LONDON — MIKE LEIGH'S reputation for a unique creative process and for fiercely resisting compromise comes at some cost to the director. In making a film, Leigh begins with an idea, naturally enough, but then he hires the actors and improvises with them for several months before shooting -- a style he has used from his earliest efforts in 1971 to his most recent film, "Happy-Go-Lucky," which opens Friday.
Leigh can work no other way, he says. "Part of what makes [a film] work is the fact that I have collaborated with each character and the whole thing is grown organically and arrives in a complete way," he says. "And that is more than a technicality; it is integral to the whole thing."
But it is also so exclusionary of Hollywood filmmaking practices that Leigh finds himself in his later years lamenting its price.
"My tragedy as a filmmaker now," he says, "is that there is a very limited ceiling on the amount of money anyone will give me to make a film. Because they don't know what it's going to be about and because I won't use stars and because there isn't a script. And I really passionately want to have the resources to paint on a much bigger canvas. It's a shame and I won't be around forever, I'm 65, so . . ." he says, trailing off.
Yet even with that disappointment haunting his thoughts, Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" has been praised as his most cheerful film to date, a critique that actually irks him. The title is a giveaway, as are the opening scenes that follow the main character of Poppy, a 30-year-old schoolteacher, played by Sally Hawkins, as she bikes around London spreading good cheer. The narrative thrust concerns the dynamic between Poppy and an angry driving instructor named Scott, played by Eddie Marsan.
When the film opened in England earlier this year, it was revered as a departure for Leigh. "That simply isn't true," he says, mildly exasperated at the perception of his films as he settles into an old armchair in his airy office on the third floor of a town house in London's Soho, on a midsummer afternoon. "Even if that were a serious discussion about the previous film ['All or Nothing'], that is certainly not accurate of 'Vera Drake.' "
What is certainly true is that "Happy-Go-Lucky" is very funny and, like his much-praised "Naked," is the rare Leigh film that is centered on the main character, as opposed to an ensemble.
For Hawkins, the director's style was key to bringing it all together. "What's so wonderful about working with Mike is that every thought and every root of a thought is created from birth, so you are always in character on a Mike Leigh film."
Marsan added that, "All the work is done six or seven months beforehand, so the characters are set in stone, but the development of the script is fluid. When you finish a Mike Leigh film, for about six months afterward, for every job you do you just feel like a bad actor."
The Leigh-actors dynamic
Leigh, WHO appears somewhat slight and frail, is used to such praise from his actors. He has an uncanny knack for discovering talent and over the course of his career has cast Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Ben Kingsley, Stephen Rea and Alfred Molina when all were unknown.
"I can outstrip them with mutual enthusiasm," Leigh says in response to his "Happy" actors' accolades. "They are both so brilliant and one of the joys of this film -- well, the look of it is extraordinary, we used this new stock that Fuji just came out with, and the music and the place -- but, of course, at the center of it all is the joy of working with brilliant actors. They are experienced at all sorts of acting so that you can push them and we all push each other to incredible levels. You can't do that with lesser actors."
Though that heightened give-and-take of improvisation and on-the-spot creation during preproduction has in the past led to a bit of discord. Thewlis, who has appeared in three Leigh films, said in an interview last year that actors such as himself, Oldman and Roth contribute enough of the dialogue during the pre-shooting months of improvisation that it rankles to see Leigh get sole writing credits. "It hurts a bit when you see the film and it says 'written by Mike Leigh' because that's not entirely true. That's not entirely the way I remember it in terms of who said what to whom. And Mike knows this and I've had it out with him," Thewlis said in the interview.
So, has the group process ever led Leigh to consider sharing a writing credit with any of his central actors?