Mike Leigh talks of his new film Secrets and LiesBy Stephen Brophy
Mike Leigh came to Boston last week on the heels of his triumphal visit to the New York Film Festival, where his new movie, Secrets and Lies, had been selected for the opening night screening. He talked about the details of his most recent work and how it fits into the style and concerns he has been developing in the course of his career.
Leigh develops his stories in a much more collaborative fashion than most other writer/directors. He comes up with a general situation, finds actors to people it, and together with camera operators, production designers, and other crew members, they all basically write the script.
"A script is no more important than a blueprint - you don't make a script, you make a film," Leigh said. "What gets filmed is absolutely precise, very thoroughly rehearsed. But that comes out of the work with the actors - the rehearsals, the development, the research, the discussions, the improvisations. And the input of the other people. But the definition of the material is very much in the hands of myself and the cinematographer.
This working style developed in the 1960s. "It came out of very strong desire to write and direct and being fascinated with the possibilities of acting." But it also suited his particular personality. "As a writer I am not terrifically inspired by sitting alone in a room - deadline keeps receding, pots of coffee keep getting made - but I do respond to a collaborative situation."
When asked why even the peripheral characters in his stories are so fully fleshed out, he pointed around the room. "All of us sitting here are totally different from each other. We are like the tips of six icebergs. This is fascinating." When pressed to explain, he responded that for him, "filmmaking is about people, and all people are interesting, and are to be explored and developed in a three-dimensional, round way. All characters in a story should have that dignity. It doesn't make sense to have some interesting people in a story and some you don't believe in - then the whole thing short circuits."
The emotional drama of his stories also develops out of the way he works with actors to create the story. "In any film of mine, the entire thing is constructed by the actors never knowing any more than their characters would know. This relates back to what we were saying about each character being the center of his or her own universe. So when we rehearsed it, things were a surprise to them. But not when we shot it. They still don't know any more than they need to know when we shoot it, so they don't know what the whole film is about until months later when the see it. Some of the central characters didn't know they were in a film about adoption."
Leigh insists that he has been basically making the same movie with variations for much of his career. Certain basic preoccupations show up again and again. "For instance, Cyril in High Hopes is an idealist who has become inert. Johnnie in Naked is an idealist who is disappointed, angry, and has become negative. Maurice in Secrets and Lies is an idealist who bottles it and gets on with it. Naked is about family - it's about belonging, and connecting, it's about displacement which has to do with roots."