17 Feb 2008: He has been the toast of Berlin for the past week as his latest film Happy-Go-Lucky wins plaudits from critics and viewers alike. Here, the great British director talks to Amy Raphael about his award-winning career, people-watching and why pessimism can be positive

The first few times I met Mike Leigh, I wasn’t sure what to make of him. He appeared to be intensely private and occasionally defensive. Yet, after two years of collaborating with him on a book, I’ve come to realise that he is, in fact, open, warm, good company and a great storyteller. He knows about a ridiculous number of things; it’s always best to come clean and admit ignorance when necessary, because he also knows when you’re bluffing. He can be brutally honest but incredibly enthusiastic, especially about the actors and technicians with whom he has worked. He owns a particularly dry sense of humour; on occasion, he pretends to be cross before a huge grin gives him away. I learn that when he says: ‘That is a question with no answer’, he will mostly relent, before immediately regretting his candour.

  1. Happy-Go-Lucky
  2. Production year: 2008
  3. Country: UK
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 118 mins
  6. Directors: Mike Leigh
  7. Cast: Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marsan, Sally Hawkins
  8. More on this film

We meet once more in his Soho office and I am surprised to hear he is feeling a little nervous: this is the first time he has publicly discussed his new film, Happy-Go-Lucky at length. Leigh returns to similar themes time and again (how relationships fall apart, to have children or not, family secrets) and he often quotes Jean Renoir, who said that all film-makers make the same film over and over again. He also argues that each of his films is unlike the last. Yet, despite the obvious difference between All or Nothing and Topsy-Turvy or Naked and Secrets & Lies, there has never been a more blatant contrast than that between Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky. Its closest relation is probably Career Girls, in which two university friends meet up again after a gap of 10 years. Leigh is not so sure. ‘All those two films have got in common is this: the central female characters in both films are of a similar age, around 30.’

Its admirers will see Happy-Go-Lucky as a brave, bold piece of film-making that largely eschews plot in favour of character; as 30-year-old primary school teacher Poppy, a wonderfully vibrant Sally Hawkins takes centre stage to an even greater extent than David Thewlis in Naked. Simply because it is a more fluid piece of film-making than one has come to expect of Leigh (Vera Drake, for example, was a meticulously told story of an abortionist working illegally in 1950, with huge attention paid to period detail), Happy-Go-Lucky is not an easy film to describe. On a simplistic level, it’s about two young women living together, having fun, looking for love and getting on with life. The opening scenes show Poppy cycling through London, wind in her hair, smile on her face. Her apparently carefree approach to life slowly becomes more complex, not least when she takes driving lessons around north London with racist conspiracy theorist Scott (a volcanic performance from Eddie Marsan). It’s a bright, funny film – though, as Leigh himself says, it also has ‘an underside’.

I ask if Happy-Go-Lucky is a love letter to youth, Poppy and London. ‘It’s certainly a love letter to youth and to Poppy. I don’t think it’s particularly a love letter to London. In fact, I’m quite irritated by some blurb I’ve seen in the international press, saying the film is about north London schoolteachers. It’s a ridiculous red herring. Poppy could be working anywhere. I would say it’s a love letter to life in the city. It’s certainly about love and friendship. If it works for people, Happy-Go-Lucky is a film that must make you gradually get to know, understand and like Poppy because she is so open, generous and caring. But also anarchic and funny. She may initially be perceived as quirky and dippy, but she is entirely focused.’

Leigh always has a tough time making his films – and always tells his friends ‘never again’ – but this one was even more of a challenge than usual. ‘I started with a feeling but no real knowledge of what it was going to be. I still find it hard to talk about, it’s still elusive. I hope it’s not black and white. I hope you can’t see the wheels going round.’

The unique way Leigh works (simply put: improvisations, rehearsals, the shoot) is challenging not only to actors but also to the director; he now finds the rehearsals in particular laborious and relentless. There were even times when he thought this could be his last film. Then shooting began and, newly invigorated, he was happy to be up at 5am every day. He says: ‘I just love film-making.’

Leigh on festivals
On Tuesday, Happy-Go-Lucky was premiered at the Berlin film festival. ‘The film had a phenomenal reception,’ says Leigh. ‘The buzz was amazing, particularly in the international and Hollywood press. It was a very exciting, overwhelming experience.’ Leigh has been to Berlin before, with Meantime and Life Is Sweet, but neither film was in competition. He has already won the Palme d’Or (for Secrets & Lies) and the Golden Lion at Venice (for Vera Drake); adding Berlin’s Golden Bear will make him the only living director to win Europe’s three principal film festival prizes – the only other directors to have done so are Robert Altman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

In 2004, Leigh hoped to take Vera Drake to Cannes but it didn’t happen; the festival’s artistic director procrastinated until Leigh gave up, went to Venice and won. Would he return to Cannes? He shrugs: ‘I don’t even know what film I’m going to make next. If the question is, have I got the long-term, permanent hump with Cannes?, then the answer is no. We know there were some bad manners, or at least seemed to be, but life goes on.’

He is a regular and eager festival-goer; his debut feature film, Bleak Moments, won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 1972. ‘Most festivals are stimulating and fun. One of my favourites is Sarajevo, which is very friendly. It began life during the siege in the Nineties, when they used to smuggle in movies to keep their spirits up. I go as often as I can. Hof in Germany is a bullshit-free festival which encourages young audiences and film students. The food is basic and there are lots of serious discussions. It’s about the films and not the bollocks surrounding them.

‘But, at the same time, we’re not Trappist monks up a mountain, we’re in showbusiness. We make movies. People who whinge about the surrounding frippery have got to remember that it’s about entertaining people and encouraging them to see films.’

Leigh on politics
Although not overtly political in the manner of his peer Ken Loach, Leigh’s films have captured and even defined eras: look no further than Meantime, the 1984 film that evokes perfectly the alienation and boredom of Thatcher’s unemployed youths. Personal politics are an ongoing theme. ‘Happy-Go-Lucky is a political film in the sense that it’s about the way we live our lives. Apart from anything else, Poppy takes responsibility as an educationalist, as a teacher. Implicit in that are political values and issues.’ Does he think of himself as being political? ‘You can’t not be political. It’s like asking if I consider myself a human being.’

Leigh on what inspires him
Between films, Leigh reads, watches movies, goes to galleries, potters around London. There is, he says, no excuse to be bored. He is chairman of the governors at the London Film School, where he also teaches; he was a student there in the Sixties. He watches people obsessively: on screen, on stage, on the street. ‘I can be walking down the street and suddenly become aware of someone on the brink of being offended because I’m staring at them. I go around clocking everything most of the time. It’s part of the joy of existence. Which isn’t to say everything is wonderful. Everyone knows I’ve got a view of the world that includes a healthy and substantial degree of pessimism.’

If forced to generalise, he finds the theatre more moribund than the cinema, but is still exhilarated by both. ‘I get a buzz from seeing young talent. When you’ve been around for 40 years, certain things are less fresh, but we’re blessed with immensely talented actors in this country. The problem is that there are so many of them and not all get the opportunity to exploit their talents. It’s part of what motivates me, in fact: to give actors the opportunity to create remarkable performances.’

The best films he’s seen recently are Lust, Caution and No Country For Old Men. ‘I’ve immense respect for Ang Lee. Lust, Caution was terrific. I recently went to New York and was amazed to discover it bombed in America. I admire what the Coen brothers do and No Country is no exception. I love the way they deal with the life-passing-us-by dimension surrounding the central story. It’s so moving.’

Leigh on his career

Mike Leigh becomes a state pensioner this week. Naturally, he sees it as a landmark. By chance, two box-sets of his work are coming out this year; liberating the back catalogue from complicated ownership rights has taken much longer than he hoped. For a director who enjoys watching his own films – ‘How can you expect anyone else to enjoy your work if you don’t take pleasure from it yourself?’ – it’s hard to impel him to choose a favourite. Instead, I ask how, at 65, he looks back at his career. ‘I’ve been fantastically lucky to have been allowed to do what I want and, on the whole, how I want. I make all the choices. And you’re talking 18 full-length films, 20 odd plays and other bits and pieces.’ He rubs his beard. ‘I know so many people who don’t have that kind of freedom. It’s true that I haven’t compromised, but you can be as compromising as you want and it still doesn’t mean you get the breaks. Lots of talented film-makers don’t.’

Leigh on retirement

When Leigh was making Happy-Go-Lucky, he would sometimes feel that, quite simply, he was too old. The obvious question now is: how many films has he got left in him? He slowly rolls his eyes to heaven. ‘That really is a question with no answer. How many years have I got in me? I may be dead by the end of the year. On the other hand, I may have another few films. It’s hard to say when you’re about to become a pensioner. But I do think that the whole idea of people retiring when they really can and want to work is ridiculous. I can still meet someone my age or even younger and think they’re old; I habitually forget I’m almost 65. I don’t feel old – except sometimes when I’m rehearsing these bloody films and I’m exhausted!’

Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh, edited by Amy Raphael, is published by Faber on 17 April (£12.99). Happy-Go-Lucky is released on 18 April