Mike Leigh’s process and techniques

Mike Leigh’s process and techniques
Mike Leigh talks to Sue MacGregor about directing, writing and the 2011 production of Grief. This is a recording of a live event from October 2011.
Leigh began as a theatre director and playwright in the mid 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s his career moved between directing theatre and making films for the BBC, many of which were characterised by a gritty “kitchen sink realism” style.
So what makes Leigh’s work so special? What is it that he plucks from these very talented actors to make these ground breaking pieces?
Every actor has come across the work of Mike Leigh in one way or another. His unique style of devising, creating and directing has produced numerous film, theatre and TV classics since the early 1970’s. He has been nicknamed ‘the bard of bleakness’ but he has certainly established himself as one of the most controversial and uncompromising British dramatists and film maker. He has tackled some of the most thorniest issues of class, race, politics and sexuality.
One of his most famous pieces being Abigail’s Party, which starred Alison Steadman back in 1977,certainly got him noticed with audiences. Steadman is only one of many well known actors who have worked with Leigh, who have him to thank for their big break into the business. Veteran actress Liz Smith made her debut at the age of 48 when she performed in Leigh’s Bleak Moments in 1971, which was part of the BBC’s Play for Today series.
Most playwrights and filmmakers may sit at a desk, with paper, PC or a battered old typewriter and plough away at a script until it’s eventually unveiled to the world. But Leigh is different. Instead of the paper and pen, he uses a rehearsal space full of actors as his medium and therefore as his inspiration.
The finished outcome is never really planned beforehand, it evolves and builds as Leigh and his actors work together. Unlike other films, his stories not always have a ‘beginning, middle and end’ which can sometimes leave the audience a little perplexed as the films can be feft ‘open ended’. But that’s good for Leigh.
“I defy anyone to walk away from any of my films and say exactly what the message is. I never have been concerned with making black and white, simplistic message films that leave you in no doubt as to what I want you to think. I’m far more concerned that you come away from a film such as this reflecting on the way we live from various points of view.”
“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.”

Mike Leigh – his process and techniques

Mike Leigh's rehearsal process with the actor
He may not be sitting at a typewriter, but he is creating, moulding, writing and distilling all the information.
Alison Steadman
Leigh always begins his project process without a script. He usually starts from a basic premise or storyline which is developed through lengthy improvisation by the actors. He begins working with each actor on a ‘one to one’ basis. The actor is then asked to create a list of people who he or she knows or has known. They can be close acquaintances or people that you have met briefly. This list is then whittled down and shortlisted and eventually a new character is formed using various characteristics, vocalisations and mannerisms from this chosen bank of people or even from one individual.
It can be a long process, as the character changes and manifests itself into a unique, one off character which has been based on realism and truth. The actor, with the help of Leigh, builds an elaborate alter ego, mapping out the character’s life in fine detail, down to even how their parents met, and exploring every nook and cranny of his psyche. All this is scrutinised by Leigh and the process is a very private affair between the actor and the director himself.
The world of the characters and their relationships is brought into existence by discussion and a great amount of improvisation – that is, improvising a character. And research into anything and everything that will fill out the authenticity of the character.
Mike Leigh
Once these individual characters are formed seperately, Leigh gradually brings the actors together for a series of useful improvisations that help to build up their collective world. None of the actors know anything about the film or theatre piece other than their own place in it. Characters maybe introduced to one another for the first time during an improvisation which would have happened just as in real life. After a while, the actors, as their characters, go out on the streets to interact with each other characters and even with the unsuspecting public, while Leigh looks on from a distance. Leigh took Alison Steadman, as her character Beverley, out shopping to the supermarket which would have then given them both food for thought. This process can take up to months to complete, and the improvisations don’t stop there. More rehearsing and improvisation is also done right up to shooting of the film.
“Having worked at the characters for ages, the actors can go into character and do a wonderful improvisation that might go on for one or two hours non-stop. That doesn’t give you a scene. That merely suggests a scene. My job is to distill that into something that happens in a few minutes and says just as much. And indeed says more, because obviously my job is also to inject things into it and edit things out, and to open up stuff that’s dormant.”
I’ll set up an improvisation, I’ll analyse and discuss it, we’ll do another, and I’ll refine and refine until the actions and dialogue are totally integrated. Then we shoot it.
Mike Leigh
Leigh writes an outline of scenes which then can become a general outline for the the final film or play. The actors improvise specifically around these scenes, while an assistant takes notes. The best lines and moments are then distilled and scripted, and shooting can at last begin. This whole process can take up to six months. There are many more hours of footage created than what is actually used in the final product. For the actors all that footage is still there and extremely important to them. What the audience sees is just the tip of the creative iceberg that Leigh and his actors created.
Dick Pope, a director of photography, who worked with Leigh is no stranger to his methods. “I often don’t get to see any scene until I arrive on set and like Mike, the actors, and everybody else involved, I have no idea where this journey of discovery will take us. It’s a bit of a magical mystery tour but with Mike very firmly in the driving seat.”
It may be completely new to the crew on the day of filming, but it ‘s all planned in Leigh’s mind beforehand. “What I shoot is quite structured. Though the dialogue may at times be improvised, the intentions are all planned and very precise.”
Timothy Spall says, “You create the character on the basis of someone you know, and you build an entire reservoir of information about that character. What you don’t know you invent. And through a painstaking moment-by-moment creation of this person’s life – where they went to school, what their preoccupations are – you produce a character.”

