Mr. Leigh on Mr. Turner


By Holly Grigg-Spall.

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

Filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his unique, particular, and deeply involved technique for directing and writing that is very much a script-less process. The blend of improvisation and characterization he and his casts bring to his films, such as Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky, works to set the screen alight with warmth, humanity and energy. In his latest period piece, which has already gleaned two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, Timothy Spall takes on the role of British painter Turner, bringing to life a man full of contradictions and intriguing aspects. It’s a thoroughly thrilling take on the biopic genre. Creative Screenwriting had a chat with Mike Leigh about how it came to be.

Timothy Spall as J.M.W. Turner in Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall as J. M. W. Turner in Mr. Turner

I’m interviewing you for Creative Screenwriting magazine and, of course, you are well known for forgoing the screenplay entirely in your process of filmmaking. What are your thoughts on screenwriting as a technical, formulaic discipline and the industry that has grown up around teaching this methodology?

If the proposition is that a screenplay should have three acts, I would say that’s not rocket science, because you can’t help but have three acts. You set up the premise. You challenge the status quo. Then you resolve this. Those are the three acts. That’s all there is to it.

I personally believe in a well-structured film. I don’t see the screenplay as something that should be separate from the film. I don’t make a screenplay, I make a film. But it still has to be well-structured, there’s no getting round it. It’s essential and as important as having a well-structured building. But I have little time for the industry that has grown up around theorizing this.

Do you think there’s something your approach brings to the screen that is more difficult to capture via this traditional form of screenwriting?

That’s a big and complicated question. Firstly, I don’t proselytize. I don’t say anybody else should do what I do or how I do it, because it’s pretty idiosyncratic. I do it because as a writer and a director it makes more sense to me to create the work in an integral, organic way so that we establish the world of the thing and then we distill the film out of that. It winds up through rehearsal being very tightly scripted and the structure is very precise, because that is my responsibility to make it so.

There are things you find in my films, which I don’t know how I or anyone would arrive at by sitting in a room writing a script and then going about interpreting that script. Things that are idiosyncratic, behavioral, the space between words, organic sorts of things. That isn’t to say I think writing good scripts and interpreting them is in any way not a good thing, as brilliant films have been made since the beginning in a conventional manner, with scripts. There are people who have the skills to do all of those things. But, for me, it’s about integrating the casting, the performances, the direction, the writing, through one unified process in a particular kind of genre, which is my own idiosyncratic one.

Director Mike Leigh on set

Director Mike Leigh on set of Mr. Turner

Would you say what you do could be taught?

No. I can share it, as I do, with students and young filmmakers. This is what I do, but it’s not what I think you should do. If you can glean anything useful from it, fine. I don’t think it can be taught. The real truth is, which gets a little more difficult if not impossible to talk about in a coherent way from your point of view, it’s not just a mechanical process. There are things that go on that are telepathic. It’s to do with the ensemble, with a combination of things and it’s quite, sort of, organic. Therefore it’s not just a mechanical process that can be taught. The things that really go on, the meat and bones of it, the essence of it, are a little bit – and I hate to say this as I don’t like to be affected to be mystical – but they’re a little bit esoterical, to be honest.

If we go to a location, which has been carefully selected and dressed and the designers have been collaborating with me and the actors and it’s got a whole sense of what this world is about…and then the actors improvise in a way they have been doing for months already to develop the characters and the relationships, then through rehearsal we arrive at the distilled, structured, precise scripted scene, that’s something that I can only do in the location, by being there, by seeing it. Then the words and everything else are integrated and they come out of being there. That’s a million miles away from writing a thing on paper in your private room and then going off and trying to find the right actors and the right locations etc etc. It’s a completely back to front process to arrive organically at the distilled end product.

Tim Spall has mentioned that as a filmmaker you build “a reservoir” beneath the film from which the actors draw on for character development. For Mr. Turner what did you fill this reservoir with?

