Everything you ever wanted to know about how Mike Leigh makes films, his process, and his collaborators, with a special focus on his recent Peterloo and Mr. Turner.
Mike Leigh is a British film director and screenwriter. He has also directed a number of plays, several of which have been adapted for the screen. His most recent film, Peterloo, was one of the best films of 2019. This introduction to Mike Leigh is based largely on research completed for our ebook on his process, Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration, which can be purchased here.
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With Peterloo in Process, uncover the magic behind Mike Leigh’s working process as told by the man himself and the people who work with him.
An overview of Mike Leigh’s process
While all filmmaking is collaborative, Mike Leigh takes collaboration to another level. He develops characters and the script with his actors. Leigh encourages the actors to work with department heads to decide where characters live, what they wear, and how they look. And he encourages cooperation across all technical departments to ensure a unified look.
Leigh’s directorial approach is quietly radical. He starts with little more than a basic premise for a film. He then develops this idea into a full-fledged story in collaboration with his actors. When he approaches his team about a new film, his department heads get only the gist of the plot. For Vera Drake (2004), the department heads knew it was about a backstreet abortionist in the 1950s. For Mr Turner (2014), they knew it was about the late years in the life of the painter J.W.H. Turner. For Peterloo (2018), they knew it was about the Peterloo Massacre.
An overview of Mike Leigh’s rehearsal process
The actors often know even less, because they only know what their individual characters would have known. In Vera Drake, the actors playing Vera’s family did not know she was an abortionist. They didn’t even know the film would deal with abortion at all — until they improvised the scene halfway through the film when Vera gets arrested. Some actors in the film, like Chris O’Dowd, who was in one scene as a man buying a suit from Vera’s tailor son, did not even know if the film was a comedy or a drama.1
Leigh starts rehearsals by working with each actor individually to develop his or her character. The characters are always based on real people the actor knows personally. Together, they invent the character’s personal history, personality, and some sense of how the character would move and think. Leigh will then join up actors who will be performing together. Through improvisation, the actors develop a shared history with each other, up to the very moment the film begins.
Background research for creating a Mike Leigh character
In the early stages of the rehearsal process, the actors do background research on their characters’ milieu. For Naked (1993), David Thewlis read all the books that he and Leigh thought his character, the erudite but angry Johnny, would be reading. These ranged from political theory to The Illiad to conspiracy theories.2 This allowed Thewlis to think like his character and incorporate the content he had absorbed into the improvisations. For Peterloo, Leigh gave actors a background reading list and involved them in the research process.
The few magistrates who were based on real people, for example, read the personal journals of the actual people they were playing, during a visit to the National Archives. The department heads also conducted research to recreate historically accurate locations, costumes, and skincare. For period films like Mr Turner and Peterloo, this collaborative historical investigation was coordinated by the films’ researcher, Jacqueline Riding.
Mike Leigh’s department heads get involved early
During the rehearsal process, characters, scenes, and story take shape, and Leigh keeps his department heads abreast of any developments. The lack of script means heads of department must especially listen to and respond to the inclinations of the actors. Once the actors arrive at the point in their improvisations where the film’s story begins, they meet with the department heads. These include: costume designer Jacqueline Durran, makeup designer Christine Blundell, and production designer Suzie Davies. Together, creative leads and actors develop each character’s dress, visage, and the design of spaces they will inhabit.
Leigh explained, “I regard it as my job to find ways of giving each actor or actress something to get their teeth into, to liberate them to do really interesting characters, and to give them the opportunity to do stuff they don’t get to do in conventional pieces of work. It’s about getting actors to be creative in a real sense and elevating actors to the level of artists.” 3 Actors and departments heads agree that Leigh’s approach challenges them to be deliberate about every step in the creative process. Extensive research and improvisation makes every scene in a Mike Leigh film vital and realistic.
After establishing backstory and background for the characters, Leigh names a situation. That is: the location, the characters present, the circumstances. He then lets the actors determine how they would react to this context through improvisations. Leigh records their dialogue. Leigh then edits the improvised dialogue down into a cohesive script for the scene. He doesn’t usually finish the full script for the film until shortly before shooting. But there will be a general outline of what happens in each scene and where the events take place. This ensures that locations can be scouted, costumes designed, and camera tests completed.
