Listening to the world

A conversation with Mike Leigh, director of "Naked," "Life is Sweet" and the new film, "Secrets and Lies."

Published September 16, 1996 6:23PM (EDT)

IKE LEIGH used to be one of a kind, famous for creating movies through an unusual process that involves extensive rehearsals and improvisations with his actors, a process that begins weeks before anyone picks up a camera. Through eight full-length television films (produced in his native Britain, where major directoral talents often work on the small screen), and a handful of internationally acclaimed features, including "Naked," "Life is Sweet" and his latest, "Secrets and Lies," he has depicted the often (superficially) uneventful lives of ordinary people. The results are always far from ordinary. Leigh's movies have a startling richness, the product of a ruthless eye working in concert with an expansive heart, an all-too-rare combination of biting satire and deep humanism. His forlorn, stubborn, deluded and occasionally radiant characters, each miraculously acted, could suspend the disbelief of the flintiest critic; these people are real, heartbreakingly so.

Leigh's artistic success has spawned some imitators, and he's not the only director trying to capture the texture of everyday life. Some well-intentioned filmmakers are even experimenting with his rehearsal techniques (c.f. Jim McKay's "Girls Town"). Apparently, it takes more than extended improvisations to conjure such a degree of verisimilitude, so much sure-footed charm. It turns out that Mike Leigh is still one of a kind. "Secrets and Lies," the story of a bemused young black woman who, seeking her birth mother, finds herself involved with a muddled, unhappy white family, manages to be bleak, hilarious, horrifying, surpassingly sweet, strangely inspiring, and quite probably the best movie of the year.

At Cannes, you won Best Director laurels for "Naked" in 1992, and now you've won the Palm D'Or for "Secrets and Lies." Does this increase in recognition surprise you?

On the one hand I've been making films -- proper professional films that people have seen in quite reasonable numbers -- for a very long time, so it seems quite natural that there is a possibility that that would get me somewhere. It confirms an old horticultural principle that if you water it long enough it might grow. On the other hand, everything is a surprise, I am the sort of person who inevitably assumes that it's other kinds of films or filmmakers or people who will get the prizes. A "not just ordinary people like us" type of thing. So it is and it isn't a surprise but it's very nice, that's for sure.

The main reason it's good news, apart from the fact that it gives my mother something to be pleased about at the age of 80, is that it's a film about ordinary people and deals with real things in an unsentimental, non- sensationalized way -- which is code for an un-Hollywood way. And for it to be honored by a group of one's peers is very good news for international cinema generally. And then of course Brenda Blethyn got the best actress award, a nice follow up to David Thewlis winning it for "Naked." These are the good things, and you feel that's just desserts, because I think we do manage to achieve a certain kind of acting in these films, and it's nice for people not to take that for granted.

It seems to me that more and more highly-touted young directors are working in a more cinematic, visceral, myth-focused, violent, overtly stylish manner, rather than what you call a "humanist" vein, especially in American independent cinema. How do you feel about that?

The only way to approach thinking about this is to look at where various kinds of cinema come from, what are the motivating forces and the prevailing conditions. The fact is that there is a great tradition, which exists in Europe and plenty of other places, not least Japan, of making films about real life, uncluttered and unfettered and uninterfered with by the kind of disease that you can -- broadly speaking -- diagnose as Hollywood.

This tradition goes back a very long way. It is entirely possible for a filmmaker to go out and listen to the world and sense the world and savor the world and experience the joy and pain of the world, and express it in a completely pure, honest, interesting and very cinematic way. There's no question. Ranging from Satyajit Ray's first film "Pather Panchali" -- which he made absolutely on a shoestring, with no film industry backing at all, and yet remains a classic -- to films that are made just as independently but within a film industry context.

In most countries, and even to some extent in Britain, the film industry has been a system that serves the needs of filmmakers in an organic way. But once you get a film industry that becomes more important than the organic needs of films that look at life, once it becomes a creature unto itself and grows out of all proportion to human scale, which is what Hollywood is, then it becomes impossible.

The fascinating thing for me about coming to the States and endlessly talking to filmmakers is that it appears that it's quite simply impossible for people to make independent films in this country. The films that are made in most parts of the world aren't "independent" films, they're just films, really. Here "independent" films means films made in spite of Hollywood. And some get made but it's tough.

All good cinema, and indeed all cinema in some shape or form, is concerned with style, is concerned with being cinematic, is concerned with form and content and all the rest of it. But because Hollywood is so dinosaur-like in its overweighted industrialization, that whole weight squeezes the humanity out of it all. People are left talking about style and being stylistic, formalistic and self-consciously cinematic, because that's what people have to hang onto. Instead of real integrity, real truthfulness, real getting out there and telling stories what's out there.

