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Mike Leigh on Another Year, and Why His Films Are About More Than Words and Actors

It’s strange to say that a critically beloved, six-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker is underrated. But after thirteen features and nearly 40 years behind the camera, we’ve yet to appreciate Mike Leigh in full. A few of his films, such as Best Picture nominee Secrets and Lies and 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky, nudged their way before a broader audience, yet this loyal chronicler of the common man remains largely relegated to the art house. And while much has been written about his creative process, which involves prolonged improvisatory sessions with his actors, such attention tends to overshadow his complete artistry. Which is not lost on the notoriously prickly Leigh, a walrus-stached Englishman who suffers no fools. Alas, Vulture found him to be a thoroughly agreeable chap. We met up in New York to talk about Another Year, which chronicles a year in the life of a group of Londoners.

The film is structured around the four seasons, and within that structure are significant tonal shifts, from joy to comedy, from wistful to mourning. And those shifts are even reflected in your visual choices. You don’t get enough credit for what you accomplish visually.
I more than agree with that. I agree with it more than you do, as it were. The accent is on the acting and all the rest of it, but it is a very cinematic film. It’s not for me to say, but I am a very cinematic filmmaker. People say, “Oh, well, it’s just talking heads.” Well on that basis, paintings by Vermeer are just standing women. It’s ridiculous.

The visual scheme matches the tone and meaning for each section.
There’s always a stage, as soon as I’ve got some conceptual, spiritual sense of the film I’m going to make — after I’ve spent months building up the world of the thing with the actors — when I share it with the cinematographer. I’ve worked with the same cinematographer, Dick Pope, for twenty years. When we were doing Naked, I was able to say it’s about this guy who’s on a solo journey, it’s bleak, it’s nocturnal. We shot tests and we arrived at this monochromatic dark palate, with no reds. Then for Happy-Go-Lucky, I was able to describe Poppy, and talk about her energy, her positivism, and I said there should be bright colors, it should be bold, it should be clear. But Another Year was, and is, elusive to talk about generally. Because it was less obvious, Dick said he’d shoot a number of different looks in different stocks, as a test. Then I sat down one morning to look at these tests and I thought, I know what this is. When the lights came up they said, “Okay, which way are we going to go?” And I said, “We’re going in all four directions.” Having made the discovery and therefore the decision to tell the story in four seasons — to combine dramatic, cinematic, and narrative decisions — that then liberated me and informed the spirit of each act.

It’s interesting how writing decisions were arrived at through considerations of the visuals.
What’s interesting is that the word “writing” comes into your language. Of course, I write the film and I’m the dramatist. But no aspect of what I’ve just described is about sitting at a word processor. It’s about organically dealing with it. That’s the kind of filmmaking this is.

Lesley Manville’s performance in Another Year has received a fair amount of awards talk, much as Sally Hawkins’s did for Happy-Go-Lucky. Do you take any pride in the fact that your films are largely talked about in terms of acting?
No. Because in the end, I want them talked about in terms of what they’re about, and in terms of the whole cinematic experience. Everybody knows my films come out of improvisation. But what I don’t necessarily get credit for — although I’ve been nominated for Best Screenplay on a number of occasions — is that the quality of the writing is very, very important. Although we do arrive at the dialogue through rehearsal, the literary considerations are very precise and very personal and you can see my own imprimatur on any chunk of dialogue you might pull out of the film. But in the end, it’s the punter that matters most. The punter experiences not visuals or acting or directing or score or editing. The punter experiences people and predicaments that they can absolutely relate to and care about. And that’s what matters to me. Obviously.

Have you developed a shorthand with actors like Lesley Manville and Jim Broadbent?
There are no shortcuts. You can’t say well, we’ve done it before, let’s just get to the end. Because you’ve got to arrive at it organically and systematically. For me, the journey of making the films is the discovery as to what the film is. So you can’t make shortcuts because it would collapse like a pack of cards.

I’ve been haunted by Lesley’s character, Mary, who’s a single, at times desperate older woman. At one point Gerri, who’s a therapist, tells her, “You need some help.” But is there any real help, short of anti-depressants, for loneliness?
It’s a very, very difficult question. It’s a question with no answer. You would want there to be help. But actually what she needs, which is what we all need, is love and affection. Care. Nurturing. And what the film is about is the moral dilemma of how to give it, and in terms of the giver, where do you draw the line? What do you do when you really have to shut the door, when someone oversteps the mark? Which is what Mary undoubtedly does.

All things considered, you must be talking a lot about mortality these days.
I’m 67. It is unlikely I’ll survive as long as it’s been since I made my first film [Bleak Moments, 1971]. So yes, notions of mortality lurk in this film. Of course there’s a death that happens. But also you’re looking at people, Tom and Gerrie on the one hand, who can look with comfort and optimism to the back end of their lives — they can anticipate being fulfilled, enjoying their retirement, their grandchildren. But on the other you’re looking at the likes of Mary and Ken, and Tom’s brother Ronnie, who are looking into a great yawning black hole of the future. It’s frightening. So somewhere in all that we’re talking about mortality, we’re talking about the years coming and going, the four seasons — another year.

There’s a sense for the characters, and perhaps for you as well, of the seasons hastening.
Oh yes. That is what happens. That statement of fact is what happens. Full stop. How old are you?

I’m 36.
There you go. It’s already started happening for you.

I’m already going to the bathroom way too often.
I know about that. Stick around, it gets worse.

Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images