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Glory at Sea: Mike Leigh on Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Within a career that’s now in its fifth decade, Mr. Turner is only the third period film Mike Leigh has made, but, ironically, it’s the first he’s shot digitally. The picture captures the last 25 years of revered British painter J.M.W. Turner’s life — already famous, his days are filled with awkward visits from an ex-wife and daughters, confrontations with both artistic rivals and lesser painters, and the salon visits that constitute the business of being an artist in the mid-1800s. Timothy Spall deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his turn as the eccentric Turner, who walks around London huffing at the work of others before popping off to the seaside town of Margate for seclusion as well as the inspiration that comes from the ocean’s stunning reflected light. Turner is also seen coping with illness and the loss of popularity that accompanied his increasingly adventurous landscapes, while being intrigued by a new competitor on the horizon: photography.

Mr. Turner is a character study in keeping with Leigh’s best work; like many of his classic central figures, Turner is memorable for his foibles. It’s also something of an adventurous film for Leigh, who takes advantage of the digital camera and the possibilities offered in postproduction to reimagine Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire,” a painting depicting the final voyage of a vaunted British warship — tugged away to be broken up for scrap.

Without a trace of didacticism, Mr. Turner poses the question, what inspires an artist? Is it the landscape, personal relationships or are they nurturing talent that they were born with? With Turner positioned as a precursor to the French Impressionists, the film is also an apt tale for our particular moment, depicting the evolving consciousness of an artist during a time of technological change.

Born in February 1943 in Manchester, Leigh was 16 when he moved to London to join RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). There, he discovered Eisenstein, Bergman, Ozu, Kurosowa and Truffaut. He would be deeply influenced by the knowledge that when Fellini made 8 1/2, nobody except the director knew what the film was going to be.

Leigh acted before attending art and film school in the 1960s in London. He began his professional career by working in the theater. In 1971 he adapted for film one of his plays, Bleak Moments, and he’s been moving between the two mediums ever since. He won the Palme d’Or in 1996 for Secrets and Lies and in 2006 picked up the Golden Lion in Venice for Vera Drake. Mr. Turner will be released by Sony Pictures Classics.


You’ve seen the film?

Yeah, I saw it at Cannes, at the 8:30 a.m. press screening. I was really taken. You get a rehearsal, you know, at 1:30 in the morning.

Do you go to that yourself? Yeah, with the cinematographer, [Dick Pope], we always do. Of course, it’s different now because it’s a digital projection, so in a way, it’s less critical. But there was still a sound issue. It’s such an enormous barn, the Grand Palais, so you’re never quite sure. And of course, you go in at 1:30 in the morning and it’s empty, you know? The next morning it’s full of people.

How has your use of digital on this film changed your filmmaking? Dick and myself are marinated in the age of shooting on celluloid. I mean, we’ve only shot two films digitally — this one, and we made a short for the Olympics, A Running Jump. We thought we’d try it, you know? And the great thing about the ALEXA is that they’ve gone to great lengths to make it possible for you to use it like 35mm celluloid [with a] traditional Aeroflex. Of course, with digital you can shoot 79-minute takes, but I don’t, because I don’t think in those terms. We use [the ALEXA] like a movie camera. Technicalities, like the rhythm of what you’re doing not being stopped every 10 minutes because you have to change mags, that’s a minor thing. But we work with it as we have always worked with a movie camera. I look through the camera when I’m rehearsing. I do the rehearsal, the final directing of the actors, et cetera. The only two actual physical differences in the experience of shooting are that there’s an extra creative artistic person, the guy with the computer, which obviously has no equivalent in the old mode. And when you’re new to it, as I was, it takes a little bit of time to twig that he’s not just a boffin who is there to press buttons; he is part of the creative process, and we have a really great guy who really knows his shit.

The other thing is that because I was brought up in the classical shooting mode with celluloid, I never used video playback. I never watch the monitor. I line up the shot, I rehearse it, I look through the camera. If I can’t see what’s going on, or I can’t get in the room — say, with something that’s handheld, where you can’t — I’ll watch the monitor. But normally I stand next to the camera, as one traditionally did, and I know what’s there, and I watch it, and then we go onto the next shot. That’s what I’ve always done. I now have a monitor more often than not because it’s there to check, but I don’t really naturally use one. I certainly never used to need to play back after every fucking take because it takes 10 times as long, but of course, you now have that facility. Of course, you start to use it, so you’ve got to watch out that you don’t become hooked by this disease of having to watch every single take after you’ve shot it.

Why are you saying it’s a disease? I’ve been on sets where I’ve seen a director sit partitioned off from the action and just watch screens. The disease I’m talking about is not looking through the monitor; it’s feeling the need to watch every take after you’ve shot it. That’s what I meant. [Some directors] will sit in a caravan somewhere else, you know? I don’t do that, probably because that’s not what I’m used to, but also because I’m an actor’s director, very much so, and to be there in the same space with the actors, not removed one step, is important to me. It’s part of the whole thing. If you’re brought up on shooting film, you’ve got a sense of everything by being there.

