When you think of writer and director Mike Leigh, you think of improvisational, character-driven dramas — the disenchanted ex-hippies of High Hopes, the feral drifter of Naked, the reunited mother and daughter of Secrets & Lies. In the late ’90s, he made the opulent Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, but followed it up with the Sally Hawkins–fronted Happy-Go-Lucky and melancholic Another Year, suggesting that a bigger scale wasn’t in his cards.
And then 2014 brought Mr. Turner, a warts-and-all tribute to the 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner that earned four Oscar nominations. Now Leigh and his collaborators have returned with Peterloo, a stunning re-creation of the turbulent politics of the Regency era, climaxing with the titular massacre in which British cavalry charged a crowd of Manchester protesters. “I went in expecting to be pleasantly enlightened by a chapter of British history they don’t bother with in American high school,” my colleague Emily Yoshida wrote after the film’s Venice premiere. “I left ready to light my torch and eat the rich.” Peterloo is a staggering three-hour epic, balancing quotidian scenes of daily life in 19th-century England and lengthy re-creations of the political oratory of the time, and it’s one of the best things Leigh has ever made.
Shortly after Peterloo played in Venice, Leigh flew into Toronto for the film’s premiere at TIFF, where the director spoke to Vulture about how much he disagreed with the thrust of the preceding paragraphs. On the eve of the film’s American release, we hope you will enjoy this conversation more than he did.
As an American, the Peterloo Massacre was not something I learned about in school. Having grown up in Manchester, were you familiar with it?
No. That’s the fascinating thing about it. A lot of us that grew up in the area knew nothing about it at all. It really is strange because it happened 15 minutes, on the bus, from where I grew up. I’m very familiar with those streets. And it’s not that long ago. It happened less than 100 years before my folks were born.
I’m a big fan of Mr. Turner as well. I know you made Topsy-Turvy, but generally your previous work was smaller, more domestic films. I’m curious what made you turn to these bigger period pieces.
I don’t really know the answer to that except that I think (A) you don’t want to go on doing the same thing over and over again. (B) If I tried to make something on the scale of any of those films you mentioned in earlier years, I think I’d have been told to fuck off by the people with money! But you could equally ask me why, before I made Naked, all my films were apparently — although it’s arguable — cozier and more domestic. I don’t think it’s true; I think it’s bullshit.
What appeals to you about the early 19th-century milieu?
Well, I don’t think about it as a milieu any more than I think of it as a genre. The world of Gilbert and Sullivan and the 19th-century theater has always fascinated me. And the paintings of Turner have been top of my agenda since I was at art school. And the notion of making a film about the Peterloo Massacre occurred to me some years ago. It’s interesting. Everything is interesting.
You mentioned that you couldn’t have gotten the money to make a movie like this before.
I couldn’t have made a film like Topsy-Turvy in the ’70s. You have to have a bit of a track record for people to think it’s feasible, let alone sane.
So fundraising has gotten a little bit easier?
It’s never easy. At this moment in this town, my producers are talking to potential backers for the second or third time, and God knows whether they’re going to give us the money for the next one, so I don’t know really. It’s not easy.
Is it different doing it for a movie of this scale?
Yes — because you want more money!
I suppose my question is, does your pitch change?
It happens to be an interesting question for a reason that’s slightly separate from what you’re asking.
That’s totally fine.
With most of my films, and the exceptions are the three films you’re talking about, we’ve said to backers, “Give us the money, we’re going to make a film, we can’t tell you what it’s about, we can’t tell you who’s in it or anything. We’re just going to make the film and you’ll see what you get.” For those three films, because we knew we wanted much bigger budgets, we said, “This is going to be a film about Gilbert and Sullivan.” “This is going to be a film about Turner.” “This is going to be a film about the Peterloo Massacre,” without saying anything more than that. And certainly no compromise about casting. Brad Pitt’s a good actor, but …
Maybe not him for George IV.
I don’t think so! And I have to say, incidentally, Amazon Studios have been immaculate the way they’ve behaved. No interference, no prerequisites, nothing but support right throughout the whole process.
That’s pretty lucky.
I’m amazed by how lucky I’ve been. I’ve made 21 films and nobody’s interfered with any of them. Right down the line, the minute any potential backer has started with, “Well, we have to insist on a name,” walk away. Just walk away and forget it.
You traditionally use heavy rehearsals and a fair amount of improvisation. Is that still the case on a film like this one?
Yes and no. Quite a lot of the action in this film comes out of history books, stuff that actually happened. But in principle, we still do a lot of exploration.
