Take a sneak peak at our forthcoming ebook on Mike Leigh and his collaborators, Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh collaboration, with a look at the foreword to the book. You can get the book here.
When I was first introduced to Mike Leigh as a young cinephile, I was told his intensive and unique process was shrouded in mystery. It now strikes me as strange that this is the prevailing idea when Mike Leigh evidently has very few qualms about discussing his process. In 2008, he participated in the making of the book Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, a 450-page compilation of interviews in which Leigh discusses exactly how he works: starting rehearsals sometimes a year before filming and slowly developing the script and characters with his actors in minute detail. To learn how Leigh operates, you just need to ask the right questions… and to the right people.
When Leigh’s latest film, Peterloo, did the rounds on the festival circuit last fall, Editor-in-Chief Alex Heeney and I both loved this period piece about the 1819 massacre of civilians at a nonviolent political rally in Manchester. The film does not exactly have a main character, instead following several working class characters — such as Maxine Peake’s Nellie Ogden and her family — during the years of political rallying that led up to the massacre. Their fight against poor living and working conditions is contrasted against the privileged lives of the magistrates who enforce poverty upon them. At the time, “Peterloo” became the nickname of the battle and massacre the film culminates with. The name is a combination of The Battle of Waterloo (which the film begins on) and St. Peter’s Square, which was the location of the massacre — a peaceful protest that became a bloodbath due to the violence of cavalry on the scene.
We wanted to give this excellent film special coverage. But in the process of developing this eBook, we realised that we could achieve something much bigger than simply an isolated study of one film. While there have been studies of Leigh’s methods from his perspective, nobody has ever investigated that method from every angle of the creative process. What does Leigh ask of his costume designer? How does a production designer add to Leigh’s immersive worlds? What happens after shooting, when the editor takes over?
In this book, we explore every corner of Leigh’s creative process through the lens of Peterloo.Through interviews with his director of photography (DP), editor, costume designer, production designer, hair and makeup designer, actors Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake, and, of course, Leigh himself, this ebook offers unique access Mike Leigh’s collaborative process This is not just a guide to Peterloo, or even just a guide to Leigh’s directorial approach, but a valuable resource on the art of filmmaking itself.
Many of our interviewees have worked with Leigh before, some for decades. It is partly this kind of strong, reliable core creative team that has allowed Leigh to build such a consistently brilliant. So much time and commitment goes into each project that no film is a throwaway; many are now considered classics, such as Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), and Vera Drake (2004). Leigh has helped launched the careers of actors like David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, and Sally Hawkins. He has also earned critical and awards success: he was nominated for the Best Directing Oscar for Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, he has five more nominations for his screenplays, and his Palme d’Or for Secrets & Lies is one of several prizes Cannes has awarded his films.
Each key creative contributor to Leigh’s films understands that the primary goal is to create rich, lived-in characters and worlds. There’s no stone left unturned: Leigh makes each actor list everyone they have ever met so that they can then draw from those people to create a character. He then reviews the character’s entire life with the actor and undertakes intense, improvisational rehearsals, writing a script to match the characters as those characters take shape.
Meanwhile, the heads of departments who work behind the scenes are left partially in the dark. Because the plot and characters in Leigh’s films are ever-developing, and there’s no finished script until shortly before filming, preparation for his films is often a bit of a guessing game. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran had to design a mass of crowd costumes for the massacre scene in Peterloo despite not knowing which characters would be getting injured. DP Dick Pope’s background in documentary filmmaking is a great help to him, as Leigh refuses to storyboard or plan his shots, preferring for the camera to be reactive to the actors in the moment.
While these creatives are mostly kept out of the rehearsal room — a sacred space for Leigh and his actors — they have plenty of opportunities to collaborate with each other and with the performers. In particular, Durran, production designer Suzie Davies, and makeup and hair designer Christine Blundell will go through a process they call “actors’ surgeries.” The three of them hotseat an actor at an advanced stage of the rehearsal process, when that actor already has a deep understanding of the character. They discuss the character with the actor, asking questions to inform the outward design process. Davies likes to start by asking, “If your character bought a kitchen table, where would they get it from?” From there, she can start to devise how their entire home would look.
All of our interviewees have worked with Leigh multiple times. Some, like Davies, have only worked on his past few films;others have worked with him for decades. Editor Jon Gregory, for example, has been collaborating with Leigh since High Hopes in 1988.
Together with Leigh himself, the words of these talented creatives paints a detailed picture of how the iconic British director creates films as long-lasting as Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), Vera Drake (2004), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), and more. It’s time to rediscover the cinema of Mike Leigh with newly opened eyes.
Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration will be available April 26th. For more information and to purchase your copy, please visit MikeLeighBook.com