I’m one who finds it difficult to see living characters on typewritten, well-formatted pages of a movie script. I suppose that’s why I feel a kinship (that of a very distant relative) with the likes of Mike Leigh—and that for more reasons than that we are the same age (71) and height (5′ 7″).
Mr. Leigh, as I’m sure you know, follows the road less traveled as a moviemaker. Instead of sitting at a desk staring at Final Draft and ploughing through three acts, he carries the concept to rehearsal where talented and creative actors bring the story to life.
I’ve just finished viewing (again) “Another Year” (2010) which received one Oscar nomination and another ten wins and thirty-one nominations. As the story unfolds on the screen one feels as if he’s sitting in a room or standing on the street with real people, in real-time, doing real things.
I was taught early on that characters and stories should be larger than life because no one purchases a ticket to see the commonplace. I’ve since learned that what fastens our minds to the screen as much as spectacular computer-generated imagery is a sense of, “Yes, I know how she feels;” or “Yeah, that’s the way my family behaves.”
Not surprisingly, Leigh lists Yasurjiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” among his top ten favorite movies. Their styles bear an unmistakable resemblance.
One observes several commonalities that flow through movies written and directed by Mike Leigh. He leaves wiggle room for good actors to improvise so that the character’s live and breathe and take on characteristics one might not have imagined while typing on a page. He hires actors that can do just that.
Here’s the way he’s quoted in the February 13, 2005 edition of the New York Times:
The truth is, I remain the guy with no script who is very unforthcoming about what the film will be about and who won’t discuss casting, which is the biggest sin of all. I will not talk about a film, even if there is a massive budget, if there are strings attached about casting.
And so he picks actors willing to spend months developing their characters.
I get the impression that he only vaguely has a preconception about how a film will end. I smile and sigh as I remember having my head jammed with climax, resolution, dénouement, and the like. One of my favorites from his repertoire, as I’ve already mentioned, is “Another Year.” In the end, he throws us just a bit of hope for a tragic character, then snatches it away rather than let us have our way with it. After all, there are not many things in life that we’re allowed to put our own ending on. A teaching from the Old Testament states a theme repeated in every religious system since man first looked outside himself for the answers to life: Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21).
Here’s Mr. Leigh’s philosophy of how he closes out a movie:
I always think it’s important for the audience to walk away from the film with stuff to work with, to think about, to wonder what happened next, and argue about and reflect on. For me, the film you can happily walk away from and never think about again is not as good value as the one that you take with you and deal with, and savour the flavour for some more time to come (www.actorhub.co.uk).
So, for the screenwriter, Mr. Leigh’s method is worthy of more than a casual look. His method probably will work for only one in a thousand writers, but he teaches us something valuable about the script to screen process. And at the top of the list is that our character’s must have room to breathe, and our action must be flexible. Space for the actor, and space for the director. It’s a matter of open-ended creativity—and trust. In other words, the final draft is best written in a rehearsal room and on the set.
An ideal setting for a movie company on location should find the director and actors gathered around a writer who sits with a script on her lap, a magic marker in one hand, and a pencil in the other.
I recommend viewing, or viewing again, “Vera Drake” for a taste of Mike Leigh’s brand of work. Talk about relevancy. The movie is based on the true story of abortionist Vera Drake, who’s beliefs and practices clash with the mores of 1950s Britain. A conflict that leads to tragedy for her family. A movie that came to life during long rehearsals and on the set. A classic example of a movie written and directed by…