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.
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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; encourages the actors to work with department heads to decide where characters live, what they wear, and how their hair and makeup should be done; and he encourages cooperation across all technical departments to ensure a unified look.
Leigh’s directorial approach is quietly radical, starting with little more than a basic premise for a film and developing 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: Vera Drake (2004) was about a backstreet abortionist in the 1950s; Mr Turner (2014) was about the late years in the life of the painter J.W.H. Turner; Peterloo (2018) was about the Peterloo Massacre.
The actors often know even less, because they are only permitted to know what their individual characters would have known. In Vera Drake, the actors playing Vera’s family did not know she was an abortionist, or that the film would deal with abortion at all — until they improvised the scene halfway through the film where Vera is 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, always based on real people the actor knows personally. Leigh and the actor work together to invent the particular 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. Leigh asks that, through improvisation, they decide on the past they have in common, up to the very moment the film begins.
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 — 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, the actors not only received background reading list but also were involved 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.
During the rehearsal process, characters, scenes, and story take shape, and Leigh keeps his department heads abreast of any developments. In part because there is no script to work from, heads of department must listen to and respond to the inclinations of the actors. As soon as the actors arrive at the point in their improvisations where the film’s story begins, they meet with 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’s process is geared towards empowering every actor to do his or her best work: “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 backstory and background for the characters has been established, Leigh names a situation — the location, the characters present, the circumstances — and he lets the actors determine how they would react to this context through improvisations, during which dialogue is recorded. Leigh then edits the improvised dialogue down into a cohesive script for the scene. The full script for the film usually isn’t finished until shortly before shooting, but there will be a general outline of what happens in each scene and where the events take place, so that locations can be scouted, costumes designed, and camera tests completed.
Once the sets have been created, Leigh and his actors rehearse the scenes on set, as 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 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, and 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 now, they 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]
The final step is the edit, and 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, allowing him to do more visually. Leigh leaves Gregory to do most of the editing on his own, coming in at key milestones to check what’s been done and discuss any changes that need to be made.
Mike Leigh’s process for working with actors
Mike Leigh’s process for working with actors is uniquely collaborative: he spends months with them in a rehearsal room, improvising, to create characters and scenes. It is relatively straightforward to imagine how that works for contemporary films with original, fictional characters, like Happy-Go-Lucky or Another Year. But Leigh follows the same process for his period films, which are based on real people, from Topsy Turvy to Mr Turner, and most recently, Peterloo — mixing historical research with improvisations.
This unique mix of collaboration, improvisation, and script-writing has led to the misconception that Leigh’s films are co-written with the actors. While the credits on his early films read “devised and directed by Mike Leigh,” rather than “written 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 explains in the Criterion Collection DVD audio commentary for Naked, Leigh decides on the circumstances and the situations; his actors are only allowed to make decisions when their characters would make a decision. 7 As Maxine Peake clarified to us in our interview, the actors improvise the dialogue for a scene; Leigh edits and gives it dramatic structure.
When Leigh’s films are in production, they are “shrouded in secrecy” 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 in the process of making: famously, even the central characters in Vera Drake did not know they were making a film about a backstreet abortionist until they were halfway through making it — when their characters found out. Even in rehearsal, Leigh refuses to discuss any of the characters’ motivations or backstory openly, and the actors are forbidden from discussing the work outside of the rehearsal room.
To understand exactly what goes on inside the rehearsal room, in Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration, we talked not only to Leigh, but also Maxine Peake and Rory Kinnear, two of the leading actors in Peterloo. Though Peake’s character, Nellie Ogden, was entirely fictitious and Kinnear’s, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, was based on a real person, they both described a similar character development process, involving research and improvisations. 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, and then, 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, deciding the ins and outs of their entire life up until the point where we meet the character in the film.
If characters have a shared history, as was the case for Peake’s Nellie Ogden, the actors craft that history together through improvisations. When I 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 in the film, the actor will have worked out a complete backstory for that character with Leigh.
