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‘The Artist is Part of the Class’: Mike Leigh in Conversation with Qalandar Bux Memon

Mike Leigh talks to Qalandar Bux Memon about film-language and class, film-making as an artistic process, acting, editing, and the politics of representation.

Qalandar Bux Memon: So, I had a question about the… 

Mike Leigh: Which films of mine have you seen?

QBM: I’ve seen… I’ve seen a few. I was in Lahore and I had to download them from private sites because I don’t have Amazon. So, I got what I could. 

ML: Go back to your question. 

QBM: So, my question is about the language involved in telling the stories of the working classes. For example, the shots in council flats. How did you develop that? For example, I’m thinking in Meantime or even in some of the films I have seen, for example, Secrets and Lies where it seems like suburban outside London somewhere with the barbecue scene at the end of the film. How did you develop that language? You tell stories in spaces off the working class. Because I relate this to your point about Hollywood and the conditioning. 

ML: Let me just show you, from a different angle. When I was a kid, I used to go to movies a lot. This is in the 40s and 50s, particularly, in the 50s. I used to sit in the cinema and I only ever saw Hollywood or British movies. I never saw a film that wasn’t in English until I came to London at the age of 17 to be a student artist. You just didn’t see so-called foreign language movies. So that’s why there’s a lot of serious cinema I didn’t know about. I am talking about growing up in a post-war working-class urban industrial greater Manchester environment. I used to sit in the cinema thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if you have a film where the characters in the film were like real people as opposed to the usual people in the movies?” Therefore, instinctively I look at the real world, just like so many artists, novelists, photographers and filmmakers. You start from looking at the real world and then using the tools of the medium to ‘capture’ and, as we say, ‘distill’ and ‘express’ and ‘tell stories’ about the real world. That is the short answer to your question. Again, there’s an implicit reaction, as I mentioned a few moments ago, to some film conventions of a decadent nature.

Regarding your question about the film-language of looking at those environments, we make location films, we create real environments and we take the camera into real environments. Now, of course I have had the good fortune, the privilege or luck to be able to make films at the BBC. For quite a number of years, before you could actually get a feature film made, – because there was a time when it was virtually impossible to make serious indigenous feature films in Britain – there was great freedom in television, particularly at the BBC and especially at the BBC. A number of people, most particularly Ken Loach, were making films that – without being documentaries but made alongside documentaries – had the same kind of film crews who were used to going out there and filming news documentaries.

I was in a film when I was 19. I was in a British movie, an old fashioned British movie called Two Left Feet, No Consequence. Only a tiny bit of it was shot on location, but mostly it was shot on built sets. And they were built sets that you’d never build otherwise. Now we couldn’t find a real place. 

Part of the joy of filmmaking is being out there with your fictitious world, with your actors in real places, breathing real air, with the real world going on. The problem with making period films, of course, is that you can’t just roll out into the street and have your actors walk up and down filming with real things happening around them, because it doesn’t exist. So, you have to create the whole thing. That, of course, is a whole different ball game. Nevertheless, we bring to the period film, the criteria, the practice, the philosophy and the spirit of the contemporary and the real. So, the answer to the whole question you appear to be asking me regarding film-language is that it looks after itself because you get out there and you respond to what you feel and see and smell – and the camera is there to capture that. The organic integration of our fictitious characters with the real world is part of the buzz and on the point of what it’s all about.

QBM: So, I mean, maybe I’m just, you know, because I’m I think you’re being a bit modest, in my view, if 

ML: Well, I would say that sounds like a legitimate thing to me.  

QBM: I think you’ve innovated quite a lot in terms of film language.

ML: Well, that’s fair enough. However, that’s a different question. At least, that is not the line of thought that your question provoked. What you are now clearly talking about is a personal-idiosyncratic view of the world. Well, that’s just sitting with me and my view of the world. I mean, there is a tragicomic dimension to what I get up to. I mean, you’ve obviously seen ‘Meantime’. 

