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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

No Dummies Please

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday February 19, 06:54 pm
Mike Leigh has no use for stupid actors

MR. TURNER

Roxy (opens Friday 27)

Older British filmmakers are less author-y than the younger, hipper directors from that country. After interviewing a few, I can tell you these guys are meat-and-potatoes craftsmen — more likely to make a crack about your dead grandmother (looking at you, Stephen Frears) than a long speech about the fundamental nature of film.

Mike Leigh fits the mould. The seven-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has been chronicling England’s working class for three decades, generating classics like Secrets and Lies and Life Is Sweet along the way.

But in recent years, Leigh has seemed to mellow out. His movies became accessible, succinct, and even (almost, but not really) mainstream-style funny. Another Year and Happy-Go-Lucky are particularly witty, if with a bitter undercurrent.

So in a way, Mr. Turner is a return to form. It’s a lengthy and nearly plotless character study of an unsavoury individual capable of greatness, starring regular collaborator Timothy Spall.

Spall is phenomenal as J.M. William Turner, a renowned landscape painter who had his heyday in the early 1800s. Widely beloved by the art establishment at the time, Turner pushed the boundaries of naturalism; his marinas had an intensity seldom seen before. But his private life was considerably less palatable: a notorious misanthrope, the artist barely dedicated any time to his family, and paid a maid to be willing to satisfy every, well, let’s just say “urge.”

There isn’t a proper narrative arc in the film (unless you consider going from “miserable” to “slightly less miserable” as character development), but a series of vignettes that depict Turner as a complex man — sensitive to nature, but not to people. At roughly 150 minutes long Mr. Turner can be a taxing experience, but also a nutritious one.

I had the chance to talk with Leigh at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Mr. Leigh…

Mike, please.

Ok, Mike. Do you remember the first time William Turner got your attention?

When I was 14, I had Picasso pinned on my wall — the impressionists, Cezanne, Dalí. I found Turner’s chocolate-box landscapes boring. I discovered him when I became an art student and started looking at figurative painting. You can’t help it when you’re in London; he’s part of the city’s culture. Gradually, Turner became a source of stimulation and a topic of interest. The tension between this eccentric, flawed, passionate, grubby individual and the sublime stuff he created struck me as a good subject for a movie.

Your approach is very episodic, as compared to a traditional biopic.

Normally, most of my films are very condensed dramas. With Mr. Turner, I didn’t have a choice; this is a man in an epic journey. The problem was to make the movie flow naturally across 25 years without having to use labels — what year is it or where we are. That liberated me from being too literal about what was happening at any given stage.

Did you feel any additional pressure when working with a real-life figure like Turner?

You can read a million books or research for a decade, but that doesn’t make it happen in front of the camera. You still have to make characters live and breathe in the moment in a believable way. In most of the films I’ve made we create a feasible, lived in, detailed world. Here we did exactly the same, but informed by the research.

Turner famously disavowed his wife and kids to fully dedicate himself to his craft. Do you believe geniuses must sacrifice a fulfilling personal life to achieve artistic greatness?

Mr. Turner may be a film about a great artist, but it’s also about someone who rolled up his sleeves, works and gets dirty doing it. All of us “doers” have to get out of bed in the morning and go through the grind, yourself included. The genius element looks after itself.

How did you pick your cast?

First of all, the world of acting is clearly divided between intelligent actors and stupid actors. Job number one is to get intelligent actors. That way, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who are not narcissistic, have a sense of humour and want to play characters.

Was Timothy Spall an obvious choice to play Turner?

I didn’t visit anybody else, that’s for sure. Not only is Tim a consummate character actor, he is a working class Londoner. He’s read a lot of Dickens and can do [any] century. He also spent two years learning to paint before we shot anything.

You’re known for rehearsing extensively. Are you ever concerned about losing spontaneity?

The way we rehearse — thoroughly, painstakingly — [means that] spontaneity is built into what we do. In any film and play, the job is to bring the thing to a boiling point at the right moment. There’s no point on being fantastically spontaneous some other time — it only matters when the camera is rolling. But that’s part of the craft.

Is it true that you often work without a script?

One big misconception about my work is that everybody is improvising in front of the camera. That’s ridiculous. Everything is very precise and organized.

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