Talking With Mike Leigh on Indies, 3-D vs. Reality and ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’

Mike Leigh

Sitting down with Mike Leigh was a little intimidating. Strange considering he’s about half my height (exaggeration), but he’s an accomplished filmmaker and not from Hollywood stock so I felt I had to be on my A-game.

The main reason I sat down with him was to talk about my thoughts on his fantastic film Happy-Go-Lucky (my review here), my theories on its protagonist, Poppy, as played by Sally Hawkins and see if my idea on what the film was all about was up the right alley or way off base. As it turns out, I was on the right track, which meant we were able to move onto more interesting things such as independent filmmaking versus Hollywood and even better, a recent quote from DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg saying how he felt all films would soon be shot in 3-D, a ridiculous statement of course and Mike had a few things of his own to add.

Interviewing Mike was on the cusp of my experience level, but he’s a welcoming conversationalist and I think I pulled off a unique conversation with the man that made one of the best, and most intriguing, films of 2008 so far.

The interview spans two pages and on the first page we talk a little bit about Happy-Go-Lucky but it isn’t long before we get into some really good conversation about independent films compared to Hollywood and it gets even better once we get into the 3-D conversation on page 2. Trust me, this is an interview you will enjoy reading it doesn’t matter if you don’t know Mike Leigh’s filmmaking career from a hole in the ground. Just know he is a well respected independent filmmaker with five Oscar nominations to his name and I expect he will be looking at possibly one more in 2009. (That is if logic has anything to do with Oscar nominations.)

I hope you enjoy…

Several critics have have voiced a negative reaction toward Poppy and perceive her as a blindly happy person, but I didn’t see it that way at all and have a hard time believing that was your intention.

Mike Leigh (ML): Well I think it is a ridiculous reaction to the film.

And it seems like a popular reaction even to some people who like the film. Have you felt like you are defending the character more than anticipated?

ML: I don’t really see it as defending the film as much as disagreeing with that rather dumb view of it. Sure, it’s called Happy-Go-Lucky, the title simply evokes an atmosphere. But actually, she is, plainly, if you watch the whole film and were paying attention in some shape or form, you get that she is intelligent, focused, sensible, committed, hard working, professional, grown-up, mature woman with a great sense of humor and a great sense of fun. The idea that she is not all those things is simply dumb, and that’s all that needs to be said about it.

I read a quote of yours where you say your films are motivated “by an anger at the way the world is so screwed up.”

ML: Yes it is, but — I don’t know when I said that, I don’t have a recollection of saying it —

It was during the Happy-Go-Lucky interviews with indieWire.

ML: Really? Well that’s interesting because there’s no question that my films are motivated by love of life and love of people. So that’s important too. They’re about real life.

I was going to ask, based on that quote, if the state of the world now will affect your coming films…

ML: Yes, I think that’s right. Indeed, the real point of that is we can sit around lamenting the way we’re destroying the planet and everything else that’s going on, but while we may do that there are people getting on with it. Poppy is one such. Teachers, people that nurture the future and those acts of optimism.

But the kids Poppy teaches, these are the grandparents of the 22nd century, you can’t teach those kids without being positive.

You have also talked in the past at how hard it is for you to sometimes get a budget for your films.

ML: It always is. I’m the guy with no script, I won’t talk about casting and I won’t talk about the content. You give us the money and we go away and make the film and don’t interfere with us. Not all backers are interested in that proposition. [laughing]

Based on that, would moving into a Hollywood production be an act of selling out?

ML: It would be a way of selling out. There’s absolutely no reason in contemplating it. And why should I? I’m a European filmmaker I have no reason to be in Hollywood. I’m a European and I make films out of my territory, which is England, and I have no more reason to be in Hollywood than a filmmaker from Senegal.

How would you describe that difference in being a European filmmaker and what you see coming out of Hollywood.

ML: The point is, some very good things happen in Hollywood, in Hollywood terms. But Hollywood is a thin slice in world cinema, at any given moment there’s all kinds of activity going on around the world in terms of filmmaking, but Hollywood, for reasons that are rooted in history, dominates the world market and the means of production, exhibition and distribution.

If you want me to quantify the fundamental difference, for a classic Hollywood film to be made, a lot of people of all shapes and sizes have made a whole lot of decisions have planned a film out to the last infinitesimal detail before anybody sets foot outside the door and shoots anything. Whereas, I for example, make films that are all about getting out there and exploring and investigating creatively without vast committees of bone-headed executives deciding — Can you imagine the Hollywood version of Happy-Go-Lucky? We would not be having the conversations we have been having, about the tensions between is it this or is it this? because it would all have been ironed out and something terrible would happen to her. Fuck knows what would happen to her. It would have nothing to do with what the film is about.

The real point is I’ve got the greatest respect for Hollywood, and when we get nominated for Oscars and things I’m very happy to be a part of that, it’s great. Because it’s about my peers respecting what I do and about films getting in front of audiences. We are in show business, we’re not trapeze monkeys, but we are independent filmmakers from Europe and that’s where we belong and that’s what it’s about.

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