Q & A with Writer-Director Mike Leigh

“Another Year” writer–director Mike Leigh

“Another Year” writer–director Mike Leigh

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer–director Mike Leigh about his comedy drama “Another Year,” opening Dec. 29 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Classics.

“Another Year” was an official selection of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. The Sony Pictures Classics release is a production of Film4, Focus Features, Thin Man Films and the UK Film Council.

It was produced by Georgina Lowe and executive produced by Gail Egan and Tessa Ross. Its ensemble cast includes Jim Broadbent, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wight, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Martin Savage, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Stuart McQuarrie and Imelda Staunton.

The Story (official synopsis – beware major spoilers): In the Spring, happily married Gerri, a medical counselor, and Tom, a geologist, tend their allotment. They entertain Gerri’s lonely work colleague Mary, who gets very drunk, and bemoans her disastrous love life. Gerri and Tom enjoy a warm relationship with their community lawyer son Joe, aged 30, who reports that although his friends are getting married, he is still without a partner.

In the Summer, Ken comes down to London to spend a weekend with Gerri and Tom. Ken works in a government employment office in Hull, and is Tom’s boyhood friend from their native Derby. He gets very drunk, and bemoans his tragic, lonely life. The next day, while Gerri celebrates the sunshine at the allotment, Tom, Ken, Joe and a neighbor enjoy a game of golf. A barbeque party follows. Mary arrives late and flustered in her newly–acquired secondhand car. She is frosty towards an innocently amorous Ken, and flirtatious in an urgent and serious way towards Joe, her junior by a generation.

In the Autumn, Gerri and Tom return home from the allotment to enjoy a pleasant surprise from Joe. He has hidden his new partner Katie behind a door. Katie is an occupational therapist, and Gerri and Tom like her immediately. But Mary, who has already been invited to tea, is instantly jealous and hostile towards Katie, and behaves very rudely. Although they all sympathize with her car troubles, Mary’s behavior towards Katie leaves a bad odor with the good–natured Gerri and Tom.

In the Winter, Gerri, Tom and Joe drive up to Derby for the funeral of the wife of Tom’s elder brother, Ronnie. Ronnie’s aggressive, estranged son Carl arrives late at the crematorium. Back at Ronnie’s house, Carl is confrontational with his father, and with Tom and Joe; he causes other mourners to leave suddenly, and then stomps off in a rage. Gerri and Tom bring Ronnie back to London. Whilst they are at the allotment, Mary shows up at the house unannounced, and in a fraught state. She drinks tea and smokes cigarettes with a bemused Ronnie. On their return, Gerri and Tom are far from pleased to see Mary, especially as Joe is due to arrive with Katie for a family dinner. But after Mary has broken down apologetically, Gerri invites her to stay, albeit reluctantly. At the dinner table, while Gerri and Tom reminisce about the round–the–world backpacking days of their youth, and Katie and Joe look forward to their impending trip to Paris, Ronnie quietly enjoys his beer and his dinner and Mary faces the sad emptiness of her passing life.

MIKE LEIGH was born in 1943 in Salford, Lancashire. He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Camberwell and Central Art Schools in London, and at the London Film School.

His first feature film was “Bleak Moments” (1971), which was followed by the full–length television films, “Hard Labour” (1973), “Nuts in May” (1975), “The Kiss of Death” (1976), “Who’s Who” (1978), ”Grown–Ups” (1980), “Home Sweet Home” (1982), “Meantime” (1983), and “Four Days In July” (1984).

Other feature films from Mike Leigh include: “High Hopes” (1988), “Life Is Sweet” (1990), “Naked” (1993), “Secrets & Lies” (1996), “Career Girls” (1997), “Topsy–Turvy” (1999), “All Or Nothing” (2002), “Vera Drake” (2004), “Happy–Go–Lucky” (2008) and “Another Year” (2010).

He has written and directed over twenty stage plays, including “Babies Grow Old” (1974), “Abigail’s Party” (1977), “Ecstasy” (1979), “Goose–Pimples” (1981), “Smelling A Rat” (1988) and “Two Thousand Years” (2005) for the National Theatre, where he will create a new play in 2011.

Q: I really enjoyed “Another Year,” particularly the performances you got from your cast, most of whom you’d worked with on many other films over the years. How did you work with the actors? I recall your telling me in the past that you do a lot of rehearsing.
A: It’s not just rehearsing. I did what I always do, 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. What I do is I really create the sort of 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.
Q: You have a film here in which people do something they don’t get to do very much of these days — and that is they sit and talk to each other. Was it improv?
A: Everything in all my films, this one being no exception, 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.
Q: So as you rehearse and you get something you feel good about, do you save that to come back to do again that way?
A: Well, nearly. What we do is we rehearse and develop until we arrive at the precise action that we shoot.
Stars Ruth Sheen (L) and Jim Broadbent (R) in “Another Year”

Stars Ruth Sheen (L) and Jim Broadbent (R) in “Another Year”

Q: I talk to many filmmakers and maybe half of them say that rehearsing is what they like to do and the other half argue that they like to be spontaneous and see what happens on the first take. What is the case for rehearsing?
A: I think it’s horses for courses. I can see that there are kinds of filmmakers who don’t need to rehearse or don’t like rehearsing or for whom it might even be counter–productive if what they’re making is the kind of cinema that is about snatched moments or action or whatever it is. But in the case of my sort of work, because it’s about creating something that is very distilled and properly constructed but has an organic complex foundation, rehearsing is simply a non–negotiable fact. It’s part and parcel of the refining process that is about creating the material.

