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High Profile

Making his way

Simon Jones

From Bleak Moments to Another Year, the British auteur Mike Leigh obe has pursued an idiosyncratic creative path - not unlike the subject of his latest triumph, Mr Turner.1 Third Way met him at the London HQ of Thin Man Films.

You come from a secular immigrant Jewish family…
Like a lot of people, my grandparents were immigrants - two of them were from Russia, one from Lithuania and one from Silesia. My parents were both born in the UK and I grew up in Manchester, where there are a lot of Jewish people. My family were secular in the sense that they weren't Orthodox - they didn't wear hats and, you know, pray three times a day and so forth. But they were observant in the way that a lot of Jews are - we never saw any bacon or pork in the house.

But even as a child you were culturally rather than spiritually Jewish, so to speak?
Yes, I think that would be fair.

I ask because I know you have described yourself as very spiritual but entirely unreligious.
Yeah, totally.

Would your family have believed in God?
Definitely, yeah. But I never bought into that. I grew up not believing.

I mean, I walked away from everything to do with the Jewish religion when I left home at the age of 17. That was the point at which I said: 'OK, fuck it! That's it now, I'm off. And I'll eat as much pork as I want.'

Were your family comfortable with that?
I wouldn't say they were entirely comfortable with it! I mean, it took a long time for them to accept the possibility that I would get married to somebody who wasn't Jewish - which I did.2 That was an issue for quite a long time, and then I think they just kind of thought: 'Well, we've just got to like it or lump it, really.'

Did they approve of your choice of career?
My father was a GP, but his father was basically a kind of artist - he made his living principally by colouring in photographs with airbrushes and all that. (My other grandfather was a butcher in London.) I remember his 'works', a warren of rooms in a decaying building, full of these northern, slightly alcoholic guys, chain-smoking, sitting at easels and colouring in photos. They also did picture-framing.

But during the Slump nobody wanted their pictures coloured in or framed - I mean, people wanted loaves of bread! - and so my grandfather couldn't feed the family. As a result of which, my father, who had gone to Manchester Grammar School and worked hard and trained to be a doctor, had an inbuilt deep resistance to the idea that I should be any sort of an artist, because to him 'artist' meant penury and starvation. The problem was that from an early age I manifested multiple interests in painting, drawing, writing, performing, making films - you name it, basically. So, when I announced I was going to bail out of school and go off and train to be an actor - amazingly, I got a scholarship to Rada - he thought it was about the worst thing that could possibly have befallen - a curse on the House of Leigh!

For us who grew up in the Fifties - and I'm not just talking about me, this is a whole generational thing - it was a terrible world obsessed with respectability and order, because our folks had gone to hell and back during the war and were putting it back together. My old man, and my mother (who had trained as a nurse), definitely suffered from that Fifties syndrome: the suburban, provincial 'done thing'. Plus, they both had parents with foreign accents who spoke Yiddish half the time.

To be honest, my parents were obsessively anxious to be respectable English people. My father and his brothers changed their name from Lieberman to Leigh in 1939, before the war.

You must have seemed something of a rebel…
Yeah, totally. Oh, yeah. But, as I say, apart from me and the Beatles that applies to a whole lot of other people, too, born at the same time. And if you look at my films, you'll be aware of that as a theme that, in one form or another, runs through pretty well everything.

Absolutely. So, you're running away from a notion of the done thing. What is it you are running to?
Well, the freedom to be yourself, to be creative, to be… I mean, look at you. You're sitting there wearing a beard and, you know, somewhere in the direction of a Sixties haircut because of the battles we fought.

What did the word 'spiritual' mean to you in those days?
Well, if you'd attempted to get me in a conversation about spirituality and what it was all about when I was 17, I think I'd have been stymied. I think instinctively a sense of humanity (and therefore a sense of humour) is there, it's part of you; but to understand and articulate what life is about - and indeed what one's work is about - you know, you have to have had the experience.

Also, your whole understanding about life is divided between your experience before you were a parent and your experience after you've become a parent. And that's as important for me as anybody else.

So, what does it mean to you now to be spiritual?
Well, in a way it's about… You have seen enough of my films, presumably, to know that implicit in what they're about, on one level, is a sense of mortality, of life passing, and a sense of what it is to bring life into the world and all the issues surrounding that, including not bringing life into the world. So, to talk about spirituality is to put a label on one aspect of all of that, which is to do with a sense of the journey, a sense of - you know, what we're about in the grander scheme of things.

