British director/writer Mike Leigh has been nominated for an Oscar five times. His films Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, and Naked, among others, center around the every day life of regular people and their every day conflicts, set against the urban decay of London or the soullessness of suburbia. Most unique about Leigh’s work is that he starts without a script, instead developing the story by working for extended periods of time with an ensemble of actors. His latest work, Happy-Go-Lucky-which focuses on a bubbly London schoolteacher who contemplates the makings of joy-is one of his best, thanks in no small part to lead actress Sally Hawkins, whose performance as the teacher Poppy is one of the best of the year. Leigh and I recently discussed the film.
Even before you knew the plot of your film, you had Sally Hawkins in mind as your lead? I had a feeling that she would be good as the lead of my next movie, and we collaborated to create this character. And through discussion and great research and all kinds of things that adhere to character work and improvisation, we created Poppy. As I always do with my films, I structure them, build the film, making it up as we go along and shoot it.
In this film, there’s nothing wrong with Poppy-it’s the world around her that is falling apart. That is a way of seeing it. We all know people who just get on with it, who deal with stuff and just look problems in the eye and are positive. Poppy is the anti-miserablist in my film. : Poppy is somebody who, in fact, is also a proactive, generous, warm, good-humored kind of person. Probably not as sophisticated and ultimately not as sharp, but in fact she is a victim of society. We’re having a tough time in the world. We are destroying the planet and are destroying each other. There’s a great deal to be gloomy about, to sit around lamenting. While that always isn’t the case, there are always people out there being positive, getting on with it. Teachers like Poppy are just doing that. And teaching kids, cherishing kids, nurturing their future is an active form of optimism. That’s something to do with the spirit behind the film.
Education is a big theme in this film. Yes. Implicitly. I reflect on education and it’s a film on education. Learning and teaching and the responsibility to teach and the ability to teach and the ability to learn are all lurking about in the film. Poppy is a very good teacher. And in the film, she’s contrasted with other teachers. You’ve got this dance teacher who failed to learn the first rule of teaching, which is to leave your personal rubbish outside the classroom. And then we’ve got this driving instructor who has a great deal to learn about education and the principles of teaching and learning and, in fact, is devoid of teaching abilities at all.
Your films have always had comedy in them, even the darkest ones like Vera Drake and Naked. Why do you think critics are surprised that Happy-Go-Lucky is so sunny and optimistic? There are two levels of it. On the one hand, the notion that this is totally different from anything is preposterous because warmth, generosity of spirit, and getting on and all of those things have really gone through all of my films. Indeed, it certainly isn’t the first comedy I’ve done. I mean, they’re all comedies, but they’re always dark. What I’m doing is looking at life and life is comic and tragic. Life is joyous and painful. We all know that. But on the other hand, it is the case that every time I make a film, I try and do something different and I don’t want to serve up the same meal every time I invite you around for supper. I want to vary it. But obviously, this film is a deliberate attempt to be anti-frivolous, but at the same time there are serious things in it. There’s a dark side because there’s this pain, real pain inside Poppy.
You work an entire year with your actors improvising, creating the script. That’s extraordinary. Can you elaborate on that process? There’s a lot of opportunity for discoveries throughout my film process. I think all artists, except people who make movies in Hollywood, know the journey of discovery in the artistic process is very important-all artists have a sense of improvisation, whether you’re writing a novel, composing a symphony or writing a play, discovering a sculpture. You try things. The material will draw you in a certain direction but then you realize what it is, then you realize it could be something else, so on and so forth. So that’s how my film is made. It only becomes extraordinary in the context of the Hollywood notion of a movie-which is different from how it is for many of us in the rest of the world who make films in a completely organic way-where the notion is you plan everything down to the last frame before you shoot it. But it really doesn’t matter when the ideas happen or how they happen. The important thing is that what we wind up with is a coherent, thoroughly conceived and executed and scripted, and precisely shot film from the beginning to the end.
But once you roll the cameras, everything is scripted, right? That period of improvisation that you talked about and everything is cemented by then. It preferably is. Usually I’ll answer that question with yes, absolutely, 100 percent. In this particular film, there are some margins where improvisation happens on camera, when she’s teaching in the classroom, when she’s working with the kids. But mainly, the job is really to arrive at something very organized, precise, and well-written.