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By Christopher Stipp

The Archives, Right Here

I’m awesome. I wrote a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.

I was waiting patiently to speak to Mike Leigh.

It was an unexpectedly cool outside of the Hotel Valley Ho, the higher end resort-style lodgings actually looking more like a motel with all the rooms on the outside, and I was going over the questions I had after seeing the film days before.

I’m naturally more apt to not go the “What was it like working…” route with any performer or person involved with the production of a film during an interview but I was prepped that Mike Leigh is a tougher interview to some people just because you really do have to dig a little deeper than the morning show retardedness that plagues so many programs that get the opportunity to talk to great people and then squander it on things like, “Did you enjoy making the movie?”

As I reflected on what I was going to ask, the door opened and Colin Boyd walked out. He said that Mike was excellent, a great interview. However, he paused for a moment and whispered that Mike corrected him on some questions. “Be careful,” he said. It wasn’t ominous or something that caused me to rethink my questions but it did rattle me a bit. I’ve never been in the position to have someone be actively picking apart my questions in their head, make it known out loud, so I tried desperately to speak in specifics as best I could and avoid anything that could be constructed as lazy. And, as I saw the diminutive man with a thick beard, suspenders and an amiable greeting as he welcomed me into the room where we were to conduct the interview, all alone which was a different experience, he closed the door and went after it.

Yes, it gets a little awkward at times, and I left those unadulterated moments in there, but Mike seems like the kind of guy who doesn’t mind telling you how it is…and how it’s going to be. You’ve got to respect that kind of assertiveness.

CS: I think the film spoke to a few different levels, the most superficial being the positiveness of life. When you were fleshing this out, over the months of figuring out what you wanted to say, was it always the same story or during those months did you find something you weren’t expecting?

LEIGH: Well, it’s all about finding things you’re not expecting. For me, the journey of making this film is the journey of discovery as to what it is. I started with a very strong feeling, a sense of the spirit of the thing, but the journey – the months I spent, which is what I think you’re talking about, preparing the thing are merely arriving at the premise of the film, but it’s shooting of the film that I make it up and define it as I go along.

It’s a constant, endless harvest of feast of surprises, of discoveries, of revelations. That is what creating a piece of art is all about. So, if the question, which sort of is I suspect, has something to do with starting with a fixed notion and how much it grows or deviates from that, that really not appropriate because all you have is something nebulous and fluid and you move toward coming into existence and that, the act in itself, is where all the surprises are and decisions are made and you decide what it is – abstract, really is what I’m talking about.

There you have it in a nutshell. I couldn’t elaborate. Picasso once said that if you know what you’re going to do before you do it, what’s the point of doing it?

So, let’s move on.

CS: Yes, absolutely.

LEIGH: Let’s get more specific.

(Laughs)

CS: Let’s talk about Sally Hawkins.

LEIGH: You can’t get more specific than that.

CS: No, I cannot. I thought she was wonderfully effervescent on the screen. I want to speak more about her character itself, about Poppy. When you looked at it and as you were developing her… By the end, which I wasn’t expecting, I was completely amazed.

LEIGH: I’m glad you were, but of course you were. You couldn’t know. But then you know it shouldn’t be possible to talk about any movie where you expect anything. Unfortunately with all too many movies you get what you expect.

CS: Exactly. But there are some movies where you know exactly where things are going and sometimes rewards you for being that predictable.

LEIGH: That’s true.

CS: Can a woman like Poppy exist in our culture?

LEIGH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Plenty of them around, and men too, of course. It’s about, I mean, you have to mean this is a cynical world and of course it is. Look, apart from anything else Poppy is a teacher and a good teacher and you know there are millions of good teachers out there and teaching kids in that positive kind of way is an act of optimism. You are nourishing the future. Those kids are the grandparents of the 22nd century. See what I mean?

CS: Absolutely, I do.

LEIGH: So, it’s a gloomy, cynical world and we are destroying it, etc. etc. etc. but there are people out there getting on with it while we may be gloomy. And Poppy is such… That is what the film is about. So, yeah.

The truth of the matter is, apart from anything else, if I didn’t think, if I genuinely didn’t think that people like that weren’t feasible, then I wouldn’t make the film, because I made a film about life as we live it, life as it is and life with it’s real potential.

