Another Year’s Mike Leigh stays fiercely indie
TORONTO—Mike Leigh’s movies have won many nominations and awards for their actors. So why aren’t A-listers lining up to appear in his films? It’s simple. A-list actors don’t make movies until after they have received approved scripts from their agents. Leigh doesn’t send scripts out. He doesn’t believe in them. Instead, he and his actors develop their characters together. Although it works for some people, the writer-director, who has won six Oscar nominations for his work, says some performers are reticent to take on a film if the approach to the screenplay is different than the norm.
Watch the trailer for Another Year.
“Most actors need to be safe,” he says in a Toronto hotel room. “They need to know a little. This approach is dangerous. It’s exciting and it’s a plunge. When I ask an actor to take a part, the deal is I can’t tell them what the film’s about. I can’t tell them what the character is about because there is no character. We have to invent one together, and they will only ever know what their character knows. They will never have an overview of the film. So there are actors who want to know whether you are going to shoot their left or right profile and all that crap. Here, they have nothing going in. It’s not safe, so I have to tell them, ”˜Try it; it’s good.’ There are plenty of places where they can do all of that other stuff, but this is different. It requires actors who are highly intelligent and creative people with a great sense of the real world out there and a sense of humour and an ability to be a patient part of an ensemble, but there is also a chance to do great acting.”
Leigh’s latest film is Another Year, which opens Friday (January 21) in Vancouver. It stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a happily married couple surrounded by unhappy people. The least blissful of their friends and relatives is Mary (Lesley Manville), who is so desperate to find a good man that she begins to flirt with the couple’s son on every visit, even when his latest girlfriend is present.
Leigh says that the process of making Another Year was not unlike that of his other films, a list that includes Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Naked, and Topsy-Turvy. He says the key to making any film is that every character has to stand out and have a life of their own. And he admits that for this to work, he has to be able to write about what he knows.
“It’s a long process of exploring the relationship, of building up the whole lives of these people,” he says. “We finally arrive at a structure of some sort, and then we’ll build the sequences of the scenes on location and get them very precisely tuned. So the dialogue comes out of all that huge amount of improvisation and research. So you arrive finally at something very precise. What it’s also about is that the kinds of things I want to deal with lend themselves to looking at things from the point of view of ordinary people. I am an ordinary heterosexual divorced parent with a healthy string of failed, fucked-up relationships behind me, so I have, inevitably, a male view of the world. But my job as a storyteller, as a dramatist, as a filmmaker is to work with both the male and female actors to put every character at the centre of the universe.”
Leigh admits that he will never be lured to bigger films. He says that he can’t imagine having to put up with other people telling him what to do. “I’ve never made a film that anybody ever interfered with. They’re my films. I made them the way I wanted to make them, but there were no committees, there were no executives, there were no producers. Nobody fucked it up. I’ve been very lucky.”