Commentary: 'Happy' performance could bring Sally Hawkins noms

Director Mike Leigh says film isn't happy, it's "anti-miserabilist"

"Happy" Hawkins: If you talk to directors about how they work you tend to hear variations on the same themes.

They like, for example, to rehearse with their actors or they prefer to let them be more spontaneous and see what they get on the first take. They storyboard their films so they can spend more time on set working with their actors or they make shot lists instead of what they're planning to shoot but don't lock themselves into exactly what angles they're going to use. And they work in various ways to either write their own screenplays or to shape other writers' scripts prior to shooting.

Although that's what you run into with most directors, it's definitely not the case with Mike Leigh, whose approach to directing is entirely unique. Given Leigh's five Oscar nominations -- two for writing and directing "Vera Drake," one for writing "Topsy-Turvey" and two for writing and directing "Secrets & Lies" -- it's clear that the style he's perfected over the years works quite well for him.

Having enjoyed an early look at Leigh's latest film, the comedy drama "Happy-Go-Lucky," opening Oct. 10 via Miramax, I was happy to have an opportunity to chat recently with him about how he works. Written and directed by Leigh, "Happy" is produced by Simon Channing Williams, who with Leigh formed Thin Man Films in 1988. "Happy" is their 11th film working together. The film, which was an official selection at festivals in Toronto, New York and Telluride, stars Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan and Alexis Zegerman.

Hawkins, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, has been generating an awards buzz for her performance and that could happily put her -- for the first time -- in this year's Oscar and Golden Globes best actress races.

In "Happy" Hawkins plays Poppy, a free-spirited London school teacher whose infectious laugh and overwhelming optimism are always there no matter how adverse the circumstances surrounding her are. The theft of her bicycle at the start of the film, for instance, leaves her not angry or distraught as others would be, but simply resigned to the fact that it's gone and now it's time to move on in some other way. For Poppy that turns out to be taking driving lessons. Her instructor Scott, played by Marsan, is her polar opposite -- an uptight cynical guy who takes himself way too seriously. In the end, Poppy's story is a life-affirming exploration of what constitutes happiness.

"Every time I make a film I try and dish up something different," Leigh told me when I pointed out that "Happy" is being regarded as a happier or, at least, less serious film than some of his darker earlier ones. "I call (this) an 'anti-miserabilist' film. But at the end of the day, it's all going on in the usual way."

Why was it a film he wanted to make? "Apart from anything else, we are living in desperate times and there's a great deal to be gloomy about," he observed. "But there are people getting on with it despite that and not least amongst those are teachers, people who by definition are cherishing the future. Teaching kids is an act of optimism, really. I just felt the need to sort of do that. I also wanted to make a film with Sally Hawkins (starring) and it seemed appropriate to bring those two objectives together."

Production took place last year. "The way I make films is when you actually do it," he explained. "Apart from casting and thinking about it, we spent six months in rehearsal and preparation before we shot anything and then we made it up as we went along (which is) the way I make my films."

Asked how he likes to work with his actors in terms of rehearsing, Leigh replied, "How I actually work with my actors is (really nothing) to talk about. But I do collaborate with each actor to create a character and then I gradually put them together and we build up relationships and they research all kinds of stuff and (there is) improvisation that I get them to do so that we're then equipped to go out on location for two or three months and create a film organically, inventing it on location."

Although Leigh is credited as "Happy's" writer and director, he takes some exception to having written it: "It is not something I (had written). I write a film by making it. I don't make a script previously. What I've just described to you is the way that I make films and there isn't a script in the usual sense although what we arrive at is very tightly scripted and very precisely shot."

It's the way he's always worked, he added, "since the mid-1960s. It's just the way I work. Originally, I wanted to direct things. I wanted to write. I was fascinated by what actors could do. It occurred to me a long time ago that actors should work as collaborative artists. That's the way I do it. This is my 18th full length film and I've made lots of stage plays in the same way and this has all been going on for 43 years."

As for the challenges of production with so much happening unplanned as he's going along, Leigh observed, "Yeah, but that's what artists do. That's how people paint pictures, write novels, compose music, (create) sculpture. You embark on the journey of discovery. It's only in the movies that everything is planned down to the last syllable before anybody's shot anything and not only in commercial movies."

