Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh by Amy Raphael (Editor)

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Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh by Amy Raphael (Editor)

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Andrew Lawston
Reviewed by Andrew Lawston
Summary: Acclaimed director Mike Leigh discusses his lengthy career in a series of interviews ranging from early successes such as Abigail's Party to the recent glories of Vera Drake. Fascinating reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571204694

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Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh is an intimidatingly chunky book. The director himself stares out of the cover, holding a camera lens up to one eye. It's a fitting image for Mike Leigh, a simple representation of a man in love with the cinematic medium, but who has never sacrificed his emphasis on characterisation and human emotion within his films.

Fitting, but slightly unfortunate, as he looks quite a lot like a Borg from Star Trek.

This book is an edited series of interviews between the auteur director and Amy Raphael, which spans the length of Leigh's film career from his earliest pieces (Bleak Moments, Hard Labour) through to his most recent pieces such as Vera Drake and Secrets and Lies. After a lengthy introduction where he talks about the lengthy improvisation-heavy rehearsal periods that have become a hallmark of his style, the book is ruthlessly chronological. Each film gets a chapter, with a synopsis of the work being discussed at the start. This was useful to me as I was only truly aware of Leigh's most recent work – Secrets and Lies, Vera Drake and Topsy Turvy – and it gives the reader a strong frame of reference for the interviews, which go into a lot of depth.

It becomes clear quite quickly that Leigh was not a particularly easy person to interview in this manner. Amy Raphael says as much in her introduction, but later when discussing films his irritation shines through even the careful editing. At one point Raphael asks if some element of Abigail's Party was autobiographical, and Leigh wearily points out that she's asked that about every single film they've discussed. It quickly turns out that he loathes the filmed version of Abigail's Party, despite it having made him a household name in the 1970s. His initial reluctance to talk about it is gradually eroded, and it becomes quite a lengthy chapter, but at one stage it looks certain to be curtailed!

One thing that I hadn't realised about Mike Leigh's films was that there's no script to speak of. The film is developed in rehearsal through improvisational 'investigations' of the characters, and so everyone knows exactly what they're doing when they come to shoot. The actors only know as much about the plot as their characters know, and everyone is sworn to absolute secrecy. It's a fascinating idea, and many many pages are devoted to discussing it. Memories of school drama lessons have made me very wary of improvisation, and Leigh seems to be very aware that his method might look pretentious – he keeps insisting that he doesn't make the actors talk about their characters in the first person or anything. In fact he sometimes contradicts himself in this way, but as he's been working to the same method for over forty years, presumably things have developed over time. He keeps saying that all the actors he's worked with have been behind his way of working, but quips that George Coulouris (of Citizen Kane fame) once quit a film project: 'He thought it was bollocks.'

Frustratingly though, there are still elements of his technique that he is reluctant to discuss, retaining a bit of mystique. Given that so much of the book centres on these improvisational processes though, it's a bit like being given a jigsaw with half a dozen missing pieces.

I suppose it's fair to say that people are only going to be reading this book if they value Mike Leigh's films, and if they like Mike Leigh. For myself, he comes across as being extremely easy to like. He's a left-wing atheist, which resonates with my own values, and he likes a lot of things that I like. Godard and especially Truffaut are regularly cited as heroes, and he identifies his early work as an attempt to emulate the French Nouvelle Vague. He tells anecdotes about the Fitzroy Tavern (former drinking den of Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Augustus Johns, and my favourite pub in the world). He spent a lot of his youth going to the theatre in Stratford (and actually he still does, as I sat behind him at a matinee performance a couple of years ago), and he's spent his career working with actors I have an immense amount of respect for, from Tim Spall to Alison Steadman.

There's also the odd bit of sniping at peers, which is always gratifying in this kind of volume. Revenge is a dish best served cold in a swipe at Dennis Potter following a bad review thirty years ago. Johnathan Miller gets the same treatment a couple of pages later.

The point I'm trying to make is that there's something for everyone in this 420 page monster interview. Those interested in acting get to read about the incredibly ambitious improvisations that take place before anyone even touches a camera. Those interested in the nitty-gritty of film-making get lengthy technical sections talking about lenses, lighting and film stock. The most incredible names are dropped in abundance, from Albert Finney to Imelda Staunton. And Mike Leigh himself is a relentlessly interesting man, with views on just about everything, but an incredible reluctance to play the critic.

Essential reading for any student of cinema, and I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

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Buy Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh by Amy Raphael (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh by Amy Raphael (Editor) at Amazon.com.


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