Pre-production on set of a Mike Leigh film
Leigh’s production designers create the sets early in the process so that Leigh and his actors can rehearse the scenes on set. Here, Leigh decides on the blocking. Cinematographer Dick Pope works with Leigh to figure out how they will shoot and light the scenes. Where necessary, production designer Suzie Davies makes tweaks to the sets. By the time the shoot begins, the script is set, the costumes designed, the scenes blocked, and the shooting approach is nailed down (though never storyboarded!).4
How Mike Leigh works on set
On set, Leigh continues to do everything in his power to support the actors, aided by his team. Pope ensures the set is quiet so actors can keep focused. Leigh gives actors the time and space required to come in and out of character for each take. As Pope told us, “Before we shoot, he has a period of warming up, which is his famous thing. He asks the actors to warm up, and the actors drop into character and think about what they’re doing. That might go on for a minute or so, and then we turn over, and the actors are ready. That’s very different to a lot of filmmaking, where they won’t even reset. A lot of filmmakers reset while you’re shooting, especially if it’s digital. Everybody resets, and the actors do it again. Mike would never do that; he cuts and considers.”note]Ibid, 58.[/note]
Editing a Mike Leigh film
The final step is the edit. Jon Gregory has been editing the majority of Leigh’s films since Life is Sweet (1990). Gregory noted that the performances are always so strong that he never has to cut around them.5 Pope noted that Gregory’s propensity for letting scenes run is crucial to his own process. It allows him to do more visually. Leigh leaves Gregory to do most of the editing on his own. He comes in at key milestones to check what’s been done. Gregory and Leigh will then discuss any changes that need to be made.
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Who writes Mike Leigh’s films?
There is a misconception that Leigh’s films are co-written with the actors because of how collaborative the process is. The credits on his early films read “devised and directed by Mike Leigh.” Leigh now says the former does not reflect his process. In a 1991 interview with Judy Bloch, Leigh said, “I think one of the biggest mistakes of my career was to use that phrase and I wish to hell I had always put ‘Written and Directed by’ earlier than I did. For various historical reasons, I thought because I didn’t sit in a room and write it, it was better to say ‘Devised and Directed.’ Eventually I realised that this is the biggest single red herring of all…” . 6
As David Thewlis explained in the Criterion Collection audio commentary for Naked, Leigh decides on the circumstances and the situations. Leigh’s actors are only allowed to make decisions when their characters would make a decision. 7 Maxine Peake clarified to us that the actors improvise the dialogue for a scene; Leigh edits and gives it dramatic structure.
Why Mike Leigh’s films are “shrouded in secrecy” during production
When Leigh’s films are in production, they are “shrouded in secrecy.” This is in part because the actors themselves are asked to keep secrets — and are also left in the dark. 8 The actors are only present for rehearsals for the scenes in which their characters are present. They are kept completely unaware of the pieces in the film that do not involve them. Sometimes, this means actors do not have a sense for the plot of the film they are making. Famously, the central characters in Vera Drake did not know the film was about a backstreet abortionist — until their characters found out. Even in rehearsal, Leigh refuses to discuss any of the characters’ motivations or backstory openly. The actors are forbidden from discussing the work outside of the rehearsal room.
A look inside Mike Leigh’s rehearsal room
The interviews in Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration reveal exactly what goes on inside Leigh’s rehearsal room. We talked not only to Leigh, but also Maxine Peake and Rory Kinnear, two of the leading actors in Peterloo. Both Peake and Kinnear described a similar character development process, involving research and improvisations. Peake’s character, Nellie Ogden, was entirely fictitious and Kinnear’s, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, was based on a real person.
According to Peake, Kinnear, and Leigh, the first step for any actor is to work with Leigh one-on-one. The actor begins by making a list of everyone they know. Together, Leigh and the actor select people from this list to draw on for inspiration when crafting their characters. Early on, Leigh asks his actors to get up and move, physicalizing their ideas. Leigh and the actor work out a comprehensive backstory for the character. They decide the ins and outs of the character’s entire life up until where we meet them in the film.
Creating characters’ shared histories
If characters have a shared history, the actors craft that history together through improvisations. When we asked Leigh how every frame in his ensemble films feels so full of life, he cited this process. The characters actually know each other, and the actors know their characters inside out. Even if a character shows up for only a couple of minutes, the actor has worked out a complete backstory.
Working with heads of department during rehearsal
During the rehearsal process, the actors collaborate with the film’s costume designer, production designer, and makeup designer. In most films, costumes are handed to actors, with little advanced warning before the shoot. In a Mike Leigh film, however, the actors are involved with making these decisions. On Leigh’s films, actors can make sure that their vision of the character matches the costumes and sets. Leigh’s costume designer Jacqueline Durran, production designer Suzie Davies, and makeup designer Christine Blundell cite this collaboration as crucial. It allows them to benefit from the actors’ insights into the characters and the story.
