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Mike Leigh Improvises on History

Backstage Passages

A definitively contemporary director, Mike Leigh has made a foray into the 19th century with Topsy-Turvy, a biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the result is awe inspiring. Voluminously researched and directed with an obsessive attention to detail, an architectural sense of narrative, a barbed wit, and a compassion for human frailties, Topsy-Turvyis perhaps Leigh's finest film. Leigh and his two lead actors, Jim Broadbent (Gilbert) and Allan Corduner (Sullivan), were in New York in October for its New York Film Festival screening. Leigh, who has a reputation for being abrasive ("He doesn't suffer fools lightly," says Corduner. "Or at all," says Broadbent), seemed as genial as his film and not at all irritated when asked the obvious question: Why Gilbert and Sullivan?

"I always set myself a hurdle of some kind, just as a kind of artistic discipline, although in many ways, you end up doing the same old thing. I decided it would be good at this stage to make a film that dealt with what we do. On the whole, I'm not given to make films about filmmakers or artists. But if you think back to the guy with the restaurant in Life Is Sweet, that's an exploration of the same kind of thing—a man going to hell and back to provide chocolate. Johnny in Naked, somewhere along the line, is an artist manqué. And I've always had a marginal continuing interest in Gilbert and Sullivan as characters and as musical theater. It's really interesting to study people taking such trivial work so profoundly seriously. I found it more interesting that they're second-class or minor artists. And I was fascinated by this guy [Sullivan] who wanted to be the serious composer but who was a compulsive bon viveur. He couldn't keep from enjoying himself."

Leigh admits to having another motivation. "I'd begun to think it would be fun to join in the stampede of lemmings over the cliff making costume films. My object was to subvert period movies, to do it with people scratching their asses and being in relationships for real. If I just had been interested in period, I could have done poverty in the East End in the 1880s, which is a fascinating subject. But I thought it more interesting to subvert the chocolate-box subject itself."

Employing his usual investigative and open-ended improvisatory rehearsal method, Leigh worked with the actors for seven months before shooting. "The research was huge and continuous—into the people, the background, the social history, the theater history, the etiquette. The thing about research, especially if you don't know exactly where you're going, is that you leave no stone unturned. We had a very brilliant full-time research person who had an encyclopedic knowledge and a capacity for finding just the right bit of information. Actors groaned as great piles of photocopies poured through their mail slots every morning."

The most exciting and also formidable area of exploration was the language of the period. "I think it would be impossible to make an improvisatory film set in 1485. But 1880 is within received memory. Growing up in the 1940s, we knew people—our grandparents—who were born around that period and earlier. It is accessible. We began to read everything—not just information, but novels and newspapers. And if you do that, the language gets into your consciousness, into your bloodstream. These people speak very elaborately and we had our researcher double-check every phrase. Having said that, we had the most terribly traumatic experience at the Venice Film Festival. A Norwegian journalist stopped me and said, very discreetly, 'I have to tell you that Oslo was not called Oslo until 1926.' We're devastated because it's a real howler."

For the actors, the experience of rehearsing and shooting was rewarding but exhausting. Because he's a trained musician and pianist as well as an actor, Corduner was recommended to Leigh for the role of the composer Arthur Sullivan. "I was a Mike Leigh novice zand now I'm a nun," he says. Broadbent, who had worked with Leigh several times, knew what to expect. "For six months, you don't plan any dinner parties because you're on call all the time. Mike pushes himself, and consequently us, very hard. We were working 16 hours a day, six days a week, and he was doing everything else on the seventh day. The character had to be researched, just like the fictional characters in Mike's films are researched, and built up into a three-dimensional person, so you can improvise and have an organic relationship to the character and its history."

"Mike works with everyone first on their own, so it was weeks before I actually met Jim," says Corduner. "I met my parents first and then my sister, my wife, and then Alan," says Broadbent. "You start improvising bits of the character's life that happen before the film takes place. And in the last month of rehearsal, Mike builds up a schematic shape for the film. And then he goes away and comes back with, I think this time it was a 17-page document of numbered, titled scenes."

"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 Mikadoand 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 Mikadois about as Japanese as fish and chips."

The most stunning and risky aspect of Topsy-Turvycomes 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 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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