‘Meantime’ began four years into Thatcher’s regime and the government was introducing these bullshit schemes to make it look like they were doing something about unemployment and about young people. They were like, “people will find themselves on the scheme for three weeks” and were made fuck all. Therefore, I just started with the premise of an unemployed family. Of course, within that, you’ve got some very idiosyncratic characters. Additionally, at the time, the Skinhead Syndrome was on the rise as well. So, there were different levels. It is kind of idiosyncratic and it comes from my view of life, my sense of humor, my sense of humanity and all that stuff, which is what you are very generously alluding to. That informs the way you look at stuff. However, in artistic or creative processes, you don’t necessarily know what you are doing. You don’t follow it on an analytical basis.

The other thing which is important about filmmaking, apart from anything else, is that it is a collaborative process. The relationship between the director and the cinematographer, not to mention the designer, quite apart from the performers, is a very particular thing. The same cinematographer Dick Pope has shot all my films since 1990 starting with Life is sweet. We have an evolving language and we’re constantly pushing the boundaries but we definitely have a rapport of a very particular kind. There is no question that what you see on the screen in all of the films we have made is my vision but it’s his vision too. I think that the collaboration of a number of people is an important aspect not only of filmmaking but of any complicated and sophisticated process where you are creating fiction in the real world or which interfaces with the real world.

QBM: That concerns another question that I had about the democratic process. I’m being provocative here, when I ask that to what extent do practices in film-making involve a transactional relationship between the director and other people? I mean, how do you feel about it?

ML: If I were to say to you that it is completely democratic and that nobody is in-charge and everybody can decide, you wouldn’t believe me. Basically, I would be shooting you the most ridiculous line, because you have already insisted that what we were talking about was a particular Mike Leigh imprimatur. So therefore, plainly, somewhere along the line, I’m definitely in charge – the boss – and making the decisions.

On the other hand, you don’t make films by yourself and the art of the medium, and the same in true for theater, is to know how to get it all to work so that everybody is contributing in a completely fulfilling way for them and at the same time serves the main purpose, which is my responsibility. That’s all there is to it. So, there’s no doubt who’s boss. There’s no doubt who is the fascist dictator, which is me. But it is always very friendly and it is always very collaborative. It is not nasty and people always want to come back for more and love doing the work because it’s fulfilling for everybody. It is because of the way we all approach each other.

QBM: I asked my friend, the  filmmaker, that I mentioned earlier, her name is NoorAfshan Mirza, about what she thought of this question. She said ‘yeah but filmmaking can also, as you also pointed to, be very much like a social movement’, in the sense that people are coming together for a common thing and there is collective work and collective healing in that process. 

ML: Without a doubt, only with rare exceptions which always have a very particular reason and which have to do with somebody’s private problem of some sort, I look back on a whole bunch of extremely special periods of time when people came together and they didn’t want it to stop. And it’s like a family breaking up when the work ends and then families carry on. There are people that I usually work with, a whole bunch of people. We have worked together for years and years. They are all doing other films all the time but they all want to know the dates for our next film. They are always going to be there and they’ll turn down big projects to be there. All that stuff, you know.

So, she’s right, it’s great and it’s a special thing. 

I aspire artistically, in my work, to the condition of novelists, painters, poets, composers and everybody else, in the sense that I spend months before we shoot anything, working with actors to build the whole world. 

One of my problems (but not currently) is that, traditionally, most of the films I made, except the historical ones, I’ve said: “I can’t tell you anything about it, I don’t know what it’s going to be, we just want the money, we’re not going to discuss casting, we’re not going to do it, we’re just going to go out and explore and arrive at the film”. So, we made most of the films like that.

I’m going to do another one, which is starting now, and it has been a real battle to raise money for it because the climate has changed. Now, people will say: “well, we need to know what it is?” and “who is it starring?” 

What I wanted to say is that many movies suffer from the fact that massive numbers of people are involved in endless decision-making about every last detail from the cast to the script and the locations of things and so on and so forth, before anybody shot anything.

Whereas, what we do is we literally make it up as we go along. Very often I’ve shot three quarters or four-fifths of the film and we don’t know how it’s going to end even. But that’s what novelists do when they write novels and that’s what painters do when they paint. So, I aspire to those artistic conditions.

That’s what it’s all about, and to do that, in what is also a collaborative process, you have to have people who are on the same wavelength. This includes actors. I mean, there are actors who say, ‘If I don’t know what it’s about – or what the character is or what the part is or how big it is or if I don’t have an overview of the film – I can’t take part’. Well, I am not interested in that sort of actor. There are actors who are ready to go on with it and to go on an adventure with me while I can only know what my character ever knows and discover things organically and so on and so forth. That is what results in the work that you see on the screen in my films. 

