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You can count on automatic Oscar interest in writer-director Mike Leigh‘s Another Year, opening this week in New York and L.A. against three other high-prestige pictures vying for Oscar glory,: Blue Valentine, Biutiful and The Way Back.
Buzzed early at Cannes and Toronto, Another Year rides on Leigh’s illustrious record: six Oscar noms (for directing Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies and writing Vera, Secrets, Topsy-Turvy and Happy-Go-Lucky). His stars do well, too: Another Year‘s Imelda Staunton got a best actress Oscar nom for Vera, and Jim Broadbent a best actor BAFTA nod for Topsy.
But when I tell Mike Leigh there’s Oscar talk about Another Year, he laughs. “Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.”
What you see in the film is an unusually multilayered ensemble performance in a story centered on a radiantly happily married couple (Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) and their unhappily, alcoholically volatile single friend (Lesley Manville).
“I did what I always do,” he says, “which is to spend months — in this case, five months — working individually with each actor, creating a character together, building up a whole world, exploring, researching, making a completely three dimensional world.”
Uniquely, Leigh creates a “premise for the film so I can then get out on location and make the film up as we go along and distill it and make a properly constructed dramatic, precise movie.”
Leigh repeatedly uses the word “precise,” perhaps to emphasize that his method, partly influenced by Cassavetes, actually involves very little on-camera improvisation. “Everything in all my films comes out of improvisation, but we then rehearse very thoroughly and the scripting goes on as a development of what starts in improvisation. So what we wind up with is very precisely scripted, but we do it through rehearsal.”
“You work through and refine and refine until you arrive at the precise piece of sculpture or painting or novel or whatever it is. So rehearsing is an inherent, inevitable and non-negotiable part of the creative process.”
It was easier this time, because he’d worked multiple times with most of Year’s key actors. “Lesley Manville is the record holder. She’s worked with me more times than any other actor” (on Secrets, High Hopes, Topsy, All or Nothing, Vera, the BBC film Grown-Ups, a radio play and theater productions).
“We do, of course, have a shorthand. And apart from that, because these guys are character actors it means we are committed to go further, be more dangerous and dig deeper than ever before.”
There weren’t deep pockets to dig into. “This film was greenlit with the lowest budget I’ve had for a long time” — about $8 million from Focus Features International, Film4 and the UK Film Council, versus the $10 million Vera and Happy. Sony Pictures Classics acquired Year at Cannes for the U.S.
He tried to finish the film quickly, because his longtime producer, Simon Channing-Williams, was ill with cancer. “He died just before we began,” so Georgina Lowe stepped in to produce. They managed to depict the passage of four seasons in a 12-week shoot. Leigh credits Dick Pope, his DP on Happy, Vera, Topsy, Secrets and Naked, for making things work by shooting each season with a different film stock and its own mode.
“That involves a lot of careful timing and planting and pulling up things and replanting and sorting out which way you can look.”
Oscar races involve timing too. You can look at Leigh and Manville (who beat probable rivals Annette Bening, Natalie Portman and Nicole Kidman for the National Board of Review best actress award) as a surefire Oscar shoo-ins, or focus on the obstacles Another Year has faced in the race. The WGA ruled it ineligible for a writing award (despite Leigh’s 1997 Secrets WGA nom), and many argue that its best Oscar shot, Manville’s performance, is hampered by Sony’s decision to put her up for best actress instead of best supporting actress, where she would have loomed larger. “That might be an error,” Manville told New York Magazine. “I don’t know — but it’s their call. I’m a novice at this, so I wouldn’t dictate it, really.”
Like Leigh, she’ll believe her Oscar when she sees it.
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Samuel L. Jackson