When did you learn that watching dailies was a menace to actors? I’ll tell you exactly when I learned that. When I was 19, I had a small part in a feature film called Two Left Feet directed by Roy Ward Baker, with David Hemmings and various people. It was shot mostly at Shepperton in 1962. Every day, there were a lot of young actors, and every day at lunchtime, we all piled into a movie theater at Shepperton and watched the rushes. And I watched these guys disintegrate. I watched their performances disintegrate day-by-day. I mean, it wasn’t a very sophisticated film, so there wasn’t profound acting on the go. But by watching themselves and then trying to self-consciously modulate what they were doing, they simply became more self-conscious and less organic in so far as they were organic in the first place.

Now, obviously, I have developed a whole kind of acting, which you know about. Certainly, I would say a lot of actors over a long time enjoy the fact that they don’t see [the playback]. They don’t think about it that way. They simply are inside it and they follow the directions and work from the point of view of the character. In most of the films, they never know anything about what’s going on in the film apart from what they are doing. As much as possible, I insist that they don’t watch monitors, they don’t see what they’re doing, so that they’re really in it. We put the monitor outside in another room where other people watch it, and if we want to watch it after the take, we’ll go out and find it.

The other thing I am blessed with — and I am lucky in this respect, the way that my films are set up — is I’ve got a very great producer, Georgina, who I’ve worked with for years. Before that, I had Simon Channing Williams, who died, and Georgina worked with us. So, she produces the film. I direct the films, and she’s around, but it’s not producing as in putting her foot in everywhere, her boot all over the place and screwing it up. You don’t see any other producers anywhere near her at any time, basically. If they do [show up], they pay a very, very occasional visit and it’s as much as they do to come for lunch and piss off afterwards, basically. So what you don’t get is a whole fucking committee of boneheads standing around, arguing the toss about every shot and driving everybody nuts and wasting a lot of time. That’s one of the disadvantages of monitors and playback and all that. Indeed, from what I understand, it’s also a disadvantage in the cutting room because in the old-fashioned mode of cutting, once a cut had gone, it’s gone, you know? But now, of course, these boneheads can come in and say, “Oh, gee, yeah, let’s just go back to cut number 106.” And you drive everybody completely bonkers and waste a lot of time

Film is great, but in the end, it’s technology. It’s a tool to do what you want with to master. And we are living in, after all, what I believe is called the 21st century.

It’s called the digital age. Of course. I was naturally skeptical when we decided to give [the ALEXA] a go and see if we could make “The Fighting Temeraire” happen on the screen. I said, “Okay, well, these guys at [U.K. post-production house] Lipsync are great, you know. But, I’ll believe it when I see it.” And sure as hell, they delivered. We went, and we shot in the estuary where it actually happened. We were blessed with the right weather this summer. We shot the guys in the boat, and then we turned around, and we shot various takes of the sunset. That was the basis, and they built the background on that. I suppose, with proper budgets, you could build the damn thing. But since CGI is not cheap, probably, we were spending as much on that.

So that short film gave you the confidence to shoot Mr. Turner digitally? I made one previous sort of “more epic” period film, Topsy-Turvy. I also made Vera Drake, another period film. In all three of those cases, you can’t just light out on a location and shoot. I mean, Vera Drake herself, the character, she would’ve been seen walking up Upper Street Islington with trolley buses going past in 1950. But, I mean, you can’t leap out onto the street and shoot that as they don’t exist, you know? Topsy-Turvy, famously, was virtually devoid of exteriors, but that was okay. It’s a film about theater. We scrapped scenes that we were going to shoot of Gilbert on his yacht and Sullivan at races because we couldn’t afford it.

Now, you make a movie about Turner, you ain’t going to spend the whole time indoors, you know? In fact, Topsy-Turvy, which I made 15 years ago, had the smaller budget, at £8.4 [million], whereas Topsy-Turvy cost £10 million. We knew that there weren’t “epic things” we would need to do. But what I have found is no matter what kind of film, you have to have some things that are treats for the audience, you know? I mean, [Turner] famously painted a train, and we went through every version of how to shoot that bloody train. This exterior train is in the Manchester Museum, the Museum of Science and Technology, and goes up and down a 30-foot track. We put it on a low loader, and we took it to North Wales and stuck it on a line and filmed it. That cost a few bob. But you just have to go for it, really.

Bringing this picture to light, especially when you’re not so used to the digital medium, how do you go about choosing your crew? What gives you confidence to work with new technical collaborators? We had a deal with Lipsync, an all-in deal. We actually used their cutting room and all that, but that doesn’t put money into the film. That’s all part of the deal. If we weren’t confident in what they could deliver was good, we wouldn’t have gone with them. The thing about these things is you never really know until you’ve done it. You could say, “We’ll dub here, we’ll edit there, ADR that, we’ll do the post, whatever sorts.” I think it’s the first time we’ve had an all-in deal with one company, and it’s slightly a matter of who the actual guys are that are on the job. You know, you can have very good desk and dubbing theater or — and I’ve had this experience — an idiot or wanker on the case, and then all this technology goes for nothing. On the other hand, I’ve seen really brilliant people do a fantastic job with really crummy equipment. So, it depends. It’s all about an attitude.

