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Mike Leigh: Writing a Screenplay with Improvisation & Actors

Mike Leigh is a legendary filmmaker known for his idiosyncratic creative process in which he and his actors create the film together through improvisation and workshopping. This is what I find so fascinating about his work. Let’s jump into the world of Mike Leigh.

Born in 1943, England, was educated at the Salford Grammar School. His family was basically Jewish immigrants from the Eastern Europe, including Russia. Leigh is actually quite prominent for introducing a new and unusual methodology for writing his works. His works have appeared on stage, television, and films.

He said in an interview that his father, who was a doctor, was opposed to the idea of him becoming an artist. He said that he was always drawing caricatures of people and his father always asked him to stop, as he found them offensive.

Early Life of Mike Leigh:

In 1960, he received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and this was his first step into this field. After getting into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he was Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, the Central School of Art and Design, and the famous London Film School. The idea of becoming any sort of artist was annoying for his father and thus, he took him to see a child psychiatrist.

Leigh explained that the conversation he shared with the child psychiatrist was the first adult conversation he had with an adult, as he himself was a quite young at that time. Basically, he spent his childhood in the working-class area of Salford, and thus, the working class society is the main focus of Leigh in his films.

In the early 1960’s, at first, he started off as an actor, but after acting as a deaf mute in an episode of Maigret, he lost his interest in acting.

The Initial Stage of His Career:

In the early 1960’s, Mike Leigh began his career as an associate director at the Midlands Art Centre, which was located in the industrial city of Birmingham. He was also a playwright of all the plays that he directed at the Midlands Art Centre. His first play was The Box Play, which was introduced around 1965.

Mike Leigh was the director as well as the producer of this play. However, even when Mike Leigh had started to work as a director and playwright, he certainly did not confine himself to these two positions, as he still had a spark for acting. Thus, in 1966, he appeared in the Victoria Theatre, in Staffordshire.

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Moreover, we can see that Leigh has continued to appear in occasional films throughout his career. He also worked for the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company, that too, as an assistant director. According to the sources, Leigh developed an uncommon scriptwriting method while he was working in the theater in the 1960’s.

Most of his work in the theater and in the films is done without any sort of initial script. Even then, he has complete control over the actors and their characters in the scenes. He stepped into the film industry with the release of Bleak Moments, which was termed as an ultimate masterpiece by the late American film critic, Roger Ebert.

His Movies:

Mike Leigh started off with his directing career by looking for the actors who would be able to portray his characters perfectly. During the auditions, he used to ask the actors to sit in front of him so that he can observe them properly. He always looked for the actors who would be able to cope up with his unusual methodology of writing a script.

He gathered funding for his first feature-length film, Bleak Moments, from the Memorial Enterprises, a company which is run by an actor, Albert Finney. Mike Leigh is now named among one of the greatest British directors in history.

It is said that many of Leigh’s works in the 1970’s to the mid-1980’s featured the themes and characters that are further reflected in his later films. In the 1970’s, Leigh wrote and directed Abigail’s Party, which was showcased on the stage and later on a television movie version was also released.

He is mostly famous for his film Naked, released in 1993, for which he even won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Mike Leigh uses his films to comment harshly on the changes in the British society, and he tries his best to restore the human values above the material values. He has also made some optimistic movies, for instance, Happy Go Lucky, released in 2008.

Other than that, the main focus of Mike Leigh’s movies sticks around the family drama, as he patronizes his characters and encourages the audience to look down and laugh at their tricks and pranks. His characters are mostly ordinary people who are constantly struggling with the limited resources of life while confronting the other problems whatsoever.

He recognizes the strength of the common man and allows them to celebrate their heroism and individualism, as they strive to overcome their issues, by expressing themselves and by doing the right thing. No matter what the situation is in his films, he sticks to his views, even if they are controversial. Mike Leigh displays his vulnerability through his characters, actors in general.

Mike Leigh became internationally renowned after the three consequent movies, namely, Life is Sweet, Naked, and Secrets & Lies and all of these movies were released in the early 1900’s. Within the limits that he gives to his characters, he manages to explore certain interconnecting themes to connect to his significant framework.

On the other hand, his characters are no doubt naturalistic, who are masked by humor at times, even in desperate situations. Due to these factors, his films are known to represent ‘social realism’ as well as ‘heightened realism’. However, his approach is mostly improvisational. Mike Leigh has also managed to get nominated for the Oscar award for about 7 times.

Other than the fame received by his movies, Mike Leigh was made the President of the ‘Official Competition’ jury, in 2012, at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Below are some trailers and videos so you can go further into Mike Leigh’s world and process.

Mike Leigh’s Naked – Trailer

Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake Official Trailer

Mike Leigh on the nature of cinematic truth

DP/30: Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner

DP/30: Another Year, Mike Leigh

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If you liked: Mike Leigh: Writing a Screenplay with Improvisation & Actors
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