A writer and director for stage and screen, Mike Leigh has amassed a highly respected and much-awarded body of work that includes High Hopes, Life is Sweet, Naked, Secrets & Lies, Career Girls, Topsy-Turvy, All or Nothing, and now, Vera Drake, which earned Leigh his fourth and fifth Oscar nominations (Best Achievement in Directing and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). Leigh helped along the careers of young actors David Thewlis, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, Gary Oldman, and Tim Roth, among others, and has showcased women in celebrated roles: first wife Alison Steadman, Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jane Horrocks, and now Imelda Staunton. Leigh's distinctive style allows each film to grow and emerge in improvisatory rehearsals that form the basis of each screenplay; actors remain on a need-to-know basis for maximum reality when the cameras roll. On March 11, 2004, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Mike Leigh discussed with me his life and career.
Groucho: The film is dedicated to your parents, who were a doctor and a midwife, and the film takes place in the era of your upbringing. When did you first become aware of illegal abortion?
Mike Leigh: Well, I don't think I was particularly aware of it at seven—But I mean—I don't know when I became aware of it, but certainly from a pretty early—it was very much something that—apart from anything else, I was 24 in 1967 when the law was changed, so I'm certainly old enough to remember the problem, for anyone who fell pregnant. I remember as a kid there was sort of women who you knew had done something and—had definitely been in prison, and it wasn't 'til later that you might find out what it was. And to be honest, the reason I felt motivated to put that sort of little homage to my parents—my father, particularly—was because, when I was making the film last year, I would very much like to have talked to him, you know, 'cause—apart from the fact that he would have been confronted by people who wanted to terminate a pregnancy—I would doubt that he terminated pregnancies himself, actually, but he would have had to deal with both...indeed, he would've, in some way, had to deal with the aftermath of abortions that had gone wrong somewhere along the line. I would have loved to have talked to him about it. He died in 1985, so that conversation was not resolved. But of course, I mean, apart from anything else, having grown up in a medical family—it was actually a sort of extended medical family, 'cause other people were medical. And everybody, including not least my father operated—worked in working-class areas. We lived in a—over the shop 'til I was about twelve or thirteen, in a working-class area—much of what's sort of implicit—when I was making it is that— in an indirect way just recalling a whole ambient atmosphere. In other words, those considerations are all secondary—to the main motivation for making the film, which plainly is to deal with the issue that concerns all of us.
G: Yes, and it's an issue that you've touched on before, in your career. Was there a particular reason that that came to the fore now?
ML: I mean, it's an issue now, and it becomes no less of an issue. I mean, I don't know how many children are being born since the beginning of this conversation, but it wouldn't fit into this room, I shouldn't have thought, and I don't know how many of them are unloved and unwanted, you know. So I think it's an issue, and to sit in this country and to try [to ignore] issue [would be] preposterous...basically. And you know, any talk, anywhere, of abolishing—you know, changing the law, making it, abortion, illegal, that needs to be confronted in some way. What I tried to do is a make a film that doesn't lay it on the line in a black-and-white way. I mean, I—it's important to confront the audience with a moral dilemma. It is a moral dilemma; there's no question about that. And that's what I'm trying to do. And in a way, apart from having to set it in a period before the law was changed anyway, it just seemed to make sense to do it through that sort of slightly more innocent world that it is in order to make us focus on it.
G: And did the process of making the film challenge any of your convictions, or did you find yourself deepening them?
ML: Well, I certainly didn't become any less concerned. It sharpened, in your terms. I mean, it goes without saying that any—I mean, any film—the way I make them and the sort of films I make—it's always making the film that discovering it and getting to the grips with what you actually care and feel and think about things. I mean, what's certainly for sure is that my greatest fear in making this film would be—was that I —was an area, not being able to take on board and deal with the complexity and, I'll say, the moral dilemma of the thing. So it was good news that I was able to find—through the dramatic formula—a way of doing precisely that and because, I mean, you talk about my convictions, and my convictions are absolutely pro-choice, of course they are, but at the same time, you know, I'm always aware of the fact that we want—you know, we are—you do destroy life. I mean, there's no question about that, either. And it's a huge question of what your moral—a philosophical question of where you stand morally about the nature of human life, and what is human life, and what's the value of life?
G: You mentioned how the methodology interacts with the issue. Taking, for example, that the actors didn't know about the primary revelation and then had to respond—at least in the initial rehearsal—to that, that guided where the rest of the film, I imagine, went to some degree—in terms of the reactions of the family, say.
ML: Yes, normally, it's an invest—yes, that's always, I mean, that—that's—yes, precisely that: it's an organic investigation into how—into responses. Very interesting. I mean, look, it's a very complicated and complex and esoteric process, so, you know, I mean, you—stuff happens in the improvisations and the investigation which is completely organic and dishes up, serves up, some necessary things, but also my job as a—with my dramatist's hat on—is to draw out things that need to be said implicitly, as well. I mean, the good news is that this isn't a film—this isn't a sort of—emotional responses and dramatic situations that I've had to sort of massage excessively to kind of artificially extrapolate a coherent and meaningful story. It's, you know, it's very organic, and it's all there. It's all very natural, really.
G: Yeah, that comes through, I think. And you mentioned something else that I wanted to ask you about, which is do you ever find it difficult to perhaps let go of a preconception or an initial direction to follow where an actor is taking you?
