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January 2015

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Page 15 of 51 14 POST JANUARY 2015 ver the course of 40 years, and some 30 fi lms, British director Mike Leigh has amassed a body of work — including Happy-Go-Lucky, Vera Drake, All Or Nothing, Secrets & Lies, Life is Sweet and Naked — that has cemented his repu- tation as one of the most distinctive voices in movies today, thanks to his unorthodox working methods, and ultra-realistic and gritty approach to his material. But apart from the Gilbert and Sulli- van fi lm Topsy-Turvy, he's avoided any attempt to make a biopic, until now. His latest fi lm, Mr. Turner, has been a long-gestating project about the last 25 years in the life of the prolifi c 19th-century English painter J.M.W. Turner, known as "the painter of light." It stars Leigh regular Timothy Spall as Turner in a much-buzzed about performance that won him the best actor prize at Cannes, along with an en- semble supporting cast, including Lesley Manville, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey and Ruth Sheen, who are also regulars in his de facto repertory company. Here, Leigh, whose credits also include Hard Labour, The Kiss of Death, Grown- Ups and Home Sweet Home, talks about making the fi lm, his love of post and editing, and his conversion from die-hard fi lm fan to the digital world. You've talked about making this project for many years. What took so long? "It's never easy getting fi nancing for something like this, but when we did my last fi lm, Another Year, we decided to just go for it. I fi rst thought of doing it back in 1999, after Topsy-Turvy, but that long wait was good as it gave us a lot of time to think about it and do all the research, and for me and [DP] Dick Pope to fi gure out how we'd shoot it." Making fi lms about artists and the creative process is notoriously tricky to pull off . How did you approach the true life story of Turner? "I think the problem with a lot of fi lms about artists or musicians and so on is that the focus is on the work instead of on the character and artist himself. They're about idealized ideas and no- tions of artists, when the actual process of painting or composing music isn't all wonderful inspiration — it's basically bloody hard work. I watched a lot of fi lms about painters, and you rarely see the down-and-dirty business of doing it. And to me obviously, because of what I'm naturally drawn to and am concerned with — no matter what the fi lm — it's the characters, the people who should be center-stage. Turner's work is fantastic, and I've been a huge fan for years. And it's also very cinematic, which is im- portant, too. But once I started to really investigate this complex, sometimes curmudgeonly, sometimes passionate, sometimes confl icted man, I thought, this is a great character — irrespective of the great paintings. He's grubby and diffi cult at times and very visceral, loved and hat- ed — perfect for a Mike Leigh fi lm." Was Timothy Spall born to play Turner? "Well, he gives an amazing performance, and I think it's because he's a character actor. I knew he'd be right for it and be able to really get at the grain and dig deep. He's a Londoner, like Turner; he's got those working-class roots. He's very good at 19th century stuff and Dickens, and I also knew that he had some ama- teur pretensions towards painting, so we sent him off to lessons for two years — if you're going to play Turner, you've got to really be convincing with the brushes and paint and so on." You're famous for your exhaustive research into character and lengthy preparation of a script for each fi lm, so how long did you spend working with the actors on this one before shooting? "About six months — the usual. I don't know any other way of making a fi lm." What were the biggest challenges of making this? "Apart for making a very expensive-look- ing fi lm for a very low budget, they were the usual — exploring all the characters, building their histories and their worlds and relationships, all the research. And my fi lms generally span a few days or a week, while this fi lm spans 26 years. So the big thing then is, what do you decide to keep in and what do you cut out? And then you have to distill it all down. And all my key people — DP, production designer, editor and so on — did a great job." You assembled a great cast, including a lot of regulars. Is it like having your own repertory company? "It is, and there are huge advantages for me in working this way. Because it's about character acting, and because these actors are intelligent, versatile and very committed types, it means we can go to a diff erent place every time. We just know we can dig deeper and go further." BY IAIN BLAIR O A DIE-HARD FILM FAN MAKES THE JUMP TO THE DIGITAL WORLD MIKE LEIGH: MR. TURNER DIRECTOR'S CHAIR Director Leigh (middle) spent 16 weeks shooting Mr. Turner. The project was captured using Arri's Alexa camera.

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