Helmer returns to improv style with 1st StudioCanal pic

CANNES — Here’s the first hot bet for the official selection at next year’s Cannes: Mike Leigh’s untitled new project, which starts shooting in June.

The $10 million pic is the first under Leigh’s three-film deal with StudioCanal.

After his departure into the 19th century with “Topsy-Turvy,” the latest project (Leigh doesn’t choose titles until his films are pretty much finished) marks a return to his traditional territory of contemporary London.

Leigh regulars Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville and Ruth Sheen topline the ensemble cast along with Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey and Catherine Hunter.

Mysterious work

And that’s just about all anyone knows. With four weeks to go before the start of principal photography, producer Simon Channing-Williams professed to have no clue what the film will be about.

In fact, he doesn’t even know yet where the locations are going to be.

Unlike with “Topsy-Turvy,” which was based on real historical characters and had an almost conventional script, Leigh has returned to his usual method of discovering the story through extensive improvisation with his actors.

“It’s set in the 21st century, and other than that I have absolutely no idea what it’s going to be about,” Channing-Williams said.

Which begs the question of how he knows the budget is $10 million. The answer is simply thaf Leigh’s deal with StudioCanal was for three $10 million movies.

Act of faith

That makes it by far the most expensive film made by Leigh using his pure improvisational techniques (although “Topsy-Turvy” weighed in at $20 million), and thus represents a big act of faith by the Gallic major. The French co-producer is Les Films Alain Sarde.

But with French backing and Leigh’s name, it should at least be a shoo-in for Cannes 2002.

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