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After getting his start in experimental theater, Mike Leigh emerged onto the filmmaking scene with 1971's Bleak Moments, the first of many exquisitely detailed dramas about working-class British life. As the years have passed, he's refined a unique process for developing scripts that involves employing his actors to create their characters by giving them histories and rigorously improvising their dialogue. Leigh gained wider international attention in the late '80s and early '90s with comedy-dramas like High Hopes and Life Is Sweet, and since then, he's broadened his résumé with such diverse and beautifully acted projects as the darkly existential Naked, the Palme D'or-winning Secrets & Lies, the lively Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy Turvy, and his last film, Vera Drake, a devastating portrait of a back-alley abortionist in '50s Britain.
Leigh shifts gears again with his latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky, the surprisingly colorful and deceptively lighthearted tale of an indomitable optimist in a pessimistic world. Sally Hawkins stars as "Poppy," a sprightly primary-school teacher whose lust for life seems crazy at first, before Leigh suggests it might be the rest of the world that's nuts. Poppy's worldview meets its sour counterpart in Scott (Eddie Marsan), a quick-tempered driving instructor whose misanthropy is just as forceful. Leigh recently spoke to The A.V. Club about turning his audiences into flies on walls, plus how people who want to strangle his latest heroine have it all wrong.
The A.V. Club: Of all your films, Happy-Go-Lucky seems like the flip-side of Naked, in that both lead characters have very strong personalities that have a way of infecting the world around them. Is that a fair comparison?
Mike Leigh: Sure, why not? That's a fairly legitimate comparison. I think the most interesting comparison between Poppy and [Naked's] Johnny is what they have in common. Each is, first and foremost, an idealist, and their ideals are actually not too dissimilar. They each would eschew materialism and believe in real, proper values. The difference, obviously, is that Johnny is frustrated and embittered and disappointed with the world, and Poppy's not prepared to go that way. Poppy wants to be proactive and positive and confront things and deal with it.
AVC: Happy-Go-Lucky also suggests that happiness is as much a matter of perspective as it is things going your way. It's likely that someone else with Poppy's life would pretty miserable with it.
ML: I don't agree with that. It's an unhealthy habit to say that life is what you make of it, and if you want to be happy, then you can be happy. That's just rubbish, basically. Life is about luck and it's about circumstances and socioeconomic conditions and all the rest of it, but you know, you can also make choices. It's about spirit and generosity and all the other things, too. This film is about somebody who is open and has a capacity not to be judgmental and to empathize and to love. If you want to compare characters in my films, Vera Drake herself is not too dissimilar, either. There are other characters, too. In Naked, Johnny's girlfriend Louise actually is quite a positive, plain-speaking kind of woman. So the question is, if something terrible happened to Poppy, would it get her down? Well, you probably know people, and I certainly know people, who could be in a terrible accident and be left completely paralyzed, yet they have this indomitable spirit. I think Poppy would cope as best she could in such circumstances. The fact that these things don't happen to her… well, my film is not about that! If you made a film about [a horrible accident] happening to Poppy, you'd have taken the baby out with the bathwater, because you know people would weep and say, "How moving this is. For all that's happened to her, she's got this great spirit." But that's obvious, and we all know that. What's more important to me is someone who deals with life as it naturally comes.
AVC: What was your strategy in introducing this character to the audience? Did you want viewers to misperceive her at first, then perhaps have a different feeling for her later?
ML: I try and create for the audience something that relates to real-life experience. When you're meeting somebody for the first time, all you have to go on are your preconceptions and your stereotypes and whatever else, but gradually as you get to know them, they change. They become more three-dimensional, and you start to see them in layers. That is what happens to the viewer in discovering Poppy. You see her on the bus and you understand straightaway that you have someone who is open and free-spirited and friendly. You see her waving and smiling at people she plainly doesn't know. Then you see her very legitimately making straightforward contact with a guy in a bookshop who is extremely grumpy and surly, so she kind of deals with that in a humorous way. Then you see her being completely philosophical in a bicycle store and then you see her clubby with the girls being decidedly silly and a bit naughty and kind of cheeky and sexy and all that stuff. Maybe then you can be forgiven for wondering, "Do I want to spend the whole next two hours with this person?" But in no time you discover what she's all about and what she does and what her attitudes about life are and her commitment and all the rest of it. So yes, there is a strategy there.
AVC: Once you discover that she's a primary-school teacher, things shift a little.
