Mr. Turner: Director Mike Leigh on Workshopping History

Mike Leigh Mr Turner 2014


CraveOnline: You’ve said before in an interview that your characters are often trying to express emotions that are difficult to express, that are hard to verbalize. I was wondering, is that part of where the grunting came from?

Mike Leigh: No. No, first of all, if I’ve said that, it would be true of some characters in my films but it’s not an imprimatur with all the characters. That would be nonsense. Sometimes they are articulate people that know what they’re saying. It would appear from descriptions of Turner that he could be very eloquent, he could have classical references in his conversation. He could be very enigmatic. He could be very taciturn, and he did make funny noises. So all of that we’ve built into how he communicates, and that includes what people call grunting.

Was that Timothy Spall’s notion of a funny noise or did you work on that together?

Well, both, really. 

It strikes me that he communicates so much through that, even though it is a funny noise.

You say that. I think some people have said that. I mean, he does sometimes but it’s not the way he communicates all the time. 


“I don’t concern the actors with the film at all. That’s not on the agenda.”


No of course not, it just seems like he gets a lot out of that. Where do you start? Do you start rehearsing in chronological order? 

Well, the scenes, by which you mean the scenes in the film, are… before we get to the film, the structure of the film, we have to deal with the whole lives of the characters. So the chronology that goes on in the preparatory stage, is… I don’t concern the actors with the film at all. That’s not on the agenda. It is for me because I’m anticipating what we’re going to do, but for the actors, we’re thinking about their lives, when they’re born to whatever time present is that we reach, and their relationships with other people and all the rest of it. So that by the time you get to the stage which we then of course do, where I go scene by scene, sequence by sequence, location by location and build the scenes, build the sequences, they exist in a three dimensional way because of the world we’ve done. And then you can just do whatever needs to be done within the context of a particular moment. At this stage, then it’s much of the chronology of the action of the film.

You’ve worked with Timothy Spall before and obviously built characters from the ground up before, but when the character’s life is well documented, was that easier or harder?

It’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s just a different job, that’s all.

How is it different? You read more biographies?

Yeah, of course. Nothing I can say about that is other than what you would expect, which is to say that you do the research which is endless and complex, copious. And then you start to make what feels like a stab at the guy you’ve been reading about. 

When you’re recreating the way he painted, it seems very violent. He spits on the canvas for example.

He apparently did do that.

Did Timothy Spall have to learn how to paint?

He went to a teacher for two years. And the guy was around while we were working. Yeah, sure. I mean, without doing that, he couldn’t have tackled what he did in front of the camera.