It's also about caring about other people, it's about compassion, it's about…

It's also about time and place. It's about - I mean, it's about undefinable things. It's about the infinite… Like many people, if I sit on the side of a mountain or look out at the sea, I'm not just looking at a snapshot. You are connecting with something that, you know…

I suppose someone who is religious might speak of a sense of the numinous, or a connection with something outside of, and larger than, themselves. You're an atheist, I think…
I don't believe in God. I don't believe in that - well, we don't have to talk about what that is…

So, are you communing with something when you're sitting on the side of the mountain?
Yeah, of course - but it's the total experience of what we are and where we are and the journey we are on.

You are antipathetic to religion generally, I believe.
Yes! In the times we're in, the evidence is, sadly, ever increasingly there as to the nature of the disease, really. I mean, here's the thing: in 1970 or so, when the Americans had pulled out of Vietnam and all the rest of it, and people like me were chanting 'Peace' and 'We shall overcome' - with great conviction and optimism - if you had told us that in 40 years' time the world would be gripped by religious fundamentalism and you'd de- scribed what the implications of that were, we would have rejected it as the grossest form of pessimism!

And yet as a young film director you were pessimistic about the direction the world was going in, weren't you?
Was I?

That's certainly how you seemed to me when, at the age of 19, I saw Naked in 1993.
Is Naked a pessimistic film?

People said: 'This is a cynical film.' The fact is, it is not. It is a film about an idealist. Johnny is a man who passionately believes in good, but he's disappointed and frustrated by the cynicism of the world and he's turned in on himself, and you can see the risk of him becoming cynical. That's what the film is about.

I absolutely don't deny that I make films which do not have a clear black-and-white message that leaves you in no doubt as to what to think when you walk out. Nevertheless, the job of any film I make is in some way to arouse or stimulate thoughts and feelings in the audience about the possibilities of life; and in that sense for me Naked is an optimistic film, because even when you become aware of how disappointing life is, that in itself is an act of believing in how life should be.

I think that what seemed to me pessimistic at the time was the implication that if I was an idealist, the world was only going to disappoint and embitter me, too.
Fair dos! And that is there for you to react to as you did. Great, you know?

Can I just say, before we move on, that High Hopes [1988] and Life is Sweet [1990] both preceded Naked, so I was by definition younger and younger still?

Sure. I thought I had read that you described yourself as 'pessimistic' in your younger days.
It doesn't mean I said it. It means somebody wrote it.

I'm interested in the part that your cultural Jewishness plays in your work. I think you have said that the way you collaborate with your actors is a bit like the Jewish concept of chevra, which refers, I think, to a society.
What you're talking about is a sort of spirit of sharing, in a very creative environment, talking about ideas and working things out.

From the age of eight to 17 I spent my time in a leftwing Zionist youth movement called Habonim, 3 the object of which was to get us all to go and live and work in a kibbutz. (I still have friends who go back to those times. Actually, matters related to it formed the basis of a play I did at the National Theatre in 2005 called Two Thousand Years.) The spirit and the philosophy, and the basic politics, of the kibbutz very much informed the organisation, which was very lively and informal - it was boys and girls, in a sense it was alternative.

At a time when a lot of our Jewish contemporaries were putting on smart suits and sitting in coffee bars, we were wearing informal clothes and camping and talking about politics and embracing socialist ideas. And it was all part of that world which was the good aspect - missing out all the bad ones - of what the state of Israel was like when it started, which has very much got lost and is now almost completely disappearing - recently, at the Sarajevo Film Festival, a mature Israeli couple told me how they lamented the terrible cynicism that is seeping through that society.

So much of your film-making is about creating character through a process of improvisation. Where do you start? What are the most basic components of character?
What you're really asking me, I guess, is: what things
are more important than other things? And the truth of the matter is, nothing is more important than anything else, because the job for me is to create characters ab- solutely in the round. Which is to say, we pretty much invent absolutely everything you can think of about each character, so that what we put on the screen, or on the stage, has got completely organic integrity. We in-vent so much about these characters that sits below the water line but informs their believability and [allows them] to be as layered as people are in real life.

So, for you someone's class or race are no more essential to who they are than…?
No, no, everything is as important as everything else. That isn't the same thing as 'They're no more important than anything else,' which is to suggest that some things are not really important at all. Everything goes to make you what you are. That's what we're talking about.

In most of the films I make - Topsy-Turvy [1999] and my new film, Mr Turner, are exceptions because they depict historical characters4 - I completely create a whole world from scratch and I discover what the film is by the organic process of the journey of making it. So, obviously, implicit in that are decisions about class or, you know, psychological or emotional issues or whatever; but in the end the job is to deal with all aspects of what makes a human being tick, both in terms of the conception of the character and in terms of the practical aspects of the actor's characterisation - the way the person talks or walks or…

I imagine that the way you make up a character, and especially how you place them in the world you create, is not an entirely objective process - it must involve a degree of judgement.
Oh yes, it entirely involves judgement. I mean, you've seen a bundle of my films, presumably.

