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Mike Leigh’s Organic Storytelling in Another Year

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Another Year is the latest film from director, screenwriter and multiple Oscar-nominee Mike Leigh. Regarded as one of England’s most distinctive filmmakers of the last 20 years, Leigh’s body of work includes Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Vera Drake (2004) and Topsy-Turvy (1999).

Mike Leigh on the set of Another Year
Mike Leigh on the set of Another Year

Divided into seasonal chapters from spring to winter, Another Year loosely tracks the calendar cycle with quotidian and profound life-cycle changes of a circle of family and friends, from a surprise wedding engagement to a bitter funeral. Their haven is the London home of whimsically-named Tom and Gerri, a happily married middle-aged couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, both Leigh-film regulars as are most of the rest of the brilliant ensemble cast. Not so happy are the couple’s drop-in friends, especially Gerri’s desperately needful co-worker Mary, in a critically-acclaimed performance by Lesley Manville.

As is Leigh’s usual practice, Another Year began with long improvisational rehearsals. The actors, working with the director, helped create their characters and much of their dialogue. The absence of a conventional script represented a challenge to the production keys. Making it easier, most had previously collaborated with Leigh on a number of films including director of photography Dick Pope, BSC; editor John Gregory, ACE; costume designer Jacqueline Durran; makeup and hair designer Christine Blundell and composer Gary Yershon. New to the team is production designer Simon Beresford.

Leigh recently spoke with Below the Line about the making of Another Year, which opens in theaters on Dec. 30.

Below the Line: Could you talk about the unique way your films come together?

Mike Leigh: I make these films with no script and, also just as important, they are made with no interference from anybody else. I and my actors all start by spending a substantial amount of time in extensive preparatory rehearsals. It’s usually about six months, though a little less on Another Year because we had quite a tight budget. During this time, I work with the actors and we develop the characters and bring into existence the whole microcosm which is the world of the film.

What we finally shoot has been very precisely rehearsed and thus, in conventional terms, is tightly scripted. But I don’t go away and write a script separately and in private. The precision of the writing, of the action and the dialogue is something I arrive at from very thorough rehearsals. We prepare a situation that enables us to go out and shoot and make it up as we go along so that it’s organic and grounded and has a foundation. But nothing you see on screen is improvised on camera – it’s all very highly rehearsed and distilled down.

BTL: What is prep like for your production team during this evolutionary period?

Leigh: Again, in terms of the actual preparation of the production, there’s no script. So the production keys can’t do the normal thing of reading the script and thus getting an idea of how to prepare for the picture. There always comes a point when I talk with each of them about the film that is emerging. At that point, we start to shoot tests to decide on the look of the film, start to look for locations, do all those usual conventional things.

What’s important is that the very detailed invention and creation of the characters and their world that goes in that preproduction period is something that the production designer, the costume designer, the makeup designer will also join in on so they can tune into the world we are creating. The actors are also very much involved in creative decisions from a character’s point of view, like where they are apt to live, and what their place looks like.

BTL: How did you and your longtime DP Dick Pope decide on the look of the film?

Leigh: He shot some tests, which resulted in four different looks. When I saw those I came up with the idea of the four seasons, which was a way of crystallizing the ideas that were floating around in my head at that point. That became a metaphor for the progress of life in the film. So there are four looks–four spirits that you see on the screen. Each has a different visual style, was shot on different film stock and treated in a different way during postproduction.

BTL: It must have taken a lot to adjust for changes in nature that occur over 12 months when the shoot was only 12 weeks long.

Leigh: There are some very clever people out there who you can pull in to do interesting and remarkable things to foliage plants – not to mention those who can provide you with artificial frost.

BTL: Your cinematographer’s framing of individual characters full-face, either to the left or right of the screen instead of in the center, helped maintain visual interest.

Leigh: Having shot the previous film, Happy-Go-Lucky, on widescreen, we decided to do the same on this, employing that interesting offset composition. Dick and I have been shooting films together for the past 20 years and we are absolutely on the same wavelength. He is brilliant, no question about it.