Leigh has managed to thrive as a filmmaker without doing the intense pre-planning and storyboarding that most directors seem to take for granted. Is there more anxiety attached to working this way? "In many ways there's less anxiety," he countered, "because apart from anything else we go in very prepared in a way that most films aren't. Much time is wasted shooting films because actors aren't prepared. Actors are (generally) very insecure and they're not (insecure) in my films. The truth of it is, it's a different way of making films. It's just its own thing, you know."

But clearly it isn't for everyone. "Oh, no, no," he agreed. "It isn't for anyone! It's only what I do. It's totally idiosyncratic, totally eccentric and if it works at all it works in the context that it serves the kind of stories I want to tell and works in the kind of cinematic considerations that are my taste. But I don't think for a moment it would work for anybody else."

Indeed, it would seem unlikely to work for anyone else unless they were somehow coming from the very same place Leigh is coming from. "Or," he suggested, "unless they had their own version of it, which would make sense to them. But I think that's as much as we can say about this."

Looking back at production, he recalled, "One of the great challenges was to shoot those driving lesson scenes because they're complex scenes. Obviously they all happened on location with a real car, but it was very important and I insisted that the actors were actually driving the car and not pretending to drive a car by sitting on a low-loader or a trailer of any kind. That was a big challenge because the actors are liberated to act, but at the same time it's shot in a highly sophisticated way traveling around on location in real streets."

In Los Angeles, of course, streets are routinely shut down to accommodate filmmakers' needs, but that wasn't the case in London with "Happy." "We didn't want to shut down streets," Leigh said. "We wanted (the actors) to interact with the real world." Happily, he confirmed, there were no collisions resulting from filming.

The driving scenes are driven by the escalating conflict between Hawkins as Poppy and Marsan as her instructor Scott. Marsan's perfect casting although this is a much more assertive role than he's done lately -- such as in Paul Weiland's comedy drama "Sixty-Six" where he memorably played an obsessive-compulsive weakling. Asked about casting Marsan, Leigh told me, "Well, again, I did what I do, which is to cast him without knowing what we were going to do and then collaborating with him to discover a character. I mean, Eddie is a brilliant, brilliant character actor. You may remember him in my last film 'Vera Drake' where, of course, he was very much not an assertive guy (but was) very, very gentle. He plays a completely different sort of guy (in 'Happy') who's extremely unhinged and sad and disorientated and whose head is full of crap."

As for what sounds like a less organized way of shooting than is usual for filmmakers, Leigh emphasizes, "We do organize ourselves. What we shoot is very precise and we do prepare it in a very precise way. We just do it by doing it there (on location). It's a very disciplined way of shooting. We don't shoot very much in the way of ad hoc or ad lib improvised material. It's very organized and structured, which when you look at it you can see it is. My job is to make highly structured films with very, very sophisticated and refined scripts. The only thing is, I don't write it all down on paper in advance. I work it out there and then with the people in a very thorough way."

Does he shoot a lot of takes by using this approach? "No," he replied. "We shoot what we need to shoot. We certainly don't shoot more takes than others because of (this style). In fact, because of the way I work I shoot less takes because the actors are so grounded and thorough and their foundation is so solid that they don't screw up. But obviously we shoot as many takes as we need to get different nuances and to go for performances."

Hawkins' performance in "Happy" seems to fit her like a glove and I asked Leigh if she took to playing the role readily? "Well, she collaborated with me to create it," he answered. "So, yes, very much so. All the roles in all my films fit the actors like a glove because each actor has collaborated in creating that role with me. So each role is tailor-made for that actor and can only be played by that actor."

At the film's core is the issue of happiness and whether it's really attainable. "Although the film is called 'Happy-Go-Lucky' -- because you've got to call a film something -- that's more by way of evoking an atmosphere rather than describing precisely what's in the bottle. I mean, this film is not just about happiness. This film is not so much 'happy' as fulfilled and honest and open and caring and serious and committed and professional and, also, has a mighty sense of humor and a great joie de vivre and a streak of anarchy. It's all about looking things in the eye and being positive in the worst things rather than just being about happiness as a kind of bland hippy-dippy condition."

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