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VENICE 2018 Competition

Mike Leigh • Director

“My job is to look at people as people”

by 

- VENICE 2018: We met up with British filmmaker Mike Leigh to talk about Peterloo, a detailed account of the tragedy that occurred at St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819

Mike Leigh  • Director
(© La Biennale di Venezia - foto ASAC)

British director Mike Leigh’s historical epic Peterloo [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Mike Leigh
film profile
]
, backed by Amazon Studios, explores the events surrounding the Peterloo Massacre, considered one of the most notorious moments in British history and yet, as argued by the acclaimed filmmaker, still relatively unknown. The film is screening in competition at the Venice Film Festival.

Cineuropa: Why was it important for you to talk about this particular event? Outside of Britain, it’s not very well known.
Mike Leigh:
It’s not very well known inside Great Britain either. Quite a lot of us who grew up in the Manchester area weren’t even taught about it in school. I was aware that the 200th anniversary of this event was approaching, so it felt timely for that minor reason. The aim was to be as accurate as possible and then distil it into dramatic and cinematic form. But the interesting thing is that after a while, we found ourselves saying: “You know what? This is becoming increasingly relevant.” The first time I made a period film, which was Topsy-Turvy, I wanted to take this chocolate-box world of Gilbert and Sullivan, and look at them as contemporary people. It’s the same case with this film. But if you were to ask whether I tried to reflect what is happening now, the answer is no. I wouldn’t know how. We are in the midst of a mad, stupid crisis, and we don’t know how it’s going to be resolved. 

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When somebody doesn’t want to talk about certain events, it usually means they are embarrassed. Do you think it’s still the case here?
I recently heard of a teacher trying to put it on the curriculum and being told to take it off. It was an important moment in the history of democracy: a landmark and a precursor to a whole bunch of events that happened much later. So why is it still repressed? That’s a very good question. First of all, and this is mentioned in the film, the influence of the French revolution was massive. Afterwards, London was full of French refugees, and the authorities and the monarchy were paranoid it would happen again. Many of us are still republicans at heart and can’t imagine why we have a royal family, which is the most inexplicable piece of nonsense in the history of humanity.

Did you ever consider showing the aftermath of the massacre as well?
The first problem would have been deciding where to draw the line. Secondly, it would have made for the kind of dry, indigestible cinema that some American reviews have already accused this film of being. What you take away from Peterloo is your emotional response. If you want to go to Wikipedia and find out more, that’s fine. But I preferred to give the audience something to work on.

Peterloo is your biggest production yet. Do you think it would be possible to make a film on such a huge scale without Amazon Studios’ help?
Absolutely not. Amazon Studios, it has to be said, never interfered – not with casting, nor with the post-production. I have nothing but praise for them. If I, or any filmmaker you care to mention, were to go through the financial portfolio of every backer to check their credentials or where the money came from, we would never make a single film. It’s as simple as that. Sure, we could have said we are morally above this and we are not going to make this film about democracy and freedom, but I think it would have been irresponsible.

It’s interesting how your film also talks about the press, as the event played a significant role in the founding of The Guardian. Did it make you think about how much things have changed?
In researching this aspect, I was astonished, astounded and impressed by the way the press operated. They were thorough, detailed, articulate and responsible – for the most part. They produced these big newspapers at an amazing speed, in large quantities, with this basic technology, one page at a time. In my youth, I used to edit a few magazines, and there is a purity about that. Now, your problem is that there are all of these different media, and newspapers are not surviving. It’s very complex and depressing. Is it progress or not? We can ask all these questions, but I have never made a film that tells you what to think.

Why do you open the film focusing on just one protagonist, Joseph? You immediately expect the story to revolve around him, but it’s not the case.
You only assume he is the hero because he is the first person you see, and you are used to watching movies [laughs]. It soon transpires that the film is not just about him. At Peterloo, there were veterans of Waterloo, like John Lees, who was injured there and died a couple of weeks later. I borrowed from that. The fact is that every single actor in the film is still playing an individual character, and doing so in a very solid way. It took time and patience, but they had done their homework, and all the creative – and I suppose also political – energy was already there. I just thought it was an appropriate way to begin a film and introduce us to Joseph’s family. They don’t carry the story, but they are there to show what the issues were from the perspective of the ordinary people.

You’ve talked about ordinary people during your whole career.
And this film is no exception. Even the prince regent is a human being, just like you and me. My job is to look at people as people and bring them to life. As a kid in Manchester, I used to watch movies and think: “Wouldn’t it be great if the characters were like real people?” That sort of motivated my work.

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