All of them, I think.
Well, presumably you recognise some kind of consistent view, and so by definition it has to be that there are all kinds of what you might call 'subjective' decisions.

OK. What I was going to say was that many of your films locate or discover goodness in (for want of a better term) 'ordinary' people who are on the left of the political spectrum - rather than, for example, the wealthy landlord in Naked.
Yes, that's fair dos - except that I would urge us to be careful to make a distinction between two easily confusable things. It's right to say that the landlord in Naked does not exactly exude goodness - in fact, he definitely has an evil streak in him. (You might pause to reflect where that comes from in its turn.) But that isn't to say that all rich, posh people are evil - because that's an-other thing entirely.

When you consider people who are on the other side of the political fence to you, do you see them as basically antisocial, or unenlightened, or does it just come down to their different circumstances or what?
In the end, we're talking about what motivates people to do things to other people; and that is a matter of the values life has developed in them. I mean, what made Margaret Thatcher what she was, with her obsession with good housekeeping, good shopkeeping? On the face of it, you think: Well, isn't that good? It's all very healthy, people taking responsibility for themselves and not assuming that everybody else is going to look after them. The fact is that she was obviously a product of a whole bunch of stuff we know of in her background. (Some of us are a product of our background and also a reaction to it as well!)

In great swathes of the world, for example, morals and values are defined by the Roman Catholic Church. The sense of order, the discipline, the moral values (which are the positive manifestations of that) are all important to people for whom that is what life is about. But you can't look at all of that without also acknowledging the hierarchical politics and the concomitant repression and deceit and so on and so forth. There's a yin and a yang to everything, really. It's complex, isn't it? But all of these things are the chemistry that makes us what we are, you know?

Do you know any religious people who are generous in spirit and a force for good?
Yeah, of course, loads of people. I worked in a Catholic teacher-training college for a year, as a drama lecturer. And not only that. I mean, one of the great paradoxes - one of the great tragic paradoxes - of the present time is that the Israeli government is manifesting a kind of Fascism that runs counter to what I understand (without claiming to be an expert) to be traditional Jewish values of care and compassion.

The kind of edged social observation that is found in your films and plays harks back, maybe, to the works of Hogarth and Dickens; but it strikes me that while their works were the product of a single mind and a single sensibility, yours are created collaboratively.
Well, you've seen, you say, all of my films. Can you discern what seems to be the same voice in all the work?

Yes, I think so.
OK. That's the thing. That voice is my voice, right? The medium demands serious collaboration, which means taking from people's contributions and, you know, galvanising those energies so that they serve the purpose; but that purpose is to create something that is as much subjective as objective. And it's very subjective, because I'm not a journalist and I'm not a documentary maker, you know. I would describe myself as some level of be-ing a poet, a dramatist, and an idiosyncratic storyteller.

And is that purpose to entertain, to challenge…?
I took part in a symposium on Charlie Chaplin recently in Bologna, because it's the centenary of Chaplin's first film. The comic, strip-cartoon, vaudevillian aspect of what I do is as important as the…

There's certainly a lot of wit.
Well, you know, life is funny!

But 'entertaining' means confronting the audience with that which keeps you engaged. I mean, the minute a film is not entertaining, it's dead in the water, really. But there's a whole bunch of things that it's all about, and they are interdependent and they are inseparable.

What would the others be?
Well, to confront you with the nature of experience, of people and relationships, and the pain and the joy of living and all of that stuff, and to make, to give you… I mean, it's very important for me, as I've already said, that people go away from my films with stuff to work at, stuff to think about, stuff to argue about. You know, maybe it means this, maybe it means that. Maybe this will happen afterwards, maybe that will happen.

People mistakenly call you a left-wing film-maker, or even a Marxist film-maker, whereas it seems to me that what you want is for the audience to find their own interpretation -

Abroad, particularly, people lump me together with Ken Loach,5 which Ken (who is a friend) and I are always amused by. There are certain similarities between us - we both made BBC films in the Seventies and so on - but the fact of the matter is, we are totally different in that Ken is a Marxist and leaves you in no doubt what to think at the end of his films and I do the exact opposite.

You have waited for a long time to make a film about the artist JMW Turner…
Yup. I've felt for a long time that he would be a great subject for a film. He is a great English artist, the tension between the man and the work is fascinating - I mean, he was a flawed guy who created extraordinary, sublime, spiritual work - and there wasn't a film about him.

Your film looks at the last third of his life and inevitably, because you're now in your seventies -
It's not relevant. I mean, we could have done his whole life, but that would have meant finding a small, fat child actor who looked like Timothy Spall and could draw, which I think would have been tedious. The fact is, the back end of Turner's life, when he is up and running, seemed to offer containable, explorable stuff that would get to some truth about him. The fact that I am ancient -

Well, by no means…
I know. I mean, if it informs the film, it only informs it because I can see where Turner's at; but I think I would probably have been able to handle it if I'd made the film yonks ago.

