Mike Leigh, 'Another Year'
Taking an unconventional approach to writing hasn’t stopped Mike Leigh from earning five original-screenplay Oscar nominations and two directing noms. In his latest film, Another Year, he focuses on happily married couple Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), as well as their single friends including the slightly desperate Mary (Lesley Manville).
The Hollywood Reporter: What was your inspiration for Another Year?
It’s a film about a lot of things. Apart from everything else, I am in my later 60s, so having made Happy-Go-Lucky, which was on the whole a youthful film, I just wanted to reflect on life — apart from the other things it’s about — from the point of view of those of us getting on. You have characters who are, in various ways, looking at their past and their future, some with warmth and optimism and others, like Mary, looking at a black hole of loneliness. It’s not a film I feel is easy to pin down in a very simple, simplistic way. It’s generally about life passing us by, the inevitable cycle of the years, etc. It’s about love; it’s about compassion; it’s about need; it’s about all those things.
THR: Why did you decide to follow the characters through the course of a year?
That is the conceit of the film. Often with my films, you get a very short time span. You don’t get long periods of time, and I usually like to do that so you can focus down. But I felt that, to say something about Tom and Gerri’s green and nurturing preoccupations, it made sense when we got the idea of seasons. And I also wanted to tell the story of Mary, who is only an occasional visitor to their house. So it occurred to me you needed to see Mary over a longer period. And at the same time, as I was struggling with these dramatic narrative considerations, I was also sharing with my cinematographer, Dick Pope, some sense of the spirit of the film. He shot some tests, and because the film is elusive, he came up with four different looks. Those four looks, when I looked at them, suddenly resonated with something I had in the back of my head, which was the four seasons. That liberated us to shoot the four sections of the film in different ways. That also liberated the dramatic structure. I was able to see Mary over a longer period — each of her visits was feasible. Also, it allowed me to see Tom and Gerri through the seasons. It liberated the story and adds up to an organic whole.
THR: What is your writing process?
I can’t talk about the screenplay separate from the film. I don’t write a screenplay in a conventional way, as I’m sure you know, and then go out and interpret it by making a film of it. The actual filmmaking process and the development of the screenplay are an integral and organic part of the whole thing. I precede the shoot with, in this case, five months working with actors, developing ideas and growing the whole thing and exploring and discovering what the film is. And even then, one has only arrived at the premise of the film — and, in fact, it’s only during the shoot that we actually detail, rehearse it and arrive at something very precise. But it’s very much an organic thing — the page never comes into it. The script is the film; the script which has been nominated — the document which the writers section voted on — I actually did after the film was released, just before Christmas. I transcribed it, writing it up in a literary form, from a DVD of the film. A script is a byproduct of the actual thing I made, which is called a film. I am flattered to be nominated as the writer of the film — I am the writer of the film — but it’s weird not to be nominated as a director because I don’t know the difference between writing and directing. For me, it’s integrally and inseparably part of the same process, and it’s an academic distinction for me.
THR: Did you start with particular actors in mind and then create characters for them, or vice versa?
I always start with the actors and collaborate with each actor to create the character. That isn’t to say I don’t have ideas about the general feel or the notion of the film. No, no, no — in all the films you’ve ever seen of mine, apart from Topsy-Turvy, I get the actors, and they’re character actors, so they are versatile. They can play all kinds of different characters. I collaborate with each actor very privately and very separately, and we create a character. Then we put them together, and we explore relationships — we build up whole worlds. I help them do improvisations and research, and we arrive at the premise of the film. And then, later, on location — scene by scene — we arrive at something very precisely scripted. Because it’s very precisely written, and that happens through rehearsal.
THR: How did the finished film differ from your original conception?
Actually, the whole process — A to Zed — the whole process of making the film is a journey of discovery as to what the film is. The surprises that you very properly assume didn’t end in the first two weeks. That’s all just groundwork; that’s just digging the foundation. I only really arrive at the film, the things that happen at the end of the film, it all comes out in development of the film on location. So the whole journey is one of discovery. I make films like people paint pictures and write novels: You work with the material, and through the work you discover what it actually is you’re making.
THR: Could you see yourself returning to these characters in a future film?
No, no. I never do that. They are locked into the frame of that particular film, and the job is to move on and go elsewhere.