(01/05/08) – Journalist Amy Raphael had the privilege of hearing British film director Mike Leigh speak about his work and method first hand, the result of which is in a new book that came out in mid-April. Below is an excerpt of the book where the author tells us about the genesis of the work.
At some point in 2005, Leigh asks if I’d like to work on this book with him. So I spend that winter watching twenty-two of his films. There would have been twenty-three, but the BBC, deciding to save space, wiped and lost forever the half-hour studio play Knock for Knock (1976). It’s a long winter, but also an absolute luxury to watch over three decades of films – from 1971’s Bleak Moments to 2004’s Vera Drake – in chronological order. As his 1971 debut suggests, some of Leigh’s work is bleak – sad, desperate even. It can be excruciating: the bleak, suburban embarrassment, the social solecism. Yet, ultimately, it’s rewarding. You don’t forget these films after leaving the cinema. They are films that stay with you, decade after decade.
Although he may not see them as his best films, even Leigh will concede that the language of the characters in Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May has entered the vernacular. So, bleak perhaps, but also hugely funny. Ricky Gervais, Caroline Aherne and Julia Davis certainly think so – all have openly cited Leigh as an influence. Some critical viewers are uncomfortable with all this laughter: are we laughing with or at Beverly in Abigail’s Party? If the latter, they ask, then surely Leigh is patronising his characters, many of whom are working or lower middle class. The charge, then, is that these characters are caricatures. It’s tempting to ask the cynics whether it matters that we laugh with or at Gervais’s David Brent.
In their commingling of bleakness and humour, Leigh’s films recreate the tragi-comic world of people whose lives are far from glamorous. Although heroic at times, these people are not heroes in the Hollywood sense: they simply do their best to get by. Leigh’s is a world where realism triumphs over hollow beauty. it’s a world in which ‘the done thing’ prevails, where people behave as they are expected to rather than being themselves.
Although not overtly political in the manner of his peer Ken Loach, Leigh’s films have certainly captured and even defined eras: look no further than Meantime, the 1984 Channel 4 film that evokes perfectly the alienation and boredom of Thatcher’s unemployed youths.
Above all, however, Leigh’s films deal with universal themes; to have children or not; not being able to have children; the breakdown of relationships; family secrets. He is, by nature, a storyteller and a film-maker. Consequently, his films tell great stories – particularly his most recent offerings. Leigh often quotes Jean Renoir, who said that all film-makers make the same film over and over again: ‘I know I return to the same preoccupations, but I’m not always aware of it initially.’
Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.