What I do is the equivalent of what happens when people write novels, write plays, make sculpture, do paintings, make music, write poems, you name it, which is to say all art is a synthesis of improvisation and order. You work through and refine and refine until you arrive at the precise piece of sculpture or painting or novel or whatever it is and in this case that’s what I do with the material. So rehearsing is not just a sort of thing that you may or may not do, it is an inherent, inevitable and non–negotiable part of the creative process.
Q: Clearly, working with actors in whom you have confidence from working with on many past films must be very helpful.
A: It is, indeed, although it must be said that if first–timers are on the same page and the same wave length, you forget in no time that they are first–timers. For example, David Bradley, who plays Ronnie, the brother (of Jim Broadbent’s character Tom) whose wife dies. I’ve never worked with him before, but it took me no time to forget that fact because he was duck–to–water. He was great, you know. But it is true that (there’s a shorthand to) working, say, for example with Lesley Manville or Jim Broadbent or Ruth Sheen.

Lesley Manville is the record holder. She’s worked with me more times than any other actor (on “Secrets & Lies,” “High Hopes,” “Topsy–Turvy,” “All or Nothing,” “Vera Drake,” “Another Year,” the BBC film “Grown–Ups,” a radio play and in the theatre). We do, of course, have a shorthand. And apart from that, because these guys are character actors — they’re versatile and they always do different kinds of characters each time — it means that we are committed to go further, be more dangerous and dig deeper than ever before. And that’s what happened with Lesley on this.
Q: I always hear that actors all have their own ways of liking to work. With so many actors in your cast, did their acting styles mesh easily?
A: Just not a consideration at all because we all work in the same way and it’s an idiosyncratic way that I work, basically. It simply doesn’t arise. They all like to work according to my disciplines really. So it’s simply not a consideration at all. Having said that, they’re all individuals.

But don’t forget, when you talk about actors and the ways they like to work, most actors in most movies and, indeed, in most plays have got to have their own ways of dealing with stuff because they don’t get any real support from anybody in the actual acting process whereas with my films not only do they get support from me, not only do I direct the acting as well as the characters in the situation, but that’s an inherent part of what happens. That is what they have because that’s how it works. So they’re much safer, if you like. Also, there’s more time for them to get into it and make mistakes.
Q: So there’s a comfort level both for you working with them and, in turn, for the actors working with you?
A: Absolutely. Which makes it possible for a set to be dangerous!
Q: How did “Another Year” come about?
A: This particular film was greenlit with, incidentally, the lowest budget I’ve had for a long time.
Lesley Manville as Mary in “Another Year”

Lesley Manville as Mary in “Another Year”

Q: What was the budget?
A: In Sterling, it was £4.8 million (about $8 million with $1.64 to the Pound in mid–2009). “Vera Drake” and “Happy–Go–Lucky” were around about the £6.2 or £6.3 million mark (about $10 million).

We got the green light in the beginning of 2009 and we set about doing it very quickly, setting it up and getting on with it because apart from anything else my longtime producer, Simon Channing–Williams, was extremely ill with cancer. I wanted to try and make the film while he was still with us. Unfortunately, he died just before we began (on Apr. 11, 2009 at age 63 in Cornwall after a five year battle with cancer).

Then we just got on with it really. “Happy–Go–Lucky,” which focused as one of its principal objectives on relatively young people, started from the notion of looking at life for those of us who are further down the line of life. I, myself, am 67 at this point. It is a film at some levels about we who are at this later stage, shall we say.
Q: What were your biggest challenges during production?
A: The most interesting, I think, and important thing is the four seasons. We shot the whole film in 12 weeks.
Q: How do you manage to get the feeling of four seasons in only 12 weeks?
A: Well, exactly. Especially with English weather going on.
Q: Which, I expect, is always bad.
A: It was last year. It was bloody temperamental. The thing is, I worked with this brilliant cinematographer, Dick Pope (“Happy,” “Vera,” “Topsy,” “Secrets” and “Naked”). He shot each season with a different (film) stock in a different mode and they were designed differently. But you see that allotment (of land for a small garden made available by local UK authorities to individuals at a low rent) in four different scenes and that involves a lot of careful timing and planting and pulling up things and replanting and sorting out which way you can look so you have to deal with the other people’s allotments.
Q: And because of the allotment you first have the growing seasons and then the actual harvesting of the vegetables.
A: I think that was one of the challenges from a filmmaking point of view, apart from the challenge of making a film with a tight schedule. We shot it around London for the most part except for the funeral (scene after the death of Ronnie’s wife) in Derby, which we actually shot in Derby, which is 90 or so miles away from London. We shot it between August and November a year ago. We were shooting it this time last year.
Q: Did Sony Classics pick it up after it was made?
A: They did. Focus Features International backed it along with Film4 and UK Film Council, but Sony Pictures Classics picked it up at Cannes just for the U.S.
Q: And now I’m hearing some awards buzz about the film.
A: (laughs) Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.