complex. Also, I’ve been around longer than Poppy by a few decades.