Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

AS I'VE WRITTEN BEFORE, THE NINETIES WERE A TIME WHEN MOVIES became a lot more exciting than music, at least for me. Part of the excitement was discovering new directors who, though they might have had careers going back at least a decade or more, were reaching their stride - directors like Mike Leigh, who made his first film in 1971, but who really made his breakthrough with High Hopes in 1988 and especially Life Is Sweet in 1990.

I adored Life Is Sweet when I saw it; it had the downbeat characters and grim charm I had loved in the films Paul Cox had made earlier in the '80s, with an added intensity that came from the actors and the long process of improvisation that Leigh led them through to create the script. By the time I was assigned to photograph Leigh at the film festival by NOW I was a huge fan, thanks to Naked, with its performances by David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge, stock players in the "company" Leigh was building around him.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was at the festival with Secrets & Lies, and would release Career Girls a year later - my all-time favorite Mike Leigh movie. I was desperate to get a good shot of him, and with no pressure to produce a colour cover shot, I could focus entirely on working with my Rolleiflex cameras, tripod and the available light in the hotel room to get the sort of simple portraits I loved the most.

I'm pretty sure the shot at the bottom was the one the paper ended up running - a picture that sums up the hangdog tone of Leigh's films and his sometimes desperate, often melancholy characters. The middle shot was more formal and minimalist - my fallback composition - but going through the contacts today, it's the shot at the top that I like the most, a portrait not much different in feel from the one below, but which has just a hint of a performance in it.

Mike Leigh, Toronto, Sept. 1996

Leigh was actually very cooperative with me, taking my admittedly basic direction happily and wryly indulging in the morose image his films had acquired. It probably helped that the writer on this story was Ingrid Randoja, whose enthusiasm and obvious familiarity with his work had made for a very good interview just before I took my allotted five minutes for shooting. I clearly recall that, after she'd turned off her tape recorder and thanked Leigh before leaving the hotel room, he turned to his publicist and said, "She was very good, wasn't she?"

I always looked forward to working with Ingrid at NOW; her enthusiasm and professionalism put my subjects in a decent mood and she always left me ample time at the end of each interview slot. (Slots that seemed to get shorter with every passing year.) I liked to think of us as a team, doing our best to help each other produce our best work with the chance, unpredictable factors of subject, handler, film and venue. Ingrid was not only a great colleague, but one of my favorite people.


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