Once Leigh has crafted the script, he and the actors rehearse on set for a few weeks before they shoot. During this time, cinematographer Dick Pope may step in to start thinking about how to shoot the scene. Kinnear told us that at the start of the Mike Leigh film shoot, actors are fully ready to go. There’s no learning who your character is from day-to-day as you shoot, as you often do on a film set. There’s no figuring it out through the course of the run, as you would in theatre. The work is all done.
Inside the actors’ surgeries: collaboration between costumes, production design, and makeup
Production designers, costume designers, and hair-and-makeup designers must interpret the character much like an actor does. Most actors Mike Leigh’s films spend months rehearsing with Leigh to learn who their character is. Then, the heads of department come on board to help express the character’s identity. This is done visually through everything from set design to skin appearance. How characters dress, wear their hair, and decorate their homes reveals there vanity, socio-economic status, loves, hates, barbs, vices, etc.
The heads of department take part in what the team fondly call “actors’ surgeries.” The team includes hair-and-makeup designer Christine Blundell, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran. During the late stages of rehearsal, the department heads gather in a room with the actor. Davies, Blundell, and Durran hotseat the actor. The ask them questions about who they are and how they might choose to express themselves. Based on their responses, Blundell, Durran, and Davies build and refine their work.
Making time for collaboration in pre-production
On most films, heads of department rarely get to collaborate so closely with the actors. But they often state that they would like to. Tight production schedules and busy actors do not always leave time for it. Leigh ensures that he builds time into each film’s schedule to allow for that communication and these “surgeries.” This enables Blundell, Durran, and Davies to tailor their work specifically to what the actors have already envisioned. The actors can then immerse themselves in the film’s world more thoroughly and before the shoot.
Suzie Davies’s production design on Mike Leigh’s films
In an interview with Seventh Row last year, production designer Suzie Davies [Mr. Turner (2014) and Peterloo (2018)] spoke about production design as if it were a form of acting. She said, “The one moment I remember when that really came home to me was on Mr. Turner. We had Turner’s art studio dressed, and we were just doing fine dressing. I had the afternoon to tweak things. I had this moment where I stood there thinking, ‘How would Tim Spall playing Turner paint in this room?’. For an afternoon, I painted in that studio. I chucked paint about. I worked out where he would put his brushes, how he would sit and have a moment with one of his cats. It was really, really good fun.”
Davies has to think about both the big picture and the smaller details within her production design. In Peterloo, Davies had to find a big outdoor space that would accommodate the production’s logistical needs. She also had to build a replica of St. Peter’s Square in that space. She also designed the home spaces of some of the key players, which revealed details about each character. This is why the “surgeries” are so crucial. In conversation, Maxine Peake told Davies that her character, Nellie, was quite “house proud” even though she was poor. Davies thus dodged the stereotype of making a working class character’s house dirty and ramshackle. Instead, the domestic set is neat and well-tended, reflecting the pride Nelly takes in her home.
New challenges for Peterloo
The large scale of a film like Peterloo was a challenge for all three of these creatives. Durran designed detailed costumes for a much larger cast than on most Mike Leigh films. The crowd scenes at Peterloo involved hundreds of extras. This meant Durran needed to make hundreds of working class costumes of the era. This is because they did not already exist in any costume house. When designing costumes for characters in the massacre scene, she did not know which characters would end up wounded. Blundell moved all these extras for the massacre scene quickly through the main makeup bus. Blundell watched the monitor to see who was most visible so she could do extra work on those actors’ faces.
Blundell’s work on Peterloo was particularly fascinating, because it was so detailed and yet seemingly invisible. Although the working class characters in the film don’t wear makeup, Blundell still had to work on their faces. Specifically, she needed to ensure that the state of their skin and teeth appeared historically accurate. Such attention to detail is characteristic of the filmmaking process Leigh encourages. In a film with a lesser creative team, makeup and hair becomes an afterthought. Sometimes, it is even left up to actors and their personal stylist teams. But for Leigh, Blundell, Davies, and Durran, every detail tells a story.
Editing a Mike Leigh film
Many discussions of Mike Leigh’s process centre around the rehearsal period. But what happens after he calls cut? Leigh and his cinematographer, Dick Pope, may choose what to shoot. But it is (recently deceased) editor Jon Gregory who chose what we saw. Leigh’s penchant for ensemble scenes has been filtered through Gregory’s eye. Gregory controlled whether we see these in mid-shots, closeups, or wides. There are so many choices for how to cover these often long scenes. This means Leigh needs an incredibly skilled editor.