QBM: There is a bit of confusion in my mind because there’s the idea that the rehearsals generate the script. 

ML: The rehearsals generate the premise, right at the end of which I do write a kind of skeletal picture of possibilities. But then we build the film scene by scene, location by location, sequence by sequence through rehearsal to improvise anything through the rehearsal in the location and build the film up as we go.

QBM: So, you allow for chance. 

ML: Yes. 

QBM: You allow your methodology of not having a detailed script and letting the location and the actors… 

ML: Yes, I can’t write a scene until I’m in the location – the detailed scene. And this is the way I answered your question about the way what’s evolved about ways of looking at things. For example, you mentioned the climactic sequence in Secrets and Lies, where we had shot four fifths of the film or whatever it was. We then stood the film crew down for ten days or something. In the house, in the location in north London… 

QBM: Was it Hertfordshire? 

ML: No, it was Southgate. In the House – which was completely dressed for the characters and we had already shot stuff – we had a massive improvisation with the actors in character for 10 hours and they all came around. The actors didn’t know who Hortense was and all the other stuff because their characters wouldn’t know at that point. Out of that, we then deconstructed this improvisation and reconstructed the structure of the scenes and rehearsed them in the location and arrived at the resolution. So, we created all that and then we shot it. Now, a) I couldn’t have sat in my room and written that sequence in a million years, and B) we couldn’t have constructed it in a rehearsal room or something. It had to be in the location with the actors in character in real time, in costume, with real food, but improvising with the crew and then allowing an organic reality to live. That isn’t to say that, what we put on the screen was exactly that. It only gave us the starting point. We then had to negotiate it and just glide it so that it made dramatic sense. So that’s what happens, right.

QBM: Another question that I wanted to ask you concerns the portrayal of the working class. The main subjects of many of your films are working class people. As you have already mentioned, there is the tragicomic element in those films and Naked shows a lot of that. The question is, how do you deal with the working class being racist? How do you address it? I mean I have noted a few scenes which show it. Also, please talk about how you see the working class now, in relation to the election that just happened? For example, we see that the working-class have voted the Tories in. I am asking how do we engage this topic?

ML: Fundamentally, now we’re into territory of things that I think is related to the question of the paucity of education. If you isolate people from education, you isolate them from the access to real ideas and thinking. Then, the condition in which you live is what we call ignorance, which leads to not understanding the world and not understanding things. Therefore, it leads to the election of Hitler, the twenty-sixteen referendum result, the election of Donald Trump and a zillion other things in the entire world. Such things are a function of ignorance. It arises from the denial, for a whole myriad of reasons including the curse of religious cults, of intelligent thinking – it’s a tragedy.

Let’s delve into the situation of people of my age. I was born in the war. Before I even knew what was going on, the most fantastically positive thing which happened in this country was the 1945 general election, where people actually realized what was really needed was what could be a proper socialist kind of world. They were being forced to experience that and the tragedy is that it got dissipated and got lost. The ruling classes then – most of what I’m saying applies globally and just not just here, but here because here is where we are – created and maintained two completely isolated and separate education systems. It’s preposterous. Of course, it’s maintained by the status quo and it is a function of that status quo. As a result, the status quo maintains a crude level of thinking and ignorance.

Of course, that is not to say that all working-class people are fascists. That provides modification, doesn’t solve the problem.

QBM: Well, I’m asking in a sense, that you haven’t engaged with (I’m not saying it’s your duty to, I’m just saying you haven’t engaged with) that element of the working class in detail.

ML: Meaning, which element? 

QBM: Well, that the working-class is racist.

ML: I did bring it up in Meantime, a bit. 

QBM: Yeah in Meantime, definitely. So, is there a reason for that or do you think it’s already done too much, anyway.

ML: No, there is no reason for it. I don’t think anything has been done too much or too little. Who knows what I might do next? So, no answer there. 

QBM: Alright, so the other question was about, and this is a question which I am and we are all struggling with, which is how to use the newer technologies like Instagram and five-second little clips and Facebook targeted campaigns and such that the Tories are utilizing? And how do we use those? In that same question then comes the subject of cinema. Can cinema and films with their existing format create that education?

