Mike Leigh famously makes films his own way, with no creative interference. The acclaimed British writer-director has no time for Hollywood and will not work with producers who favor star casting or suggest changing his ideas for any given film.
He chooses the actors he wants for specific roles and works with his cast as an ensemble, piecing together the film’s story and developing its characters with his chosen actors through long periods of improvisation and rehearsal.
This is how Leigh has sealed his reputation over more than three decades with some 20 films, the vast majority made on modest budgets. They tend to be heartfelt, contemporary stories, often with a comic edge, about ordinary British people.
His new film, “Peterloo,” breaks this mold in several ways. It is conceived on a far larger scale and is more ambitious and expensive than anything he has tackled. It is also based on a historical incident.
Leigh grew up in Salford, a district in the northern city of Manchester — and only a short walk from St. Peter’s Field, site of an infamous massacre of working-class pro-democracy demonstrators by government cavalry troops 200 years ago.
The rally, which had been peaceful, drew a crowd of 60,000 people, protesting against poverty and urging electoral reforms: At the time, less than 3% of Britain’s population was allowed to vote. Eighteen people died that day, most slashed by sabre-wielding soldiers on horseback who deliberately barged into the crowd.
“My house was very close to where it happened,” Leigh recalls. “But a lot of people from the area had never even heard about it. At school, we dealt with it for about four seconds — when I was studying for history at [school exam] O level back in 1959.
“Yet no one from school, no teacher, ever marched the class down there and said to us: ‘This was a major event. It happened right here — in these streets that you know well.’ ”
The massacre swiftly became known as “Peterloo” — a name that referenced both St. Peter’s Field and Waterloo, the famous major battle between English and French armies in 1815, four years previously.
The notion of making a film about Peterloo has long been on Leigh’s mind — “probably since the 1970s,” he says. “I read a book about Peterloo, which sat on my shelves for years — and I remember thinking then that someone should make a film about this.
“But at that time, I assumed I would only ever make contemporary films.”
He has departed from this formula just twice before. In 1999, Leigh released “Topsy-Turvy,” a story about the stormy relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan, the gifted British composers of operettas in the late 19th century. And 2014’s “Mr. Turner” was his account of the life and career of the great British painter J.M.W. Turner, starring Timothy Spall, seen frequently in Leigh’s films. Both titles required bigger budgets than what he calls “the normal generic Mike Leigh film.”
The director finally took the plunge and committed to making “Peterloo” some five years ago: “When we decided to do it, it seemed it would have things to say which would be relevant — the interesting thing being that in the five years since I made that decision, curiously it has become even more prescient and relevant.” He refers here to a sense of inequality between classes in the U.K., intensified by government austerity measures — and a sharp divide in British society, heightened by almost three long years of Brexit negotiations.
Leigh concedes he failed to understand the significance of the Peterloo massacre until he was well into adulthood.
“I didn’t really get it until later, when I started to read about stuff,” he recalls. “And even when we were working on the film, there were a huge number of people ranging in age from the 20s to my age [he is 76] who had never heard about it — and certainly hadn’t learned about it in school. And some of them were actually from the Manchester area.”
‘Big, but not huge’
Leigh’s film could help change that awareness. The London Film Festival, breaking with tradition, screened the film’s British premiere not in the capital but in Manchester. And Leigh used the occasion of the film’s British release in November to urge that the story of the massacre form part of the history curriculum of British schools: “This was a major event,” he insists. “It should be taught nationally.” His views made headline news here.
“Peterloo,” which opens April 5 in the U.S. and has received mostly positive reviews, is a significantly larger production than anything Leigh has undertaken. There are 160 actors named in its credits, and the film’s budget has been estimated at around $18.6 million — a figure Leigh describes as ‘big, but not huge.’
But then Leigh can make a budget go a long way. The cast of “Peterloo” is littered with first-rate British actors whom he admires, including Maxine Peake, who plays a working-class woman who joins the demonstrators, and Rory Kinnear as the glib orator Henry Hunt, who addresses the crowd as it gathers.
Several other names and faces are recognizable to British audiences, even some in minor roles, but none commands or expects huge sums for their work. In British acting circles, working with Leigh is often considered a reward in itself.
It’s also true that a significant role in a Leigh film can enhance an actor’s standing. Sally Hawkins appeared in two of his films before he cast her in the lead role of a single schoolteacher in “Happy-Go-Lucky” (2008); her career has subsequently soared. And Spall, of course, who first made an international impact in Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet” (1990), has had a hugely successful career.
Although Leigh is a quintessentially British director and always makes his films in the U.K., his work travels well. He is well-regarded in mainland Europe, where he is a festival favorite; he won a Palme d’Or at Cannes for “Secrets and Lies” (1995) and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for “Vera Drake” (2004). He’s also been nominated an Oscar seven times — five for his screenwriting — between 1997 and 2011.
Given the international respect he commands, it’s no surprise that Hollywood keeps calling. But Leigh has stubbornly rejected overtures from the studios. It’s nothing personal, he insists, while adding: “Hollywood is a fantasy.”
Besides, he feels committed to the creative path he has taken: “There’s Hollywood on the one hand — and then there’s European and world cinema, which is what I feel a part of. My films come out of all that. It’s a very natural thing for me to make films in Britain and about Britain.”
Leigh also understands enough about the studio system to know it’s not for him; for one thing, he reacts strongly against being told how to make his films.
“I’ve had offers,” he says. “But as soon as someone suggests something like, ‘We’ll back this film as long as we can cast an American star’ — he pauses to reflect — “at that point I simply walk away. I’ve done it more than once. It’s like telling an author what to put in his novel.
“I’ll only do a film if it’s clear that no one’s going to interfere with it.”
Not for the faint-hearted
No actor would suggest that it’s easy making films with Leigh — in part because of the rules he lays down. He insists actors spend long periods of time researching, improvising and rehearsing while he gradually formulates a script around the progress they make. It’s commonplace for cast members to spend six months engaged in this process before shooting starts.
And Leigh has other rules individual to him: In the past he has insisted that his actors know nothing about the unfolding story beyond what their characters know at any given point.
He makes this clear from the outset: “Most of my contemporary films have started with my saying to actors: ‘Take part in this film. I can’t tell you anything about it. It will evolve during the process of manufacture. We will discover what the film is on the journey of making it.’ ”
He doesn’t say as much, but this invitation probably deters the more faint-hearted candidates.
His period films — “Mr. Turner,” “Topsy-Turvy” and now “Peterloo” — are somewhat different, based as they are on historical fact. Potential cast members at least had a sense of how these stories would play out in the context of a film.
But even then, Leigh always sticks to his guns, insisting on improvisations and intensive rehearsals over a long period, while shaping and refining his script.
“Peterloo,” such a personal story for Leigh and a film of unparalleled scale for him, might seem a suitable occasion to end his long career.
Not for him, though. “I’m not retiring,” he says with a shrug. “We carry on.”