Illuminating the Stage

Director Mike Leigh (right) shines a the unromantic process of creating theater.
Simon Mein

One wonders, one does. The name of Mike Leigh has been attached to some intense, intricate, generally superb character studies in the past three decades. The man has pitted Gary Oldman (as a skinhead) against Tim Roth (as a slow learner) in Meantime (1981), explored the friction of reuniting college chums Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman in Career Girls (1997) and charted David Thewlis's wretched trajectory through London in Naked (1993). Of course, his status as an unflinching observer of the English working class has also been celebrated widely in Secrets & Lies (1996). Now, here he is in a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss his big, bold, though intimate, portrait of Victorian-era composers Gilbert and Sullivan.

Where to begin? Indeed, the very basics are easy to establish. Leigh was born in Salford, Manchester, England, on February 20, 1943. That makes him a Pisces war baby from the same region that later gave us rock star Morrissey. But what about the more subjective aspects? Is he affable, charming, intriguing, pretentious, reserved, gruff? Given the adventurous emotional scope of his films, what is one to expect of his corporeal frame and decorum?

As it turns out, Leigh is congenial, pleasant and primed to plug. Today he is clad in tweed and carrying a walking stick. His stature and build suggest the presence of hobbits somewhere in the misty past of his lineage. Actually, there is a temptation to inquire about the furriness of his toes, but in the interest of professionalism, this urge is overcome. We dive right into the origin of his latest work, Topsy-Turvy.

"I had the notion quite a long time ago, and then I made a little movie with [actor] Jim Broadbent called A Sense of History," Leigh explains, quick to note that the short film sometimes screens on Bravo. "He wrote it. It's about an earl walking around his estate, owning up to his sins; and we shot it in the winter of 1992. I said he could play Gilbert, you know, and he thought I was mad!"

The madness spread, and within a few years Broadbent joined the rest of the cast for seven months of rehearsal, settling into the role of William Schwenk Gilbert, sophisticated comic librettist, opposite Allan Corduner as the brilliant, frustrated composer Arthur Seymour Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan crafted 14 operas together, including The Pirates of Penzance and The Yeomen of the Guard, so there was no dearth of material or history.

"You name it, we researched it, just to bring that whole world alive," says Leigh. "But, certainly, I didn't want to do a biopic, and anyhow, we couldn't have done [one], given our resources." (He declares the film's budget was $15 million, or "peanuts.") "So I did sort of what I always do, which is drop anchor in one place and make the story work through how people are, rather than being more spread out and detached."

Of his choice to focus on the years 1884 and 1885, Leigh has a simple explanation. "They are up and running and at the height of their popularity, but then they have this impasse, which seems to me to access what they're about at its most central Š the whole genesis of The Mikado, and the part played in it by the Japanese exhibition, plus the fact that my main actors were of the right age to play Gilbert and Sullivan at that stage. The concern is the psychological and emotional investigation of everyone. And what I suppose I'm obviously interested in is all of those other characters, the actors -- you know, the junkie, the alcoholic actress and all the rest."

"All the rest" proves to be an impressive ensemble, and Leigh readily raves about his cast, including Shirley Henderson, who plays the sauced starlet Leonora Braham. "Fabulous! Brilliant! You saw her in Trainspotting, and now she's in Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom. Shirley's totally unlike all these stars -- you know, not given to vanity like masses of actors -- and she has this kind of antique quality. It's sort of spooky; she really feels Victorian."

He's also pleased as punch to point out that Andy Serkis, the Cockney choreographer in Topsy-Turvy, "plays the seedy guy in the white dressing gown who tries to sell the apartment in Career Girls." (He is thrilled whenever he gets recognition for that effort and its terrific female leads, sensing that it will be lost between the "two titans" of Secrets and Topsy.)

There are plenty of Leigh familiars in Topsy-Turvy, but when attention is called to Lesley Manville's performance as the librettist's wife, Lucy Gilbert, the director's enthusiasm deepens. "Much as you can read about Gilbert and his wife, you cannot find any evidence as to what she was actually like. So Lesley and I conspired to create the woman behind the facade. And the facade matches what we read, but we've obviously worked at giving her passion and flesh. And of course I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that one thing in the picture could never have taken place: what happens the first night after The Mikado opens, when she speaks her visions to her husband at her bedside. It's entirely invented, and it pertains more to Freud and Fellini than to anything else, really."  

Leigh waxes equally rhapsodic about his entire production crew -- production designer Eve Stewart, costume designer Lindy Henning, editor Robin Sales and cinematographer Dick Pope. "We pulled stunts that people don't pull to lower the costs," he says. "We took the Richmond Theatre in West London, and we dressed it and converted it to the Savoy. When we talk about doing it for no money, for example, Eve wanted to re-create the original wallpaper of the Savoy, so she went to wallpaper companies to see what it would cost, and they quoted her ridiculous prices, so she said, 'Right! We'll do it ourselves!' "

He also relates that an electric light company manufactured and donated 1,000 antiquated bulbs, which he used in the film but didn't let slip out and bombard the actors, as actually happened in the Victorian productions. "On the whole, I'd say the film survives without this detail."

But the music? And the greasepaint? "We had a ball with that," he says. "Carl" -- Carl Davis, the composer -- "and I very definitely decided to use Sullivan. But the problem was that for every moment that needed music, there were 25 choices as to what bit from Sullivan to use." As for the chronological dilemma of incorporating pieces from later in the duo's career, that decision barely caused a moment's hesitation. "I said to hell with it, because that's really academic, isn't it? And indeed, a lot of it is from The Grand Duke, which comes last."

Other decisions called for more nuanced judgment. "So far as the actual extracts from the shows are concerned, I was very selective in that everything has got a dramatic reason for being there. By the time you get to a point in the story that you see a long extract from The Sorcerer, it's been all about the politics. You've been inducted into this world; now is the time to find out what it actually is. I felt we should be looking at it as the industrial process of theater in practice."

It's here that the worlds of theater and cinema blend miraculously under Leigh's sure-handed direction. Leigh continues: "As Jim Broadbent said in an interview, that's something we didn't need to research. We've been there, and this is what we do. I think it's because I am not romantic about the theater. And you would probably say, 'You're not romantic about anything,' and that is true, really, in the sense of being sentimental. I'm romantic, sure, and I'm passionate, and I have feelings. But I really don't get sentimental about anything. For me, a theater is where the industrial process takes place."

The inevitable question pops up as Leigh gets ready to leave: What about his famous practice of on-camera improvisation? "Throughout the entire film there is stuff which came out of improvisation, stuff which comes from me suggesting things, and that's true of all my films. There is also dialogue which is direct quotes from letters that Gilbert sent, but woven, hopefully, seamlessly into the scenes. Gilbert is much quoted for saying some very funny things. Some of them are in the film, and some of them are actually Gilbertisms that we invented."

And how much is Leigh like Gilbert? "I would say I hope the difference between my regime and his is that I work in a collaborative way, and I trust that. We try to have an element of trust, and we definitely reap what we sow. People have even presumed, 'Aha! This is a self-portrait, and you identify with Sullivan's crisis!' But it isn't. I don't have the problem of wanting to go off and do something serious. I do what I believe in, because I have that luxury.

"Not a single one of my films could be described as having one thing -- there's a whole lot of stuff going on. And some of it here is the same stuff, the same preoccupations. But apart from everything else, it's about people suffering in the cause of having a good time or giving other people a good time."

Lunch is called, and the veteran director rises. He points to the tape recorder on the table and sounds a closing note of eccentricity, saying, "Don't forget your sewing machine."

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