Above is a clip from Mike Leigh’s film All or Nothing in which Kathryn Hunter plays the role of Cécile, a French woman taking a ride in Phil’s (Timothy Spall’s) taxi. She arrives as moment of tonal and cultural difference – she’s posh in control, heading for the west end carrying this obscured art object; as opposed to the scenes intercut of Phil’s home back on the estate where the women in his life are in massive distress over the heart attack suffered by Phil’s son played by James Corden. And what plays out is this continental Other which gradually gives way to this moment of conviviality with Phil. How did these scene come about?
Mike Leigh is the only film director I’ve worked with that before saying action allows a preparation time for actors to, without wanting to sound too obnoxious, “get in role”. So he’ll have a sort of five minute standby before he calls it. And then of course Mike’s whole way of devising is one where you’ll be meeting over a long period of time without knowing what the story is, and coming up with characters, and then he’ll say yes let’s go so and so. So we evolved this character Cécile and she’d bought this artifact, and all I was told is that “you call for a taxi” and somebody will turn up. So the scene was entirely improvised, and we got into the car, Mike sat invisibly in the front seat and listened to us, and then went down the Blackwall tunnel and it was based on that improvisation. So whatever becoming-an-other was involved for Cécile was particular to the scene and then put together in the world of the film; it was a very unique way of writing. I’m not sure if Woody Allen does something similar.
Was anyone taking any notes?
He was taking notes. And then we’d go back for a second time and he’d say keep that shape, or think of adding that, and just tweaking it slightly. But even when you film your improvising, really, there’s no written script. It never gets written down. Mike has that special respect for actors – I’m not saying that others don’t have it – in the sense that the acting process is given a certain weight, so the time given to prepare felt conducive to concentration, and more fundamentally a sense that writing is not just the writer doing it all themsleves, that good or alive writing can come from actors imaginatively relating to one another. I’m working on a piece currently My Perfect Mind which is a devised piece in collaboration with two actors on an agreed theme. So my job as director is to provoke them with situations to improvise on, and so the whole piece has now been evolved through improvisation. There is an agreed risk as it were, and then the rest plays out, and its quite exciting in terms of it being fresh and alive.
Thinking about structure in this process: a while ago I visited the rehearsals of Greyscale who work in a similar way to that which you describe, and they had a video camera set-up to record the process, and at the end of day, kind of like a film director going through rushes, they look back over what they’d done as an aid to structure.
Well ours is quite rough: the transformations are coming unmediated from the actors, and changes in space and time being created more imaginatively, so we’ve decided to eschew technology just because… partly because its the nature of the show and maybe because, of course, it can be wonderful in the right hands but there is temptation to bolt it on for its own sake. So yes, you have to keep your eye on structure, especially with improvisors like Edward Petherbridge who is playing one of the parts and Paul Hunter who are so real and imaginative that they can go anywhere. So my job has been to say “yes”, but within that we have a cable line, the thrust of the piece, is his quest to do King Lear. So basically what happens is Edward’s character is offered the part of Lear and he has a stroke on the first day and never got to play the part, so this is a slightly surreal and comic tale about this actor who never got to do King Lear, but, the line through is that he’s determined to do it. And then there are all kinds of obstacles, he has a a stroke, falling to this strange land of memory and madness where he gets diverted. So my job as director is to propose a good improvisation, so as the writing evolves to say “are we following that line” – we can depart on this parabola and that arc, but when and how do we return.
About as far from these ways of working must be the kind of film work such Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix where you play Mrs Figgs.
Yes, that’s a question of just turning up and doing it, there’s no rehearsal at all – constraints of budget, and so forth – and it was wonderful. I’d walked into five number five and the characters were fully-developed, so you just had to land in it and hope that your proposition works.
There’s a kind of distance from your own work there.
Yeah, it’s very funny, because I’ve been working with theatre for about thirty years, and I’m Japan doing a piece and there are all these people waiting outside the theatre after a performance and you think “oh that’s good, people liked it” but actually they’ve arrived clutching print-outs of images they’ve downloaded from the internet of Mrs Figgs, and all they want is an autograph. Something that took two weeks out of your life, and I get letters from Siberia, Finland, Romania and all over the world, of people wanting autographs. This kind of phenomenal thing.
What do you think these autographs mean to these people?
I don’t know; can they sell them? I suppose they have collections.