It struck me, too, that he was an artist who was underappreciated in his own country and I wondered whether there was a parallel with you.
People were talking about this the other day in Sarajevo. Somebody said: 'You do realise that you are much more appreciated on the Continent (and elsewhere) than you are in the UK?' It's not something that keeps me awake at nights. The good news is that films travel, and even things that used to worry me - like my films being subtitled or even dubbed - don't worry me now at all. I'm only concerned with the positive side of it, which is that film is an international language and I am privileged to participate in it. And I am not concerned with just me but with world cinema - which means, by the way, the rest of the world in cinema, not Hollywood.

The fact is, there are plenty of people in the UK who know and appreciate what I do.

At the end of his life, someone offers Turner a large sum of money for his work and he says: 'No, I want to leave it to the nation.' Is there any parallel to that in film?
Well, I haven't had that experience so far!

There's a very simple analogy: if they'd come to me and said: 'If Johnny Depp plays Turner, we'll give you 10 times the budget' - no disrespect to Johnny Depp, by the way. You know, for a long time my now-deceased producer, Simon Channing Williams, would say: They don't care that there is no script, they don't mind not knowing what the content is, they're prepared to go as far as this amount of money; but if you had a 'name' - which means an American 'name' - then they'd really up the budget. And I've always said no. It's not worth selling out.

When students ask me for my advice, I say: 'Never compromise and don't do anything that you don't really believe in.' You know, that thing of 'Well, if I do this project, which is full of compromises, then I'll be able to do this other project I really want to do'? It's bullshit! So, in that sense I absolutely identify with Turner.

And Turner had a very clear vision: he wanted people to see his work for free, and he wanted it all together. And the fantastic thing is, it is - at Tate Britain.

Are you starting to think in terms of your legacy yourself?
You mean the cultural legacy? Well, you can't help having the thought occasionally. I mean, I've been quite ill recently and so you certainly think… You know, I feel lucky. I know people, contemporaries of mine, who feel that they've never done what they wanted to do. They didn't have the opportunity, or didn't get it together, and they feel: 'If I went now, it would be very disappointing.'

If it happened to me now, do I think there's stuff I can leave to people? The answer is yes. But the question doesn't keep me awake at nights! I am much more concerned about what I'm going to do next, and so on and so forth.

And what are you going to do next?


Mike Leigh was born in 1943 and brought up in Salford, where he attended the grammar school.

In 1960, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), where he initially trained as an actor. He went on to study at what were then Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, the Central School of Arts and Crafts and the London School of Film Technique (now the London Film School, whose board of governors he currently chairs).

He worked as an assistant director at the Midlands Art Centre for Young People in 1965-66 and, under Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn, at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967-68. He subsequently lectured at the teacher training colleges Sedgley Park and De La Salle in 1968/69 and the LSFT in 1970-73.

His first feature film, Bleak Moments (1971), was soon hailed by the influential US film critic Roger Ebert as 'a masterpiece, plain and simple'.

He made a succession of full-length TV films, mostly for the BBC - Hard Labour (1973), Nuts in May (1975), The Kiss of Death (1976), Who's Who (1978), Grown- Ups (1980), Home Sweet Home (1982), Meantime (1983) and Four Days in July (1984) - before returning to the cinema in 1988 with High Hopes.

This was followed by Life is Sweet (1990); Naked (1993), for which he was named best director at Cannes; Secrets and Lies (1996), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and two Baftas and took $50m worldwide; Career Girls (1997); Topsy-Turvy (1999); All or Nothing (2002); Vera Drake (2004), which won the Golden Lion at Venice and a Bafta; Happy-Go-Lucky (2008); Another Year (2010); and Mr Turner (2014). He has been nominated for an Oscar seven times.

He has written and directed over 20 stage plays, including Babies Grow Old (1974); Abigail's Party (1977), later seen by 16 million people on BBC1; Ecstasy (1979); Goose-Pimples (1981); Smelling a Rat (1988); Greek Tragedy (1989); It's a Great Big Shame! (1993); Two Thousand Years (2005); and Grief (2011).

He was created an OBE in 1993 for services to film. He received a BFI Fellowship in 2005, and in '08 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He was married to Alison Steadman from 1973 to 2001, and has two adult sons.

This interview was conducted on August 19, 2014.

1 Released in the UK on October 31

2 To Alison Steadman, in 1973

3 Now Habonim Dror

4 Respectively, Gilbert and Sullivan and JMW Turner and their contemporaries

5 Interviewed in Third Way in September 2002