UK director Mike Leigh discusses the contemporary resonance of his historical drama and Venice Competition title Peterloo, his belief in the power of cinema and the challenges that face young filmmakers now.
Mike Leigh’s $17.8m (£14m) period epic Peterloo, made with backing from Amazon Studios, tells the story of the Peterloo massacre in August 1819, when the local yeomanry — a small unit of the British Army Reserves — charged into a crowd of at least 60,000 people.
They had assembled in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to listen to anti-poverty and pro-democracy radical reformer Henry Hunt at a time when less than 2% of the UK population could vote and many were hungry. At least 15 people were killed and many hundreds injured. The horror of the event swayed public opinion where the right to vote was eventually extended to ordinary citizens.
The director grew up in Salford close to the site of the massacre and, now aged 75, remembers Peterloo was barely talked about when he was a child. While he studied it for “two minutes in history [class]”, it was not commemorated at all. His father, a doctor and a socialist, never mentioned it. “You could walk to St Peter’s Square from where I grew up,” he recalls. “Why didn’t the primary school march us down there? Nobody mentioned it.”
Over the years, Leigh learned more and more about the massacre. He realised the bicentenary was fast approaching and saw the potential for a film. Peterloo, which premieres in Competition at Venice, begins with the Battle of Waterloo and ends with the massacre. “People who were at Waterloo were at Peterloo,” Leigh says of the bookends.
In the film, a bugler from the Battle of Waterloo heads home to Manchester after the battle. He is then caught up in the events at Peterloo four years later, still wearing his red military coat. Even if Leigh has used narrative sleight of hand to compress the story, Peterloo is still an ambitious undertaking, a socialist version of a David Lean epic, with digitally rendered crowd scenes courtesy of UK outfit Lipsync — which also invested in the film, as it did with Leigh’s 2014 drama Mr. Turner.
The director is quick to emphasise the size of the project has not meant he has compromised artistically. “Either you get interfered with or you don’t,” he says. “Either you get backing or you don’t. Those are the bottom lines. Now, I’ve been very fortunate that in all of the 21 films I’ve made, nobody has interfered with any of them at any stage. Amazon is no exception. It is the biggest budget we’ve had but it’s not huge.”
This is also a film without an obvious star. The director pays tribute to his enormous cast, which includes Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear and Alastair Mackenzie. He says even those in the smallest parts were “intelligent, committed, did the research, no egos — really getting down to it”. Leigh himself did a massive amount of research. The rousing speeches heard throughout the film from the reformers are drawn from historical records but given a new immediacy by the way Leigh stitched them together. This was not the typical Leigh project when he would go to backers saying, “I can’t tell you anything about it, there isn’t a script, can’t tell you who is in it, give us the money and we’ll make a film.”
Committed to motion pictures
Leigh may have directed plenty of television dramas early in his career, including Nuts In May and Abigail’s Party, but the director points out “that was at a time when that was all you could do”. He says he did not consider making Peterloo as a mini-series. “The thought has never occurred to me,” Leigh says. “I am committed — for as long as it is possible to do so — to making motion pictures.”
His instinct as a storyteller has always been to make “one-off single pieces”. Peterloo has plenty of contemporary resonance. It highlights the continuing divide between the prosperous south and the deprived north of England. Leigh, who grew up in the north but has lived in the south for many years, recalls taking his eldest son as a 12-year-old to Liverpool. “We needed something from the greengrocers,” he says. “I remember him being palpably shocked, and not being able to articulate about it, at the difference between what was in the shops and the general atmosphere.”
This is Leigh’s first major project with UK actress Peake — but not their first collaboration. He directed her once in a commercial and she also had a tiny part (“in the back of a taxi”) in All Or Nothing. “She’s a political animal herself,” Leigh explains. “She always recites [Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem] ‘The Masque Of Anarchy’ on the anniversary of Peterloo in Manchester where she lives. As soon as I announced we were doing this, she was on to me straight away, saying, ‘Please can I be in it?’”
The trouble with table reads
Ask Leigh whether he would like to be a young independent UK filmmaker starting out today, and he gives a wary response. He realises he is speaking “from the privileged, lucky experience of someone who has umpteen films and never been interfered with — often when there was no script and no-one knew what they are were going to get”.
He fears young filmmakers are now subjected to what, in his view, is “excessive interrogation, hoops to jump through, boxes to tick, as distinct from being given licence to go out and explore and create”. Leigh will not name specific funders, but rails against “the requirement the film has what is called a ‘table reading’, which is actors sitting round reading the script. To me, this is counter-productive, anti-creative and not what films are about. They’re not plays, they’re films. You can’t assess if a film is going to work cinematically by a table reading. It’s nonsense.”
Leigh understands the “box ticking” that goes on “in terms of gender, ethnic diversity etc”, but believes this “can be eccentric and get in the way”. He cites the example of a young filmmaker he knows who works with a regular crew including a male cinematographer. After several meetings, the funders asked the director, “Why aren’t you working with a female cinematographer?”, to which the director responded: “Because he’s a bloke.”
“These things are symptoms of something,” argues Leigh. “Young filmmakers need to be encouraged. Of course you can’t dole out any money to anybody, but [the funding] needs to be more liberal and more imaginative, as it was for us back at the BBC, for example.” He believes young talent should be given the chance for “radical” experimenting. “By that, I don’t mean arty films,” he adds, “but just the freedom to explore.”
Leigh recently stood down as chairman of the London Film School after 18 years in the post, but he remains heavily involved in supporting young talent.
With more than 70 awards for his films already (including a Golden Lion for Vera Drake and the Palme d’Or for Secrets & Lies) as well as several Oscar nominations, the director is hardly an ignored figure.
“We’ve got a shelf next door — god knows what to do with the damn things,” he says of his vast collection of statuettes. Nonetheless, he still sometimes experiences slights and rejections: Cannes turned down Peterloo, just as it did Vera Drake.
Does it make any difference to him whether he is going for a Golden Lion or a Palme d’Or? “They happen or they don’t happen. You don’t hustle for them,” Leigh declares. “Everybody knows that Cannes rejected Peterloo. They said they respected it but it wasn’t for them.”
After so many years, Leigh is “philosophical” about these festivals and their programming choices. “They are brilliant conduits for getting the film out into the world,” he says. “It is what it is. I just want people to see the films.”
Leigh maintains his belief in the medium. He still has the same passion for making films for cinemas and for watching them. “I would like to think Peterloo is testament to that commitment,” he says. “It’s a cinematic commitment. Just to devote oneself with a gang of like-minded folk to crafting and making films of the kind we do seems to me good enough.”