Mr. Turner: Director Mike Leigh on Workshopping History

Mike Leigh Mr Turner


Mike Leigh is widely regarded as one of the finest filmmakers in the world. (So if you don’t know who he is, then shame on you.) 

The director of such modern classics as NakedSecrets & LiesTopsy Turvy and Vera Drake is famous for working without a proper screenplay, instead collaborating directly with his actors to develop characters and situations before setting the film down on paper. (He’s been nominated for five Best Original Screenplay Oscars anyhow.) His new film, Mr. Turner, in many ways developed no differently, even though this biography of famed British painter J.M.W. Turner is based on real-lfe events, many of which were included in the motion picture along with the inventions of Leigh and his.

How the heck does he do this? CraveOnline sat down with the filmmaker to discuss the history of J.M.W. Turner and how his filmmaking style changes – if indeed it even does – while making a film like Mr. Turner, which we have also declared one of The Best Movies of 2014.

Mr. Turner opens in theaters this Friday, and we urge every single one of you to go see the motion picture that might very well be Mike Leigh’s masterpiece.


CraveOnline: I don’t have anything written down. I thought we’d workshop it.

Mike Leigh: No, good, good. No, I agree. 

So one thing I’ve always been fascinated about your work is that you don’t start off with a conventional screenplay. How does that work when you’re doing a story involving events that actually happened?

Doesn’t make any difference because you can research for a million years and read everything that’s ever been written about a thing but it doesn’t make it happen in front of the camera. It remains on the page. But to make the world you’re depicting come alive, irrespective of whether you’re, as it were, dramatizing events that actually happened or whether you’re making them up out of your head, you’ve still got to do something that organically makes it happen in three dimensions. So the difference is only that whereas with one of my contemporary films which may we be completely creating, we sit down and we start to evolve these characters and relationships and all that, which then involves research into stuff like work or education or where they lived or whatever it is. 

With a thing like Topsy Turvy or Mr. Turner, we research, we read, we get that on the go into our bloodstream a bit, and then we still make characters and have to bring them to life. We know that they have this relationship with this landlady in Margate called Mrs. Booth. We know that eventually he lived with her and moved near London and all the rest of it. But that’s just information basically. We can research aspects of what they were like. We don’t know what happened. So you’ve still got to make it happen in the moment too. So therefore it’s fundamentally the same thing. Of course, there’s other things like period language and all of that but that’s simply par for the course.

How do you know that someone’s life like J.M.W. Turners’ will be cinematic as opposed to any other figure? What was it about his life?

Well, there are two separate answers to that question. One is that for me, everybody’s interesting. I mean, anybody, literally anybody could be the central character in a movie as far as I’m concerned. Once you start looking into it. That’s one thing.

But a quite separate thing is that Turner’s work is cinematic, the nature of his painting. And therefore for me, when I started to look into it and to research Turner the character, the tension between this guy, this very mortal man and this incredibly sublime work that he created, was in itself an undoubted subject for a movie really. But those are two quite separate things.

How do you decide where in his life you’ll pick up?

We could’ve made a biopic. We could’ve found a small fat boy that looked like Tim Spall that could draw and paint. That would be boring really. I mean, it would spread thin. It would dissipate, dilute. To me, it seemed containable. 26 years is still quite a stretch. It’s containable, it’s feasible for Tim Spall and the others to sustain the characterization over that period and to look feasible. 

But apart from all those practical things, more important is the fact that in that last period of his life is when painting became radical and people thought he’d lost his senses and all of that. It’s the period of his relationship with Mrs. Booth. It’s the last phase of his father and that’s an important relationship and the death of his father and all of that. And it contains a whole number of particular dramatizable events.