It seems fitting that the biopic of one of Britain’s greatest and most prolific artists should be conceived by one of the country’s greatest and most prolific dramatists. In Mike Leigh’s latest film, the sublime Mr. Turner, the he depicts the later life of J.M.W. Turner, the landscape painter whose work prefigured both abstract art and Impressionism, and whose bequest to the nation of around 30,000 works of art remains unparalleled. Leigh is similarly tireless, having created over the course of nearly fifty years dozens of films and plays that have perlustrated the heart of British domesticity, exploring the intricacies of social interaction, family life and the particular national obsession with class through his distinct form of tragicomic humanism.
The director famously starts each project with a basic premise but no script, working with his actors to develop the characters and narrative through a rigorous process of research and rehearsal. In Mr. Turner, as with his earlier Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy, Leigh applies the same developmental method to a real-life period story, creating an epic yet intimate portrait that avoids the sensation of dutiful box-ticking that blights several of its biographical peers.
Puckish, ruminative and verbally pugnacious, in person Leigh doesn’t disappoint. Having shaken my hand and parried an initiatory attempt at small talk, he straightens up in his chair, fixes his gaze upon me and says, “So, what do you wanna know?”
Mike Leigh: Apart from anything more serious, in this particular case you’d have had to find a small fat boy that looked like Tim Spall who could draw, and then show a pimply youth and trawl through all that stuff. It’s unnecessary. 25 years is a long enough time to deal with in one film anyway, and anything that I need you to know about his earlier back story is laid into the film and you pick up by reference. Specifically in terms of Turner and his life, that time covered the death of his father, the relationship with his Margate landlady Mrs Booth, and various key events. Most important is that it was the period where he became more radical and people thought he’d gone bonkers, although he was actually anticipating Impressionism and modern art. All of that is dealt with in the film to some degree. It just seemed enough to contend with, basically. The main goal was to evoke Turner and his world. I didn’t feel any sort of documentary need to log the details of his whole existence.
Did you learn about Turner’s life at the same time as his work, or did that happen separately?
ML: First of all I knew him just for his work, when I discovered him in the 60s. It wasn’t until after we’d made Topsy-Turvy that it occurred to me that we might be able to make a film about Turner. We’d established that we could do a period film, and then when I started to explore Turner the personality, the character, it seemed that the tension between this eccentric, conflicted, passionate, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous guy, and his art suggested a movie. This grubby fellow and his pure work. It demanded a film.
Other than being interested in Turner’s life and work, was there anything else that inspired you to make the film?
ML: You don’t always need to have an objective rationale for what you do. There is a cannon of films about artists, and there wasn’t a film about Turner. I wouldn’t randomly make a film about any old artist for the sake of doing so, but he did seem to have a very interesting life and personality to dramatise. In the end, apart from intellectual ideas there’s also what you might call the turn on factor. I think the turn on of seeing Turner’s work within a dramatic perspective, with Turner as a character brought to life, has its own potential really. And anyway, any film you produce is only a decision to make a film about this or that, as opposed to that or the other. At a certain level you could argue it’s random. The question is not what it is but how you do it, and whether it becomes interesting by that process.
I can’t imagine it would be possible to make the same sort of film about Constable.
ML: Well no, I think you’re right. Constable was less interesting altogether. I mean, that’s on one level. I don’t think he’s as extraordinarily interesting a person, but everybody is interesting, so if it was about Constable then you would focus about what was interesting about him.
Do you see Mr. Turner as an exploration of the same ideas that inform your other work, or does the film have different objectives due to its biographical nature?
ML: Now that’s a question. Look, what do I make films about? Life and death and parents and children and work and relationships and all those things. It’s all ticking on, it’s all going on in this film. Earlier somebody told me that I usually make films about ordinary people, but what is an ordinary person? Who is ordinary? I’m not, you’re not. Turner might have been a great genius of painting, that’s not in question, but he still had to have a shit every so often. That’s what I make films about: how we live. So the added bonus that this was somebody who did something extraordinary doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re grappling with the tough and complicated business of living.
Both Another Year and Mr. Turner focus on characters dealing with the ageing process. Do you find that as time passes the themes you’re interested in have changed?
ML: Is there a correlation between this film and the fact that I was born as long ago as 1943? Yeah, I guess there is. Of course. There was an appalling and scurrilous journalist from the Evening Standard a few years ago who interviewed me when I made Happy-Go-Lucky. He said, “I’ve got a question, and it’s not my question. The girls in the office asked me to say this.” When people say that it’s always bullshit. He asked, “Don’t you think it’s strange that a man of your age should make a film about young women?” A very offensive question. Very offensive. I should have just chucked him out of the room but then that’s what he would have written about and it would have become something else. Which is all to say that Happy-Go-Lucky seemed like a very natural thing to do at that time and I might yet make another film about young people and younger issues. I’m a parent, I’ve got sons who are in their 30s, so I’m tuned in to stuff that isn’t just about me. On the other hand,Another Year absolutely dealt with people of my own age from my generation and issues to do with that. But I don’t think it’s an issue really. One is here to take the temperature on all kinds of things.
