We chat to director Mike Leigh and star Sally Hawkins about ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, which hits DVD shelves this week

In a surreal twist to his character, Mike Leigh show us his sunny side in his latest film ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. Best known for those hard-hitting gritty social realist films, his latest film ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, as its name suggests, is anything but. The film, Leigh’s first since 2004s 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.

Movies.ie spoke to the lead actress and director about the Happy-Go-Lucky – out now on DVD.

Q: Compared to your other films ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ has a far more positive tone. How do you think your fans will react to that?

Mike Leigh: Well personally, I think 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 the film?

Mike Leigh: 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.

Q: And how is for actors to work without a script?

Sally Hawkins: It’s so creative with Mike. You never usually get that opportunity to work so closely with a director. To get to discuss every tiny detail, to contribute to everything from costumes, to make-up, to what she looks like, what she’s thinking and how she thinks, it’s a really gift. It’s certainly hard work but I love working. And, as I said, to get to work one to one with a director like Mike, to get to build up a character from the beginning, as an actor, it’s certainly worth it.

Mike Leigh: 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:Is it difficult to go work with other directors after Mike?

Sally Hawkins:Well yes. Going on to work with another director can be hard. I always take a slight breather after Mike. Mainly because I’d find it difficult to go onto working some other way. To be honest, if I could, I would work with Mike for the rest of my life. I know that there are different ways of directing and they have their own merits. Some directors don’t need to do that or don’t feel they want to. They want to investigate worlds in different ways, but Mike’s way suits me. I love it. I really love it.


Q: Aside from your film crew, where do you look for inspiration?

Mike Leigh: 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:Are you anything like Poppy?

Sally Hawkins: It’s interesting because she has a real sparkle and love of life. She’s incredibly sociable and I am too but Poppy is on another level. I mean, I’m smiley, optimistic and I do love life so in that sense we ran parallel. There are other times were we split and had to rely on the script. I learned a lot from Poppy. She is about getting on with life. It’s very easy, especially in this day and age, to be negative and defensive but Poppy recognises that she’s been dealt a nice card in life and she celebrates that and realises life is to be celebrated. Of course life can be hard, some harder than others, but it’s about getting on with it and she does that. I love and respect that in her.

Q: How difficult is it to finance films like this?

Mike Leigh: 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?

Mike Leigh: 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 advice of friends, and it was terrific- so smart and witty. Do I reject everything out of Hollywood? No. But what I do 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: And what about you Sally: Will Hawkins go Hollywood?

Sally Hawkins: Not at the moment. You know, it sounds corny, I haven’t ever been to L.A but if an interesting script came along wherever it was, L.A, France, Ireland, I’d jump at it. I just want to do good work with interesting characters that I learn from. Also to get a chance to work with interesting directors, casts and crew. So you know, if Paul Thomas Anderson gave me a call… (Laughs).

Happy-Go-Lucky is out now on DVD.