Few filmmakers are as beloved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as Mike Leigh. Mr. Leigh has been nominated for seven Oscars, either for writing or directing films of his going back to 1997’s “Secrets and Lies” – shockingly, he has yet to actually win an Oscar. Leigh’s latest, “Peterloo,” is another foray into the past. Set in the early 19th Century, it explores the unrest in Northern England by citizens who want to be represented in the British Parliament. Their hopes lie in renowned orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) being that representative, as Hunt travels up to the poverty-stricken region to give a speech to thousands of locals in St. Peter’s Square in Manchester, some who walked for miles to get there. What starts out as a peaceful community gathering turns deadly when the military is sent to break up the gathering, injuring and killing the weaponless citizens.
“Peterloo” is an amazing achievement, even compared to Leigh’s previous historical films “Mr. Turner” (about the landscape artist) and “Topsy-Turvy” (about musical maestros Gilbert and Sullivan). It spends a good two hours introducing many characters, some more important than others, and allowing the story to develop organically before the enormous gathering, which is bigger than anything seen previously in any of Leigh films.
NextBestPicture got on the phone with Mr. Leigh a few weeks back, a call that had a few technical issues. He seemed undaunted by the problems, though, as he helped debunk a few of the myths surrounding his filmmaking techniques. (For instance, I was convinced that Leigh would never use CG to create the amazing finale with thousands of people congregating on Manchester’s St. Peter’s Square).
It’s been about five years since we spoke for “Mr. Turner” and this one was like a good book you couldn’t put down as you get more wrapped up in the story as more characters were introduced. It was a very rich and immersive experience. What got you interested in the massacre, besides the fact that this year is its 200th anniversary? Was there something you read about it?
The funny thing is that I happened to grow up exactly near where it happened in Manchester. Growing up, we really didn’t know very much about it at all, hardly anything really. But subsequently, somewhere along the line, I started to read about it in adulthood. I remember reading a book about it… [At this point, the connection fuzzed out, so I missed much of what was said about said book.] The last thing I was saying was that we decided to make the film at the beginning of 2014, and I had a thought or instinct that it somehow [might connect], but nobody could have anticipated how relevant it would become by 2019, but it is. I mean, we couldn’t have anticipated in the context of democracy, what is happening here, what has happened in the UK, which is disastrous, and what would happen in other parts of the world, including many parts of Europe.
How did you go about researching it? I’m sure there was some documentation about what was happening in Parliament…
It’s very, very researchable. 200 years ago is early modern times. I mean, it’s all there in the archives. It’s all there in the British library, it’s all there in the National Archive. There are massive archives in Manchester. All the newspapers of the period are still there for us to read. The people like Hunt, the orator, and Samuel Bamford, the other political activist – the big guy –they wrote autobiographies later on, which included all of their speeches. There’s a lot of visual reference. It’s a very, very researchable area, it really is. Apart from anything else, three-hundred people who were at Peterloo testified as to what had happened to them. So that is an archive there. There were eyewitness accounts, and so on and so forth. If I was to make a film or tried to bring to life the people of the 6th or 7th Century, I think it would be very difficult, but 200 years ago is actually pretty much almost within received memory.
I was especially interested in those speeches given by John Saxton, John Knight to a very small group of people. There weren’t reporters there, so how was that documented or retained.
People wrote things down. They wrote down what they said. Reporters reported them. I mean, often they wrote pamphlets which were pretty much the same as their speeches, so what we’ve done is we’ve distilled from all of those sources, and of course edited it and made it work for the characters and the actors, but we are quoting actual verbatim sources, integrated organically into the script of the movie.
I’m not sure if this is the largest cast you’ve ever had in a movie…
I knew Rory Kinnear beforehand, Tim McInnerny I sort of knew, I think I’ve seen him in a few things…
Oh, yes, you have.
There were so many actors I’d never seen before – maybe they were in bit parts…
No, they’re all proper actors, and they’ve all done television or film or mostly not movies. They’ve certainly done theater. The other thing is that we’re blessed in the UK with real solid, good character actors. People who can play real people in the street, and intelligent actors. All the actors in the film are bright. They threw themselves into the research and to the whole thing of bringing to life a period. It’s sort of academic if you’ve seen them before or not, really. They’re just very, very fine professional actors, and of course, all the actors who play characters from the North of England are from the North of England. I was very strict about that. Again, that’s a great resource. People that work as actors in the North, in the provinces, doing theater, community theater, you name it basically… and television.
If you’re blessed in the UK than we’re deprived here in the States, because so many actors who have been in your movies like Sally Hawkins and Imelda Staunton, we really didn’t get to see when they were doing television or theater.
Well, of course, but the fact of the matter is, we’re part of a different world from this American world. We’re part of world cinema where you can always see movies that are acted by people you would otherwise never see. That’s what it’s about.
How did you and your casting director put that cast together, though?