It's not as if you have to walk very far from a studio in LA to find real life going on. There are still people living lives. But the scale of it means that everything becomes a commodity, including style. We're all concerned with style. I make very stylistic films indeed, but style doesn't become a substitute for truth and reality. It's an integral, organic part of the whole thing.

Sometimes independent filmmakers try to make movies outside the Hollywood system and about "real life" and "real people," but so often their efforts fall flat. Frequently the impediment seems to be that they need to teach something or have a message.

On your general point, I agree with you. This is the debate about agenda-driven art or ideas. My films are full of ideas, lots of different ones -- things working on all kinds of different levels. For me, making a film is an exploration into what we feel. I'm not concerned with making films that are conclusive or prescriptive, and certainly not propaganda. I make films where either rationally or emotionally I tend to ask more questions than give answers. I feel that the audience should have something to work with when the film's over, something to discuss and argue about. But really what I'm talking about is the actual world out there -- getting that on the screen. And you're right, somehow that doesn't happen very much in American films. Yet it's not as if the concept in American literature is absent. Although we have to pay -- I say this with a note of irony -- some of our respects to Robert Altman, who does go as far as anybody there in getting that.

After so many disappointing movies, I finally saw "Secrets and Lies" and felt like this was something I could really be enthusiastic about. That made me wonder about what exactly it is that makes your movies different from others depicting ordinary people.

When I was teaching, which I do on and off, it occurred to me that a film should aspire, in a sense, to the condition of documentary. Now, I don't mean that one should make a film in a documentary style or mode. When you go out to shoot documentary, you do not question that what you are filming exists. And it exists whether you film it or not. If you shoot war footage, that is happening in three dimensions, whether you film it or not. And most documentary makers understand what they're filming is about in a real world context -- social, historical, political or cultural -- and that motivates how they film it.

What you're asking is: Why is it that things that purport to be about real people fail to be actually real. My answer to that would be that the filmmaker is not aspiring to the condition of documentary, that is to say they have caused something to happen in front of the camera which is really not researched and doesn't have a reality about it. It isn't three-dimensional, it wouldn't be able to go on if the camera weren't there.

Also they don't understand it, they don't know who these people are really, they haven't asked questions about where they come from, what they had for breakfast. I'd say that what I do is work very, very thoroughly indeed and get the actors involved from the word go to create a world that really does exist, whether we point a camera at it or not. Huge amounts of what we do -- we worked on "Secrets and Lies" for five months before we shot it -- never sees the light of day in tangible terms, as action in front of the camera. But we really know who these people are. We know everything there is to know about them socially, economically and in every detail of their lives. And it all informs what happens. So it begins to do what it seems to me the job is. Which is, putting it at its crudest, to reproduce the real world with some kind of semblance of reality.

And not only that, but in looking at it and deciding how to shoot it and what it is I'm trying to say, I actually understand that world. I actually have taken the time and the patience and gone through the pain of the research to know what it is that we're dealing with. I suspect that it boils to no more than that in the end. If you look at any of the great films from around the world -- whether you look at Bunuel's "Los Olvidados," showing those kids on the streets, or at one of Ozu's family dramas. . . There's no question whether these guys know what they're filming. They know the world, they know the culture, they know who the people are. This other style you're talking about is people making films in a culturally and professionally, infantile, naive and ultimately presumptious way.

It's well intentioned at the same time.

Well, that just may be. But I'd have to say, since you're inviting me to be quite militant about this, so what? That's not good enough. The joy of looking at, say, Vermeer -- those simple paintings of women sitting in rooms, is that you're actually looking at the most incredible communion between the artist and his world. He knows what is outside that window and where the light comes from and what the jug is doing. That, frankly, is the bottom line. I'm afraid to say that what you're talking about, all this third-rate cinema, is simply amateurish, in terms of what real artists do. That's all there is to it.

Do you have a Marxist or leftist background?

I don't have a Marxist background. It was, broadly speaking, leftish, liberal, with a quite unavoidable strain of anarchy. I have never been politically involved in any real sense at all. And unlike my compatriot Ken Loach, I don't make films that have any clear agenda. Certainly you never walk away from a film of mine having a clear political view, because I haven't got one. So, to suggest that my background is Marxist would be undeserved.

It was a vague impression.

I'm too innocent of these things. Of course I have socialism in my background -- in my film "High Hopes" I deal with it in an inconclusive way. It's about how difficult it is to face up to the fact that you may call yourself a socialist, but what are you doing about it? Are we all sitting on the fence? And that's a personal statement, my expression of that sense of my own wooliness at the time that film was made.

It seems that what you try to do is capture a reality that you actually believe in, as opposed to directors who want to make movies about regular people but depict it the way they think it should be.

