Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Mike Leigh

Getting Topsy-Turvy

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Mike Leigh is a smallish, wispy sort of man. But after only a few moments, you know who is in control of the room. He can be, by turns, condescending, charming, guarded, and funny. You may not realize, sitting in the room with him, that he is the greatest living British director, and the third greatest of all time, after Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell. Even though I was a little disappointed by his newest film, Topsy-Turvy, he commanded my respect.

Topsy-Turvy marks a bit of a departure for Leigh, who usually does contemporary tragicomedies like the brilliant High Hopes (1988), Life Is Sweet (1991), Naked (1993), and Secrets & Lies (1996). Topsy-Turvy is a tragicomedy, but it is also a period piece, a costume drama, a true story, a biopic, and a musical. Leigh disagrees with such traditional definitions, though. "I think if you scratch the surface, it's not so different as all that. I don't regard it as a biopic any more than I regard it as a musical. It's an attempt to get to the essence of the spirit of all this. We take these events of 1884-5 and breathe life into them."

Leigh explains why he decided to take on the movie, which tells the story of composers Gilbert and Sullivan as they grapple with a potential break-up and the creation of their Japanese-influenced opera The Mikado. "To some extent I felt the need to do it partly because I just thought it would be interesting. Everybody else does it, why shouldn't I? But also, if I'm honest, I see so many period films that annoy me. I just wanted to make a period film where people are like people."

Leigh's working methods are by now well-documented. No one else works quite the way he does: "In what is called the rehearsal, we don't actually rehearse. We don't go through scenes [because] we don't have any scenes. What we're doing is improvising characters, going through their relationships over the years, and doing the research and whatever else. Then I write the shooting scenario which is no more than 3 or 4 pages, which simply says, 'scene 1--Johnny and woman, scene 2--Johnny steals car, scene 3--Johnny drives to London'. And it says day or night, wherever, and that's all it says. And I've sort of imagined my way through it. Then scene by scene, we go to the location or to the set, and we improvise. And through that, through rehearsal, we structure it and then we shoot it." In other words, despite the distinct and potent "writing" style of Leigh's films (he takes credit himself), no one ever writes anything down on paper. A finished screenplay never emerges--not a tangible one anyway.

Leigh doesn't seem to be a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan or The Mikado. "The Mikado has as much to do with Japan as fish and chips," he deadpans adding, "I have no interest in musicals whatever. I've never done a musical and I have no intention of doing one. I do theater work pretty infrequently. On the whole, my passion for the movies is not matched by a passion for theater. As long as I'm making movies I'm very happy to have nothing to do with the theater. I find it boring and sterile. Making Topsy-Turvy is as near as I get to enjoying the theater."

Yet, watching Topsy-Turvy we get the genuine sense that all the characters know The Mikado inside and out. Leigh says that they did not stage any more of the opera than we actually see on screen. "The key to it is research," he says. "If I was to set myself and my collaborators to the task of making a film set in 1385, I think we'd be up against it. But 1885 hangs in our recent culture. I was taken to see The Mikado at the age of six in 1949. When I was growing up in the forties and fifties, it was very much a Victorian world still. [I lived in] the great Victorian city, Manchester. I went to a Victorian school. I was taught by people born in the 1890's. I lived in a Victorian house. We read Victorian literature. The Victorian brass bands played in the Victorian parks. Indeed, Gilbert and Sullivan was part of that culture. So it's kind of accessible, really. By absorbing it, by immersing ourselves in it... You name it, we researched it. By doing that it made it possible to bring it to life."

Another question that hangs over the new film is whether or not audiences not familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan will understand it. Leigh is adamant, "I absolutely insist that you don't have to know a thing about Gilbert and Sullivan to enjoy and understand the movie. I think if you've never heard of Gilbert and Sullivan the film will work for you. Those people who traditionally hate Gilbert and Sullivan may stay away. But then there are people who will stay away because it's a Mike Leigh film. You don't make a film called Naked and expect that all the clergymen in the world are going to go and see it. Quite a lot of people have said, 'I really hate Gilbert and Sullivan, but I loved [the film].' As to those peculiar freaks, the Gilbert and Sullivan fans, they're like pigs in shit."

Whether he makes a musical or another tragicomedy, Leigh by now cannot be separated from his unique working methods. Leigh himself sees both the pros and the cons; "the problem with my projects, is that it's all up and running. It's happening. It's not like you can shelve it. You can't put the script away. That's a kind of fail-safe. The very fact that I can't say, 'well I'll put this away and do something else.' Or 'I'll do a bit of writing today.' Or 'I'll go for a walk.' Or 'I'll do some reading.' Or 'I won't work until tomorrow.' I can't do that. I have to be there first thing in the morning and do it. And we have to deliver it and the shooting date is there, and it makes us have to make a film. And I think that that is a terrific bonus. At the end of the day, if you're in the business of being creative and making a piece of work... if you're going to do it, you may as well get on and do it."

Dec. 13, 1999

Movies Unlimtied