It took a long time. I work with a very good and distinguished casting director, Nina Gold, whose work you’ve seen in lots of movies. She’s worked with me for years, but in the end, it’s about sitting in a room and meeting an actor every half hour and chatting to them. Then if you feel they’re any good, calling them back a few weeks later to do an hour’s work, to see how they get on without a script and how good they are at character work and all the rest of it. You know, it’s a slow process, but for me… what I don’t do, of course, just knowing that we’re talking about this to some degree in a Hollywood context, is that I don’t cast with a committee. Nobody tells me who to cast or anything of that sort, so there is no control of anything except my decision, and nobody is there when I meet the actors except me. And I never EVER have asked an actor to put [something down] on tape. I meet them in the flesh, and that’s the only way to do it then.
It’s certainly worked out. I’d be shocked if anyone tried to tell you how to cast because your film and stage work has spoken for itself. For a movie like that’s so vast with so many characters, many appearing in one scene, are you still able to rehearse and do what you’ve done in the past with actors or do you have to do more of it on the shoot on location? (Note: At this point, we lost Leigh altogether, but got him back again.)
Yes, what I was saying when we were cut-off was that as always, we spent six months working with the actors and researching and doing all that, so that you can get on location, and make it all up. The majority of the actors were in on that preparation period. Some of them came in more at the time, but I always give some space and time to preparing the actors, so that they can do characters and improvise and do all that stuff, so they know what they’re doing.
Some of your films have three or four actors in total, but this one, you have hundreds…
There are 160. That’s actual actors, not support actors.
When I saw the movie, my first thought was that “Mike Leigh never uses CGI ever.” Am I right or wrong in that assumption?
What, you mean in this movie? No, it’s full of CGI. It’s got CGI all over it. Massive amount of CGI but the great thing is that even you can’t see it. You think, “Okay, there’s no CGI.” We only had 200 extras, 200 support actors, whereas there were 60 to 100,000 people at Peterloo, so a massive amount of crowd replication goes on. Also, I mean, we shot the massacre at a place called Tilbury Fort, which is next door to Tilbury Docks, east of London, and it’s a very bare and bleak military fort that was built originally by King Henry VIII. When you see it in the movie, there are factories and churches and things in the background. They’re all CGI – they all were put in afterward – but they’ve been done so well that it looks real, and therefore, it doesn’t look like the box of tricks that CGI usually looks like. But no, there’s CGI all over the film.
Your visual FX artists did an amazing job then.
Yeah, they did, and the great thing is that they found it very refreshing to bring their CGI skills to a film of reality, not a film that’s about CGI, where CGI isn’t the point of the film.
I was already impressed with the locations and production design on “Mr. Turner” but in this case, it’s even more impressive. How hard is it to find the locations and to recreate these times at this point?
I work now with a brilliant production designer called Susie Davis, who is quite fantastic, and it’s about imagination, being imaginative and resourceful in finding places. For example, we were beside ourselves with worry about how we would film a cotton mill because all the cotton mills have disappeared – there are no cotton mills, certainly not a period cotton mill. When we discovered in the city of Burnley, which is in Lancashire in the north of Manchester, we discovered this moth-balled cotton mill, which is actually kind of a museum, but it’s closed now because the local Tory authorities have withdrawn their funding. We got it going. We got in there and through various movie tricks, we got the machines working, and we got the guys who used to work there to come in and operate them in the background. But that was pure inventiveness on the part of the location manager and the production designer. But the production design that she does is fantastic. She did an amazing job with Tilbury Fort. She built that row of houses that you see, and the magistrates are in a real house, but the row of houses alongside the actual demonstration was a set. She did a great job – it’s very inventive, you know.
Despite the grim nature of what happened, I was surprised that there was still some humor in the movie…
Can I interrupt you? If you look at people in a real way, irrespective of what’s going on, there’s always going to be humor as well as pathos, ‘cause that’s what reality is.
Sure, but I’m not sure if I was finding humor in stuff that wasn’t meant to be funny, like when the magistrate said he was going to read the crowd the Riot Act… and then he pulls a book out and actually reads it. There was something very humorous about that.
Yeah, totally. It is ridiculous, and it is what actually happened. The thing about the Riot Act is that if you can claim that you read the Riot Act, then the Riot Act has been read. The fact that nobody hears it is a legal technicality, so you get him reading the Riot Act, and we obviously shot it deliberately so that you can see plainly that nobody was gonna hear a word of it because they were all listening to Hunt. But that is actually what happened on the day for real.
You mentioned in the five years you were developing this that a lot of things came to light in the real world. It’s obviously very relevant, but as you were making the movie, did you end up focusing or pushing certain things forward?
No, I didn’t do anything in the movie that was affected by anything that was actually going on. It didn’t even occur to me and had it occurred to me, I would have immediately rejected it as being unnecessary, because the film will speak for itself, irrespective of that. But you know, to tell you the truth, even if I had thought to myself, “I must do something with this film to make it more relevant,” I have absolutely no idea what I would have done. I wouldn’t know how to do that, actually, because the job was to tell the story of what happened, really.
I’ll be interested to see how American audiences react to it. My own knowledge of British politics and history came from Monty Python, to be honest, but that’s because we don’t really get to learn about that stuff here.
I take what you’re saying, however, I must say that as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see “Peterloo” as being a particular, exclusively British subject. I mean, sure, the history is British and the story is for real, but the resonance, the meaning of the film, such as it is, must be more universal surely.
“Peterloo” is now playing in select cities and will expand into more territories on Friday, April 19.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW