Humour in my films not uniquely British, says Happy-Go-Lucky director Mike Leigh

07-04-2009

Sally Hawkins received a best actress award at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of a relentlessly positive school teacher in the British film Happy-Go-Lucky. Mike Leigh was nominated for an Oscar for the movie’s screenplay, which is somewhat ironic as his films don’t have scripts as such: the director of Naked and Secrets and Lies sets out a basic premise, which the actors develop through improvisation in rehearsals. At its Czech premiere at the weekend I spoke to Mike Leigh about Happy-Go-Lucky, and his unusual approach to filmmaking.

Mike Leigh, photo: CTKMike Leigh, photo: CTK “You know, I just wanted to make a film that in some way just confronted us with the fact that the world is disastrous and, somehow, some people are positive. Poppy, the central character is a teacher and that’s nurturing the future, that’s…caring for kids, you have to be optimistic.

“So it’s a film about being optimistic, but also being realistic – she’s a very hardheaded, serious woman, but who has a great sense of life and a great sense of humour.”

You’re well known for giving actors a relatively large role in the creative process – how much does the very idea of a film for you depend on a particular actor or actors, and their being available? Would we have had Naked without David Thewlis?

“No, absolutely not. Each character in every one of my films is the unique possession of that actor, the creation of that actor, and if it had been another actor then it would have been different. Which isn’t to say that they’re playing themselves, but there’s no question that they make a very specific creative contribution.

“But you see the thing is, that’s true of all movies, it’s not just my films. Even if there’s a script that’s been written and then you look round for an actor, in the end the particular actor who plays the part will inform the film in a very specific way, because that is that actor.”

But even still you do give them a far greater creative role, and there’s more improvisation in the preparation of the films. Why do you think other filmmakers don’t use that process or that approach more?

“Well, I don’t know about why, or why not, or anything. I do know that what I do is deeply personal and totally idiosyncratic – and to some extent eccentric (laughs).

“In a way, with all due respect, it’s like asking Van Gogh why all painters don’t paint with thick, bright yellow paint, and they don’t all paint sunflowers. I mean, I just do not know the answer to that, and nor would Vincent Van Gogh.”

There’s quite a bit of humour in Happy-Go-Lucky and I often get the impression that British humour is very popular internationally. What do you think it is about British humour that travels so well?

“I think all humour travels, humour is humour and people the world over have a sense of humour. It would be true to say that perhaps there are places in the world where it’s harder to locate the sense of humour.

“And certainly if you have a sense of irony you can access what we call a British sense of humour…I think there are all kinds of senses of humour in the British Isles.

“I don’t in the end think what’s funny about my films is uniquely English or British – I think these things are kind of universal, really.”

Mike Leigh was presented with a Kristian award for contribution to world cinema at Febiofest in Prague on Friday. The film festival, now in its 16th year, closed in the capital with a screening of Happy-Go-Lucky, before moving on to a number of other towns and cities in the Czech Republic.

07-04-2009