Exclusive! Mike Leigh – Striving for Authenticity

May 13, 2019
With his 14th feature film (two tv-movies among them), the venerable British director takes on a 200 year old uprising that is very much pertinent to today.

The film was released on the 200th anniversary of the horrific events of 1819. What was it that drew you to the subject, initially?

There were various reasons, really. Most importantly, I felt that it was a major event that needed to be told.

One scholar has described the event as “the most numerous meeting that ever took place in Great Britain”. There are estimates of 60,000 in the crowd.

And there are some reports that the number may have been closer to 100,000.

How did you manage to achieve the effect of such a colossal crowd? Presumably, you didn’t have 60,000 extras at your disposal!

No, indeed we didn’t! We had 200 extras – and the rest was done with crowd simulation CGI.

Had you used CGI much before?

Yes, but only subtly. For instance, we used it in Mr. Turner, specifically, in the scene with The Fighting Temeraire. The CGI operators on Peterloo had mainly come from the world of commercials, and they were delighted to be able to actually build a virtual world, and remake a model of the Manchester of the period.

Dick Pope’s cinematography is stunning. Certain scenes have stayed with me. For instance, the early scenes of figures walking across a marsh – and there’s a beautiful, very evocative image looking into a courtyard through an archway. There was a painterly quality to the images.

Yes, as you would know, Dick Pope has been my cinematographer since 1990. He always brings his wonderful aesthetic to the proceedings.

The period detail in the film is exquisite – and the costumes appear to be entirely accurate. Could you speak a little about this aspect of Peterloo?

Well, it is a period film at odds with period film, so to speak. We weren’t going to rely on second-hand accounts. We knew that the more we make it like we think it was it would be a much greater task. But it was entirely worth it.

One of the great elements of detail is the scene in a weaving factory with hundreds of looms rattling away.

Yes, the looms were all real, working looms from the period – not CGI. When I grew up, they were still in existence, I remember seeing them then – all operational. And we were able to feature them in the film.

There are numerous scenes featuring candlelight, which must have proved logistically difficult. One thinks of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon as an earlier cinematic example. I suppose there have been advances in cinematography since then, which may make it easier to shoot such scenes?

Yes, but they are still candles! I remember when we were shooting Mr. Turner, which also had candlelight, we all went off to see Barry Lyndon, as an example. But Peterloo doesn’t refer to Barry Lyndon.

A number of the actors in Peterloo are from the north of England: Nico Mirallegro; Neil Bell; Maxine Peake; Pearce Quigley. You yourself were brought up in Salford. Was it important for you to have this authentic link for this particular film?

It had to have authenticity. We didn’t want to cast southern characters who would have to put on a northern accent. The speech was very important, obviously.

You are renowned for your lengthy rehearsals, and for getting your cast to develop the dialogue via improvisation. Did Peterloo demand a more traditional method, given that it is based upon actual events?

Yes, in many regards it did. It demanded a great deal of research in order to get an accurate depiction and portrayal. But, in the end, it was still an organic process.

Some of the dialogue is the actual words known to have been spoken by the real historical characters – I’m thinking, for instance, of the officer who cried: “For shame! For shame! The people cannot get away!”

That’s right. Again, it came down to scrupulous research.

There are numerous historical prints that were made of the massacre. And there is a crisp clarity to the scenes in St Peter’s Field, which echo some of the lithographs of the period.

Yes, and of course we looked at everything – all the art, all the history.

It is clear that the Establishment was intent on crushing any kind of rebellion or disobedience in the most brutal fashion. This is evident in the early scenes in the courtroom, where the punishments are outrageously inflated: a hanging for stealing a coat; an old woman sentenced to penal servitude at Botany Bay, later commuted to a whipping.

And of course, from your perspective in Australia this is very pertinent. I should mention that those three early courtroom scenes were actual cases which were presented to real magistrates. They were not exaggerated at all. Each character – the judges and the plaintiffs – were real.

Astonishing! The Establishment was obviously keenly aware that the French Revolution had finished only twenty-years earlier.

The authorities were terrified of an English Revolution! And it was a very real possibility. Things were definitely on a knife’s edge.

The film shows the importance of women in the events, both behind the scenes and in the front line. They were in a sense the backbone of the situation.

Women were very important in the situation. We wanted to tell it like it was. Theirs was a significant contribution.

The Establishment figures in the film are rightfully treated with disdain. And you seem to have had a special delight in portraying the grotesque Prince Regent, and his equally grotesque mistress, Lady Conyngham. This is most apparent in their last scene together, where they spout empty, jingoistic slogans.

There was a difficulty dealing with the Prince Regent, because while he was responsible for building Regency London, he was also an outrageous person. His final speech in the film is taken from an actual letter that he wrote.

You have now made a number of historical films: Topsy-Turvy; Vera Drake; Mr. Turner, and now Peterloo. Is this an area that you particularly enjoy now?

Well, it comes and goes. There have been gaps between the historical films. But, yes, I am interested in continuing with them.

Do you think that People Power today has the ability to effect change?

I would like to think so. But these are very volatile times we are living in.

Peterloo is in cinemas May 16, 2019

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