Q&A with Mike Leigh


This is a rough transcript of a Q&A with writer-director Mike Leigh that took place January 22, 2010 at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds after the screening of Topsy-Turvy (1999; written and directed by Mike Leigh).

Mike Leigh in Edinburgh 21.08.2007

Topsy-Turvy is the story of Gilbert and Sullivan – the Victorian era librettist W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) who collaborated on fourteen comic operas.

Mike Leigh wanted to make a film about theatre and being interested in the Victorian era, he combined the two. When growing up in North Manchester music was a big part of his life and in school they would often perform music  from Gilbert&Sullivan’s plays, especially Mikado. The film Topsy-Turvy is definitely not a musical but a story about people who work at the theatre. It’s a story about creativity, collaboration and the conflict between the self and the stage persona. Leigh didn’t want to make a Gilber & Sullivan biopic which would’ve been dreary and tedious to watch. He wanted to include particular events, explore the characters in an implicit way, in a limited time frame.

There was no screenplay, all of the dialogue was improvised. There was a shooting script containing only simple instructions. They had Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s biographies but had no idea about how things had taken place and what was said, so those gaps have to be filled. It’s important to balance storytelling with motivation and logic, and sometimes you have to sacrifice logic in the name of drama. It’s a “burden of thinking what would actually happen” – how characters would react and what they would say in a given situation.

Mike Leigh knew six years before filming began that Jim Broadbent is the right actor to play Gilbert, giving the actor plenty of time to prepare and get under the skin of the character. During the rehearsal period, it took about six months to create the characters in workshops, and all the actors researched the era on their own, reading about culture, politics, religion, education, etc. They had etiquette workshops, everyone read books and newspapers from the era, so that during the performance it would all come from their blood stream, making it look organic.

The film uses original blocking and choreography from 1880s, reconstructed with the help of historical sources. All the actors sang, no one is dubbed. After auditions they did additional singing auditions where the actors had to come with a G&S song. This made Leigh realise how many multi-talented there are in England as more applicants turned up than was needed. Leigh thinks that the quality of actors’ education has risen, being more thorough and including more skills like singing, dancing, etc. than some decades ago.

The scene that amazes Mike Leigh himself is the one with the Japanese women in the theatre. They were in a hurry to shoot it as they had limited time for filming in the theatre. He can’t remember how they managed to organise that scene but the urgency of the shoot added a sense of chaos to the scene that fit nicely.

A question from the audience:  how does it feel like to see your own work for the first time. “You shit bricks,” replied Leigh. It’s terrifying. Leigh added that when all goes well it’s great to to enjoy people enjoying it. As we see in the film, the real life Gilbert never attended his premières; his wife did and then reported.

Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner) in Topsy-Turvy (1999).

A question from the audience about the female characters in the film, real life and manufactured reality. Sullivan had more success with women than Gilbert who seemed to be quite (friendly but) distant from his own wife. Gilbert came from a dysfunctional family and was emotionally inadequate, which can be seen in his relationship with his father and wife in the film. Mike Leigh knew nothing about Gilbert’s wife, there was nothing written about her, or any of her own writings; they just knew they had no children and a story from around WWI (after Gilbert had died) when someone told Mrs. Gilbert that it must be hard without him to which she replied: “Yes. But not as hard as with him.” This was something that gave the film-makers a glimmer of her personality. As a contrast, there’s Sullivan’s mistress in the film who was portrayed as a modern woman (“It’s 1885!”).

Someone in the audience pointed out that everyone is alone at the end of the film. Leigh says it’s part of an ongoing investigation of our condition, of human condition. Gilbert is lonely, Sullivan is isolated. There’s a specific type of loneliness in show-business where you have to get up and perform while concealing your personal issues.

Queried about the budget and the historical setting, Leigh said he’d like to make a film about William Turner – the English Romantic artist but it would be too expensive. A number of scenes were left out of Topsy-Turvy because the locations were too costly, but you can’t shoot Turner indoors.

He wouldn’t talk about his new project but said it’s titled Another Year.

Leigh said he is and is not worried about independent cinema and the increasing cost of making a film. His films are getting cheaper, the budget of his current film in production being the smallest ever. The indies are still working, while  new technologies and digital projection create more opportunities.


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