BTL: How much did you shoot on a set and how much was on location?

Leigh: It was all shot on location. There is no studio work in there at all. Tom and Gerri’s house is in East London and we took it over and production designer Simon Beresford dressed it for the requirements. We also used an actual hospital. But even though these are locations, it’s all about proper creative production design; and it’s also important that the production designer and myself, as well as the actors are all involved in some research. That makes the result accurate and not generalized – it’s very specific in the details.

BTL: John Gregory, your editor, has worked with you on many of your previous films. Does he start editing while shooting is still going on?

Leigh: He starts cutting as soon as we start shooting. He starts assembling it in the old-fashioned studio way. It’s important because from time to time he might say, ‘I think you need to reshoot this,’ or ‘we need an extra shot.’ The important thing is that he is on the go with it, so that when we get to a certain late stage of the shoot we can do an assembly of some of what we shot just to assess what we’re up to. The fact there is no script means that we don’t have the same overview that we would if we were working in a more conventional way.

BTL: What is your involvement in the overall editing process?

Leigh: It’s total – absolutely total. It’s like the work I do with the actors, or the cinematographer – I have really good people who can do their thing and bring their creativity to it. But the editing is very precise on the kind of films I do. So I’m very much there with the editor and it’s very much down to my final decisions. And indeed I also work very specifically with Gary Yershon, the composer.

He will begin by offering up a number of possible of themes. We make choices, discuss possible instruments. But what I do in a certain sense is direct the music so it works in an integral way. It’s not a matter of going on holiday and coming back just for the recording sessions.

BTL: There are very long stretches in the film without any music at all. You are comfortable with that?

Leigh: The strength of scenes that don’t have music informs the scenes that do. If you use music where it will underpin the mood then it’s great, but having music all over the place devalues it. The impact is stronger when there is no music at critical stages. We experiment with it. Musical possibilities were at one point or another sketched in. But the actors said no, the scene would breathe better without music, or the music would kill it.

BTL: Did you use a temp score while filming?

Leigh: Of course not. Those conventions are there to appease interfering producers. But we don’t have interfering producers, so we can get on with it in the proper non-Hollywood way, so we don’t have to bother with temp scores.

BTL: The challenge for your costume designer Jacqueline Duran, also a frequent collaborator, was to come up with a contemporary wardrobe that’s apt. What was your input?

Leigh: As always in my films, we create the characters and get them going. Then she will join in and discover what the characters are talking about. We also have a policy of getting together a range of things a character would wear in real life, without quite knowing at that stage just what the scenes are going to be or what the requirements are.

We wind up with a character’s wardrobe on the go rather than pre-picked. Then we start to make decisions on what we’ve got. It’s all based on a grounded foundation, so there are not random decorative costumes that she’s produced arbitrarily. We also have a strict discipline about only using clothes that those characters would buy, could buy and could afford. The great thing about a brilliant costume designer like Jacqueline is that given all those disciplines, she is still able to be imaginative in order to expand the possibilities and give that extra touch that will define the characters in an interesting and appropriate way.

BTL: For your central character Mary, it’s not just the clothes but her makeup that define her. You use the same principles with the makeup?

Leigh: Absolutely. Christy Blundell, who got the Oscar for the makeup on Topsy-Turvy, has worked for me for 20 years. She’s brilliant at making people look like they are real people you encounter on the street. She knows when to use makeup without using makeup or looking like she’s not using makeup. At certain points we accentuate the lines around Mary’s eyes – the aging that’s going on. You can see that she’s still hanging on, trying to be the young woman she once was and also terrified of the old woman she’s going to be. You can see all that in her face.

BTL: What is your next project?

Leigh: I’m now trying to raise the money, which is a great deal more substantial than anything I’ve had to come up with before, for a film on William Turner the great 19th century English painter. I want to do it along the lines of Topsy-Turvy, my period film about Gilbert & Sullivan.

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