How Mike Leigh Works
Early in his career, writer/director Mike Leigh developed a unique method of working — one which he continues to use and perfect, with the latest example being Topsy-Turvy. The common misconception about Leigh's films and filmmaking is that he rolls camera and has his actors improvise. Instead, the truth is that Leigh and his actors work in a very structured and disciplined manner; a shooting script has been finalized via extensive rehearsals.
Leigh creates his films in what he calls "an organic way": through months of detailed preparation before filming begins. He recalls that, in a life drawing class at London's Camberwell Art School, he had "a clairvoyant flash: working from a source and looking at something that actually existed and excited you was the key to making a piece of art. What that gave me as a filmmaker, playmaker, storyteller, and as an artist generally, was a sense of freedom." This epiphany was liberating for Leigh: he had found his previous training, as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, to be uninspiring and "sterile." He applied his method of "growing" a project to his theater work in the 1960s, later carrying it over to filmmaking.
When Leigh decides to make a film, he moves forward with the general subject matter he wants to cover; for example, in his award-winning "Secrets and Lies," part of the concept was adoption. He assembles the actors that he feels will be best for the project. The actors selected must make a sizable time commitment — six months or more — in order to participate fully in the process and the shooting. Further, Leigh adds, "They've got to be intelligent, have a good sense of humor, and be good character actors — able to play somebody other than themselves."
Leigh proceeds to shape the concept by working with the actors, both individually and in groups: characters and a story come from discussions, improvisations, research, and rehearsals. "I work with the actors to create both the characters and the characterizations," explains Leigh. Each actor works out with him the most minute detail of his/her character's life:
memories and experiences from infancy, what school they went to, what they eat for breakfast and how they brush their teeth, and what books they read. This preparation process yields three-dimensional characters with histories and relationships that give premise to the film and focus to the story. Although not every portion of the personal histories will be on screen per se, they will be there implicitly in the substance of the characters and their behavior.
Before shooting begins, Leigh writes a scenario — a broad structure. Each individual sequence is then rehearsed and scripted precisely on location before it is shot. Throughout the entire process, each actor knows only
what his or her character would actually know about other characters. The dialogue is very rarely improvised on camera. Because Leigh and his actors have created a solid world, cast and crew can work together harmoniously; and Leigh can build his story creatively. He prefers the shoot to the preparatory period: "I'm in love with looking at films. I am absolutely in love with shooting film and discovering the texture of the place and the people."
In all Leigh's previous films, this process has been deployed to create original contemporary characters, and the storyline has always evolved organically. Although as a dramatist Leigh obviously coaxes and manipulates the developing narrative once it gets going, he never really knows what is going to happen before the rehearsals commence.
The demands of Topsy-Turvy, which dramatizes people who really existed and events that actually took place, have inevitably necessitated Leigh re-a
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