Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins: interview

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Mike Leigh‘s ’Happy-Go-Lucky‘ is unusually summery but, as Dave Calhoun finds out from the director and his lead actress Sally Hawkins, it‘s improvisational business as usual for the filmmaker

Mike Leigh and Sally Hawkins: interview
Mike Leigh in Camden © Rob Greig

Mike Leigh recently gave Time Out a guided tour of places in London where he’s shot films. And while travelling about the city with the 65-year-old director of ‘Naked’ and ‘Secrets & Lies’, talking about his favourite Turkish restaurants and the merits of the current occupant of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, we stopped at some locations for his new film, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, which opens next week and stars Sally Hawkins as Poppy, a youthful primary-school teacher living life to the full in the city.

Leigh’s new film is moving, comic and colourful, both in its story and visuals: Leigh and Dick Pope, the film’s cinematographer, opted early in the process, once the breezy nature of the story had emerged, to shoot the film with a new film stock that stresses the boldness of primary colours. This brightness – the opposite of the darker hues of ‘Vera Drake’, say, or ‘Naked’ – means we can’t miss the vivid tones of Poppy’s clothes or the tissue-paper hats that she and her flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) craft during a hangover on a Sunday afternoon for the kids at school the next day. Like Poppy, the palette is a challenge to our preconceptions: why shouldn’t a filmmaker better known for exploring the sadnesses of modern life make a more upbeat film? And anyway, to see ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ as a departure is mostly a distraction: all of Leigh’s films balance laughs with tragedies.

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'Happy-Go-Lucky'

Leigh shot ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, which explores themes of teaching and contentment, around London in April, May and June last year. He says he always knew he wanted to shoot in the sun. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ he says as we walk through Camden Town, ‘I didn’t know what the story would be, but I knew what the general sense of it was. So I said: “Let’s do a summer one.” ’

The reason Leigh didn’t know the story is because, as is well known, he devises plots through improvisations over several months. But this time Leigh’s impulse was to build a story around a character played by Hawkins, with whom he had worked twice before.

‘He never put that to me,’ laughs 31-year-old Hawkins, when I repeat Leigh’s comments. Hawkins played a wealthy woman in ‘Vera Drake’ and a firebrand on a council estate in ‘All or Nothing’. In ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, she occupies almost every frame as she teaches, drinks with friends and takes driving lessons with Scott (a great turn of repression and rage from Eddie Marsan).

‘I think it would have been scary to know from the beginning that Poppy would be such a large part,’ continues Hawkins. ‘It’s probably good I didn’t know. With the nature of Mike’s work, you never know where it’s going to end up. And nor does he.’

The tag of improvisation is always attached to Leigh’s work but, contrary to perception, no one improvises in front of his camera. He shoots from a script. Which is not to say that he doesn’t continue to craft his story and to create scenes once shooting starts.

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Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins as Scott and Poppy in 'Happy-Go-Lucky'

Leigh takes me to Camden Market. It’s the location for a scene in which we see Poppy run into her sister Suzy (Kate O’Flynn), who is mid-argument with a man. Suzy walks off with Poppy, who throws abuse over her shoulder.

‘There are times when I put together a scene on the spot, without any previous rehearsal,’ Leigh says, standing in the market. ‘It was a terrible, wet, cold day and the actors arrived in the morning having no idea what I was going to do.’

He points to a flight of steps: ‘I got the idea of using these. The crew were getting cameras out, and I constructed from scratch this complicated scene.

I knew there would be a scene where Poppy would run into her sister with this guy but I didn’t have the dialogue. I did the improvisations on the spot, stopped it and scripted it physically right here, with it pissing down.

‘On those occasions, I think it would be fair to say that I would sum up my state of mind as: You wish to Christ you’d never been born. The pressure is massive, but hey. I remember thinking: We’re never going to use this. Actually it’s a nice scene, an important scene.’

It’s a window on how Leigh works: preparation is everything, but so is being prepared to alter things as you go. It’s common for Leigh to wait until he’s well into shooting to decide on the end of the film. He explains in a new biography, ‘Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh’, how he only worked out the end of ‘Naked’ when he was driving to the location one day.

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Sally Hawkins

It was similar with ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. He was filming around Finsbury Park so he thought he’d shoot a final scene with Poppy rowing on the lake. When Finsbury Park was not available, they went to Regent’s Park and shot it there. Hawkins warns that people shouldn’t be deceived by ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. It might feel lighter in tone after ‘Vera Drake’, but all the usual hard work informs every second on screen.

‘That’s what’s so interesting about Mike’s period dramas like “Topsy-Turvy” and “Vera Drake,” ’ the actress reasons. ‘With those, people begin to appreciate the richness of the detail because you can see it all on screen. When you make a film in contemporary London, you can’t see the seams. But the detail is there, whether it’s 1950 or 2008.’

Happy-Go-Lucky’ opens on Apr 18. ‘Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh’ is published by Faber on Apr 17.


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