Dialogue: Mike Leigh

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Writer-director Mike Leigh enjoys taking his movies to festivals but hasn't made it into the competition lineup at Berlin before now. Having enjoyed success at all the major European shindigs, the three-time Oscar nominee talks to The Hollywood Reporter U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about writing good parts for women, making a movie about love and why cinema will always be his first love.

The Hollywood Reporter: The title "Happy-Go-Lucky" sums up the nature of your lead character. You normally begin shooting with no title. How quickly did this one appear after shooting began?
Leigh: The title is always the last thing finalized on any of my films. The deadline for the title is usually when the man finalizes the titling. The heart of the film and the look and the music are all motivated and made for the central character, who is very optimistic and caring. The look of the film is very special too -- it's the first film we've made which is widescreen and is shot on a new kind of film stock (manufactured) by Fuji which highlights primary colors. In a way, "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a kind of positive version of the negative "Naked" I made.

THR: You cast Sally Hawkins as your lead, an actress you've worked with before. How did she handle being the main character?
Leigh: She handled it fantastically. I wouldn't have contemplated her for a film with a central character if I had any doubts. I knew it had to happen from when I first worked with her. She's done a lot of very impressive work elsewhere, and she turns in an amazing performance here.

THR: Hawkins is from South East London where the movie was shot. Did that make any difference to the way you made the film?
Leigh: That's a ridiculous question. You go where you can -- she could have come from Timbuktu and it wouldn't make a difference. It just so happens we shot some of it in a college in South London which we had developed a relationship with.

THR: What can you tell us about Alexis Zegerman, who also has a main role in "Happy-Go-Lucky?"
Leigh: She did my play "Two Thousand Years" at the National (Theatre, in London) two years ago and plays a very important part in "Happy-Go-Lucky." She delivers an amazing performance.

THR: You're also re-united with "Vera Drake" actor Eddie Marsan, who has been very busy since your last collaboration. What is it about working with a coterie of regulars you like?
Leigh: He gives what I think is an extraordinary performance in ("Happy-Go-Lucky"). The thing is for all my films and not least for "Happy-Go-Lucky," the casts are filled with actors I have not worked with before. There are some brilliant performances from other people I haven't worked with before in my latest film, so I think the word coterie is a little bit inappropriate. It's more a family. If I work with someone I think is good and enjoy working with them then I come back to them. The main thing is never to do the same thing twice.

THR: "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a story about a young woman making her way through the chaotic modern world. Do you find writing and directing women easier than men?
Leigh: I try and film stories about people. I do, as a supplementary agenda, make sure there are good parts for women in my films. I don't think there are enough good parts for women in film. My job is to make interesting stories and create fine meaty parts for everyone in my films.

THR: Lately, you seem to switch from contemporary set dramas to period films and then back again with "Topsy-Turvy" then "All or Nothing" before "Vera Drake" and now "Happy-Go-Lucky." What's your process for selecting what to write and direct next?
Leigh: "Of the 18 films I've made, only two have been period films, and one ("Vera Drake") of them had to be because it had to take place before the abortion-law changes in the 1950s. I categorically wanted to make a contemporary film and capture the atmosphere of people in their 20s in society today. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is a film about learning, teaching, kindness and most of all love.

THR: How do you feel about having a competition slot in Berlin?
Leigh: It's great. I've been before with "Meantime" and "Life Is Sweet" but never in competition, so it's very good news. We've been very successful in Cannes and Venice in the past, so I am looking forward to Berlin. Some people may find ("Happy-Go-Lucky") too light and trivial for Berlin, but it has depth.

THR: Are you hoping to see any other Berlin films when you are there?
Leigh: I have no idea if I will be able to. You don't get to see much at festival because you are so busy doing the things you have to do with your own film. I am an avid watcher of other people's movies, so I hope I get to see some.

THR: Your play "Two Thousand Years" just opened in New York. Do you have a preference between filmmaking and plays having established yourself in both artistic fields?
Leigh: My first love is filmmaking, no question about it. Having said that, I did "Two Thousand Years" at the National, and I want to go back and do something else with (artistic director) Nicholas Hytner there. I am concerned with theater and it is part of my life. But it's the nature and spirit of cinema that I love first.

THR: You once said that given the choice of Hollywood or poking steel pins in your eyes, you'd prefer steel pins. Why?
Leigh: All that means by Hollywood is taking the king's shilling and getting into a situation where the films funded in that system would be interfered with and production would be interfered with. The great thing is that courtesy of my fantastic relationship with my producer Simon Channing-Williams and the way the finance is raised, we always get into a situation where I have director's cut and no one interferes at any stage of the process. We are European filmmakers here and we don't belong in Hollywood, but we only get low budgets because of that, which is the price we (as filmmakers operating outside Hollywood) have to pay.

VITAL STATS:
Nationality: British
Date of birth: Feb. 20, 1943
Film in Berlin: "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Selected filmography: "Vera Drake" (2004), "All or Nothing" (2002), "Topsy-Turvy" (1999), "Career Girls" (1997), "Secrets & Lies" (1996), "Naked" (1993), "Life Is Sweet" (1990)
Notable awards: British Academy Film Award best director, "Vera Drake" (2005); Venice Film Festival Golden Lion, "Vera Drake" (2004); British Academy best British film and best director, "Secrets & Lies" (1997); Festival de Cannes Palme d'Or, "Secrets & Lies" (1996) and Palme d'Or best director, "Naked" (1993); Festival de Cannes jury prize, "Hidden Agenda" (1990); Berlin International Film Festival Reader Jury of the "Zitty" Award, "Meantime" (TV, 1984)
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