Was there anything notable that came out of that process for this film?
Yeah, it’s a film called Peterloo! [Laughs.] I can’t really answer that question because it’s there to serve the end product. It’s a way of preparing so that you can go on location and build it scene by scene. I suppose in all of these films it will be true to say that very unpredictable things happen and so on, but that’s in the nature of it, you know?
One of the things that struck me about both Mr. Turner and this film is that you show this casual kindness between the characters. There seems to be a sense of fellowship between people that you don’t often see in period pieces.
With most period films, (A) there’s very often been little to no research into how people really were or lived or talked or behave. (B) The preoccupations of the filmmakers are exclusively external. It’s about the look of it, about the locations, about the costumes. They’re not actually about what’s going on between people, so people lose sight of the fact that actually these are people just like you and me. Because what we do is ground the characters and bring them to life and make sure that they are real and specific and idiosyncratic in the way that we all are; it gives it a kind of interior quality.
Here’s the thing: We don’t ever question documentary film. If you make a documentary, you point the camera at the event. The event exists whether you point the camera at it or not. It existed long before you showed up with a camera, it will carry on existing if you drop dead, and it would have existed if you had never filmed it at all — because it exists! And what happens with many a feature film is that what you’re pointing the camera at is fake. It’s bullshit. It’s superficial. It hasn’t got the kind of inevitable internal, integral, organic existence that a real event has. And what I aspire to do is make a film have that sense of reality about it, so therefore what you’re looking at, you start to believe in.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about the psychological state of people in the early 19th century?
There are all sorts of different aspects of the sections of society in the film, but let’s look at the working class in the industrial-revolution period, which is obviously central to the whole thing. There’s no education, 2 percent of the population had the vote. Now just think about the fact that there’s no education. What you see in the film are these working-class lads not only making eloquent speeches but quoting the classics. How come they could do that when they had no education? Because a lot of them went out of the way to learn to read, and a lot of them learned to read in the Sunday schools once a week run by the churches. For me, what’s interesting, and in a way depressing, is that in the 21st century, everybody’s got the vote in England, and there’s state education. But not everybody votes. It’s not compulsory. It should be, I think. And people don’t take advantage of their education, whereas their forebears were hungry for it.
Now you start to think about those things, and then you start to think about the Corn Laws and the price of bread and butter and eggs and all that. You start to understand how people lived! We take for granted that we all go around flushing toilets and have hot water and electricity and all that stuff. They had none of that. And then with our very limited resources, we kind of imply what the factories were like, but they were actually vast and you couldn’t hear a thing, and there were small children running around. Unless you’re actually thick, or you really don’t care, you soon get into understanding the mind-set. When you really get it into your bloodstream, you’re on it, really.
One of the things I loved is how unlikable you make Henry Hunt. He’s a bit of a diva.
That comes straight out of the research. He was a great public speaker, he fought for the cause, but he was nothing if not an egoist, an egocentric on the grand scale. And arrogant. His disdain was legendary. All you need to do with a very good actor, and Rory Kinnear obviously is, is breathe life into it.
A more conventional period piece might have made him the hero.
Absolutely. But what is a film about him if you don’t have all these others? People have said, “How did you decide what to show?” The fact is, unless you actually showed everything I showed, you wouldn’t really be equipped to understand what was happening when it comes to the climax.
The climax is a gigantic protest scene that ends with a cavalry troop massacring civilians. It was the biggest thing you’ve ever shot. What was the hardest part?
I don’t know the answer to that. It was very well-organized and we prepared it a lot. I have a brilliant assistant director. We made various philosophical, artistic decisions. There were no aerial shots, nothing that just sort of generalizes. You’re experiencing it on the ground, in an individual way. It was shot with three cameras, so there were three crews, and a brilliant stunt coordinator who also owned the horses. But you know what? Yes, I’ve made lots of films about trios of people arguing with each other in suburban back gardens, but in the end it’s the same thing. There’s just a lot more people and a lot of other things going on! People say, “Oh, I don’t know how he did that.” But with a good team …
Earlier you seemed to bristle at the notion that Mr. Turner and Peterloo are radically different from your other films.
If it’s different, the levels at which it’s different are obvious. It’s obviously bigger in scale, it’s obviously the only film I’ve made that doesn’t have a single protagonist, and it’s obviously more overtly political than any of my other films because that’s what its subject matter is. But in terms of looking at life, in that sense I regard it as being another one of those films that I’ve made.