ML: Yeah, you get the hang of her. Still, there are people who have said about the film, "By the end, I wanted to kill her. I wanted to throttle her. She really irritated me." I feel that's the saddest and most disappointing thing, really. In the end, I don't get it how you can, really. How can you do anything much other than fall in love with her? I don't honestly know. I don't get it.
AVC: It would be a mistake to confuse her happiness for naïveté.
ML: Yeah. People have said that. There was a review that came out I think yesterday that said that Poppy has never grown up. I think that is plain stupid, basically. Really, it is. I mean, some people have compared her with Amélie and also others with Holly Golightly [in Breakfast At Tiffany's], which again—ludicrous. Amélie by definition is a film with some charm, but not much interest in any serious way. It's a soufflé concoction of a girl who by definition is absolutely naïve. And I don't see how you could even discuss Holly Golightly. The only thing the three of them have got in common is that they're all brunettes.
I mean, [Poppy's] not naïve. She's a sophisticated, contemporary, intelligent, committed professional person who's got this great sense of humor and sense of balance and a healthy streak of anarchy, if you will, and the ability to be cheeky and naughty, but that doesn't make her naïve. And apart from anything else, there are clues all throughout the film that tell you she's been around the block. At one point, when she hears that her hair person's daughter has been abandoned by the teenager's boyfriend, she says, "Why do men do that? Christmas. Valentine's Day. Off they go." You know she's had experience there. She's been to and taught in Thailand, you gather. At another point, she talks about how angry she gets at the way kids just sit in front of the screen all of the time.
AVC: After a couple of driving lessons, it becomes clear to us and also to Poppy that Scott is a very unstable, very angry character. What is it in her personality that compels her to stay with him?
ML: She gives him the benefit of the doubt. She's generous. At one point he says to her, "You can always get another instructor," and she says, "Oh, I know. Let's see how it goes." She gives the guy the benefit of the doubt. I mean, some people can't go with it. Some people find something perverse about it. He has got this utterly ludicrous, as he reveals in the end, completely self-absorbed and egocentric and isolated notion that she never even wanted to learn driving. Like she only [wanted to go] in order to rein him in, which is preposterous. She didn't even know it was going to be him. I think she's just giving him the benefit of the doubt, and with all due respect, after five driving lessons, when the shit does hit the fan, she says, "I'm sorry. That's it. I'm afraid it's over."
AVC: It also seems like she feels she can change him. That through sheer force of personality, she can kind of get him to bend to her will.
ML: Yeah. She does that thing that we all do, or certainly those of us who have highly developed senses of humor, when confronted by someone who plainly has none at all. She gives him a rub. She makes light of things and hopes that he'll sort of get it and melt, but in fact he's a lost cause, really.
AVC: How did you conceive this character? What did you start with, and what did Sally Hawkins bring to the table?
ML: Well, that's not so easy to talk about, with all due respect to you or to anybody else who's reading. Suffice it to say that what I do is to collaborate with each actor and work one-on-one to create a character. And that is a matter of huge complexity and is a combination of a great deal of discussion and a lot of practical work. It involves a lot of consideration for the real people out there, and all kinds of sources of real people. The result is the character. But I'm not supposed to talk about what it is we do, because it's nobody's business. But you wanted to know what she brought to it?
AVC: Yes. Was it conceived with her in mind?
ML: No, no, because it doesn't work like that. It's not like I conceive a character and then I get Sally Hawkins. I decide to work with Sally Hawkins. I don't know what the character is going to be. We sit down and we create a character, and all of the characters in all of my films are made like that. I already had Sally and her sister's world well on the go by the time Eddie Marsan, who plays Scott, joined in. And there are all kinds of options open to me as to which directions I should go in, and my instinct took me in the direction it did. Because the fact is that I discover what my film is by embarking on the journey of making it.
AVC: So then the narrative architecture of the film comes after the characters?
ML: Yes, although my making a choice to juxtapose this character with that character is bound up with the conception of the film in my head, which is anticipating the architecture of the film. Finally, I crystallize that with a very rudimentary structure, which takes me into what really matters, which is when we shoot the movie. Then I go out there and make it up as we go along. But the process which I am talking about is totally familiar to you, because you write articles and you have a conception and you go through the same process. I mean, you don't exactly know in detail what this article is going to be like until you sit down and write it, basically.
AVC: Does the context of the times have an impact on a film like Happy-Go-Lucky?