ML: It’s a question I can’t answer. I wish I could. I’m not sure. There are some questions we can’t answer. I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, all that any of us does and, myself included, is to take the next little step forward in one direction or another. I don’t really know the answer to that. I’m as overwhelmed and confused as anybody else, by the whole digital explosion and all its implications. It is you could say, very exciting and it is also very worrying. I suspect I think it is more worrying than it is exciting. But I don’t really know.

I am afraid the truth of the matter is that at this point in time, I’m as confused and worried as anybody else. I don’t have answers yet. 

QBM: So, I mean, just because you mentioned you were working on a film, what is it that you’re working on?

ML: I can’t talk about it for exactly the reasons that we discussed a few minutes ago. I don’t exactly know what it will be, even though I’m already working on it. That is in the nature of how I work. 

QBM: I haven’t read much about the process of editing in your work. How much of your work comes together in editing? We have talked about the rehearsals, but can we talk about editing a bit as well?

ML: All films are made in the cutting room. No matter what the film is or however organized it is, you only shoot the raw material when you shoot a film. Again, however constructed or organized it is, it is raw material. The film is made in the cutting. During the cutting, as you know and I do, you can put it together and you see what the audiences would see. Then, you can rearrange it backwards, forwards and sideways. You can take bits out, distill it and all the rest of it. That is a fact – a technical fact. So that is part of the answer to your question.

Now, my work is not of the kind, and there exists a lot of work of that kind which ought to be very exciting and interesting, where massive amounts of ad lib material is created and only a tiny bit of it winds up in the film. Mostly, what I shoot is in the film proportionately. I mean, we might cut the odd scene or short it or decide that this, that or the other is redundant or repetitious or not interesting or whatever. But for the most part, what I shoot is what’s in the film.

However, that doesn’t alter the fact that what you do with that material in detail, needs to be very precisely and expertly edited. I don’t edit myself. I know the editors. I work with an editor and again, it’s absolutely the sort of collaboration that we were talking about 20 minutes ago. If you look at the massacre scene in Peterloo, we shot that over a number of weeks and we prepared it, and then we let things happen. We also did shoot with three cameras. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got a brilliant and fantastic editor, although nothing in the film is what I wouldn’t want, it takes a guy who would say to me, “go away and come back in three days and just leave me to it”. They would say “I will sit and really do the detailed stuff and then you should come back and I can change things if you want”. And so that’s fantastic. That is how it is. That is what it is about. So, editing is the critical part of all filmmaking.

QBM: Have you ever re-shot, something? In case, you think you haven’t got enough and then maybe get everyone back together for the re-shoot? 

ML: Very occasionally. I don’t do that very much. It’s very interesting. Somebody else asked me the other day.

Hardly. I mean, there is a scene in Secrets & Lies. It was unfortunate. I had an actor playing a guy who in this scene goes to see a social worker to trace something. Part of it was played by an actor who was, for reasons that had nothing to do with anything, just useless. We shot the scene and it was just an embarrassment. We completely finished the film. When we look at it, it sticks out in the middle of the film. You’ve got a terrible gaping hole in it. I went and met Lesley Manville, whom I have worked a lot with, and she happened to be free. Well, I thought I won’t insult the actor who fell apart by getting another guy, rather, I’ll get a woman. She really researched for a week and then we rehearsed it for a week and we just slotted that in. It ended up being a brilliant scene. 

That is an exception. It happened because of somebody not being up to the mark. The short answer would be, mostly not.

QBM: Some of your work is inspired by cinema that uses non-professional actors. I mean some of your cinema is inspired by world cinema which uses non-professional actors. On the other hand, you have also worked with actors who are sort of the premier league players of cinema.

ML: I don’t work with non-professional actors.

QBM: Why?

ML: Apart from anything else, what I ask for is sophisticated. First of all, one of the most technical facts about the acting in my films is that it is about character art. People are not doing themselves. They are doing characters that aren’t them. That’s a sophisticated thing. There are many actors in many movies who play themselves all the time. In the sense that it is always a small version of themselves. That’s not what my actors do. There are all sorts of very sophisticated things involved. I have to draw actors from specific disciplines. That is just not possible without professional actors. That’s it, basically.

