On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris meets beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas–a woman like none he’s ever known. But just as he realizes he’s falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he is up against the agents of Fate itself–the men of The Adjustment Bureau–who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path…or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.
Watching Mike Leigh’s ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ is a surreal experience. Leigh’s films are best known for their hard-hitting gritty social realist factor; ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, as its name suggests, is anything but. The film, Leigh’s first since 2004’s much praised ‘Vera Drake’, centres on Poppy (Sally Hawkins) a young London based primary schoolteacher with an unstoppably sunny disposition. At first, you’d be forgiven for finding Poppy difficult to watch- her sheer optimism is overwhelming. Yet, as Leigh’s ‘anti-miserablist ’ (his words) story continues and Hawkins shines through as one of Britain’s true acting talents, you can’t but feel happy and lucky to be part of Poppy’s universe. On a recent trip to Dublin, Leigh told us about his venture into Poppy’s positivist world, explaining it’s no less real or illuminating than those gritty films he has done before it.
Q: This film is a lot lighter than your previous works. It does occasionally deal with some dark themes, for example isolationism. Are these themes important or is it Poppy’s positive attitude you hope people come away with?
I think a film should be a cornucopia of experiences; a banquet of all kinds of dishes- protein, carbohydrates and, of course, some sweets thrown in. I hope that’s what this is. I mean, yes it has a fluidity and lightness to it and you go on this journey with Poppy but actually we drop anchors throughout of darker, more serious and more contemplative issues. It’s Poppy’s energy, her momentum that allows the wheels to turn and bring you back. I think no film, or indeed, any piece of art is interesting unless it has all these things going on.
Q: How did you approach writing and directing ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’?
I start out with a feeling, just a sense of things and I work from there. I don’t really have a script; I work with my actors and crew and we arrive at something by the process of blindly making it. The two things I started with for ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ were this feeling of energy I’ve mentioned and the other thing was a very definite plan to make a film with Sally Hawkins at the centre; we’ve worked together before on the two previous films and I could see she has this very extraordinary energy. Of course it’s very different from what she’s done for me in the past, not least from the sad, raped, pregnant, upper class girl who goes for a posh abortion in ‘Vera Drake’.
Q: How do actors find working without a script?
They love it – it’s an adventure. You don’t know what you’re going to do from one day to next. I mean we arrive at something very scripted. We rehearse for six months, and that doesn’t mean we rehearse the actual script of the film for six months. We arrive at the action of the film by creating these characters in a completely three dimensional way – by devising and exploring every facet of their lives. There is a massive amount of discussion and research, and a huge amount of improvisation. In the end it’s not an intellectual exercise, it’s very practical. So the entire crew, not just the actors, have to be totally trusting, open minded, sharing, professional, practical, hard working, loving and honest with each other. My films are known for this, it’s a famously friendly film set to work on cause you need to develop this deep foundation in order to get to a personal place for filming.
Q: Aside from your film crew, where do you look for inspiration?
No artist can block out or suppress the way other art stimulates your work. Whether it’s directly something you’re interested in or even crap that stimulates you into thinking what you’d do differently. And of course, you can be stimulated obliquely- I was walking down a street recently and I heard a woman say on her mobile phone, “I had to force feed her the milk” and just the lack of context, you become intrigued and it can be a source of inspiration. If you are interested in life and certainly if you are interested in depicting life on the screen, it all becomes influential.
Q: How difficult is it to finance films like this?
Sure it’s difficult, I don’t have a script. I won’t discuss casting. If I’m approached with a load of money but told you’ll need to cast Nicole Kidman (and I don’t mean disrespect to Nicole, I mention her only as a metaphor for Hollywood) I’ll walk away.
Q: So you’d consider yourself anti-Hollywood?
Well, I mean there is a lot in Hollywood I admire. I loved ‘There will be Blood’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’. I saw the trailer for ‘Juno’ too and of course I thought f**ck I don’t want to see this but I went, under the advise of friends, and it was terrific- so smart and witty. Do I reject everything out of Hollywood? No. But what I do, do, is hold it as something very different from what we do in Europe. We are here, that is somewhere else. I’m not involved in any kind of genuflection or migration.
Q: Is this a very British movie?
Well it’s a European film and very much contextual to what’s going on in our world. ‘Happy Go Lucky’ for me is an anti-miserablist film. We are living in disastrous times, destroying the planet and so on, but people are getting on with life and being positive about it and that’s what Poppy is doing. So in that sense it’s a ‘now’ film. I also try plug in to things that are my own preoccupations. So for example in all my films you’ll find a running theme of the tension between people with a sense of humour and people without and that’s the relationship between Poppy and Scott. It’s something throughout my films but of course there are specific stories that make each film distinct.
Happy-Go-Lucky is in Irish Cinemas Friday, April 15th.
WORDS: Ian Finnerty