I’m not quite sure what he means (laughs). I don’t know, as he’s invented a new expression there.

We researched everything you can think of to bring these people to life. I do that with a contemporary film too. Some things you don’t need to research for a contemporary film, but some things you do. It’s in order to create a completely organic three-dimensional world in which characters can live. You can draw and distill from that as an actor.

In the case of this film or indeed Topsy Turvy, we absorbed the information about these people and their activities and that informed the creative decisions we made to bring it to life. You can research for a million years, but it doesn’t make it work in front of the camera. You still have to do the organic work to bring it to life.

Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvey

Jim Broadbent as W. S. Gilbert in Topsy-Turvey

Absolutely. You do see that with other biographical films, where the research just does not translate and the result is stilted and dry.

You could say that. (Laughs)

How did you come to forgo the screenplay? Was it a particular filmmaker’s work that inspired you to work that way?

No, I first started working in this way in 1965 in an experimental theatre environment. I was always very concerned with films. I’d been to the London Film School. I had acted in films. I wanted to write and to direct and I was reacting against the dead nature of a lot of standard practice and so through this I evolved and naturally gravitated towards inventing this way of working.

London Film School

London Film School

How much did the actors know about the people they were playing in Mr. Turner?

They knew a lot. They each did their own research. We had a full time research director. All those guys, for example, in the Royal Academy scenes, all went off and researched a particular actual painter they would be playing. This is the kind of work that only works with highly sophisticated, intelligent actors and we all know that not all actors are intelligent and not all actors are sophisticated.

Mr. Turner’s housekeeper is such a wonderfully well-developed character, but I don’t imagine there’s much written about her for research purposes. How did you work with the actor on that?

If you draw a distinction between the character and the characterization, as one should, which is to say what the actor actually does – there’s always a bit of inventing characters and inventing characterization. Here, you have certain facts to go on, not very many, and we then built a character that seems to make sense and be consistent and commensurate to what little we knew that brought her to life.

If we take that character, she is the perfect case in point, because I can imagine a problem for a screenwriter trying to put this character on paper or on the computer. Because, actually, she doesn’t say much. A lot of it is how she is and not what she says. We never really had to think about it because it was an organic thing – sometimes she speaks, sometimes she doesn’t speak; sometimes she does things, and sometimes she doesn’t do things. We arrive at it in a three-dimensional way and so it’s never really a worry. A lot of things, as we know, get into scripts in order that they can sort of make sense on paper and justify themselves. That doesn’t enter into the equation with my way of working at all. It’s an organic thing.

Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby in Mr. Turner

Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby in Mr. Turner

I suppose you could say the same in regards to the character of Turner and how you and Tim Spall developed this alternate language of grunts and noises for him. How would you commit that to paper? It wouldn’t work, but it’s brilliant in the film.

Exactly. The medium is film. People ask me about how I improvise and then add the screenplay. I never think about the screenplay. I think about the writing, the literary position of what people say and the rhythms of it and the cadences of it – all those are of consideration because I’m a writer – but the actual existence of a screenplay as an artifact in its own right is no more important than the plans for a building. You don’t think about the building plan, you think about what the architect has achieved in the building.

I suppose in one way the screenwriting practice developed in the way it did because it has to fit into the industry. It’s a communication tool to be read by people you may never meet in order for them to understand what is the film you want to make. So, your way of working only works outside of the industry, in a sense.

That’s correct. Also not being susceptible or vulnerable to the interference of bone headed people who are better off shutting up and minding their own business, even though they are backing the film.

It’s true. If I go along and no one knows anything about the film, including the dealers, then that’s accepted. You don’t have to keep getting all kinds of gratuitous and fatuous notes about how it should be or shouldn’t be this way, that way, or the other. It’s very liberating actually.

