"We create this world that 'lives' in front of the camera...in such a way that it has the quality of having lived before the moment in front of the camera and will go on living afterwards."
- Director Mike Leigh
We've recently covered films that reveal ordinary people having to deal with extraordinary circumstances, but master filmmaker Mike Leigh brings out the extraordinary in the ordinary. Part of that stems from his deep commitment to develop and explore the characters and their situations with each actor and with each key crew member; part comes from his dedication to the art of film.
Naturalism, shadows and light, multifaceted yet simple and profound – these descriptions apply to all aspects of his films. The characters, the sets, the photography, the lighting...all are artistic, polished to a fine sheen, yet presented with an uncontrived realism. We immediately step inside the lives of each of his characters, particularly so with his newest film ANOTHER YEAR, framed through the lens of four seasons.
Longtime couple Tom [Jim Broadbent], a geologist, and Gerri [Ruth Sheen], a therapist, exude comfort, happiness and compassion. They genuinely and generously delight in the joys and empathize with the lows experienced by friends and family. Their equilibrium balances Mary's [Lesley Manville] garrulous neediness, Joe's [Oliver Maltman] melancholic insecurity and the quiet despair of Tom's brother, Ronnie [David Bradley]. It's not surprising that the heart of the film is their home. The essence and vagaries of life are reflected through their allotment, a garden plot nearby. From working through a downpour to radiant sunlight, full harvest to frost and bitter cold, they tenderly and steadily nurture their garden and their life.
SET DECOR spoke with Leigh about his process in creating some of the most deeply affecting and honest films of the last two decades, his unique collaborative immersion, and his current insightful film work, described in the NY TIMES as "splendidly wise".
"My collaboration first is with the actors to bring into existence the characters and their relationships...a world, really. Before too long, the production designer and the costume designer start to tune in to what we're doing."
"At that stage, I do not necessarily have a clear conception of the film itself. I mean, I'm always thinking about the film and that motivates the decisions that I make in terms of the way I'm guiding the whole thing, BUT, we don't yet know where we're exactly going in terms of the practicality of what we're going to see. What's important is that the production designer and costume designer, and, indeed, [the set decorator and] the makeup designer, start to tune in."
"One of the great designers that I have worked with, Allison Chitty, the production designer on LIFE IS SWEET, NAKED, and SECRETS & LIES, invented the term 'surgeries'. Thus, the designers have 'surgeries' with the actors, which is merely to say that they have meetings with the actors where they find out about the characters, about their world, about their background and experiences—everything."
"It's very much about character acting...being the characters and not just playing themselves. From the very earliest stage, as soon as people are on their feet starting to find the character, we get costumes on the actors. We have temporary rehearsal costumes, just as we have temporary environments...more about how it feels than how it looks...so they can start to improvise and be the character. The job, of course, for the designers, is to find out about the world [we envision] and then start to think creatively about [bringing about] the actual thing."
"There is also, always, a very necessary and majorly important stage of the proceedings, where I sit down with the designers and Cinematographer Dick Pope, who shot all of my films for 20 years, and I give some kind of outline as to what is going around in my head. For example, HAPPY GO LUCKY was a film where I was able to say, 'This character is bursting with energy and positivity, so I think it's going to be primary colors.' ANOTHER YEAR is a film about so many things that it was quite elusive to be able to talk about what it's actually about. I described the film, and don't forget this is not like a conventional thing, this is me talking in a putative way about what I think we may be doing. It's quite hard sometimes, but you have to start sharing something. The result was that Dick Pope, working with the designers, shot tests. They came up with four different looks, and those different looks suggested to me four seasons. So it's a rather organic process."
"Now, there comes a time when I HAVE to start to say what sort of possible locations we're going to incorporate. Sometimes we talk about locations that in the end we don't pursue. What is important is that choices about artifacts include the input from the actors. The job of the designer is to design...the designer is the designer, the decorator is the decorator...nevertheless, the sharing with the actors is terribly important, because if you're looking at somebody in their environment and we've collaboratively 'created' this world, then this has got to be a realization of that world. The designer will bring an extra layer to it, the design layer, that has got to square with my own conception of the film...an organic envisioning of the environment. Then, of course, a good set decorator...and we get good ones, obviously...gets on the wavelength, gets the hang of it and goes out and finds the right things."
"Finally...actually, we're missing a whole stage of the development, obviously...but finally, we get into the location after it's prepared and dressed. I spend time in there with the actors, and we move things around a bit. I mean...it's a shared process. Of course, in the end, it's all about making movies. It's all about creating images on the screen. And in the end, whereas the actor might say, "Well, I think they would have hung that painting there," when we're shooting, we might say, 'Well, actually, let's put that back, because that's going to work in this shot.' But it has all come from an organic process."
"The same is true of the story, the relationships that happen in the film and all the rest of it. We create this world that 'lives' in front of the camera...notwithstanding that the family is fiction...in such a way that it has the quality of having lived before the moment in front of the camera and will go on living afterwards."
Sense of place
From the warmth of Tom and Gerri's home to the arid bleakness of Ronnie's house and the cemetery, and on to the cyclical earthiness of the allotment, ANOTHER YEAR has a restrained but distinct sense of place.
"The whole thing about making films in actual film locations is that it's not all about characters, relationships and themes, it's also about place and the poetry of place," Leigh muses. "It's about the spirit of what you find, the accidents of what you stumble across."
"Film...it's great to be able to take this extraordinary invention from 1896 and capture the world, capture the poetry of the physical world."
Architecture is often a subtle but significant factor in Leigh's films. "I like to see through a doorway, frame through a doorway, particularly in this film," the director notes.
"I'm fascinated by buildings," he reveals. "A number of writers and artists, and various people at the Royal Academy in London, have been asked to each talk about a particular edifice. I'm going to discuss the British Museum and the old Euston Railway station that was pulled down, and the relation to some of the heritage buildings that people don't notice, but should. I'm very concerned with these things."
"There's a comment in the film from Tom that he wasn't into history before, but now he's reading a book called THE GREAT STINK OF LONDON, about Basil Ghet who designed the London Main Drainage system, which, of course, is related to what Tom's actually working on at the time."
"The river Thames came right up by the Strand until the 19th century when Basil Ghet built the Thames Embankment. That's particularly relevant to any of us who have lived in central London, because they've been digging up the streets for the last several years to replace the Victorian sewage pipes."
In the film, geologist Tom is having core samples taken in that area so he can determine the safety of erecting new public works buildings."
Color and light are painterly, but realistic. In the final scenes, Mary is resting her head on a red pillow, the only spot of warmth in the now wintry palette of the sitting room. She is still desperately trying to grasp any true human connection, if only the remnants of a shattered friendship.
When asked about the symbolism throughout the film, Leigh comments, "Everything's on purpose, and some of it's so sophisticated that people don't see it. I wouldn't want anyone to get hooked on it being a feast of symbolism," he continues. "But the fact is, the film is of the four seasons...and it's called ANOTHER YEAR...it is a metaphor for life."
He observes, "The film is about the cyclical nature of life...of the inevitability of our fate. It's about memories and it's about looking forward, for some with joy and for others with horror, at old age and all the rest of it, you know..."