Gregory was the longest standing of all of Leigh’s collaborators whom we’ve interviewed for Peterloo in process. They first worked together on High Hopes (1988). They worked together on and off since on films like Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), and Mr. Turner (2014). Outside of his work with Leigh, Gregory worked across genres and styles. His other credits include: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, The Road, A United Kingdom, multiple films with Martin McDonagh, and more.
How the editing affects the cinematography
The way Pope gushed about Gregory’s talents when Orla Smith interviewed him got her excited to talk to Gregory himself: “Jon is one of the best editors I’ve ever worked with. [His] editing is incredibly sympathetic to my cinematography. In the hands of a more ruthless editor, I wouldn’t get nearly such a crack at the visual side. Because I know it would be chopped up. But Jon lets things run. I’ve always loved working with Jon because I know that whatever I produce, he’ll make the most of it.”9
Mike Leigh’s involvement in the editing process
From Gregory’s description, editing is the one part of Leigh’s process that hews closely to more traditional filmmaking. Editing Leigh’s films still come with their own specific joys and challenges. Gregory had to make his first assemblies without the aid of a script. He edited while the film was shooting, often receiving scenes out of order. He would have to guess where they might fit in the film’s overall narrative. Since Leigh does not use storyboards, Gregory was left almost fumbling around in the dark. In the case of Peterloo, Gregory edited a twenty-minute unscripted battle scene from the scrambled footage he received.
Like all of Leigh’s collaborators interviewed in Peterloo in process, Gregory also loved working with Leigh. As Gregory put it, it’s because Leigh trusts his collaborators. Leigh has very little involvement in the actual edit. He would leave Gregory to work his magic almost independently until the final stages.
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Production designer Suzie Davies (Mr Turner, Peterloo) discusses her role on a film set and working with Mike Leigh.
A selection of Mike Leigh’s Films
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo is a rare story about the fight for a fairer democracy. It’s a story of carnage rather than triumph. It ends with tragedy and unfinished labour rather than success and social change. Despite its broad canvas and period setting, Peterloo is every bit a Mike Leigh film. It’s peppered with flawed, complicated characters. It’s inspirational as a story of recognizable people, and nothing like the silk-swishing period pieces that are the staple of British cinema.
The story the history books tell of Peterloo is one of class warfare. In the 1800s, the newly booming industrial hub of Manchester had a large population of working class people. Yet they had no representation in the Houses of Parliament. In this era of post-war economic depression, activists began to agitate for electoral reform. Petty crime rose, and the ruling class retaliated with harsh sentences, which only exacerbated activists’ furor. A peaceful rally at St. Peter’s Square turned to bloodshed when the upper classes attempted to destroy all hope for political change. Instead, the massacre fired up the working class to keep on with the fight.
Leigh, however, is not interested in showing us a pitched battle between two sides. Instead, Peterloo is a story of grassroots political organizing, of political change as the product of many individuals pulling together.
Another Year (2010)
Another Year follows a year in the life of an aging couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and their family and friends. The film premiered in the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Leigh earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the 83rd Academy Awards.
Broadbent’s and Sheen’s stable, loving couple is the sun that all the other characters orbit around. But the film isn’t really about them. It begins with a woman (Imelda Staunton) whom we never see again after her first two scenes. She tells a doctor, and then a counsellor (Gerri), about her insomnia and depression. The scene ends on the forlorn face of Mary (Lesley Manville), the couple’s hopeless, alcoholic mess of a friend. Tom’s and Gerri’s contentment becomes the standard against which these unhappy, unsettled people measure themselves. Many have noted Manville, a Leigh cast regular, as the standout of the film. Fans of the film and her performance were disappointed at what they considered her Oscar “snub.”
How Dick Pope’s cinematography tests defined the structure of Another Year
The structural conceit of Another Year — a story divided into four seasons — was devised when cinematographer Dick Pope conducted camera tests. According to Pope, it was “one of the most important tests we ever did — and Mike would agree. Mike was slightly struggling with how to frame the film. He wasn’t sure about how to go about it. I showed him these tests in a cinema in London. [I did] a summery look, a wintery look, an autumnal look, and a spring look. (It was the last film we ever did on film. It’s been digital ever since.) I did them in very different styles with very different approaches. I used different film stocks, different lenses, different lighting techniques, different exteriors.
