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Interview: Mike Leigh • Director

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“Beneath the surface”


- Back in competition at Cannes for the fifth time, the English director Mike Leigh reveals some trade secrets of the excellent Mr. Turner. Best Actor for Timothy Spall

Interview: Mike Leigh  • Director

Surrounded notably by his actors Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson and Marion Bailey, and by his director of photography Dick Pope, Mike Leigh revealed to the international press some hints for exploring his splendid Mr. Turner [+see also:
film review
film focus
interview: Mike Leigh
film profile
, unveiled in competition at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

What motivated you to make a film about Turner?
Mike Leigh: He’s obviously a great artist, one of the best painters of all time, but also a radical, revolutionary painter. I thought that a fascinating film could be made about him. There is a contemporary tension between the mortal Turner and his inspiration, his epic and spiritual work, his way of capturing the world. And the inspiration that you feel when you look at his paintings, we all shared that while making the film.

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Did you work as usual without a script when you began filming and with lots of rehearsals and improvisations, or did the fact that you were dealing with an historic figure and recreating an era change your approach?
This film was no different in the making. Remember Topsy-Turvy (1999) and its Victorian-style theatre. Mr. Turner has one thing in common with that film: we had to present the characters and recreate the atmosphere of the time, but freely, without it becoming a documentary. We did some research, but then, you have what happens in front of the camera. You need to create a real character when filming. And without a script, as always!

Mr. Turner is an artist’s film about an artist. Do you feel close to the character? And how do you define spirituality which is very present in the film with sickness and death?
I’ve already been asked on several occasions if this film was a type of autobiography. That’s not the case. But when you make a film about someone, you need to feel close to that person of course. Then, when you’re an artist, you understand naturally the film’s territory. As to defining spirituality, that’s difficult. I would say that a painter paints what he sees; if he’s on a cliff, he paints the sky, the sea. Many people do this, including with cameras. But when Turner paints, he sees beyond the sea and the sky and he shows us in his paintings the experience he lives, an experience which travels beneath the surface. And that relates also to life and death.

The theme of the film is artistic expression, but also the character’s emotional expression. How did you balance the two aspects?
In all of my films, I worry about this tension, which we all know, between what we are, what we want to be, and reality compared to these dreams. That tension, a type of yin and yang, is the theme of the film.

Was the lighting in the film inspired by specific Turner paintings?
When you start to research topics, be it superficially or in-depth, that ends up penetrating the psyche. We all absorbed information and when we made decisions, we did so unconsciously, without thinking about any painting in particular. 

Do you consider this film as very different to those which you directed previously?
When you look at my films as a whole, there’s consistency, a style, a concern. What I like is to try each time to make a different film while staying in the same genre.

(Translated from French)


international title: Mr. Turner
original title: Mr. Turner
country: United Kingdom, France
year: 2014
directed by: Mike Leigh
screenplay: Mike Leigh
cast: Timothy Spall, Lee Ingleby, Lesley Manville, Richard Bremmer, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, James Fleet

main awards/selection

Cannes Film Festival 2014 In competition
Best Actor (Timothy Spall)

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