For a man seven-times Oscar nominated for films about so-called ‘ordinary’ people, Mike Leigh certainly plays the part. We meet outside the newly opened Garden Cinema, but there’s no blacked-out car to deliver perhaps Britain’s most famous living director.
Instead, Leigh appears from around a street corner, alone, clasping a folded chair under arm. If the chair and Leigh were to stand back-to-back like pupils at school, you might have a job ascertaining which was taller. The sight of the 79-year-old taking ponderous steps with his chair prompted a publicist to offer their help – but Leigh isn’t one for kissarses. “You aren’t listening,” Leigh snaps. Fair enough: he had begun telling us a passionate tale about recovering the chair from outside his flat. He had spent last evening cleaning it up and “thought I’d donate it to the cinema.”
Does Leigh feel let down by producers refusing to fund him despite his body of work? “You’ve got it. That is what’s happened. It’s the backers.”Mike Leigh talks to City A.M.
It’s not that the Cannes Palme d’Or winner for Secrets & Lies and 13-time BAFTA nominee is rude – he can be acerbic, but in a world diluted by pleasantries and politeness, you might call him refreshingly frank. You might also say, ‘they just don’t make them like this anymore.’
In 1983, Leigh debuted Gary Oldman in Meantime, a film about how working class people in Thatcherite Britain were being radicalised and having their relationships torn apart due to the stresses of unemployment. Meantime, part of a loose trilogy, has become a cult classic and is showing as part of The Garden Cinema’s Mike Leigh retrospective, which sees the director in weekly conversations with his longtime composer-collaborator Gary Yershon.
“I’ve met the Queen several times. At a Buckingham Palace event she said: ‘Hello, how do you do?’ and I said ‘I’ve just made a film called Vera Drake which won the Lion at Venice.’ She said ‘Oh.’ I said ‘Yes, it’s a film about the 1950s illegal abortionist.’ She changed the subject. Fair enough. Fair dos.”Mike Leigh on meeting the Queen
A lifelong socialist, it’s impossible not to start by asking for Leigh’s take on the Queen. I can only assume the arbiter of social equality is against the hierarchical structures of royal power? “I’ve met the Queen several times,” he says, relaxing into a private booth at the Garden. “At a Buckingham Palace event she said: ‘Hello, how do you do?’ and I said ‘I’ve just made a film called Vera Drake which won the Lion at Venice.’ She said ‘Oh.’ I said ‘Yes, it’s a film about the 1950s illegal abortionist.’ She changed the subject. Fair enough. Fair dos.”
So how does he feel about the passing of Her Majesty? “For all one’s Republican notions, you can’t help feel it’s part of stuff,” Leigh says. Perhaps he chose “stuff” for its helpful vagueness, with a dash of sentimentality. In a weird coincidence, Leigh’s partner Marion Bailey is playing the Queen in a play called Handbagged at the Kiln Theatre. “It’s rather dominated our lives. It was quite an emotional thing. What it’ll be like in the reign of King Charles the Turd? I don’t know. That’s another matter.”
I attempt to press on with the subject but Leigh is having none of it. “That’s all I have to say about anything to do with the royal family or the Queen or her death or anything else, so you might move swiftly on.” After 50 years of doing interviews, his directness means he is also an expert in controlling the conversation. Or alternatively, to adopt a frequent word from Leigh’s vocabulary, he doesn’t stand for any “bullshit.”
Onwards we go, towards the other reason an interview with Mike Leigh right now feels like impeccable and fortuitous timing: the cost of living crisis. I suggest this feels like fertile territory for Leigh but he says the current crisis would be too on-the-nose for a new film. “I make films that are about the spirit of the time rather than being about particular events,” he says. “There’s a character called Thatcher in High Hopes, there’s discussion about the politics, socialism and what it means to be socialist. It’s discussing the spirit of things.”
I don’t imagine I’ll be making many more films. I just don’t know. If I say a couple more that precludes the possibility of three.”Mike Leigh
How would he describe ‘the spirit of things’ today? “I wouldn’t,” he says. “I mean, I would describe it as a mess, obviously. And I’d just love to see the Labour Party take over and get it together, but that’s also obvious. It’s a shambles, really. As to Liz Truss, I mean, it’s a function of a ridiculous perversion of democracy that she’s there, and that’s all I have to say about it.”
I can picture a 21st century version of Meantime focusing on young people struggling to find their place in society, I say. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to comment on that.”
Leigh turns 80 in the spring, so to lighten the tone – or perhaps darken it? – I ask how he sees his legacy? He laughs and relaxes. “Good question. I don’t know. I can’t answer that.” Does he think he’ll be making films in 10 years’ time? “No, I don’t imagine I will make many more films. I also haven’t done a stage play for quite some time and I’d quite like to do that. But these questions become less easy to answer when a person is nearly 80.”
Painters, novelists, dramatists, poets, sculptures, composers don’t discuss how big it’s going to be, what colour it’s going to be, what it should sound like, whatever. They explore. And they often don’t know what it’s going to be and they discover what it is by the process of doing. That’s what I do.Mike Leigh on his creative process
This has also been the toughest period in his 50-year career to secure funding, he says – an issue he describes as “very annoying and very frustrating,” and Leigh acknowledges the fight for financial backing is made more difficult by his insistence on being a “pure artist”. From Vera Drake to Meantime and Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh collaborates with his actors, writing scripts as they go. He won’t even announce which famous actors, if any, are appearing until after the film is made.
“I always say never compromise, and it does mean never compromise. If a project comes up and there’s any [he pores over this word] suggestion that the backers are going to interfere then I will walk away. It’s just not worth doing. “Look, here’s the thing: painters, novelists, dramatists, poets, sculptures, composers, just get on with it. People don’t discuss what it’s going to be, how big it’s going to be, what colour it’s going to be, what it should sound like, what should happen in it, whatever. They explore. And they often don’t know what it’s going to be and they discover what it is by the process of doing. That’s what I do.”
I ask if he feels let down by producers refusing to back him despite his body of work: “You’ve got it. That is what’s happened. It’s the backers.” All this to say that there may not be many more Mike Leigh films. “It feels vaguely like I’ve retired,” he admits. “I just don’t know. If I say a couple more that precludes the possibility of three.”
Clearly tiring of the topic, I get that most pervasive of Mike Leigh rebuttals, and one which I’m starting to love: “We should leave it at that and move on to the next question.”
Mike Leigh in Conversation runs until 30 October. Tickets are available at thegardencinema.co.uk