“After I showed Mike the results of the test, he was really, really excited. I said, ‘Well, which one did you prefer?’ He said, ‘I don’t prefer any of them! I love them all. That’s what I’ll do. I never got it until now. I’ll make the film as four different seasons.’ He was really excited about it, and that’s the way we did it.”10
Career Girls (1997)
Career Girls centres around a weekend-long reunion between two old friends, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman). It’s peppered with flashbacks to their early 20s when they first met and lived together. Present day Hannah and Annie are thirtysomething working professionals who are put together and refined. But their personalities — the uncompromising Hannah and the meek Annie — still shine through.
In flashback, though, both actresses turn their characters up to 11. Young Hannah isn’t just outgoing, but positively manic. Annie isn’t just shy, but constantly flinching and unable to look up above her shoes. Career Girls is one of Leigh loveliest films, an ode to female friendship. It’s also a melancholic reflection on youth from the perspective of characters who are older and wiser now. Not a whole lot happens (it’s a Mike Leigh film). Hannah and Annie smile at each other and excitedly chat as the good old days flood back to them. Watching the film feels like reuniting with old friends.
Dick Pope’s cinematography in Career Girls
Dick Pope’s cinematography in the flashbacks is blue and grimy and handheld. The contemporary scenes are naturalistically lit and coloured, the camera still and restrained. What we’re seeing in the flashbacks is Hannah’s and Annie’s warped, exaggerated memory of their own youth. These are versions of themselves that feel so far away, now that they’ve more or less got their lives together. We feel that distance in the surreal nature of the flashbacks.
Secrets and Lies (1996)
Secrets & Lies is Leigh’s most lauded title as far as awards are concerned. It picked up the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Secrets & Lies also received five nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is the only Leigh film to do so. In the Criterion Collection special features for the film, Leigh cites the film’s theme of adoption for its success. Few films before and after had dealt so intimately with the consequences of adoption on not just the child but the families. In Secrets & Lies, racial tensions, class tension, and buried secrets complicate everyone’s feelings toward each other.
About Secrets & Lies
When Leigh first told his collaborators about the film, all they knew was that “it was about a young black woman seeking her birth mother,” in the words of Dick Pope.11 The character’s name turned out to be Hortense Cumberbatch (a breakout role for Marianne Jean-Baptiste). She is an upper class woman who seeks out her birth mother after her adoptive parents die. Her birth mother is Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a working class woman and mother to the soon-to-be-21 Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook).
We follow Hortense, Cynthia, and Roxanne, as well as their extended family (played by Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, and more). At Roxanne’s birthday party, all the characters come together and all the secrets and lies come out. An earlier Leigh film, High Hopes (1988), also features vignettes in several different households of an extended family. In High Hopes, a birthday party also brings them all together. The tensions in High Hopes were both political, set in the time of Thatcherism, and familial.
Get our ebook on Mike Leigh’s process
“One of the finest film-related texts of 2019.” – The Film Stage
With Peterloo in Process, uncover the magic behind Mike Leigh’s working process as told by the man himself and the people who work with him.
Excerpts from Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration
Podcasts on Mike Leigh and Peterloo
- Marc Maron, “Episode 940: Chris O’Dowd,” WTF With Marc Maron, Podcast audio, Aug. 9, 2018, https://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-940-chris-odowd.
- Mike Leigh, Katrin Cartlidge, and David Thewlis, Audio Commentary on Naked, (DVD: The Criterion Collection Spine #307), Disc 1, 1993), https://www.criterion.com/films/220-naked.
- Alex Heeney, “An interview with Mike Leigh,” Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration, ed. Alexandra Heeney and Orla Smith (Toronto: Seventh Row, 2019), 33.
- Orla Smith, “An interview with cinematographer Dick Pope,” Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration, ed. Alexandra Heeney and Orla Smith (Toronto: Seventh Row, 2019), 43.
- Orla Smith, “An interview with editor Jon Gregory,” Peterloo in Process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration, ed. Alexandra Heeney and Orla Smith (Toronto: Seventh Row, 2019), 153.
- Mike Leigh and Howie Movshovitz, Mike Leigh: interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 22.
- Leigh, Cartlidge, and Thewlis, Audio Commentary on Naked, https://www.criterion.com/films/220-naked.
- Ben Dowell, “Mike Leigh JMW Turner biopic turns Timothy Spall into obsessive painter,” Radio Times, Oct. 28, 2013, https://www.radiotimes.com/news/2013-10-28/mike-leigh-jmw-turner-biopic-turns-timothy-spall-into-obsessive-painter/.
- Smith, “An interview with cinematographer Dick Pope,” 62.
- Ibid, 48.
- Ibid, 45.