Cult director Mike Leigh has given us thought-provoking cinema and hard hitting themes over the years in films like
Last year he brought us the multi-award winning ‘Happy Go Lucky’, a slightly more cheery movie but his latest film starring Jim Broadbent and Lesley Manville returns to the more serious topic of unhappiness and growing old. Brogen Hayes met up with the cult director on a recent visit to Dublin.
Another Year was created through collaboration with your actors. Did you know what you wanted from the film going in?
ML: When I make these films I discover what the film is, while I go on the journey of making it. It’s created in collaboration – not only with the actors – but with the cinematographer and the designers and it is very much a film making thing. I start off with more of a sense… a feeling about stuff really. In any case, the actual subject matter is different – Another Year is about a lot of things. I have kind of tapped into ongoing preoccupations that you can see coming up time and again. I did have a very strong sense that I wanted to make a film… having made Happy Go Lucky, which is about young-ish people. I decided, having done that, that I wanted to make a film to look at and investigate us lot who are knocking on a bit.
How much did the actors know about what you wanted? ML: Nothing! The deal is – come be in a film, can’t tell you what it’s about and you will never know anything about it except what your character knows, but we will invent the character. So nothing! They never actually do, until they see the finished film. I think it’s impossible to explore characters or situations in a completely organic way, so that for example, when Tom and Geri come back from the allotment and Tom is there with Katie – this began life as complete improvisation so they only knew what they would know. That’s part of the box of tricks that helps me to get the story.
Alan Rickman gave a talk at the Abbey Theatre earlier today and he said that actors are the channel between the script and the audience. Do you think this is true for your films, even though you don’t use a formal script? ML: That’s very interesting, because obviously there isn’t a script. I suppose, in a way, that I am the channel between the substance and the audience. It’s very interesting – when Alan says that, in a way what he’s talking about is based on the notion of the actor doing what he or she does based on an overview of the play. There is no question that Alan – who is an actor that does overview of play acting, and he does it very well – makes intellectual, rational decisions about how to modulate interpretations of the text in order to communicate the ideas to the audience. That is all absolutely legitimate and it’s a whole convention. What my actors do is completely down the other end of the spectrum because they have no over view of anything because they don’t know what it is that they are taking part in. That isn’t to say that they are being treated like idiots or fodder – indeed, they are liberated in many ways and it is very stimulating for them – they see this world, believe in it completely and they see in their character as the centre of that universe, like we do in real life. They put all their energy and creativity and intelligence into making the character real. So in a way, the responsibility of the actor – that Alan is implicity talking about – to make decisions about how to communicate the ideas of the thing to the audience – doesn’t really apply. That’s what I do, with my editor.
There is a lot of mention of Ireland in Another Year, how did that come about? ML: Well that’s where they go for their holidays. Sometimes they might go to France or somewhere else, but they would go to Ireland. We just make these things up, basically! If you want to talk about more symbolic Irish things in my films than that is, you have to look at Naked. In Naked you have two things. You have a man who carries around this picture of a cottage in Ireland and his dream is to go and live in it. Whether he is actually going to or not is a different issue. Then again, I made another film called Four Days in July, which is entirely made in Belfast, and I regard it as my Irish film. So the whole Irish thing in my films is something that has a wider context. I think that because of the people that Tom and Geri are – like a lot of people do – they like Ireland!
Was it a conscious decision to go for a darker tone after Happy Go Lucky? ML: Yes, although Happy Go Lucky is not without it’s depth and darkness in places.
What do you find is the biggest challenge in working in a collaborative process? ML: Well ok, working the way we do – we don’t know what we are going to do and we are going to get out there and prepare and make things up so that on a certain date we are going to go out there and make up a film and shoot it on location. It is – by any standards – dangerous and terrifying and diarrhoea inducing – so that is the biggest challenge; the terrible threat that I won’t get it together or it won’t happen or it will be a fuck up… Or that we will make a film that is interesting. That’s the challenge – to make a film that is interesting or to make a film that means something in some way. Since I have now made 19 full-length films in this mode, the challenge is to make sure you don’t wake up one day and it’s stopped happening.
What do you hope audiences will take from the film? ML: This is not the kind of film, where you can say it’s about ‘this’… ‘This’ is the message. Each audience participant must take what he or she wants to from the film. I always want audiences of my films – and this one is absolutely no exception – to walk away with stuff to care about, stuff to argue about, stuff to reflect on, stuff to ponder and also to resonate with your own experience. Therefore I am hoping that it will be an enriching experience for the audience. That’s as much as you can ask for. Also – I make no bones about it – I am in the business of entertainment. I am in showbiz. My films are, hopefully, as funny as they are tragic. Life is hewn from the seam, ready made, comic and tragic. I hope people have a laugh and a cry.
Words – Brogen Hayes
Another Year is in Irish cinemas from November 5th