CS: And this is a move about teachers and I think Karina Fernandez deserves a lot of credit. She’s a nice punctuation to what the film is saying.

LEIGH: She’s wonderful. She’s someone I didn’t know. I got her in just to see what would happen. She’s never done flamenco at all.

CS: You’re kidding.

LEIGH: She’s not Spanish. She’s English but her father is Spanish. Sally and I were talking – I bring people in gradually – I contract them to join us but then not sure what I’m going to do with them and I said to Sally one day, we were talking about Poppy, working on Poppy, and I said maybe she needs to have another leisure. And she said I was thinking about salsa or tango. And because I like Flamenco I said “How about Flamenco?” and she said, “Yeah.”

So I sent Karina off to Flamenco lessons every day for weeks. She’s an actress not a hoofer. So we created this character and sent her off to Seville for a few days. But all the characters…we create all these characters in 3 dimensional complete with their whole back stories and life histories and all that. That’s what motivates and makes it all live. Sometimes it’s great to be able to tap into a fascinating…Wanting to channel that emotion about the man who has cheated on her.

(Laughs)

So I said, “Let’s pull it out.” Whereas in other cases, like the wonderful performance by Stanley Towsend who is the homeless guy, there’s a whole life there and you just get maybe a sense of it, what he’s doing is too discombobulated you get a sense there is a man and a woman he’s talking about there. So, she is wonderful isn’t she, Karina?

CS: Oh yes, I would never have known…

LEIGH: Of course you wouldn’t and I expect you haven’t seen the last of her.

CS: The homeless man scene – I’m glad you brought that up. I think this movie has a lot to do – you have multiple characters and they all are in their own orbits and we see what happens when you bring these orbits together. Could you talk about…

LEIGH: What that scene is about?

CS: Yes, please.

LEIGH: Of course. It’s about Poppy. It’s about openness and the ability to connect, complete ability not to be judgmental, and not to act on preconceptions, and her bravery – she didn’t think about being in danger. Some people say it’s naivete. No, it’s not naivete. She not concerned with that. She’s inquiring – “What is this?” It happens at a moment when she’s feeling more reflective perhaps. And she really connects with this guy, whoever he is, she doesn’t know. And the next scene when she goes back to the apartment when Zoe says, “Where have you been?” She doesn’t say because some things are private. It’s about something she shared with this guy. She’ll never see him again but perhaps would betray. When we were planning that scene I said to the production designer and the cinematographer, “It needs to be somewhere.”

We don’t know where we really are, and subliminally the audience needs to be pulled out of their comfort zone.

CS: I was a little frightened for her.

LEIGH: It’s about Poppy dealing with stuff. Being open. Warm. All that stuff.

CS: The whole film, she doesn’t allow anyone to alter the trajectory that she’s on.

LEIGH: I don’t know whether that’s….I know what you mean you say that.

She certainly doesn’t allow anyone to get her down but I think to suggest anyone to alter her trajectory would suggest a kind of inflexibility. You can see for example the final and traumatic thing that happened with Scott again being caring and sympathetic but also firm and tough and also dealing with a kid. which she is very inexperienced in doing. I very seldom in my films have actions where someone just walks about – that’s not what I do, but there, toward the end when Scott drives off, you see him walking around just reflective for a while. And you know what that is. And she’s affected by it.

You can see it in the next scene but it’s only in the end, in the grander scheme of her life, the time she took a free driver’s lesson from this nutcase will pale in significance, of course it will but still, she’s affected by him in the sense that she’s obsessed because she cares. I think any sensitive person must feel someone else’s pain basically. And when Zoe says “Don’t you think we should call the police?” and she says “No, that’s not going to help him” that’s a caring, un-judgmental position she takes.

CS: She does and I see that when she sees the boys go after one another. She’s concerned and takes the steps to….

LEIGH: I think it’s an important detail that they are not going after one another – one is attacking and the rest are victims.

CS: Yes. And she does what needs to happen in order to take care of that. I want to be sure we stay on point. The overarching theme – there is a lot of teachers in this film, there’s a lot about learning, those who are in charge of teaching others to do some thing. In your estimation, what is the value of teaching in general?

LEIGH: That’s too vague a question. It’s important, isn’t it?

