Mike Leigh on His Amazon-Backed 'Peterloo': All My Films Have Been Funded by a "Reprehensible Force"

Mike Leigh - H - 2018
Credit: Thin Man Films

Ahead of its world premiere in Venice, the visionary British director discusses his historical epic and his thoughts on Cannes, which rejected the film.

Four years after he turned the clocks back with Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh returns to the dodgy dentistry and scruffy waistcoats of 19th century Britain with Peterloo, his biggest, boldest film across a career spanning more than four decades.

The historical epic — having its world premiere in Venice on Saturday and due for release via Amazon (it also received funding from Film4 and the BFI) — is something of a passion project for the iconoclastic filmmaker, marking the first major feature to explore the events surrounding the Peterloo Massacre, considered one of the most notorious and defining moments in U.K history.

On Aug. 16, 1819, cavalry forces charged a peaceful pro-democracy crowd of more than 60,000 people that had gathered in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester (not far from Leigh’s native Salford) to hear speeches calling for parliamentary representation. At least 15 people died in the resulting bloodbath, with hundreds more injured, and while the immediate aftermath was a major government crackdown, Peterloo would be regarded as the eventual catalyst for reform. 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from the London offices of his Thin Man Films banner (discretely hidden between a jazz bar and Japanese knife shop in Soho), Leigh discussed his commitment to the big screen, why Peterloo never made it to Cannes (even though it was submitted) and his thoughts on a film about working-class rights being backed by a multi-billion dollar company.

Peterloo is your biggest, most expensive film to date. Did it feel like a major departure from your others?

You know what, every film I’ve made has been, in a way, different from all the others. The scale is different, obviously. It’s different in that it’s the first film of mine that more obviously has got actual polemics in it, by way of that defining what it actually is. Although I would say it’s also about character. And the scale is different. But inherently, it’s just another one of those films.

Given the scale, was it more difficult to make?

Obviously if I do a film with three of four characters arguing on a staircase, in a certain sense, that’s easier logistically. Although, it can be quite heavy duty. By that note, the scale of the operation and the logistics are more difficult. But you kind of expand with the project and get on with it.

You’re well known for your improvisational style with your actors. Is this possible when you’re doing a historical feature?

Oh, yeah. Whatever film you make there’s research involved to get it right, and there’s definitely more in a historical piece. You’ve got to work with a story. There are scenes where people make speeches, saying words that people actually said. But the vast majority of it used improvisation in the same way that I usually do.

Did you expect a company like Amazon to come on board as backer?

You don’t really expect anyone to come on board on any project. At the time they did come board, they were new. They didn’t really exist before. My producer went to Cannes, and they quite quickly said well, we’d be interested. But more interestingly, they never interfered, never interfered with content or casting, anything, they were simply supportive and enthusiastic. You’ve also got to credit Film4 and the BFI, and indeed LipSync, who did the post-CGI stuff.

Would you ever work with Netflix, knowing that your film might not reach cinemas?

I’m pretty committed to cinema. Here’s the thing, life is quite short, especially when you’re my age, 75. So you can only do so much, and it takes quite a long time to do it. So my commitment is very simply to craft these things called movies that are then shown in cinemas. That I believe in. But Netflix is very legitimate. My partner Marian Bailey is appearing in The Crown [she’s playing the Queen Mother in seasons 3 and 4], so, you know, I’m all for it.

Do you see any irony in the fact that a film, which at its heart is about the rights of workers, or lack of, was bought by a company owned by the richest man on the planet and one that isn’t necessarily known for having a stellar record when it comes to workers' rights?

Yeah, of course. Of course. But I would say this, I don’t suppose I’ve ever made a film the funds for which, somewhere along the lines, didn’t come from some reprehensible force.

I remember once, long ago, I used to not do commercials and said I didn’t believe in them. And then they said, “Ken Loach has done quite a few of them.” So I phoned up Ken and he said, “If you don’t take money out of those capitalist pockets, then someone else will, and you’ve got mouths to feed. Do it!”

So yeah, of course we were aware, but we just got on with it really. And actually, sure, at the same time, they put money into independent films and those films are happening.

What happened with Cannes? Was Peterloo submitted this year?

Yeah! But they didn’t like it. They said that they respected it, but it wasn’t for them.

Strange. It was considered one of the frontrunners in the lead-up …

Yeah, we thought so too. But it’s not the first time it’s happened. There was Vera Drake, and that went and won the Golden Lion in Venice.

So do you have a preference for your films, Cannes or Venice?

Well, let’s put it like this, Cannes doesn’t get into my good books. I won the Palme d’Or for Secrets and Lies, and a couple of awards for Naked, and I was on the jury once. But on the other hand, if the girl doesn’t like you, you don’t want to go out with her, really.