Q & A: Mike Leigh
It's just "Another Year" at Cannes for British director.
Four-time Oscar nominee Mike Leigh is a name on the lips of every major festival director. If he has a film ready, it'll generally get a slot at whatever big movie jamboree is coming up. A director who always insists on final cut, casting and zero interference from backers, Leigh talks to The Hollywood Reporter's U.K. bureau chief Stuart Kemp about returning to what he describes as the No. 1 film festival in the world, being nominated four times by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and why thick actors need not apply to work with him.
The Hollywood Reporter: Can you tell me about "Another Year"?
Mike Leigh: No, absolutely not. Everybody will see it when it screens down there. It's about a lot of things. By the time I've spent several days down in Cannes, I will have developed some way of learning how to talk about it, but right now I haven't.
THR: Your last film, "Happy-Go-Lucky" was described as being a positive film to the dark side of "Naked." Are you returning to "Secrets & Lies" territory with "Another Year"?
Leigh: That's the same question as the previous one in sheep's clothing. It would be reductionist to say "Another Year" is that. In the end, the somewhat strained attempt to link the two ("Happy" and "Naked") doesn't work. "Another Year" is in a territory all by itself.
THR: The film reunites you with collaborator and old friend Jim Broadbent. Have you developed a director-actor understanding beyond your friendship?
Leigh: That is the relationship I have with actors. There is nobody I have worked with who I haven't become friends with. In "Another Year," Lesley Manville plays a very central role. She holds the record; this is her ninth time working with me. We have a very good telepathic working relationship for what, after all, is a creative journey. What is central to my work is that I promise the actors that we will not repeat ourselves and always try and take them in completely different directions to where they've gone before. In ("Another Year"), I think Jim is unlike anything he's done before. It is character acting after all and each character is different.
THR: The way you make your films requires a certain intelligence from your actors. Is your coterie of regular collaborators an indication of that understanding?
Leigh: Thick actors cannot do what I do. I need bright, sharp, intelligent actors with a sophisticated approach who are prepared to work very hard and be individualistic and shine as part of an ensemble at the same time. People who are not prepared to be there all the time even when they are not on screen are not the people I work with.
THR: So, "Another Year," another Festival de Cannes. Are you used to it all by now? Is it still exciting?
Leigh: It's the fourth time In Competition. No, you don't get used to anything in this world. This is showbiz after all.
THR: Are you slightly wary of being In Competition having been a member of the Cannes jury back in 1997, the year after you won the Palme d'Or with "Secrets & Lies"?
Leigh: Being on the jury was a good experience. A gang of really intelligent folks talking about film and taking it seriously is always a good thing. The other thing is, I don't care what people say (about me or my films). If it's In Competition, it means it's good enough to get there and it's an honor.
THR: Where do you sit in terms of passing judgment on your chosen art form?
Leigh: I've been on juries at other festivals, too. The point is, it is not a question of isolating the business of judging films as being the only thing taking a film to a festival is all about. We're (as filmmakers) in the business of getting films in front of audiences and getting them out there. Growing a culture of getting audiences excited about film is what we are doing.
THR: You've been to Cannes three times previously with films. Does it still remain your No. 1 festival?
Leigh: One of the things I love about Cannes is it is first world centric but also Eurocentric. And the Yanks can't get their hand on it. Of course, the Americans have a massive presence around the Croisette, but in the end they can't knobble a prize. It is the most important film prize in the world for world cinema and it is not Hollywood centric.
THR: Focus Features is a backer. Does having a U.S. partner make any difference to the way you set about making "Another Year?"
Leigh: I am happy so long as you are allowed the freedom to make the film without any interference whatsoever. The main criterion for me is to make films without interference, have final cut and control of casting. Focus did that and it has happened in the past with U.S. partners. Having American backers is fine and in many ways can be a bonus. This is entirely different to being asked previously if I would like to go to Hollywood and make a film in the system over there. I have no desire to do that and it wouldn't make any sense to me anyway. There'd be no point and I know it would be a disaster if I did.
THR: The last time you went to Cannes (in 2002), you came back empty handed after screening "All Or Nothing." Disappointing?
Leigh: I think that "All Or Nothing" was a very good film and certainly think Lesley (Manville) and Tim (Spall) deserved to be recognized for their roles. I've been nominated four times for an Oscar and have sat through them and not won. It's all about pushing for audiences for your films.
THR: Did it feel different for you making "Another Year" after your friend, collaborator and producer of many years Simon Channing-Williams died?
Leigh: He died three days before we started rehearsals. The strength of our working relationship was based on the fact that he never interfered in any way but was a brilliant enabler. He said before we started that we should make (longtime producer and collaborator) Georgina Lowe producer too because he didn't know what might happen to him. We missed him.
THR: Film4 is among the backers of this film and the standalone filmmaking arm raised its annual cash pool to 10 million pounds. That can only be a good thing, right?
Leigh: Well, that's a daft question. You wouldn't expect anybody to say it's a bad thing. Mind you, it was only a short time ago that the whole Film4 was under threat so the fact it's come through that turmoil and has extra budget is good. It's still hardly a lot of money.
THR: Will you have a chance to see other films at the festival?
Leigh: I might manage but not usually. I am going to stay an extra day or so because I am chairman of the London Film School and it is a very big part of my life. We're having a do to raise awareness for our funding appeal because we have to move (the school) from its Covent Garden base.
THR: What's next?
Leigh: I am going to do a play next year at the National (Theater), which I can't tell you about.