You develop your films through a process of improvisation derived from research. Do actors relish that challenge or do some find it difficult?
ML: On the whole people don’t find it difficult once they get the hang of it, even though it’s challenging and quite hard work. There aren’t some of the ordinary securities they’re used to. But there are plenty of actors who I don’t use who would find it difficult. Curiously, they don’t find their way into my films in the first place. There are lots of sorts of actors and lots of sorts of acting. This is the stuff that involves character actors – people that are versatile and can play real people out there in the street, and are intelligent. Not all actors are intelligent, I would suggest.
Mr. Turner is a period film based on real lives and events – does that hinder your improvisational working process in any way?
ML: No, not if you’re embracing that that’s what you’re doing. The joy of it is bringing something to life. Obviously if I’m inventing characters and the whole premise that’s one thing, but I don’t go into a project like this and regret the fact that I’m not completely making it up. That’s not the name of the game, you know? It’s not inhibiting. It’s quite exciting to breathe life into something that you’ve just seen on a page.
Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner is very expressive vocally – there are a lot of grunts and guttural coughs. Did you work with him on that specific element of the role?
ML: That’s all part of the job, yeah. It also comes from the descriptions of Turner as well. At the same time Turner was – as indeed he is in the film – also capable of being extremely articulate and florid in his language in ways that were full of classical references. Tim and me both read all the biographies. You have to get into it. But then there’s always homework
Do you feel a responsibility to portray people according to how they appear in your research?
ML: Yes and no. Mostly yes, but in in the end you have to create a thing that stands up on its own terms. One is not making a documentary. It’s a subjective reflection, a distillation. It would be senseless however to disregard totally the world you’ve been reading about because then there’d be no point in doing it. We don’t sail that far away from the biography, but it’s about capturing the essence and the spirit.
Did you read the article that Philip Hoare wrote for The Guardian, claiming that your representation of the art critic John Ruskin in the film was “unconscionable”?
ML: I did.
What did you think of it?
ML: What, apart from the sense of humour deficit? That’s all really. It’s not an irresponsible depiction – it’s an imaginative dramatisation of John Ruskin. I have no doubt whatsoever that if you met the man he would not be like that, as with all of the characters, but it’s a perfectly legitimate dramatisation of a view of Ruskin and an idea of Ruskin, who was undoubtedly precocious and priggish and opinionated and all of that. I know quite a lot about Ruskin. It’s not as gratuitous as some people have suggested, I think.
At what point then are you free to create a scene out of whole cloth, or to depict something that historians disagree about?
ML: One thing that historians disagree about is whether Turner actually did have himself strapped to the mast of a ship to paint a storm. Some say he merely claimed that but it didn’t really happen. I regard that as being academic because we’re making a movie here. If you’re going to make a film about a man who iconically had himself strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm it would be eccentric not to include it. There are things that there’s no evidence for, but in a strict sense everything that happens is an invention. If you got into a time machine and went back to the actual events you can be completely sure they’d bear no resemblance. It’s all made under that license. The interesting thing is that all the Turner experts think the film’s great, even though when he goes to Margate we shot it in a small village west of Plymouth and it bears absolutely no resemblance to Margate whatever. It doesn’t seem to worry anybody, as indeed it shouldn’t.
Contemporary Margate doesn’t resemble Turner’s Margate any more, anyway.
ML: Well it resembles Margate more than the place we’ve got, that’s for sure. I’ve no doubt some of the gourmet burger vendors of Margate would object, but that’s their problem.
Was there anything you found in your research that you wish you could have shown?
ML: We wanted to see him in Venice, because Turner’s trips to Venice were very important in his life and in his work. We don’t because we couldn’t afford it. That was the main thing.
How did you choose to deal with the absence of those trips?
ML: Miss it out, is how we dealt with it.
Having made films about Gilbert and Sullivan and Turner, are there any other historical figures you’d like to make a film about?
ML: No. No. The next film that I do I’ll make ’em up.
Turner produced countless paintings over the course of his life, but do you have any particular favourites?
ML: It’s difficult really. I’ve got a few. I like Rain, Steam and Speed. I like a lot of them. There’s a wonderful one in the Tate, a much earlier painting of a winter, frosty morning which is worth a look. I prefer the landscape paintings; the classical, allegorical ones I’m less interested in. The real world is what excites me the most.