And then the question is: What is the source and nature of that notion of the world as they think it should be -- the idealized world? It's like the debates over "Naked," for example. Obviously, the assertions that it was a misogynist film are ridiculous and not even worth talking about. That criticism comes from the kind of quarters where "political correctness" in its worst manifestation is rife. It's this kind of naive notion of how we should be in an unrealistic and altogether unhealthily over-wholesome way.

The decisions one would make about any character, whoever she is when we make her up, are implicitly political. In many a movie you've got a character that nobody's ever stopped to think twice about, it's just a character, a woman. But I do. I can't get to it until we've done all that, until these questions are really addressed, and have become the life force of the thing.

And the questions that are asked and the decisions that are made are political in the sense that by placing everybody in their social, economic, cultural, historic context, we create-- in a distilled and dramatic and cinematic and therefore metaphoric way -- a world that will contribute something to the way the audience lives their lives. And as far as I'm concerned, that is a political act. As distinct from making a film where you actually stand up at the end, walk straight out of the cinema and shoot the first policeman you see and man the barricade, which may or may not be a good thing.

To be specific, the fact that a fair number of people who are adopted [like one of the characters in "Secrets and Lies"] and decided to go and seek their birth mothers after seeing this film, or even the fact that people say "I laughed and cried at the same time," now that, to me, in the end is important. And they go away from it thinking about it and relating it to their own lives. Making a film is a political act because life is about how you live it in the smallest way from moment to moment as well as the great movements which are actually easy to talk about.

One of the intriguing things about the movie is the whole aspect of race, which seems like it's going to be a big issue at the beginning but winds up feeling less important.

I think that's a complex thing. I think it remains very important -- and here we are talking about what the film is saying. However subtly, it continues to be an issue. The audience would inevitably begin by meeting Hortense and immediately classifying her as a black person -- this is what racism is about. As you get to know her, you simply forget that she's black because you get to know her and it ceases to be an issue. Now that's what happens to the characters. When it comes to the crunch, on the whole, the thing that worries anybody least is the fact that she's black.

Again the idiots in some quarters have come out waving their flags and saying "Well, it shirks its responsibility and why aren't they intolerant towards her, why didn't they behave negatively" -- as though everybody would be racist in the world, which is not the case in 1996. I know, and this is built into the structure of the film, that a lot of people make the assumption that she is going to be reacted to in a racist way. But finally, we make what is a very unequivocal political statement which is: "We are all people." It seems incredibly obvious to say that in 1996. It's not a very sophisticated a thing to say, and maybe it's sort of a wishy-washy liberal thing to say, but actually that is what it's all about. That, actually, other things transcend this and that is as it should be. In that sense, you could argue that I am presenting something as I think it should be. That's how they should behave.

But they don't always behave as they should behave.

No, of course they don't, but in that context they do. And, good gracious, I go to enough trouble to make sure that you do understand -- in the scenes where Morris is taking photographs -- the whole spectrum of society, the various kinds of people and various colors of skin. You know that here's a guy who's in the world and he knows people and he takes it for granted that this is a multi-ethnic society. All I'm saying is that race and color continue to be an issue because they get over it. When Hortense shows up at Morris and Monica's house, Monica opens the door and there's Hortense, dressed in black and she's black and it's a Sunday, and Monica thinks she's a Jehovah's Witness -- which some people get and some people don't.

The germ that you started with when you conceived this movie -- was it the idea of an adopted daughter trying to find her mother? Did you have the race aspect from the beginning?

There were two things. There are some actual people very close to me who have adoption-related experiences -- I can't talk about that because it's private -- and so for a number of years I've wanted to deal with it in a film. I've had black characters before, but not black central characters -- not on film, I had them on stage. You could make a film about black, unemployed kids in South London dealing crack and getting in trouble with the cops and all that stuff. I don't know what I'd particularly have to say about it that everybody wouldn't already know and it doesn't particularly interest me. But I felt really that I wanted to look at the generation of young black people who are now growing up and getting on with it and dealing with things. Then when I started to do research, I realized there was quite a high incidence of black babies born to white women in the '60s and '70s and I thought I'd deal with that.

It's striking to me that this movie feels more like "Life is Sweet" than "Naked" -- "Naked" has a very distinct quality to it. The other movies seem like the people could almost live in the same neighborhood. I'm curious if "Naked" was an unusual excursion for you.

To be honest, I don't perceive it like that -- I take what you're saying, but actually I think the emotional climate, the spirit of "Life is Sweet" is quite different from "Secrets and Lies" really. And I think "Life is Sweet" is as different from "High Hopes" as "Naked" is from "Life is Sweet." Of course "Naked" was an excursion, for Christ's sake, one hell of a bloody excursion, but in all honesty I can't say there was some progression from which "Naked" was a deviation. Each film is a really new exploration. "Naked" had moments of great compassion and gentleness and humor as well as the other moments which apparently everyone sifts out to remember. One wouldn't work without the other. The things that "Naked" is about, the things that preoccupy me, the main stuff -- which is about men and women and worries about the future -- are no less a concern to me now than they were in 1992.

