VETERAN film director Mike Leigh is explaining some of the elements that convinced him to come over to our shores to the fourth edition of the annual Corona Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull, Co Cork this week.
This year, the 69-year-old award-winning British auteur is giving a public interview on the closing day of the festival. He first heard of the FSFF when he met a delegation at the Guadalajara Film Festival in Mexico earlier in the year.
“The fact is that they invited me a few weeks ago and I looked into it and thought ‘This sounds good’… Any excuse to come to Ireland; and it’s obviously going to be a booze-up, so it sounds like good news to me, really.”
Leigh is one of the rarities in the world of cinema — a truly independent and uncompromising film-maker who earns kudos for his output as well as managing to continue as a commercially viable artist.
His films have been described as both “neo-realist” and “kitchen sink dramas”. They are, in fact, the product of a months-long process involving actors getting together to create characters and scripts and becoming completely comfortable in their roles before a scenario is roughly ready and filming can begin. By this point, the actors are all so comfortable in their roles that the characters they inhabit are ready for whatever twists and turns the scenario may take on shoot.
Leigh describes it as a “journey of discovery to find out what the film is”. It is this unique approach that gives Leigh’s movies a thoroughly three-dimensional sense of reality that isn’t easy to find in the work of any other film director.
“For quite a long time, when I couldn’t make a feature film here, I’d go to talk to people about doing a film and they would say: ‘for a feature film to succeed, it has to work in America, and the problem is that your films would never travel to States because nobody will understand them’. And of course, as soon as we started to make feature films, that’s proved to be absolute bollocks, basically. We always do very well in the States… and always as they are — we don’t have to dub them or anything.”
Since making his first feature film (High Hopes in 1988), Leigh has been the recipient of numerous awards, amongst the most notable of which are his Best Director award at Cannes in 1993 (for Naked), a Palme d’Or at Cannes for Secrets & Lies in 1996 and the Golden Lion at Venice in 2004 for Vera Drake. He was nominated five times at the Academy Awards.
Given the way he works, it’s perhaps no surprise that much of the praise for Mike Leigh’s films is centred on the actors themselves. Many of them have become famous for their performances in Leigh’s films, often coming of age under his tutelage. Actors such as David Thewlis (from Life is Sweet and Naked) and Stephen Rea (Life is Sweet and Four Days in July) are two of the many examples of this. The actors in his last film, Another Year, received a slew of nominations and awards.
“I think that we are blessed around here with very good actors, and the kind of actors I deal with are character actors: It’s about people who are really good at characters — people who want to act like people out there on the street, as distinct from people who are narcissistic actors who are only concerned with making the character himself or herself.”
For cinema-goers in Ireland, many will have become fans of his 1991 bitter-sweet comedy, Life is Sweet. As in all Leigh films, it’s full of well-rounded three-dimensional characters that resonate with the viewer long after the final credits. It’s also one of his funniest. Was it a turning point in his career in terms of making money or achieving a new level of recognition? “I don’t know about the money,” he laughs. “It was the second film I made after a long gap, so maybe there was a level of expectation there. I suppose it was a breakthrough film of sorts, but the real breakthrough was with Secrets and Lies. That was such an international success; we went to Cannes, we got the Palme d’Or and it was very widely appreciated.”
In Secrets and Lies, the powerful narrative deals with an adopted woman discovering her birth mother in modern-day London, intertwined with the lives of other fascinating characters.
Leigh’s films concentrate on realistic situations from ordinary life and there is little call for high-tech special effects. That said, a number of directors have turned to newer cinematic technology to tell their stories. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a case in point, with its extensive use of motion-capture technology and computerised animation.
“The great thing about film is that it does evolve… although you can’t see it and you can’t see the wheels going around as it were; we’ve been very sophisticated with the use of digital technology, both in sound editing and particularly in grading.”
Leigh mentions his film Happy Go Lucky as one in which extensive use was made of digitally enhanced footage during the scenes where the main protagonist is driving a car.
“The stuff you can do with all that is very interesting. I’m now preparing a film which we’ll start shooting soon, I hope, about JMW Turner, the great painter, and there, we will absolutely use all kinds of digital post-production technology.”
As for a favourite film, he finds it difficult to pick one out because, he says, he has been fortunate to have always been free to make films exactly how he wants to without any outside interference. But he does admit to being particularly chuffed about how his Gilbert & Sullivan period piece Topsy Turvy. “It was just an extraordinary achievement for not very much money; that we managed to make this great, elaborate thing… I’m not sure quite how we did it, really. I’m proud of that one… proud of all of us.”
The 4th annual Corona Fastnet Short Film Festival runs in Schull from tomorrow to Sunday. The West Cork coastal town is famously devoid of a cinema, but that hasn’t stopped the dynamic film-fest from attracting a host of notable stars. Past guests include Jim Sheridan and Steve Coogan, while former BBC boss Greg Dyke and author/director Gerard Stembridge are amongst the regular attendees.
This year, aside from Mike Leigh, the impressive line-up includes directors Ken Wardrop (His & Hers), Lenny Abrahamson (Garage and Adam & Paul), screenwriter Carmel Winters (Snap), and Booker-prize nominated author David Mitchell, whose remarkable novel Cloud Atlas is being brought to the big screen later this year by the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer.
There will be a significant presence from Mexico again this year, with a number of competition entries from Mexico and the attendance of Mexican ambassador, Carlos Garcia de Alba.
There are 152 short films from 25 countries on show throughout the village on screens and on mobile devices, with a number of talks, master-classes and special screenings that are not to be missed.
This year specaial showings are Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Lenny Abrahamson’s Garage and West Cork man Gerard Hurley’s highly-regarded The Pier, which screens on opening party night tonight.