He could be uncouth, gruff, blustery, even crude, treating people badly and denying his children. Yet he painted some of the most sublime works ever created, and it is that contrast that made the celebrated 19th century British artist J.M.W. Turner a man Mike Leigh has wanted to make a film about for close to 20 years.
"I always thought Turner was really extraordinary, he anticipates 20th century art and certainly the Impressionists," the director says, relaxing at a garden table in what has to be one of the few quiet spots in this hectic town.
"Plus it just seemed to me that this tension between the personal, this eccentric, obsessive individual, and the epic, spiritual stuff he painted, was a natural cinematic subject. It was my good fortune that no one else had done it."
Immersive, unhurried and beautifully created, "Mr. Turner" will premiere in competition at the Festival de Cannes on Thursday with Timothy Spall commanding in the title role. It's a marvel both in its presentation of a very specific individual in his particular world and as an examination of the demanding power of the creative impulse. The film will be released later this year by Sony Pictures Classics.
A key point of interest for the director in this kind of a story was "the opportunity to turn the camera around on what we do," to examine the people, as he says in a director's statement, "who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands."
For Leigh, however, the structure of "Mr. Turner" was in some ways such a departure from what he was used to that he found the making of it, in a word, "terrifying."
"If you think about practically all of my films," the director of "Secrets and Lies," "Naked," "Another Year" and numerous others said, "they take place in a very confined time, normally a few days or a week, that's the sort of dramatic discipline I set up.
"In 'Mr. Turner,' I was dealing with the time period from 1825 to 1851 [the year of the artist's death] and that set all kinds of traps, opened up a whole lot of cans of worms."
To help himself escape those traps, Leigh decided not to put on screen the dates for scenes, a practice common in period films. "That was one of the decisions I'm pleased I made, that I hope has a kind of unexplained fluidity," he says. "It liberated me to be able to move on, to get into things without explanation. In the end, here is this man and this is what he is doing."
In "Mr. Turner," as in all his films, Leigh's specific way of working, his use of months of pre-shooting improvisation, building characters with his actors from the ground up — Spall took painting lessons for two years to allow him to feel comfortable with a brush in his hands — makes his people and his stories singularly lifelike and convincing.
"With all due respect, isn't that what films are supposed to do," he says when asked about his directorial methods. "It doesn't say much for a lot of films if they don't do that. I've always aspired to something seamless, to filmmaking that doesn't advertise itself, that doesn't seem like you're there."
And while all the wonderfully played characters in "Mr. Turner," from the winning Mrs. Booth, the mistress and companion of his later years (Marion Bailey), to the critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), are based on real people rather than created from scratch, that didn't change the way Leigh and his actors worked.
"When it comes to people who actually existed, theoretically we're not inventing characters," he explains. "But just because they existed 250 years ago, they don't exist in any tangible form today, so we still go through the same process to make them come alive. Doing all the research in the world for a million years won't make a character exist in front of the camera."
Greatly helping the characters' reality is the film's meticulous production design by Suzie Davies and the superb costumes by Jacqueline Durran, an Oscar winner for "Anna Karenina," clothes especially remarkable, the director says, "on such a tight budget (less than $15 million).... In the end it's about looking real and worn, about being rooted and grounded in the real world."
Another critical below-the-line collaborator is cinematographer Dick Pope, who has worked with Leigh on 10 features. "The important thing is that we're on the same wavelength, we push each other beyond the limit," the director says.
"I love the camera sometimes to be mobile and glide and confront the audience and sometimes to get into a static shot, to settle into the frame. Some cameramen resist that, but he's as much in love with the Vermeer aspects as I am. We share an aesthetic, a taste and a spirit, and we enjoy eating Chinese food together."
Though Leigh employed an academic art historian and researcher to ground the film in Turner's reality, he was not wedded to it. Especially when it came to the celebrated story of the artist having himself chained to a ship's mast to personally experience the power of a storm.
"Most authorities say he didn't really do it," Leigh says, warming to the subject, "but if you're going to make a bloody movie and don't do that scene, you might as well not bother to make a film at all."
Suffice it to say, the scene made it in.