You could look at it on another level, you might say that all of my films with the exception of "Naked" are about family, but I would disagree with that because I think all of my films including "Naked" are about family. The fact that there isn't a family in it doesn't stop it from being a film about people who have a need for family, who are constantly talking about family, who are constantly in retreat from their roots. All of that is what the film is about. So, in a sense, the actual difference that you identify isn't really such a difference at all. You could, for example, take a male character out of each of the four films and line them up alongside each other and find some extraordinary similarities. Most obviously Cyril in "High Hopes," Johnny in "Naked" and Morris the photographer in "Secrets and Lies" are all very similar and are characters that I would identify with in some way. All are guys with a passionate idea of an ideal world and how we should all be. The first guy, in "High Hopes," has kind of given up on it and doesn't know what to do, is inert. The second guy is so angry with everything, the failure, that he's turned in on himself, and the third guy deals with it in the opposite way and carries on being as positive as he can. But all of those things relate to each other. I think it's too easy to pull "Naked" out as being different, when in actual fact it comes from the same preoccupations, it's fished from the same sea.

Of course, "Naked" has one great element that is more or less unique in my films -- there is a central character who dominates the proceedings. And also he's on a journey where he meets a lot of different people, which mostly is not what happens in the narrative structure of "Secrets and Lies". This guy is bursting with all this stuff which makes it a different kind of film. The way I treat it is different, it looks different, it feels different, it sounds different, it's filmed in a different way, it has a cinematic quality that's different, all those things are true. But all kinds of underlying and motivating things certainly make it hard for me to easily say it was a complete deviation.

I think part of the difference is that Johnny has this weird charisma, that's so disturbing for viewers. He's so destructive yet he's also attractive. And often your characters, when you first meet them, don't seem especially charismatic.

Although I would submit that pound for pound he is no more or less charismatic than Hortense or Morris.

Yes, Morris is not prepossessing in that romantic, adolescent way.

You're right. In a way, the flaw in the comparison is you're absolutely right. In the end "Naked" was my collaboration with David Thewlis to create this guy. The whole edge of the film is the terrifying double-edge of what is attractive and what is repellent in people -- and not least in guys, blokes.

One thing that's really wonderful about "Secrets and Lies" is that in Hortense and Morris we have very good characters who we come to see as compelling. They don't have Johnny's charismatic badness, but really that's a lot easier to depict than an interesting good person.

I had just made a film where I explored badness and I explored it in different ways. You've got Johnny -- who in fact, deep down, is not actually bad but simply screwed up -- offset against him is a guy. . . I have difficulty with this because I find it hard to assume that anybody is entirely bad, but history has proven that there just are people who are entirely bad. So there was an element in that film that was entirely evil. It was a film about badness as much as anything else. Who wants to make a film about goodness? There are people around who can't do enough to be positive, and I wanted to deal with that, which is also important.

You don't see that depicted very often

Well, this brings us back to the beginning of the conversation. You mean in movies --

People think it's boring

Well, I would suggest -- without being too arrogant -- that what you see in my films you mostly don't see in movies. As a kid in the '40s and '50s, I would sit in movies endlessly -- and that's mostly Hollywood and British films we didn't see any other films -- and think wouldn't it be great if you could see people in films like people actually are.

That's unusual. Most people go to get away from reality.

People say, "Ah, yes, but audiences just want to escape." I think, that if people see a film like "Secrets and Lies," where the stuff that's going on relates to things that they really care about, then it's more of an escape. Because you become so engaged in it and enthralled by it that you forget those things. They answer "Well, yes, but then the audience worries about real life things," but it's fulfilling, it's enriching, it's not like just eating candy for an hour and three quarters. It's actually really communing with something and feeling like you've been through something that comes out making you feel better able to go back and worry about the specific things that are your problems. So I think people are very dumb about escapism and entertainment and all that. They say, "Ah yes, but we're in the entertainment business." Excuse me; I am in the entertainment business and I make no bones about it. If my movie ever was not entertaining, it's a turkey as far as I'm concerned. My aim is to entertain, meaning, literally, what the word means. People forget what that word means. It means to make you stay here, to keep you in your seat. One of the things that drives me mad about watching films in this country is that nobody can sit still for two minutes -- everyone's in and out like bloody monkeys in a cage and eating and talking. The attention span is dreadful because -- and I submit that this did not happen in the Golden Age of Hollywood when they made movies that made you sit there and really watch the whole time -- it's boring, basically.

By Salon Staff

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