The other thing about all this, which I think is interesting, is that up until the talkies came in people made films in a very liberated way. They didn’t have to worry about scripts. Back in the silent days in Los Angeles people got up every morning thinking “what shall we do today?” and off they went. Then the talkies came in and it became terribly script-bound.

I wouldn’t want to ever be misquoted as saying you should never make movies with scripts, because of course that works. There are some great, great films that have had scripts.

Paul Jesson as William Turner in Mr. Turner

Paul Jesson as William Turner in Mr. Turner

That’s interesting, because if you think of the silent movies it was, of course, not about what they were saying and no one was committing words to the page, but their faces, expressions, feeling said so much. Some of your characters, the way they act with their faces and movements, they’re also not relying much on what they have to say.

Exactly. What people say is absolutely an integral part of what we are, but it’s only one part of the whole thing.

In a Guardian interview you mentioned that your filmmaking style is in part influenced by your background in fine art. I’d love to hear more about that.

Well, it’s not really as interesting as all that. I didn’t have a fine art background and then go into filmmaking. I trained as an actor at RADA and then I acted for a short while. Then I went to art school. I did a foundation course and then a year of theatre design in order to make films and theatre. Rather than my being a painter who became a filmmaker, like some people, it was all part of doing stuff that I thought would grow me into a filmmaker. I was very young, we’re talking about more than 50 years ago. Obviously filmmaking is visual and literary and all those things were what I was exploring at that early embryo stage.

Do you see Turner’s paintings differently now in comparison to how you saw them when studying art?

Inevitably, when you immerse yourself in the work, you see it completely differently. First of all, to a limited degree, we know something about him. We spent a lot of time looking at the paintings, which made us look at the paintings, in a more thorough way than I probably did previously. You can’t help that. I just think he’s a great painter, that’s for sure.

He was also so prolific, you just can’t get your head around all of his work. I mean – you and I between us in a few minutes could probably rattle off the titles of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, but there’s no way anyone could list all of Turner’s pieces of work because there are zillions of them, everywhere. It’s a vast oeuvre.

Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, by J. M. W. Turner

Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, by J. M. W. Turner

You had an art historian on set during the filmmaking, how did you incorporate her work into your process?

She was very familiar with how I work. She was immersed in it and became part of the project. She worked with us for two and a half years before we started shooting. She was speaking the same language. It wasn’t just about painting and art, when you do a thing like this, in order to bring it to life, you have to research everything – religion and education and gastronomy and politics, you name it.

How did you connect the improvisation technique with Turner’s florid style of speaking, with its Classical references and ornate language? The language is wonderful to listen to. How did you bring in the more complex phrasing and details?

J. M. W. Turner self portrait

J. M. W. Turner self portrait

You read your Dickens, Thackeray, Austen, and all kinds of periodicals and things. Then, for example, Marion Bailey who plays Mrs Booth, she went to the British Library and found in the archives some recordings. She wanted to know how this woman in Kent would have talked, how she would have sounded, what sort of vocabulary she would have had. She found recordings made in the late 1940s and early 1950s of very old men from that part of the world talking. And she figured they would have been born more or less around the time her character would have died. She listened to that and it very much helped and informed what she was doing.

Here’s an interesting and strange fact. Turner died in 1851, only 92 years before I was born. In other words, it’s not that long ago, in terms of our received collective, historical memory. I mean if I was to make a film set in the 11th, 12th or 13th century I think I wouldn’t know how to go about getting the dialogue, probably. But my grandparents were born around 1880. I am old enough to have gone to a Victorian school and to have been taught by Victorian teachers, late Victorians obviously. The early to mid 19th century still hangs in our culture. So, that plus a great deal of research to get it into our blood streams, plus the fact that all the people involved are pretty sophisticated.

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

These actors, Tim Spall and nearly all of them, were quite good at getting the 19th century thing and doing it. Then again, we re-polished and refined the dialogue, I would go through it with a toothcomb and refer back to various sources.

