A low budget, all improvised movie about a pair of Victorian theatrical geniuses — featuring a cast of ”unknown in America” British actors — might not sound like much of a sure bet. But ”Topsy-Turvy,” a seriocomic look at operetta maestros Gilbert & Sullivan, earned a ’99 Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, won two statuettes for its lavish costumes and makeup, and ended up on numerous critical ”best of” lists (including those of Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum).
”Topsy-Turvy” is now out on video and DVD, and EW.com asked its maverick British director, Mike Leigh (”Secrets & Lies”), to talk about his unusual methods — and why he continues to say no to making a Hollywood movie.
Your best known movies — ”Secrets & Lies” and ”Naked” — are gritty stories about ordinary, contemporary British people. Why did you decide to go back in time to tell the story of the famous Gilbert & Sullivan?
This is a film about popular artists, and people suffering in the cause of making other people happy. I wanted to do a film about those of us that suffer, go to hell and back in the course of amusing other people. I also wanted to do a period film for the sake of it. I’ve always been rather interested in the late 19th century. And it was a reaction to what I see in period films: I never believe it, really. I wanted to get the texture of what [the period was] actually like.
Your actors spent months in improvisation sessions before shooting. ”Topsy-Turvy,” which is your normal process in writing the script. Do you think you spoil your actors for other jobs where they just get handed a script?
Nearly all the actors I work with say precisely that. And I’ve got some pretty quirky things I get people to do.
Nobody knows anything that his or her character wouldn’t know about the other characters, right to the end of the shoot. So all the time, I’ll be discussing a scene, and people keep popping out of the room while I talk to him and her so that we can always have this real spontaneity. So it’s really organic. Of course, then people go off and work on other things and everybody’s talking openly about motivation, and they suddenly want to block their ears.
Yet the actors couldn’t do that completely in ”Topsy-Turvy.” Gilbert & Sullivan (”The Mikado,” ”The Pirates of Penzance”) were real people whose pasts are known. Did that take the mystery out of it?
I had a first meeting with the actors to really lay down ground rules. I said, ”We know that the rules go out of the window to some extent on this picture. Everyone in this room knows that you’re all taking part in a story with a character [Gilbert] who in 25 years’ time is going to drown in a lake.” But once you get in the moment, it starts to come alive. Just because all these things are there doesn’t alter the tension. We extended what I normally do, which is invent people. Yes, a lot of import came from research, but the fact that these events took place is, in practical terms, of absolutely no consequence. You’ve still got to make it happen in front of the camera — in three dimensions — before your very eyes.
During improvisations, do you have any preconceptions about how a scene should turn out?
Surely. Make no mistake about it, I am a dramatist. Notwithstanding your infinite number of monkeys and infinite number of typewriters typing the complete works of Shakespeare and all that — you don’t get improvisations, however good they are, which automatically give you dramatic material. So I very much sit on it, lean on it, cajole it, persuade it, restructure it, and do whatever I can to it.
If a major Hollywood star asked to be in one of your movies, do you think he or she could handle your methods?
First of all, they have and they do. No names mentioned. But you can’t generalize. I’m friends with Jennifer Jason Leigh — she could obviously do it. I would imagine that Meryl Streep could do it, or Susan Sarandon — these kinds of actresses who are character people, who probably are rather good at working in a modest ensemble way. But this is all really really beside the point, because I am committed to exploring certain kinds of worlds that make sense for me to explore, and to a considerable extent that involves working with British actors.
So you wouldn’t hire an American actor for a British film?
Why should I do that? The problem with this whole subject is that I never start it. You started it. So we go on for a great deal of time in these interviews that I do in the States on this subject — but it isn’t an issue, really. Okay, so Anne Bancroft did a rather good English accent in ”The Pumpkin Eater,” and so did Meryl in ”The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” But so what? It isn’t like we’re stuck for English actresses to play these parts.
Every time you finish a movie that gets raves in the U.S., you always get the question: Will you make a movie for the Hollywood studios?
Look, I’m 56, which is not very old, but not very young either. I don’t know how many more films I can make between now and the time I die. It takes me at least a couple of years to get a film done. I take very seriously the kind of films I make, and I think if I didn’t do them they wouldn’t get made.
Why the hell should I waste my time being sidetracked into something that would only be a disaster to me and everyone else — who’ll wish to Christ they had never been born? Worse than that, it would be a lousy film to show for it, so why bother?