Mike Leigh is famous for not having a script when he starts to make a film. Here, he explains the process to Susan Griffin.
Mike Leigh can’t believe so much has been made of the fact his lead actor, Timothy Spall, spent two years learning to paint for his role as landscape artist J.M.W. Turner.
“He was playing Turner, what else do you expect him to do?!” exclaims the acclaimed director. “People seem to think it’s remarkable, but it isn’t remotely remarkable. I couldn’t possibly make a film about Turner and keep cutting to someone else’s hands.”
Mr Turner marks Spall and Leigh’s fifth collaboration, and the film received rave reviews at Cannes earlier this year, with Spall walking away with the Best Actor award.
The idea to portray the man known as ‘the painter of light’ came to Leigh shortly after he made 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. He reveals he had ‘a couple of goes at raising the money without much interest or success’, but he and his close friend and cinematographer Dick Pope talked continually about the project over the years. “We were always saying, ‘We must make this Turner film’, and it grew with us.”
Leigh’s always been excited by the artist’s work. “It does invite a film, it’s cinematic,” he explains. “And when I started looking at Turner the personality, this flawed, eccentric, grumpy, passionate, consumed, driven guy, it seemed to tick all the boxes for a potential character in a Mike Leigh film.”
The film explores the last quarter century of Turner, a man who was profoundly affected by the death of his father, loved by a housekeeper he took for granted and formed a close relationship with a seaside landlady, with whom he eventually lived incognito until his death in 1851.
“The reason Turner works isn’t just Tim Spall’s characterisation, it’s a world being brought into existence,” says Leigh. “What I obviously aspire to do is to make a film that’s real and resonant, detailed and full of moments, and smells just as if it was contemporary.”
The actors Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, who’ve worked with him numerous times, have both said they don’t even need to know what a project is about before agreeing to appear in a Mike Leigh film.
“Ha, that just shows how stupid they are,” jokes the director. “But seriously, any director needs people who are committed for this kind of stuff, where we absolutely conjure stuff out of the air. You have to have bright and talented people who are relentlessly devoted, and these guys are,” adds Leigh, who’s famed for not having a script at the start of a project but develops an idea through lengthy improvisations with his actors.
“Of course, I’m a writer, and we arrive with something precise, but there isn’t the security of a script that’s been cooked up separately somewhere in an ivory tower,” he explains. It’s perhaps why Spall has said that working with Leigh is like working in a ‘parallel universe; it’s a shared experience’.
“There is something magical about it [the process], I guess, but it’s not for me to say,” says Leigh, who has two sons with his ex-wife, actress Alison Steadman.
“I’m drawn to capturing people, places and the whole experience of life. Painful and tragic and comic as it is, that’s what it’s all about. Even as a small boy, I was drawing people on slate,” he adds, laughing. “And I’m still drawing people on the slate, but on a more elaborate scale, really.”
“The preliminary stuff that goes on for months is what people always assume I love, but I like it the least, because you have nothing to show for it,” says Leigh. “All you’re doing is mucking about in the foundations. Shooting a film is a gas though; it’s tough but you’ve got the camaraderie with actors, that’s the real buzz. But post-production is where you actually make the film, and it’s a non-negotiable fact that films are made in the cutting room – and I still call it the cutting room.”