The award-winning director tells us why pulling yourself together when the future looks bleak is a hell of a lot easier said than done
There are few directors in the world to have captured the minutiae of human relationships and the complexity of our emotional lives with as much acuity as Mike Leigh. In his latest film, Another Year, the legendary director presents us with a happily married aging couple Jerry (Ruth Sheen) and Tom (Jm Broadbent) as they ramble through another year of their life. In some senses, this is Leigh's meditation upon the strength of human connection in the face of the inevitability of death and decay, and although there is hope, there is a sadness that underpins the film. This is perhaps best exemplified in the character of Mary (played with Oscar-worthy verve by Lesley Manville), who is a single woman approaching 40 and watching her life slide out of view. In this world exclusive, the director presents a clip from the forthcoming film and discusses both the frailty of beauty of existence.
Dazed Digital: Is it a key concern for you to try and investigate some kind of truth about the human condition?
Mike Leigh: If you put it that way then of course, but then again I don’t think to myself, ‘I am going to show people the truth’ because that’s the prerogative of religious fundamentalists, amongst whom I don’t count myself. (Laughs) But yes, in the first place what drives me is a natural, unavoidable and inevitable passion for people and life, and just wanting to capture it and deal with it in some way. I make films very intuitively and instinctively – it’s not the function of an intellectual process in any shape or form – and the more you do it, the more you’ve got an audience, and the more you confront yourself with what you care about.
Dazed Digital: Do you feel a stronger sense of mortality now that you are getting older? Is that what drives the film?
Mike Leigh: Yes. Totally. That is what is happening, and that is implicitly there in this film. I’ve decided to do that having done Happy Go Lucky – It surfaces in that film a bit, but plainly that film was about younger people for whom it’s not a concern. I’m 67 right now, so, you know, you can’t help thinking about these things…
Dazed Digital: What do think lies beyond death…
Mike Leigh: No idea. Personally, I don’t believe in God or any of that. I just know what we construct so we can all deal with other people’s deaths: the idea of and afterlife and all the rest of it.
Dazed Digital: There’s one bereaved character in the film locked into deathly silence. Where did his character come from?
Mike Leigh: That character, Ronnie, was the first character I started working on by chronological order because he is the older brother. This is a guy we’ve created who has done nothing all his life and is just… he just pads along, really, and he’s been there with his wife for decades and then she’s gone.
Dazed Digital: He has a random meeting with one of the sadder characters, Mary (see clip below). There is a very dark vein in her attraction to Tom and Jerry’s son…
Mike Leigh: Well, this is a woman hanging on to something – she still wants to be in her 20s, she still wants to be gorgeous and she wants those lines to disappear from her face. Unlike Tom or Jerry, when she looks at the future, she’s looking at a black hole, and it’s terrifying.
Dazed Digital: Do think our society is increasingly creating these black hole futures for people?
Mike Leigh: Probably. The nature of the experience of living is by definition simply less communal than it once was but it doesn’t need me to say that – it’s not a very original and perceptive thing to be saying. There has always been loneliness for one sociological reason or another, but certainly Mary’s loneliness is in some respects a modern phenomenon.
Dazed Digital: Why do think people are attached to the mystery of self-destruction? Is there a sense that someone like Mary should just work out things for herself?
Mike Leigh: The thing is that we are all a product of our background and society. Obviously, Mary’s been abused by guys in her life, but then again, she is obviously somebody who, through a received culture, is marinaded with the notion of being sexy, being a woman, being available… all that shit. It’s obviously fucked her up but then you’ve got to ask the question why is that? It’s too simplistic to just say she's a victim of herself and that it’s up to her. Of course, it is up to her, and Jerry says to her, ‘I think you’ve got to take responsibility for your own actions,’ but she also tells her she should talk to somebody – in other words, she tells her she needs help. It’s a lot easier said than done to say, ‘Pull yourself together.’
Dazed Digital: Do you think sustainable relationships such as Tom and Jerry’s are becoming tougher to maintain?
Mike Leigh: Well, I know what you mean, and of course, we’ve all scored an endless number of failed relationships and all the rest of it, but there’s people out there who get it together and hang on in there, and it works. If you look at their relationship in detail during the course of the film, they’re not wandering around in some somnambulistic, utopian, blissful dopey dream but it’s secure and solid, and such relationships exist, remarkable as it may seem.
Dazed Digital: Do you think people like Tom and Jerry are a dying breed?
Mike Leigh: Well, I think society and life are too complex for you to say that. There are a lot of people out there who care for people – you yourself told me when you arrived that you have just spent three days trying to rescue somebody who is alcoholic, and it sounds like that resonates with some aspects of the film. I fundamentally disagree that people that care and try and do good are a dying breed, and indeed what the film at that particular level is about is the complexity of caring and nurturing. It’s about the fact that it’s quite tough being nurturing.
Dazed Digital: Your recent films have felt less angry than earlier works…
Mike Leigh: That’s as maybe. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. The truth of the matter is that all of the films are different, and I take them all as seriously as each other – I take Meantime alongside Topsy Turvy and Vera Drake alongside Secrets And Lies. I don’t know whether you actually can say Secrets And Lies is pound for pound angrier than Another Year. I’m don’t think that’s true. But it may also be true that I’ve got a shifting perspective because I am getting older, but that’s fine.
Dazed Digital: Many of your films contain the motif of conspiracy theorists, why is that?
Mike Leigh: (Laughs) I’ve just done another one actually in another short film we’ve made who’s a sort of descendant of Johnnie (Naked).
Dazed Digital: The driving instructor in Happy Go Lucky was hilarious…
Mike Leigh: Well, some people have said he’s a version of Johnnie but he’s not at all, because Johnnie was bright and this guy is thick, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. With Johnnie, I find it compelling, confronting and challenging. With Scott, I find it ridiculous and hilarious really, but then, you see, if I’m honest, I take completely seriously the crop circles. I’m close to people who take it very seriously and write about it and if you’ve experienced it at all there’s no way you start talking about hoaxes and all that. But talk about that to rational people and they think you are dotty.