CS: Well, Scott doesn’t care.

LEIGH: No, no, no. You said what is the value of teaching in general, and the answer is it’s important. If you want to talk specifically about Scott, that’s a different thing. What is your question actually?

CS: In relation to Scott as it pertains to Poppy.

LEIGH: What’s the question?

CS: What’s the value? Are there two different ideologies of how to teach someone?

LEIGH: Oh, I see what you mean. Obviously Scott subscribes to an old fashioned ideology that you learn by rote. But the bottom line is that Poppy is a natural, very good teacher. The flamenco teacher and hasn’t learned the number one rule of keeping your personal shit outside the classroom. Scott has no teaching ability whatsoever. He talks about it but he’s a very nervous, neurotic, isolated, frustrated and bitter individual basically.

CS: And Poppy, with her relationships with her sisters who all obviously have some issue with one another, she doesn’t ever criticize her sisters for whatever faults they have. Scott and the other sister makes mention that Poppy lives in her own world.

LEIGH: But, that is their perception. I’m not going to accuse you of saying this but one of the most stupid things against the film is because they say that then ipso facto is the case. But it is not the case. She is plainly all the things that Helen from her own insecurities is plainly isn’t and the same thing with Scott. I mean Scott says to her, “You want to be loved.” Actually, he says to her, “You had no intention to learn how to drive, you set out to reel me in.” Both her sister and Scott are talking from positions of their own insecurities and their own isolation and not seeing her for what she really is which is an open, generous, understanding, fulfilled person. So, any notion that Poppy is compensating for anything is rubbish basically.

CS: She’s gotten along just fine without any…

LEIGH: Because she’s intelligent and open and focused and you know, motivated, and committed, and serious, and caring and all those things and has a great sense of humor and has a great sense of fun.

CS: What do people see in her, you just mentioned insecurities. She’s almost a mirror to some other people to show them how they are to themselves. And I’m speaking here of Scott and I’m going to use Scott and the social worker who eventually comes together with Poppy and that relationship seems genuinely healthy and he loves her.

LEIGH: Because he is as centered and comfortable with who he is open to the world as she is and they are quite a good match I would say.

CS: Absolutely.

LEIGH: You would get the impression that they are good in the sack as well.

(Laughs)

CS: In your own estimation, the characters of, and again I’m going back to Scott because he seems so diametrically opposed to Poppy, what happens in life that Poppy retains that sense of wonder and hope and optimism that we all have as children and somehow…

LEIGH: This guy has never been loved. You can tell he’s had a terrible family life. There are clues. But with all due respect he’s not as bright as Poppy, he’s not as sharp and he’s isolated. People have said you know he’s like the homeless guy. No, he’s not. The homeless guy has obviously had emotional experiences. When, this homeless guy breaks out into a piece of Sinatra, he’s got romance in his soul. You can see. He’s just damaged. But this guy Scott, he’s impotent, arid, paranoid, fascist, a sad case. Nobody has ever given him a coddle. He’s desperate for it. If a woman came along, we dealt with it in the back story, he just doesn’t know how to deal with it. So, classically, he’s the kind of guy who is in the teacher kind of role from his insecurity because dominating people is the only way he can be in power. He’s the classic case. Because you get reports of the other guy giving him a hard time.

CS: Right. It wasn’t so much the student as the teacher. Now, I only have time for just one more question and want to ask about when you created this movie and went through the process of making it and putting it out there, how are you finding people responding to it? Not so much a like it or love it but, again, this is a piece of art because you put it out there and whether or not people like it or not is irrelevant, what are you getting back from people from what they are getting from the film after they have seen it?

LEIGH: A multiplicity of things. The good news is – OK, there are critics and there are people. Today, for example, we got a lot of rave reviews. But actually I’ve been going to a lot of screenings doing Q&A’s. To enumerate what is too much of a chore except to say there is a wide range of reactions within an overall positive reaction. Occasionally there are people say they wanted to throttle, they say they couldn’t stand her…

(Laughs)

I don’t get that.

CS: I don’t get that either.

LEIGH: If you don’t fall in love with her then I don’t know what you do, basically. It’s just a character – somebody said to me, to be stuck on a desert island with her would be great – yes, please. Let me know when. I’m looking forward to it.

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