During the rehearsal process, the actors also have the opportunity to collaborate with the film’s costume designer, production designer, and makeup designer. In most films, costumes are handed to actors, who show up on the day of shooting to discover what their characters’ attire looks like. In a Mike Leigh film, however, the actors are involved with making these decisions, so actors use costume design as another means of crafting their character and making 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, allowing 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. As Kinnear explained to us, by the time an actor is on camera at the start of the shoot of a Mike Leigh film, they have a fully fleshed-out understanding of their characters and are 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, or 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 personality and history of a character in much the same way an actor does. Most of the time, when an actor plays a key character in one of Mike Leigh’s films, they will spend months rehearsing with Leigh to learn who their character is before the heads of department come on board to help express the character’s identity through everything from set design to skin appearance. It’s through the designers’ visual work that we get to know these characters: we learn about their vanity, socio-economic status, loves, hates, barbs, vices… all through how they dress, wear their hair, or decorate their homes.
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: “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, and I had this moment where I stood there thinking, ‘How would Tim Spall playing Turner paint in this room?’ So, for an afternoon, I painted in that studio. I chucked paint about, 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.”
On Mike Leigh’s films, Davies, along with hair-and-makeup designer Christine Blundell, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran take part in what they fondly call “actors’ surgeries.” During the late stages of rehearsal, the department heads gather in a room with an ac tor after the actor has fully developed their character’s personality and history. Davies, Blundell, and Durran hotseat the actor, asking 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.
On most films, heads of department rarely get to collaborate so closely with the actors, even though they often state that they would like to. Tight production schedules and busy actors do not always leave time for it. Leigh, however, ensures that he builds time into each film’s schedule to allow for that communication and these “surgeries,” allowing Blundell, Durran, and Davies to tailor their work specifically to what the actors have already envisioned. The actors can then use the work of these heads of department to immerse themselves in the film’s world more thoroughly and before the shoot.
Davies, for instance, has to think about both the big picture and the smaller details within her production design. In a film like Peterloo, Davies’ task was to not only find a big outdoor space that would accommodate the production’s logistical needs and 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. In line with that characterization, Davies 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.
The large scale of a film like Peterloo was a challenge for all three of these creatives. Durran designed costumes for the main cast with detail and character specificity, even though it was much larger than on most Mike Leigh films. For the crowd scenes at Peterloo, involving hundreds of extras, she needed to make hundreds of working class costumes of the era because they did not already exist in any costume house. She also had to overcome the challenge of designing costumes for characters in the massacre scene without knowing which of these characters would end up wounded. Blundell moved all these extras for the massacre scene quickly through the main makeup bus, and then 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. Even though the working class characters in the film do not wear makeup, Blundell still had to work on their faces 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, or it is 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 editor Jon Gregory who chooses what we see. Leigh’s penchant for ensemble scenes is filtered through Gregory’s eye: he controls whether we see these in mid-shots, close-ups, or wides. There are so many choices for how to cover these scenes, which are often quite long, meaning Leigh needs an incredibly skilled editor.
Gregory is 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) and have been working together on and off since, on films like Naked (1993), Secrets & Lies (1996), and Mr. Turner (2014). Outside of his work with Leigh, Gregory has worked across genres and styles on Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, The Road, A United Kingdom, multiple films with Martin McDonagh, and more.
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
From Gregory’s description, editing is the one part of Leigh’s process that hews closely to what we would consider traditional filmmaking. But Leigh’s films still come with their own specific joys and challenges: Gregory has to make his first assembly without the aid of a script. He edits while the film is shooting, which means he often receives scenes out of order and has to guess where they might fit in the film’s overall narrative. Since Leigh does not use storyboards, Gregory is left almost fumbling around in the dark. In the case of Peterloo, he edited a 20-minute unscripted battle scene with almost no guide other than the scrambled footage he was given.
Like all of Leigh’s collaborators interviewed in Peterloo in process, Gregory also loves working with Leigh. Gregory describes Leigh’s deep trust in his collaborators: Leigh has very little involvement in the actual edit, leaving Gregory to work his magic almost independently until the final stages.