QBM: But you had a critique of RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts].

ML: Yeah, it wasn’t very good. 

QBM: So, what is your understanding of the teaching of acting, the techniques of acting and the role of actors within film-making and theater?

ML: To begin with, my criticism of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, which I attended in 1960-62, a long-time, in fact, 60 years ago. At that time, which is absolutely not true now because currently this place is very good, it was a very mechanical, externalized and superficial kind of acting. There is nothing to say about the teaching of acting. I mean, I went to art school and not film school in the beginning. In the end, you cannot make anybody be able to act if they didn’t know how to act before anymore than you can make anybody draw if they couldn’t draw before. What you can do is create an environment in which they can explore, investigate and think about all sorts of different things and try things. And take on board, some of the technical disciplines of whatever medium you are working with, be it painting or acting or any other thing. 

QBM: Alright. In my world there are always a lot of questions regarding representation. I work with communities in struggle and I work on oral histories which are then written and not presented visually. One of the key problems I face is who and what I can represent. Do you encounter these ethical problems when you work? Are we extracting by representing vulnerable communities? As artists, do you think there is a limit to what we can represent. For example, there is a peasant in Pakistan whom I write an article about and make it about farmers’ struggles in Pakistan and then publish it in the Guardian. If you think about it, I am capitalizing on their pain. I am representing them and…

ML: You mean to ask, whether I am exploiting them in the process?

QBM: Yes, whether I am adding a layer of exploitation via representation?

ML: Hold on, yes. Let’s stay on the example of a peasant in Pakistan, who has a tough life, and you write about it in the Guardian and they publish it. Before I can answer your question, I would ask whether you are giving anything to that peasant or are you actually taking anything from him?

QBM: Well, that’s a tough one. One could say I am giving him representation but…

ML: Hang on now! Why are you writing it in the first place? For what purpose?

QBM: For example, because I want something to be done.

ML: Okay, what is it that you would like to see or to be done? Sort of what?

QBM: Something that helps him, materially.

ML: So, in that sense that is a positive. On one hand, maybe out of the 400 or more people who read that article in the Guardian, not one of them does something about it. On the other hand, by some chain reaction something does happen about it. That is not in your hands. 

However, my point is the following, and that partly answers your question, I think: in looking at him and understanding his conditions and predicament, you are motivated by care, consideration, compassion and humanity. Also, by your own natural instinct to tell stories. You are motivated to do something about it, and ask people to do something about it. In that sense, it seems entirely positive to me.

If the argument, which you are implicitly also saying, is that you are taking something away from him, that you are robbing him of something. What is it that you are taking away from him?

QBM: I mean, couldn’t I also have given him the chance to represent him or herself, somehow. Maybe, help him/her make  a film and help them present it online.

ML: Well, yeah you could. This is a guy that tills the land and whatever. He is illiterate, whatever that may be. Anyway, he lives in that world. What he really should be doing is, what millions of people do, which is to live comfortably in his rural setting. To recast him as an operator of YouTube may not be doing him a favor. He wants to be with his cow and not the fucking IPad or something. 

QBM: Fair point.

ML: What we are really talking about, however, is this: The particular kind of middle-class guilty conscience that you are lumbering yourself with here is absurd in my view. The great thing is, from 1896 onwards there was a device called a movie-camera which could be taken anywhere, pointed at anything and images could be shown to anybody anywhere. Just as writers have been able to write about anything anywhere etcetera. 

Now, on the basis of what one is writing of – where your middle-class guilty conscience is irrelevant – Dickens wouldn’t have written a fucking word. You see what I am saying? I mean, otherwise, you wouldn’t know where to start. Sure, the main point is that you want to improve that guy’s life. But if you are, and I take it that you actually are, one of the creatures on this planet whose instinct is to look at the world and tell other people about it, disseminate ideas about it and so on and so forth, he is doing what he is doing and you are doing what you are doing in a proper course. Of course, you can write about the person with the cow in Pakistan as an object to be sent to gas chambers just like other people like him. You could say, “They are the scum of the earth and they should be rid of it” and so on. You could do that if you wanted to. But that would mean you have completely different motivations and a different view of the world. Does that make sense?