Did you try to shoot the film in order? You can’t shoot a film in order. I try and shoot as much as possible from the beginning near the beginning and the end near the end, and we sort of did, but really, it has nothing to do with that. Obviously, what you’re talking about is the fact that in my films we discover what happens.

They are organic. The fact is that you can research for a million years, and you can read a thousand books until it comes out of your ears, but none of that makes it happen in front of the camera. It’s still got to be organic in front of the camera. All those artist [characters in the film], every one of those guys was a real painter, and all those actors were actors who could more or less paint, you know? You do all that, but in the end, you’ve still got to make a characterization happen and bring it to life and put flesh and blood on the theoretical bones of them.

Famously, Turner in 1832 goes to the annual Varnishing Day, as they called it at the Royal Academy, sees Constable working on this very red painting of the opening of the Waterloo Bridge, and his own painting had been hung next to it, this very great painting. So, he did exactly what happened in the film. He went, pottered around a bit, and walked around, and then he came back, put a fucking red blob on it. And then he came out and said, “There’s your boy.” Now, you could read about that in any number of books, and Constable actually says, “He has been here and fired a gun and walked out.” That tells you so much, but it doesn’t actually make it happen, you know? So, what we did is, we created the set, and we improvised, and we built the scene up. You do it visually and cinematically.

There’s a whole lot of aspects of [Turner’s] life that we do not deal with. For example, he was forever rewriting wills and things like that. They’re all part of the integral whole. I think it’s inevitable if I get my hands on a character, or a set of characters, that whether I think about it consciously or not, it will start to be about relationships, because that’s what I naturally am fascinated by. I mean, we deal with a whole lot of stuff. For example, through two devices in the film, we deal with a matter of slavery, which is a big thing, obviously. First of all, the Ruskins buy the painting of slaves being thrown overboard to avoid the insurance claim. And when [Turner] goes down to Margate, the old guy subsequently dies, which turns out to be an omen for slavery, slave ships, slave owners. I have no doubt, whatever, that if you could go back in a time machine and observe the actual event, it would probably bear little or no resemblance to the part in the film. But, you know, it’s a movie, basically. There are events in the film that absolutely never took place that we invented. We know his ex-partner’s niece was the housekeeper for years, and she famously had some terrible kind of skin disease. But rather curiously, there’s nothing anywhere that Turner had sexual relations with her. Because we invented it. But, it’s bloody plausible, and it seems to make absolute sense to us. And in the end, it’s not a documentary, you know?

It’s not a documentary, and that is why I was wondering about Timothy Spall’s performance, and his grunting. Well, Turner apparently did that. Somebody had actually, somewhere along the line, logged Turner actually speaking verbatim briefly. And there were other clues, but he did actually make grunting noises in real life.

I’m fascinated by your own interest in Turner, because obviously your grandfather studied art and was an artist, and your father really resented you doing art when you were younger. My grandfather wasn’t really a painter. You know those old photographs that are colored in? But I don’t really think about it in terms of my granddad. My dad’s resistance to me being this sort of artist was deeply eccentric, and it manifested every sort of creative neurosis you know. But his dad couldn’t feed him because nobody wanted colored pictures, and they starved, you know? And so, he thought artist meant penniless, really, and he was right.

I was going to say, he’s not wrong, either. [Laughs] He was prescient in his clairvoyance. But, the fact is, I did go to art school, and I have been very much concerned with art and painting and all these things for a long time. I think when I was a teenager, I would have thought Turner was Constable — chocolate box, not interesting, really. But gradually I got to appreciate Turner. I went to Camberwell Art School, which was not all conservative in any negative sense. But, at the time when all the London art schools in the early to mid ’60s were really all about pop art, Camberwell held onto its very good tradition of being about drawing and looking at stuff. They weren’t sort of fuddy-duddy, they were “with it,” but they were serious about drawing, and it was great. And in that context, I started to look at figurative painting, and Turner, not least. I mean, Turner is extraordinary. He is in a category all by himself. He anticipated 20th-century Impressionism and all that stuff. I was attracted by the tension between this eccentric, very animal, mortal, flawed guy, and this sublime, spiritual stuff.

The film spans 26 years from 1825 through 1851. The quantum leap in that time, from what is basically post-18th-century Georgian Age to the Industrial Victorian Age, is enormous. It shouldn’t be extraordinary to us, because if you think about — well, my son is 33 tomorrow, my youngest son. So, I was online last night, pulling some images off Google Images to make a card for him. I looked at all these 1981 things — 1981 computers, cars — it’s like a million years ago now, and really it’s not much longer than the span of this film.

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