Lockdown Film School masterclasses
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: one of carnage rather than triumph, one that ends with tragedy and unfinished labour rather than success and social change. In other words, despite its broad canvas, including more than a hundred characters acting out historical events, Peterloo is every bit a Mike Leigh film: peppered with flawed, complicated characters, inspirational because it is 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 and yet no representation in the Houses of Parliament. In this era of post-war economic depression, with rising food costs due to the protectionist Corn Laws, 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 (and became known as Peterloo) 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. Leigh introduces two distinctive groups — the ruling upper classes and the working classes — as a means of offering insight into two opposing worldviews. The authoritarian upper classes suffer from a sort of groupthink. They are uniform in opinion, perspective, and even dress. Worse, they are rigidly hierarchical: Peterloo opens on individual soldiers fighting at the Battle of Waterloo, but only the General is publicly recognized with a title. By contrast, the working classes (including those same soldiers, who have now come home) are strongly individuated and organize themselves in an inherently democratic fashion. As a group, the activists are united in working toward the same goal, but they are still not afraid to disagree. There is no “Great Man” narrative here; the closest thing to a superstar among the activists, talented orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), is also a peevish diva. Kinnear’s Hunt is an insufferable celebrity to be tolerated by the people doing the real work — the vessel for delivering the message, not the mastermind behind it.
Another Year (2010)
Another Year is a slice-of-life dramedy about one year in the life of an aging couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), and the family and friends in their orbit. The film premiered in the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and Leigh earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the 83rd Academy Awards.
The film’s structural conceit — a story divided into four seasons — was devised when cinematographer Dick Pope conducted camera tests for the film. Pope told us, “One of the most important tests we ever did — and Mike would agree with me — was for Another Year. 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 (it was the last film we ever did on film; it’s been digital ever since). I did a summery look, a wintery look, an autumnal look, and a spring look, and 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
While Broadbent’s and Sheen’s stable, loving couple is the sun that all the other characters orbit around, the film isn’t exactly about them. The film begins with a woman played by Imelda Staunton whom we never see again after her first two scenes, in which she tells a doctor and then a counsellor (Gerri) about her insomnia and depression. It 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 noted Manville, a Leigh cast regular, as the standout of the film, and fans of the film and her performance were disappointed at what they considered her Oscar “snub.”
Career Girls (1997)
Career Girls centres around a weekend-long reunion between two old friends, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), 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, although 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. Dick Pope’s cinematography in the flashbacks, too, is blue and grimy and handheld, as opposed to the contemporary scenes which 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.
Career Girls is one of Leigh loveliest films, an ode to female friendship and 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), but it’s beautiful for the way 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.
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 and received five nominations at the 69th Academy Awards, including Best Picture — the only Leigh film to do so.
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), 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 who is also 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) up until the climactic scene of the film: Roxanne’s birthday party, when all the characters come together and all the secrets and lies come out. The structure is similar to an earlier Leigh film, High Hopes (1988), which also features vignettes in several different households of an extended family, until a birthday party brings them all together. There, it was the political tensions in the time of Thatcherism and just a general vitriol within the family unit that caused things to boil over at the party. Perhaps Secrets & Lies appealed to a wider audience because there is more affection within the family unit, but racial tensions, class tension, and buried secrets complicate everyone’s feelings toward each other.
Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh Collaboration
About the book
Peterloo in process: A Mike Leigh collaboration, pulls back the curtain on how Leigh builds films in which every frame feels real and full of life.
To give you the trademark Seventh Row 360-degree view of Leigh’s process, we’ve interviewed all of Leigh’s central team on his new film, Peterloo: not just the actors, but also the heads of department he’s collaborated with for years. We uncover how Leigh’s process involves rehearsal and improvisation, historical research, and collective brainstorming across all departments.
Inside, you’ll find interviews with Mike Leigh, DP Dick Pope, production designer Suzie Davies (Peterloo and Mr Turner), costume designer Jacqueline Durran, makeup designer Christine Blundell, actors Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake, and editor Jon Gregory.
Snag Peterloo in process and learn how some of the most profound character studies of the last four decades came to fruition.
Excerpts from Peterloo in process
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.