I have got a book that I’ve had for years, A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (published in 1811), a facsimile, which I’ve never really had the use of (not even on Topsy Turvy), but suddenly this thing became quite useful. It’s accessible if you get down to it. The main thing is to get the rhythm and the language into your bloodstream, then you can do it.

The way Tim Spall has this alternative, universal language of the noises he makes seemed to work well with the American audience – it surpassed the usual accent barriers and produced a lot of laughs and overall understanding.

Yes, I’m sure.

This film has been a while in the making. When you were floating the idea of making a film about Turner, what sort of feedback were you getting and did you take any of that on board?

Turner experts were helpful, but skeptical, only in that they weren’t sure we could pull off doing it. But they all seem to like it now they’ve seen it.

As to people who might put money into the thing. Michael Barker, of Sony Pictures Classics, had been very enthusiastic about the project for a very long time. We first talked about it in 2004 when we were filming Vera Drake. The first thing he said was he would always go to see the Turners when he came to London. We heard a lot of that. People liked Turner. That was good.

In terms of feedback by way of advice, nothing really, nothing at all. Because everyone knows I just bugger off and make the film how I want to make it really.

I really liked something you said in an interview with Roger Ebert about having “absolute freedom within limited resources” and I think that could really resonate with first time filmmakers and screenwriters. How can one develop that absolute freedom?

The truth is that very often, usually in fact, because I make a film in which I say to potential backers that I can’t tell them what it’s about, I won’t discuss casting, give us the go ahead and we will deliver a film – you won’t know anything about it until you see it – a large number of backers walk away. With a normal film, you can say that it will cost “x” but in the case of my films you can’t do that based on anything to do with the film as you want to go into it with an open premise. What we say is, the budget will be as much as you are prepared to give us. We arrive at the budget and we work backwards from that and decide what we can do with that amount of money.

In the case of Mr. Turner, obviously we could say what it would be, and they knew it would have to be out and about and in period etc as with Topsy Turvy (except that was an interior kind of film) – that justified us asking for more than we usually do. But with Mr. Turner we still got less than we wanted, ergo we could not film in Venice and in the Alps as we expected. It’s about cutting your cloth according to its length. And being resourceful and imaginative within the parameters, which I guess is what I was talking to the late, dear Roger about.

Mike Leigh as Turner in Mr. Turner

Mike Leigh as Turner in Mr. Turner

I think the scene in which Turner straps himself to the mast of the ship to enter and view a storm shows so much of his spirit without having to have the traveling scenes in Venice and the Alps.

Yes, and that of course was relatively easy. One of the things that’s interesting is that Topsy Turvy in 1998 cost 10 million pounds, whereas Mr. Turner only cost 8.5 million pounds. It’s cheaper to shoot a solo guy walking across the mountains in Wales, than it is to have a huge number of actors and musicians in a theatre with all that going on. Some things were quite elaborate though, in Mr. Turner. The Royal Academy sequence was quite complicated to do.

To return to the subject of screenwriting in the traditional sense, as a form – what are some of your favorite screenplays?

Errr, I hate those questions! (laughs) Some Like It Hot, On The Waterfront, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Servant (a screenplay by Harold Pinter)…there are a lot of good films with terrible screenplays, though. But we won’t go there. I always aspire to a completely integrated piece of work and all filmmakers do aspire to that, of course. Barry Lyndon is a great film with a great script, drawn from a literary source obviously, and very integrated. That’s off the top of my head.

If you think of a filmmaker like Roy Andersson, his stuff is wonderful, and his films are completely integrated. They are well scripted, but there’s also something completely organic and integrated about them. Have you seen his latest one? (A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence). It’s well scripted, but you don’t think about the script, because it’s also so visual.

Nils Westblom as Sam in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Nils Westblom as Sam in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence



Holly Grigg-Spall is a freelance journalist and editor writing on film and women's health. Her non-fiction book, 'Sweetening the Pill,' is available now (<a href=""></a>).

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