Mike Leigh Improvises on History

Backstage Passages

"But you don't start improvising those scenes until you start filming," says Corduner. "For example, on Tuesday, you shoot a scene of Gilbert and Sullivan meeting in Gilbert's house. Depending on how long that scene is in Mike's mind, you might not start improvising it until Monday. And on Monday you're also shooting the scene you improvised the day before that. While they're setting up the lights, you go off with Mike and improvise the scene for the next day." Adds Broadbent: "But when you get on camera, it's tightly set and improvisation is not encouraged."

"Usually after the rehearsal, it only takes me two or three days to write the structure," says Leigh. "This one took rather longer, and everyone got worried that I was having a nervous breakdown. But it was because I had not only to decide what elements from the history books to keep in but also what musical excerpts to have so we could prerecord the singing. I was resistant to doing that at first, but everyone said I had to, and they were right. The technology is there and we're served by it. All the actors do their own singing and by the time they got to record it, they were doing it in character so it was fine. Some people have said to me that I must have had fun staging the excerpts from the shows and that I must direct an opera. I can't think of anything I'd rather do less. Those were the least interesting scenes for me. We worked from Gilbert's prompt book for The Mikado and reconstructed the original staging. But the filming of the rehearsal scene [one of the film's big set pieces] was a delight. I had all sorts of battles about that scene because people thought it was too long and repetitive. But you've got to do it. Movies about artists where you never get a whiff of how they manufacture things have always bugged me. And since this is finally a film about process, we drop anchor for a while and let the audience see the tedium and repetition. I think it works because we extracted every joke we could." Among the amusing aspects of the scene is what Leigh describes as "the irony of Gilbert's fastidiousness that things be accurately Japanese when The Mikado is about as Japanese as fish and chips."

The most stunning and risky aspect of Topsy-Turvy comes in the last 12 minutes, when what had been a rollicking entertainment metamorphosis into an expression of melancholy and loss. Leigh turns the film over to three women who had seemed, until this point, minor characters: Gilbert's wife (Leigh veteran Lesley Manville, who gives one of the most extraordinary film performances ever); Sullivan's mistress (Eleanor David); and the D'Oyly Carte company's alcoholic soubrette (Shirley Henderson), who's left alone on stage singing the wistfully defiant "The Sun's Rays Are All Ablaze." It's as if all along there has been an entirely different film taking place beneath the film we've actually been seeing.

"It’s really interesting to study people taking such trivial work so profoundly seriously."
photo: Robin Holland
"It’s really interesting to study people taking such trivial work so profoundly seriously."

"It's such a man's world that we've been in," says Leigh, "that it seemed right and important to let those women have their voice, no matter how elliptical that voice is. And that song, by any standard, is beautiful, not in the least because of the irony in the lyrics. Now and again, through the fusion of lyric and music, Gilbert and Sullivan hit some kind of seriousness and even profundity. So it seemed to me that they should have the last word."

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