ML: Again, that's a very interesting and complex question. Because I—there would be no point in working the way I do if all I was going to do was have—preconceptions, and was oblivious to—incapable of responding to things. That would be simply preposterous. And if I was to do that, then I—the best advice to me would be to fuck off and write a script and know what it's about so I don't waste everybody's time. It is in the nature of artwork: it is all about input, putting in input, and then learning from—and being open-minded to—what comes from it. And in fact all that is, essentially, is how any artist properly interacts with his or her material, whether you're painting or writing or whatever you're doing. That's in the nature of creative—Art is a synthesis of improvisation and order—Having said that, at the same time, what's at the other extreme, what is never the case and counter the case is that I simply, you know—things happen and I sort of gather them together and organize them—that wouldn't make for a dramatically coherent and meaningful or, indeed, personal work deeply personal work, which I think is deeply personal, obviously. So it's a combination of that , but I do have what—as you put it, fixed ideas or preconceptions, if you want to call them: ideas, or objections, or things that need to happen. And those—the job is to allow those to grow, to change, and to be informed by what happens, but at the same time, sometimes you abandon them if it needs to move in a better, more interesting, more relevant direction, because you discover—I mean, you do just in the way you write. I mean, you discover what you're actually trying to say when you start off or write on the page. And sometimes it's a—I have to work hard to work through and bring off, put into action, manifestly, something that I absolutely, definitely think it should be. And it's a combination of all those things. Apart from anything else, it's filmmaking. And in some ways, what I just described applies to all filmmaking by the very nature of the process, and the collaborative nature of the process.
G: I wanted to ask you about your research for the film. I would assume that there would be some real-life equivalents to the character of Vera, that you studied.
ML: Yes, there are—actually, it's not that easy, as a matter of fact, to do that. But we did. Mostly indirectly, as opposed to directly talking to the—but we came at it from every angle, you could say. I mean, we also talked to old gynecologists, and there are people who have done research into the whole thing. We—there's quite a lot of footage of people, related stuff that we looked up. And we researched a lot of cases, and Imelda—she'll tell you—read a lot of letters from people in prison and stuff, which are available. We researched it very thoroughly. The one thing we didn't do very much was talk to the actual women who'd been through that—I mean, not the women who've had abortions, but then one knows lots of people who had abortions.
G: Judgment is a prominent theme in the last act of the film. Did you see legal judgment as a metaphor for moral judgment about abortion?
ML: Well, um, I'm not sure how reductionist a question that is. (Both laugh.) I mean, you know, legal judgment, I—. Look, the fact that I deliberately repeat, every time I could get it in, that she was being judged under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which is, you know, barbaric, really—you know, this is society's judgment. But some version of what you're talking about is society. And obviously the legal machine of society manifested by both the police and the two flanges of the law—the magistrate's court and the higher court—society in its un-Solomon-like wisdom, really. But that's the, you know, one confronts—you set this up and the audience has to decide what they feel about it.
G: What makes an actor particularly suitable or unsuitable for a Mike Leigh film?
ML: It only works with intelligent actors, and there are plenty of stupid ones out there, let's face it.
ML: It only works with character actors, which is to say people that actually are not only good at but enjoy and see it as important that they play—not to play themselves in a narcissistic manner, but they do—they get a buzz out of, I feel, a commitment to doing people out there in the street. And that is the whole thing they turn right. And that also means that actors who have the ability to conform to this kind of work, to absolutely get into character and be that character but are equally incapable of coming out of character and being completely objective so that they are able to work with the material , and that can be useful. It plainly only works if people have got a sense of humor. I've only worked with people that have the ability to work collaboratively with everybody, not least each other. I mean, there are certain kinds of people who sort of qualify on most of the other counts but are deeply ungenerous, selfish, and mean-minded. I don't want to know about that—they can go be in another movie.
G: And this relationship between you and Imelda on the film must have been one of the more intense ones, given the prominence of her role, maybe akin to working with David Thewlis on Naked, perhaps. What was that working relationship like on this film?
ML: Very good. I mean, look, I've known Imelda a bit. Not really well: we've known each other for about an hour. I've always had no doubt that she was somebody I would get round to sooner or later, you know. I mean, she's terribly good. Also, she brings to it—she brought to it, I should say—well, she brings to her work not only very good acting and all the qualities I've just talked about, not least the ability to—the very natural ability to—be a company person—but she brings great humanity to it, great warmth. And also, the other thing about her, which is immensely important to this character—always important for any actor, but especially in this case, if you think about it—is she tends not a grain of sentimentality. She absolutely—she's like, you know, for what it is, you know? And if you can imagine the sentimental version of—just mawkish and awful, really. And obviously, I wouldn't allow it, but I never had to work against that with her, 'cause she—and so we were very much on a wavelength. But she, you know, to be honest, even if you talk about—you're interested in how to make a proper assumption about an in-depth relationship, particularly with a person doing the main character, and it's sort of only true in a constitutive way—actually, I have the same kind of relationship with every actor in the film—but just comparing her—you know, it's dangerous to do so—but even to compare her with some of the other people that have played, famously played, in some of my films, I mean, she's the least trouble of any of them, basically to work with. I mean, really, terribly easy to kind of get that, really, with no messing about at all.