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The Case for Mike Leigh

There are those who would say the English filmmaker is the best director in the world. There are those who would say 'poppycock.' Most of the latter reside in his own country.

September 22, 1996|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Squeezed into a surprisingly small number of blocks, London's Soho district resembles a miniature city, a tiny metropolis with appetites both intense and specific.

Food is one, as a lifetime's worth of restaurants line the short streets. Sex is another, with strip clubs and licensed shops promising "an astonishing collection of adult publications including Amazons in Action" serving as a reminder of the area's red-light district past. And film is a third.

Twentieth Century Fox and the William Morris Agency decorously share a squat brick building on one Soho corner ("Prepare for Impact!" says a noticeably British window poster for "Independence Day"), and numerous film company offices and post-production facilities such as De Lane Lea Sound Center are dotted throughout the area.

Slumping comfortably (a usual position) in a chair at an upstairs dubbing stage at De Lane Lea is a director putting the final touches on the soundtrack to a forthcoming film, still unfussily named "Untitled '96." "We're into the realms of higher Zen refinement now," he says with typical easy wit as he shares a laugh with his editor about an item in a London paper: Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," a reviewer said when the book came out in 1847, "will never appeal to general readers."

The director is 53-year-old Mike Leigh, considered by many critics the preeminent filmmaker in the English-speaking world. He's a man who works in a way completely and totally his own, going well below the surface to create an unmatched level of emotional intensity and, in the process, stretching the boundaries of psychological truth on film as far as they will go.

Leigh's ability to work with actors and create characters of unequaled complexity is marveled at not only by critics but by the performers as well, even veterans of stage, television and film like Brenda Blethyn. "If I see myself on screen in a conventional scripted piece like 'A River Runs Through It' [she played Brad Pitt's mother], I'm more analytical, wondering 'why am I looking like that, why did I make that choice?' But when I'm watching myself in one of Mike's films, I don't ever do that. I feel like I'm looking at a completely different person."

Even more remarkable than Leigh's impressive results is the unconventional and unlikely way these projects come into being. His way of working is so at variance with how Hollywood operates that despite the considerable interest he arouses in the industry, it's impossible to imagine Mike Leigh on a studio sound stage.

"I absolutely love his movies--it's mesmerizing filmmaking," says Laura Ziskin, who produced "To Die For" and numerous other Hollywood films before becoming president of Fox 2000, 20th Century Fox's newest film unit. "Though they aren't the kind of movies I can feed my machine, there's a kind of life there that keeps all of us on our toes and, hopefully, affects our work."

While conventional movies begin with the written word, Leigh doesn't put anything on paper until the film is shot and edited, and only then if a script is needed for book publication. Hollywood considers nothing more critical than matching actors to specific characters, but Leigh hires performers without knowing what their characters will be like. As for titles, "Untitled '96" indicates they come last of all.

"The thing about my job," says Simon Channing-Williams, Leigh's producer and partner in Thin Man Films Ltd., "is that I have to go to financiers and say, 'I'd like you to give us a very large amount of money, but I can tell you nothing about the project, not even who's in it.' It's a terrible leap of faith for them, and however much you explain how Mike works, they always say at some point, 'But there must be a script; you have to have a script.' They think what we've been saying is a game we perpetuate to create some sort of mystique." The producer allows himself a weary shake of the head at the foolishness of it all.

Leigh has made 14 feature-length films with his unique working methods over the past 25 years, and they've not gone unrecognized. "Life Is Sweet," for instance, was named best picture of 1991 by this country's National Society of Film Critics, and 1993's "Naked" won the best director prize for Leigh and the best actor prize for David Thewlis at Cannes. Leigh's last three features have earned back their production costs (between $1 and $2 million) in the United States alone, doing better at the box office than the similarly budgeted British films of director Ken Loach.

The director was awarded an O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993 ("Terribly difficult at the moment, isn't it?" she commented about his profession) and producer Channing-Williams echoes what most objective observers agree on: "If he's not a genius, he's something bloody close to it." Yet despite all this, Leigh is still largely unknown by the average moviegoer in this country, a situation that is about to change in a big way.

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