David Thewlis on Naked

David Thewlis on Mike Leigh
Many Mike Leigh fans began their respect for his work back in 1993 when Naked was released. It couldn’t be more different than the effervescent Happy Go Lucky. Naked made a star of David Thewliss who plays the main loud mouthed lead Johnny, in this black, dark and depressing drama. Thewlis’ performance as a chain-smoking, drunken agitator is thrilling and without him there would be no film. Thewlis described the rehearsal process as being ‘super intense’ and very hard to forget:
“There are very strict rules. You’re not allowed to come out of character, unless Mike says so, no matter what is happening, short of it getting too violent in a way that Mike may not realize.It happened on “Naked” with me and Ewen Bremner. I had a sharpened screwdriver and I nearly attacked him with it. I was thinking of stopping the improvisation because I was thinking: The character will stab him, but Mike doesn’t know I’ve got the screwdriver.”
Most parts I’ve played since “Naked” I can barely remember who they were, let alone repeat any lines…. But I remember lots of things about Johnny’s life. It was super-intense.
David Thewliss
Leigh even sent Thewlis to a morgue to get psychically connected to the character. “Mike sent me to see a dead body. I was surprised, as we hadn’t said that Johnny had seen one. He thought it might help compound my fear of death. I was like: My fear of death’s pretty compact, thanks mate. He sent me down to a morgue. It’s a very bizarre story. The mortician was a major lunatic. It was horrific, not because I saw dead bodies but because I met the guy who cuts them up. He was a real freak.”
“Most directors don’t work that way because they don’t need to. If you already have a script, you don’t need to do all that work. The actors in Mike’s films contribute an enormous amount to what they say. And that’s not just me, but every actor who’s ever worked with him.”

Spotlight on Sally Hawkins

Sally Hawkins on Mike Leigh
Actress Sally Hawkins, who is no stranger to Leigh’s work has been working with the director since playing her minor role as Samantha in All or Nothing in 2002. She then worked with him again in 2004 on Vera Drake, which helped her understand even more about Leigh and how he created a film from scratch via a series of improvisations and rehearsals. Sally really came into her own when she landed the main role in Happy Go Lucky.
Happy Go Lucky was well received as it was a more upbeat, cheerful, colourful and a bit of a romantic comedy, unlike a lot of Leigh’s recent dark and moody classics.
Mike never stops pushing. As an actor you are constantly being tested and going to places you never thought you could go to
Sally Hawkins
“Mike’s way of working makes complete sense to me because you’re creating these real people and the worlds in which they live. He has to be very secure that you not only know the character’s history but also what they had for breakfast that morning, what books they’re reading, what they’re watching on the television. You’re chomping at the bit to go and when he releases you, it’s like a spring. It’s like stepping into a different life that is already set up.”
“But every day presented a different challenge. It felt at times like I just had to keep running, to keep going from scene to scene with lines learnt only days – and, sometimes, minutes – before the camera started rolling. Mike never stops pushing and searching, looking in every corner at every detail. As an actor you are constantly being tested and going to places you never thought you could go to. I think Poppy’s spirit and energy helped me through. It was a joy to jump into her skin; she is light and funny, with a very twinkly, naughty sense of humour.’
  • Bleak Moments (1971)
  • Hard Labour (1973)
  • The Permissive Society (1975)
  • Knock for Knock (1976)
  • Nuts in May (1976)
  • Abigail’s Party (1977)
  • Kiss of Death (1977)
  • Who’s Who (1978)
  • Grown-Ups (1980)
  • Home Sweet Home (1982)
  • Meantime (1983)
  • Four Days in July (1985)
  • The Short and Curlies (1987)
  • High Hopes (1988)
  • Life Is Sweet (1990)
  • A Sense of History (1992)
  • Naked (1993)
  • Secrets & Lies (1996)
  • Career Girls (1997)
  • Topsy-Turvy (1999)
  • All or Nothing (2002)
  • Vera Drake (2004)
  • Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
  • Another Year (2010)
  • A Running Jump (2012)
List of plays
  • The Box Play (1965)
  • My Parents Have Gone to Carlisle (1966)
  • The Last Crusade of Five Little Nuns (1966)
  • Individual Fruit Pies (1968)
  • Glum Victoria and the Lad with Specs (1969)
  • Bleak Moments (1970)
  • A Rancid Pong (1971)
  • Wholesome Glory (1973)
  • The Jaws of Death (1973)
  • Dick Whittington and His Cat (1973)
  • Babies Grow Old (1974)
  • The Silent Majority (1974)
  • Abigail’s Party (1977)
  • Too Much of a Good Thing (BBC radio) 1979
  • Ecstasy (1979)
  • Goose-Pimples (1981)
  • Smelling a Rat (1988)
  • Greek Tragedy (1989)
  • It’s a Great Big Shame! (1993)
  • Two Thousand Years (2005) Grief (2011)