6 Filmmaking Tips from Mike Leigh

By  · Published on February 4th, 2015

Sony Pictures Classics

Mike Leigh is one of few filmmakers who could say something like, “Given the choice of Hollywood and poking steel pins in my eyes, I’d prefer steel pins” without suggesting even a hint of hyperbole. Leigh is deeply principled in terms of the dramatics, process, and politics of filmmaking, and we’re all the better off for it. The filmmaker made a name for himself with acutely humanist works of British social realism that bore some inheritance to the “kitchen sink” tradition, but imbue drama with a type of wit, spontaneity, and empathy that is simply inimitable. Leigh’s patient, improvisatory, and collaborative process appears seriously counterintuitive from the perspective of commercial filmmaking, and as a result produces human dramas that are deeply felt and strikingly insightful.

And in his early seventies ‐ after making a dozen feature films and even more TV programs ‐ Leigh is still finding new, seemingly unlikely means of representing life through the moving image. His most recent film, Mr. Turner, was his first to be shot digitally. It’s a surprising move for a period piece, but Leigh and longtime cinematographer Dick Pope use the relatively new technology of capturing 21st century images in order to depict how painter J.M.W. Turner found new ways of capturing 18th century images.

So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who has realized the best performances by your favorite British character actors.

Improvisation Should Be an Arduous, Time-Consuming Process

“The world of the characters and their relationships is brought into existence by discussion and a great amount of improvisation … And research into anything and everything that will fill out the authenticity of the character…I’ll set up an improvisation, I’ll analyse and discuss it, we’ll do another, and I’ll refine and refine until the actions and dialogue are totally integrated. Then we shoot it.”

From an interview quoted in the compendium “Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh,” the filmmaker explains what his oft-mentioned process of improvisation actually means. With period films as complex and varied as Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake, it would seem anathema to inject the supposed anarchy of improvisation into material that requires historical verisimilitude. But like John Cassavetes (whose revolutionary Shadows was very important in his development as a cineaste), Leigh approaches improvisation as a time-consuming, developmental, and structured process of involved collaboration, not the free-for-all it’s erroneously assumed to be.

There’s Richness in the Relationship Between Characters and Their Environment

In this appreciation of Turner’s paintings, Leigh reveals a great deal of what made him attracted to a story about Turner in the first place, and moreover what motivates him as an artist and filmmaker in general: his interest in the relationship of characters to their environment. This is key to what makes Leigh so unique as a filmmaker, and what gives his film the striking realism that they each possess regardless of the fact that he’s often depicting different types of British life, across time and space. Understand and explore the relationship of characters to their environment ‐ these relationships are essential to appreciating who these characters are. This is also useful for making biopics and period pieces that aren’t subject to the genre’s trappings: understand that your characters have never resided in a vacuum of context.

Embrace What’s New; Cinema Will Survive

That’s bollocks, in a word,” Leigh says, with a sort of half grin. “It’s a ludicrous statement, because apart from anything else, it’s a backward-looking statement that is irresponsible. I remember a time in the late ’70s when people said, ‘Cinema is over.’ There are young filmmakers doing all sorts of fantastic things and part of the reason that’s possible is the democratization of the medium because of a new technology, so [Quentin Tarantino’s generalization that digital is ‘TV in public’] is twaddle.”

Between television and film, and capturing images via celluloid or video, Leigh has embraced an array of means that looks forward to new and different opportunities for bringing characters to life onscreen. For what it’s worth, European filmmakers (from leigh to Ingmar Bergman) have been making great films on television for decades. Also, “twaddle” is a great word to use when dissing someone.

Criticism is Important, But Access is More Important

By asserting that, “People get off on engaging with a world that they absolutely believe in or relate to…,” Leigh here attempts to put the rest the supposed wisdom (and, frankly, the condescending assumption) that only dedicated aesthetes look to cinema for profound, difficult truths. To see one’s life (or anything otherwise relatable) can be a powerful, moving experience. And yes, it bears repeating, identification with onscreen characters and their circumstances can actually be entertaining as well. So let’s move on for the assumption that “ordinary” people only go to the movies for escapism. It’s important that audiences have an opportunity to make these decisions for themselves.

Remember Not to Work

“The nature of what I do is totally creative, and you have to get in there and stick with it. The tension between the bourgeois suburban and the anarchist bohemian that is in my work is obviously in my life, too…I started to pull myself together. I didn’t work, I simply stayed at home and looked after the boys.”

It’s often repeated that one has to live in order to make art about life. But there’s also living for it’s own sake as well, not as a means for better, fresher work. Although Leigh as a filmmaker has proven a dedicated advocate for the overworked, underrepresented underclasses, and in his career has focused on working for art for aesthetic, humanist, political expression rather than any possible commercial end, in some respects the most radical thing a creative leftist can do is choose not to work at all.

Take Your Gut Seriously

“No, I’m not an intellectual filmmaker. These are emotional, subjective, intuitive, instinctive, vulnerable films. And there’s a feeling of despair…I think there’s a feeling of chaos and disorder.”

What We’ve Learned

Mike Leigh has been nominated for Best Screenplay five times by the Academy, and in each instance he has actually had to transcribe a screenplay after the completion of the film. In other words, Leigh has had to make a legible construct of a film’s blueprint according to the conventional and assumed “rules” of filmmaking in order to be recognized by the film industry’s established institutions. This illustrates how much wide of a gap exists between Leigh’s view of filmmaking and the dominant practices of film industries, the irony being that if Leigh had played by the rules by bothering to write a screenplay beforehand, he would not have made a film so exceptional as to be recognized after the fact.