After falling in love with Peterloo at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, I knew I had to talk to Mike Leigh, who was in town. I was so enamoured by the film’s blocking and Leigh’s skill in directing so many rich scenes featuring multiple characters — possibly the greatest challenge for any director. In a film with so many minor characters who, collectively, play a major role, I wanted to know how Leigh captured all of them so distinctly and memorably, with never a false note. I expected this to be tied to his background in theatre, which privileges supporting actors — theatre is the actor’s medium, and film is the director’s’ medium.
Instead, I discovered that Leigh’s approach would be radical on stage or screen, that his rehearsals are physical and personal in the way that most stage rehearsals are, but otherwise, they bear little resemblance to theatre work as they are focused on invention and discovery rather than on understanding, perfecting, and setting individuals scenes.
Leigh has a reputation for not suffering fools, and images from his appearance on the Hollywood Reporter Directors’ Roundtable for Mr. Turner have been used as a Twitter meme for looking frustrated and unimpressed. But that does little justice to the passionate, gregarious, and thoughtful director I met, even though he had several complaints to make about why other films fail to create credible characters and situations. One thing is certain: Leigh has plenty of personality — personality to spare, even — and I think that comes through in his intelligent responses to my questions about his process and how he pulls so many great performances out of his actors.
The following is a preview of my interview with Mike.
Seventh Row (7R): There’s a lot of theatre within Peterloo, in the sense that there are a lot of speeches to audiences, and you get swept up in those performances. How did you think about blocking and shooting those scenes?
Mike Leigh (ML): In a sense, that’s true; there are people who are performing to audiences. But in making and shooting and creating those scenes, it would never have occurred to me to think of them as theatre. To me, they are real events we are exploring as real events because they are imaginative distillations of actual events. You’re asking me about how we made them happen?
7R: Yeah, we’re drawn into these events as they’re happening.
ML: Not to avoid the question, but we are brought into the events in every film. This is a film like every other film, about all sorts of things happening to all sorts of people. It’s important not to see it in a two-dimensional, illustrative way. It is about things happening to people in their real life.
But the actual construction of public meetings, massacres… First of all, it’s standard procedure for all of my films: we work for a long time, six months or so, preparing the characters, preparing the characterizations, working with the actors to ground the characters in real people, to explore how they behave and do improvisations, and we do a massive amount of research. When it comes to doing the actual stuff, all of that stuff is in there, as if embedded in the characters’ DNA and the actors’ acting DNA. We construct each scene through improvisation and rehearsal. We script by rehearsing, scene by scene, sequence by sequence, on location [before the shoot].
7R: You do the rehearsal in the location?
ML: The final rehearsal. The six months before that is in an old building. This is true of all my films. I can only make a scene by being in the location, seeing it, improvising, pinning things down, because writing is seeing.
When you get something like the big day, the massacre, you’ve got a whole lot of scenarios within that event. You’ve got all the magistrates in the house; you’ve got all the guys on the carts; you’ve got various factions on the ground. What I’ve done there is to rehearse all of those separately so we can slot them in and build the whole thing around [the location].
When this film was in late stages of pre-production, various people on the team started to say to me, “We think you should have a storyboard artist because this is not like what you usually do. This is much bigger, and you’re going to need to have a storyboard artist.” And I said, “Forget it!” Finally, I said, “A storyboard artist will end up either in his caravan all the time or in hospital with broken legs, because it’s a waste of time and money.” I was 100 percent correct.
I’ve worked with the same cinematographer, Dick Pope, since 1990. What we do is we set up action, and then we say, “How should we shoot it?” It’s an organic investigation. Whereas if you were to pre-plan it all, and then try to make it happen, very different sorts of movies are made, but not this sort of movie. It would reduce it to look like an awful war movie or something. It’s about working on your feet and looking and listening. [In this case,] we did shoot quite a lot of the massacre with three cameras, which we never do normally.
Also, the stuff was served by a genius of a sound recordist, who had 16 people on. Just as a matter of interest, there was no ADR [in Peterloo], no post-syncing either, not one frame. It’s the first film I made where that was the case, and you would have thought it would be the first of mine to have months of it. But there’s none because it was so well recorded by this guy. The sound editor kept calling me and saying, “This is extraordinary. It’s all there! I mean tucked away in all these endless amounts of stuff, but it’s there.”
So it’s very alive and organic, and the performances are all served by it. It’s all about the collaboration between director, cinematographer, designer, costume designer, makeup designer, sound recordist, and in this case, additional players… I have spent a lifetime resisting stunt coordinators, fight directors, dialect coaches, saying, “No, we can do it ourselves,” and we always did.
But in this case, obviously, you had to have someone there who really could do this stuff, and the guy who did it is a genius at it. Owns all the horses! Mixed up with all the actors playing different characters, including some of the yeomanry and soldiers, were all his stunt people. This guy was really good at understanding my aesthetic and what we were trying to achieve and delivering it.
So it’s collaboration. That’s not news. That’s how films should be made. But what’s important is that we don’t do movie clichés. It’s about constantly looking at what it is, and what it’s about, and making it live.
In the first place, it’s about an approach to acting where they really are grounded in what they are doing, and they are solid and confident and knowledgeable. They know how to do it so that you can then take it further, and push it, and get it better, and refine it, rather than chasing your tail so you get something in the camera and can move on to the next thing and break for lunch.