New York Film Fest: Mike Leigh, Timothy Spall Talk Portraying the Problematic Painter in 'Mr. Turner'

'Mr. Turner'

Spall said of art critic John Ruskin: "I think Turner really liked the fact that he put him up there, but really felt he should've minded his own business"

Mr. Turner casts Timothy Spall as the grunting, troubled British landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner, whom director Mike Leigh considers to be "one of the best painters in the world."

The director told reporters on Friday afternoon, following a screening of the New York Film Festival centerpiece, that "this conflicted, eccentric, passionate guy ticked all the boxes for a potential character in a Mike Leigh film — the contention between this epic guy and his sublime, epic work. ... He's complex, vulnerable, strong, weak human being, like the rest of us."

To prepare for the title role, which Spall signed on for back in 2010, the actor spent two years learning how to paint, "to the point where I was able to do a full replica of a Turner painting — I couldn't be able to do it again, but I was able to do it!" Has he kept up the habit? "I haven't been able to pick up a paintbrush since we stopped shooting!"

Read more 'Mr. Turner': Cannes Review

Spall is assisted onscreen by a speckled, scratching and silent Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson. "There was little, very little information about her," said Atkinson, who blended the few known facts — she worked with him for forty years, had a skin condition and "frightened people when she opened the door" — with the physicality of people from her own childhood. "Lots of women I used to see around, Eleanor Rigby-type characters where you wonder how they got to the position they're in." She also supposed, "She was quite handsome when she's young!"

Leigh said he and the cast aimed to be "accurate without being documentary, because it's an impressionistic film," in regard not only to Turner's life, but also the film's time period. "Sometimes, such films suffer from a feeling that somehow, things have got to be contemporary for a contemporary audience, that it shouldn’t look too antique or that the language should be modified so the audience can understand it, that the women shouldn’t wear corsets because they're not sexy, but this results in a halfway house," said Leigh of putting in the extra effort. Marion Bailey added, "I think Mike's got a good ear for period language, so I felt we were in good hands."

Director of photography Dick Pope noted that they used Turner's body of work as a rich source material. "[It was] less about reproducing the work and more evoking the spirit of what he was seeing. … What drove him in a way drove us, and I certainly trying to evoke that spirit," he explained, expressing his thanks for the magic-hour light brought by last summer's perfect weather. Additionally, the colors of scenes were informed by the work on Turner's easel or from his father's latest shopping trip. "We used the paints he was buying at the color shop as our own palette."

Read more 'Mr. Turner' Star Timothy Spall Gives the Press a Big 'Harrumph!' at Cannes

The Sony Pictures Classics release not only showcases the painter's work, but his first encounter with photography and how the medium will affect painting. "Like a lot of the other things that are new in the world, he was wary of it, but he embraced it," said Spall, as Turner has his photo taken at a shop while in town. "He would’ve probably come to the conclusion itself that that in the end, photography is always something that's pictoral, capturing something that's there, and painting is emotion. Not to say that great photography is emotion, but painting … is an emotional response to what you're seeing."

Reporters asked about the comical portrayal of distinguished art critic John Ruskin in film (played by Joshua McGuire), and Leigh explained that the character is not an attack on critics in general, which was the perceived response when the film was screened at Cannes. "The way he was spoiled by his parents, he was a kind of a prick," said Leigh, "It just seemed a good idea to make him into a comic character."

Spall added that though Ruskin is responsible for Turner being remembered as the master of the sublime, "[Turner] thought they should mind their own bloody business. He had a thought that performers, writers, actors, presented things that had to be out there’re for people to look at, … they always have this feeling that they want the love, but in a certain way, there's a privateness about it. … I think Turner really liked the fact that he put him up there, but really felt he should've minded his own business."

Mr. Turner hits theaters Dec. 19.

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