|Born: Feb. 20, 1943, in the Manchester suburb of Salford
Schooling: Studied acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (1960-62); moved on to two London art colleges and London Film School
Breakthrough: 1988 pic “High Hopes” won a prize in Venice and three European Film Awards
Up Next: A play — his first in 12 years — for London’s National Theater, skedded to open in 2005
Today’s movie world doesn’t offer up many genuine mavericks, which makes one doubly grateful to count English director Mike Leigh among the few.
Now 61, the writer-director has been fashioning films (and plays) his way for more than three decades. And out of his improvised-based technique have come some of the most truthful and wrenching human dramas, from “Bleak Moments” and “Abigail’s Party” to the Oscar-nommed “Secrets and Lies” and “Topsy-Turvy,” and this year’s contender, “Vera Drake.”
“What amazes me most is that I’ve actually done it,” says Leigh, speaking from his London office at Thin Man Films. His particular astonishment lies in having done “17 full-length films without any interference from anybody: None of them were ever interfered with in terms of form or content, and I think that’s pretty amazing, really.”
Some have found Leigh’s view of human behavior too harsh to take. But it would be fair to place him alongside, say, the likes of Balzac and Chekhov as an artist who sees humanity fully in the round. “To write off my films as pessimistic is ridiculous and not very intelligent,” says Leigh. “I deal, I hope, with all human life that is there: the hopes and disappointments and all the rest of it, really, looked at within a wide spectrum.”
His approach is famously a joy for actors, who relish the chance to come up with a back-story for their characters to a degree rarely allowed elsewhere. Lesley Manville has worked with Leigh on six films and one radio play (“Too Much of a Good Thing”) over the years and qualifies with Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Phil Davis and Brenda Blethyn for inclusion among Leigh’s informal repertory troupe.
“I’m afraid once you work with Mike you become a constant observer of all things peculiar in life,” says Manville. “A lot of regular films and certainly regular television shy away from details; they’re afraid of showing the unusual. Mike is passionate about representing the minutiae of life.”
Imelda Staunton had never worked with Leigh when the call came to play the title character in “Vera Drake,” for which the English theater actress has earned raves. “I thought: that’s exactly what I need, something to get my teeth into,” says Staunton in regards to Leigh’s approach to work. “I just lapped it up. It just seemed completely natural, completely easy to do, completely organic.”
It’s work that, crucially, satisfies its creator, who won’t enter into what he calls “that whole other debate about whether one’s going to stop and enjoy not doing anything.” Leigh continues: “I’ll either drop dead tomorrow or I won’t; that will look after itself.”
In the meantime, he’s got work to do.