QBM: Yes.

ML: Imagine yourself saying “excuse me, leave your cow for a bit and look at this camera, you can start your YouTube channel using this”.

(both laugh)

QBM: You have given me something to think about, especially, with the middle-class conscience comment..

(both laugh)

ML: Here’s the thing, we have been doing the things that we happen to do, we have to take responsibility for what we do on all sorts of levels. You know, people have criticized my work, over the years, quite consistently from some quarters, on the basis that I patronize or caricature working class people and all that stuff!

QBM: Really?

ML: Which is all rubbish. 

QBM: I didn’t know you were getting this criticism, I certainly don’t hold that view.  I think you create a language and encourage us all to take our reality and see it as worth telling…What is your reply to those criticisms?

ML: Well, I rejected that obviously. I am accused of sneering at them. I say, no, no, this is not about them, this is about us. The subject of the film is us and not them. What I am saying is, if anybody is really worried about the immorality of being an artist and of telling stories about or showing images of, people who are suffering, then they shouldn’t do it. Don’t do it, at all. Shut up and don’t say anything to anybody about it and disappear into oblivion and don’t do anything about the world. 

On the other hand, some of us are natural – when I was a young child, I was drawing caricatures of adults. If you are not naturally disposed to depict the world, then you either do it or don’t do it. It’s about what motivates you. For example, we were talking about the subject of Hollywood and keeping that in mind to ask why one film is more valuable than others. A whole bunch of third world films or world cinema films, such as those we see in the London Film Festival, are very much more valid than “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”, for example. You could argue, what is more valuable than others and all that. So, there are no black and white answers to the question. One needs to accept that. I mean why are you wasting your time here? Shouldn’t you be out there tilling the fields? Not writing this stuff and rolling your sleeves up? This is why the whole cultural revolution in China was a disaster. It followed this idea that to be an artist was bourgeois and everyone was sent out to work in the fields. It didn’t take anybody anywhere.

QBM: So, you have never suffered from that guilt, as you call it?

ML: No.

QBM: You have seen your art as part of us, as part of the struggle. 

ML: …and the world. Yes. The good news is that I actually have the opportunity to get things out there and disseminate ideas in some way or the other. People stop me in the street and tell me that they have been moved by my films. That is a positive thing.

QBM: I just want to say something before I take  leave.  Looking at your works, the ones I have been able to get for free, I would say that two things happened for me. First, your work got me not stopping at the end. If that makes sense. I didn’t stop at the end of Naked saying yeah it was nice, no, the characters are still with me. That stays with me, along with the characters and the story. For example, Secrets and Lies, I love it.  For Peterloo, I had to google things. I just had to find out who Hunt guy was.  

So, that’s one and the second thing which I think is very valuable, is that I grew up in a working-class area in Colindale near Burnt Oak, you might know that area. I could see how I could visualize things in my house, cinematically from your films. That is why I was saying you are being modest because you have created something for us – the grounds to begin to tell those stories which took place in our houses – working peoples houses, working people’s stories, working people’s lives. Not those palaces and estates of the Queen and the bourgeois elite. You chose the angles, the lighting and everything which we can learn from. I don’t mean we can directly imitate but we can take away that  from your work.  It is a great body of work that will help us as a class.  

(Mike Leigh and QBM get up and say goodbye)



Mike Leigh is a multiple academy-award winning filmmaker based in the UK. He is known for films focusing on the British working-class and for period/historical films. Most of his films and plays involve development of the script through collaborative rehearsals with actors. Some of his most well-known films include Secrets & Lieghs (1996), Peterloo (2018), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Another Year (2010). He has served as the Chairman of the London Film School for 18 years and is also a Fellow of the British Film Institute.

Use the following link to learn more about Mike Leigh and his work on the website of his production company ‘Thin Man Films’:

Qalandar Bux Memon is editor of Naked Punch Review. He is working on a film titled, ‘Aik: Workers’ made for Ideas and Futures (I&F) and produced by Brecht Films. It should be out in a few months. 

Ideas and Futures is an e-journal and a collaborative which is working to “reimagine our societies beyond the pandemic”. Here is a link to their website:

Follow updates about “Aik: Workers” and future works of Brecht Films through the instagram link given below:

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