- "Making People Think Is What It's All About":An Interview with Mike Leigh
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The following interview took place at Leigh's London office in January 2007, long after the release of Vera Drake (2004) but before the completion of Happy-Go-Lucky (2008).
You've been making films for well over thirty years now. Why do you think they caught on in the United States only in the late 1980s or early 1990s?
I don't know the answer to that. I suppose if you stick with anything long enough (laughs) . . . It's partly because I made a feature film in 1971 [End Page 1] called Bleak Moments, which was quite successful in a very limited way, though it had no real commercial life. It won a couple of prizes in international festivals. And between that and 1988, which was seventeen years, I, like a huge number of British filmmakers, didn't get to make feature films, but made feature-length films for television. And it wasn't until High Hopes (Figure 1), in 1988, that I made my first proper, albeit low-budget, theatrical film since Bleak Moments. And it's really only since then that the possibility has been there to have any international profile.
What enabled you to make the jump from television to features after all those years?
There was a change in the circumstances in the UK. They simply changed the rules. They changed the approach to television films and did what we all had been talking about for years, which is to say, make the films on 35mm film, give them a theatrical life, and show them on television two or three years later.
Your films have proven quite popular in America, yet they're distinctly British in subject matter. What do you think American audiences see in them?
I don't know. I just do these films. They are not in any way exclusively English or British or London films. They are in that milieu, obviously, but the issues in the films are issues that I intend to and expect to cross any barriers. As to why they're popular specifically in the United States insofar as they are—because they're only popular in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and a few other cities—maybe it's because they're good.
Unlike many Hollywood films, they're about real people in real situations.
I feel that's entirely true, implicitly. Every film I make is implicitly an anti-Hollywood statement.
Stephen Frears, who also got his start on British television, has become a successful Hollywood filmmaker. Could you ever make that jump?
No. I think it is neither desirable, nor attractive, nor feasible. Stephen Frears does so, and he does it very well, and I admire him for it. But he's a different kind of filmmaker. What defines what I do as opposed to what he does is not a question of budget or scale, it's that I make very personal, idiosyncratic films of a particular kind, of which I am author. He is, in the best possible sense, an eclectic, craftsman-like, jobbing, versatile director. He can take any kind of screenplay and make it work. I can't do that, and I'm not interested in doing that. It's not my job. I'm an authorial filmmaker. I plough this particular, slightly mad, lone furrow. So there's no logic to my going to Holly wood to do what I do. If Hollywood wanted to hand over the money with no strings attached for me to do the films that I do, fine. That is what they should do, actually. But they won't do that. They can't do that. They're pathologically incapable! But it's not an issue for me, really, provided I can keep getting the money from elsewhere to carry on developing my own particular rantings...