ML: Totally. I drop the anchor usually where we are. The anchor was dropped here in the first half of 1997. Where in the film is any discussion of contemporary issues? As a general habit and general tendency, I prefer not to bog a piece down with a great number of transitory, contemporary references, because in the end, I'm concerned, not in an abstract way, but an actual way, with creating a world which has a universality to it—even though what goes on is made up of texture and detail, contemporary detail. But [Happy-Go-Lucky] is a film about education, and teaching and learning. It's a film embodied in the relationship between Poppy and Scott. It's an implicit representation of liberal and healthy, left-wing views of life and deeply unhealthy, conservative racism, fascism—apart from some specific things.
AVC: In a lot of films dealing with the lives of the underclass, there is kind of common visual code—gritty, hand-held, documentary-like. But your films, for lack of a better term, are more classically shot. How would you describe your approach to style?
ML: Well, that's a good question, and I agree with your description of classicism. First of all, so central and fundamental is the visualization and stylistic considerations of my work apart from anything else. I can't ever develop or structure or write a scene or a sequence without being in a location and actually working out the art of seeing it. It's integral. There's always a very strong, carefully evolved set of visual decisions as to the style and palette particularly, and the mood and the spirit of the film, which is a matter of a collaboration between myself and my cinematographer, who for many years has been Dick Pope.
In my earliest work, and all the way back to Bleak Moments, I was very, very strict about motivated camera. Still am. I think the camera has got to be motivated. You can't have things arrived at gratuitously. Everything has to have an organic function, but the more comfortable I've become and the more imaginative and sophisticated and the more exploratory I've become at the medium, the more I've subtly deviated away from that in various ways. If you look at the very first shot of Naked, when Johnny is fucking this woman down at the other end of an alleyway… I said to Dick Pope, who also always operates, as well as lights, the film, "You know, I think you should put the camera on your shoulder and you should run as fast as you can." He says, "That's crazy. I can't. I won't see anything." Well, I said, "That's the thing. I reckon you won't quite know what you're seeing. You'll see glimpses of it and you'll arrive at it and we're into it." And then we tried it, and it worked.
When we were shooting Vera Drake, there's a scene where Reg, the guy next door—also played by Eddie Marsan, who plays Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky—proposes to the daughter on the sofa. I said, "Well, we got them on the sofa and there they are." And Dick says, "Well, I think that we should track them across the room, right around them slowly." Now years ago, I would have said that sounds ridiculous, this unmotivated camera. But the important point to this is being sure that the camera is really serving the action, which it did in that situation.
Because of the way that I work with the actors and because a scene is not in this rigid and literal interpretation of something written, I can constantly change stuff, which means I can get a scene absolutely perfect, and then when we go to shoot it, the requirements of the shot mean it would be useful to extend the dialogue or take a line out or swap things around. So the camera doesn't serve the action. The action serves the camera. That's important. So it becomes more and more organic and integrated. Be a fly on the wall on the set when Dick Pope and I are working on how to shoot a scene. We do it very much by looking at it: Is this a shot of a man in a room, or is this a shot of a room with a man in it? Because that's two different things. Are you saying something about the roominess of the room? Or are you saying something about the men in it? Those kinds of sophisticated, refined ways of arriving at things are important. Also, if I'm ever working on a set and anyone talks about a master shot, I say there is no master shot. Before I even went to film school, I learned about movies by being in a British feature film, where everything was shot master shot, mid-shot, close-up. But I reject the idea of a master shot. You don't shoot everything mechanically; you find imaginative ways that serve the action. And when you get to a famous scene, like the scene in Secrets & Lies where the two women are in the café and it's a static camera for eight and a half minutes. Or one way you see Gilbert and Sullivan on a sofa eating lump sugar. It works and we make it work and there's a reason for it. There's a scene in Secrets & Lies at the barbecue. It's a static shot that takes quite a long time with a lot going on in it. Tension's building up, because no one knows why this black woman is there, and they're lying about it. You the audience are doing work and it's all going on, because I know we're about to go indoors and there's going to be a lot of cutting to reactions of things and so the rhythm, the tension between the style of this static shot and the contrapuntal method of shots in the next thing are all part of the patent and the architecture of the film. So a little bit of a million considerations of this kind. But it's all about how to see and how to tell a story about all that stuff.
AVC: In your films, there's rarely an awareness on the audience's part of what the camera is doing.
ML: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's absolutely as it should be. I did sit in cinemas as a kid looking at English and American movies thinking, "Wouldn't it be great if the characters were like real people?" And the worst thing is films are constantly advertising themselves, drawing attention to their style of things. But actually I make films that I think are extremely sophisticated and cinematic. But you don't want the audience thinking about the bloody film. You want them to think about what's going on, and believe in it. Be flies on the wall, you know?