Mike Leigh has not named his new film Happy-Go-Lucky ironically. He readily says the Berlinale Competition title is "lighter" than 2004's devastating 1950s abortionist drama Vera Drake. "It's upbeat and funny and life affirming," the director says. Still, he says the project "does have some weight to it".
Actress Sally Hawkins, who Leigh worked with on All Or Nothing and Vera Drake, sets the tone. "The conception of the film is mine but as usual I collaborated with the actors," Leigh says. "Sally was in my previous films and I wanted to get her in the centre of this film. I've tapped into something coming very much from her which is a generous spirit and her sense of humour." She so charmed Berlin that she won this year's Silver Bear for best actress.
Hawkins plays a teacher finding her way through the challenges of modern life in London. Leigh believes the themes are universal, not specific to the capital. "It is set in London but it's not London as such; it could be anywhere. It's part of my ongoing habit of looking at contemporary life," Leigh says. "I have deviated from that with some of my films, but that's what I'm doing again."
Happy-Go-Lucky is produced by Simon Channing-Williams at Potboiler Productions, Leigh's long-time producer. Summit is handling sales, with Momentum taking UK rights early and Miramax signing a US deal in Berlin.
Leigh, who was snubbed by Cannes with Vera Drake (which went on to win Venice and was Oscar-nominated), was in Berlin for the third time, following 1984's Meantime and 1990's Life Is Sweet. But it was his first time in Competition. "We timed (the film) hoping we could go to Berlin," he says of Happy-Go-Lucky. "I like (Berlinale chief) Dieter Kosslick and I thought it would be nice to go to Berlin." Momentum opens the film in the UK on April 18.
Leigh might not be known as a softie but he concludes that his latest effort is "a loving film about love. You couldn't list a single film of mine that isn't about love in some way. Something like All Or Nothing was about love, two people connecting. And it's not my first comic film by any means."
The happy vibe continued on set. Leigh is infamously prickly with some journalists but he is adamant he is easy to work with on set. "I use many of the same crew. We love making our films and that's always been the case. I don't think you can work in anything less than a harmonious atmosphere," Leigh says. "On both sides of the camera, my films are the most friendly and row-free shooting experiences that you can have." Extensive rehearsals before shooting help make the cast feel comfortable as well, he adds.
The love-in, however, comes to a close when he is inevitably asked about what his next film will be (it has not started financing yet via Channing-Williams).
"Even if the money was in place I couldn't tell you what's in my head. I never do."
[s19] See review, p21.