Interview: “Happy-Go-Lucky” director Mike Leigh


British director Mike Leigh’s latest film Happy-Go-Lucky has the power to repel or attract. You either love or despise his latest character, Poppy, played with effervescent charm by Sally Hawkins. Her performance carries the movie, not unlike David Thewlis’s Johnny in Leigh’s dark 1993 film Naked—but where Johnny saw doom and gloom in everything, Poppy sees the bright side.

The five-time Oscar nominee (twice for direction, three times for writing) is noted for his extensive and rigorous rehearsal process in which he works with his actors for an extended period of time, with no written script. Through this process, Leigh achieves a singular tone in his films. They all feel true. He captures the realities—both sad and humorous—of life with a deft touch and affection for his characters.

Last month Leigh was the subject of a retrospective film series at the Walker Art Center. I spoke with the director recently at the Chambers Hotel.

Many people talk about your films and how bleak and dark they are. I was watching Secrets and Lies recently and was struck by how hopeful the ending was. I think people tend to forget those moments in your films.
I agree. People talk a lot of crap. People like to put things into boxes and label things. I never made a film that wasn’t both comic and tragic. But that is life, as we all know. Its kind of reductionist, isn’t it?

Many critics consider Happy-Go-Lucky a departure for you. Do you agree?
No. Every film I make is different from all the other films in the sense that I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. I always challenge my own status quo within that very narrow genre that I do. To regard Happy-Go-Lucky as a total departure from all its predecessors is again the same piece of nonsense. But it is, however, indeed what I call an anti-miserablist film. It’s about a woman who is positive and pro-active. It’s about caring and sharing. Having an antenna out and engaging with the world, just not being negative. The title Happy-Go-Lucky evokes an atmosphere, but it’s not a description of Poppy as such. Somebody who is relentlessly happy. She is fulfilled because she takes life seriously and she looks the world in the eye. I think that’s what it’s about.

Do you enjoy the process of the making the film? What is the most enjoyable part of making a film for you?
Shooting and post-production. People often say to me, “Oh, it must be wonderful when you’re doing the development over six months. It must be the best bit.” It is not the best bit.

Why not?
Assembling the stuff together to say what you want to say and how you want to say it is the tough part. As you start to interact with the page and you start to actually define it, that’s the good part. Then you start working on the second draft, looking at the first, and you start enjoying yourself. Also, when it comes to the shooting I’m out there with the lights, the whole team; breathing fresh air. Every day you’re creating something. You have to get up at 4, 5 in the morning, and it’s great. Filmmaking is a natural buzz. People talk about my films as though it’s a kind of cottage activity that goes on in a room somewhere. Filmmaking is a great outdoor activity—it’s good fun. And you get fed well.

Talk about Poppy’s outfits, the costume design. I found her costumes matched the look, and state, of her classroom and told us a lot about her character.
The interesting thing is she’s not wearing a stitch on her back that wasn’t bought in a High Street shop, and isn’t what a teacher on her salary could afford.

That was the most refreshing thing in the film. We always see, in movies, teachers or police officers dress in suits and wear clothes you know they couldn’t afford.
It is absolutely fundamental. That is the whole point of what I do, which is to draw on, enjoy, and celebrate all the details in the real world and make them all come to bear on creating this artifact; this fictional world that reflects the real world. The minute you start to do what you were talking about, the whole thing unravels.

It’s interesting to read some critics’ thoughts on Poppy, how they hated her. One critic found her to be “borderline retarded” and couldn’t stand her.
It’s so depressing, and so stupid. It tells us more about them then it does about the film. You inevitably start to think about the way that [critic] has become warped in their world view; in their way of interacting with other people; how isolated they’ve become and how insensitive and somehow you can’t help thinking that their lifestyle and professional activities have somehow stunted their soul and nerve endings, their antennae.

Did you set out to make a film that makes the audience feel good?
I don’t think in terms of “I want the audience to feel good.” Actually, in a way, I always want the audience to feel good in the sense that I want the audience to be enriched by a sense of life and people and what we’re about, basically. I think on the whole that’s what happens. It’s a film that consciously says “let’s be positive,” so in that sense, implicitly, yes is the answer to [your question]. But I don’t think about it. Life is interesting. People are interesting. I make a film about people and things in [such] a way that it’s a reflection, a manifestation of the way I see the world.

Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.