British director Mike Leigh on his first overtly political film

Leigh rejects the popular notions that Peterloo is a radical departure and that it doesn’t rely on modern movie magic.

There’s one kind of film we tend to associate with Mike Leigh: dialogue-heavy dramatic comedies about England’s middle and lower classes that generally unfold as a slice-of-life. Leigh is associated with those movies because he’s absolutely the best at making them, but in the last two decades, he’s also made four historical films: Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake, Mr. Turner and now Peterloo, which has been touted, since its festival run, as the most radical departure in his filmography. It’s certainly on a larger scale than some of his previous films, but Leigh rejects the notion that this is a departure at all.

“Somebody about half an hour ago said it was stylistically different,” says Leigh. “It isn’t stylistically different. In fact, all my films are stylistically siblings. The difference, if there is a difference, is that it’s the only film that’s explicitly about political activities. All my films are in a way political. In a way, you could say that it’s more overtly political, but it has nothing to do with form or style or a way of looking at human beings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the same except for the subject matter and the scale, which are obviously different. We’re looking at people as people in a truthful, real and organic way.

“Some say that this film is more concerned with language,” Leigh continues, referring to the film’s meticulous recreations of letters and trials culled from actual real-life archives. “That’s bullshit, really; all my films are concerned with language! (laughs) Language fascinates me. You can’t say that Naked was less concerned with language than Peterloo. Even Happy-Go-Lucky, you have this lunatic right-wing nutcase driving instructor. All this stuff pours out of him! This is a film in which there is a great deal of talking and a great deal of language and ideas. In the end, I make films about people doing what they do. In this film, what they do is make speeches to other people to convince them of ideas!”

Peterloo centres on a period of British history where, soon after the battle of Waterloo, manual workers found themselves short on work and in an economic slump thanks in part to strict laws that make it impossible to import cheaper grain. These sets of rules keep the rich richer and the poor poorer, which in turn sparks an activist movement that is watched closely by local authorities, who are counting their ducats and patiently waiting for any excuse to arrest those they see as dangerous radicals. A large-scale event is planned in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester wherein world-famous orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is to give a speech, drawing massive crowds from surrounding towns, but the event is (again) closely watched by authorities who want nothing more than an excuse to go in there with guns blazing. The event is widely known as the Peterloo massacre, lest you think that it all ends peachy-keen for the working man.

Leigh is also notorious for his long rehearsal process, in which he essentially shapes the film’s script through constant work with the cast. He also applied that process to Peterloo — with the caveat that it first had to rest on extensive historical research.

“The material you need to make a film set 200 years ago is all there,” he explains. “It’s all around. It’s only 200 years ago! There’s a massive amount of stuff in the National Archive, in libraries, in archives in Manchester. All of the newspapers from the period are around. Some of the protagonists in the film wrote their autobiographies. Three hundred people testified after the Peterloo massacre as to what happened to them at the massacre. There are court proceedings… you name it, it’s there. It’s also been written about quite a bit. Were I to make a film set in the sixth, seventh or eighth century, it would be quite hard to not only research things that actually happened, but also to understand how people lived, how people spoke and so on. But 200 years ago — everything is searchable. Everything I just listed, we did.

You see in the film the magistrates writing to the home office — those letters are still in the National Archives. So we were able one day to go to the National Archives with all of the actors who were playing magistrates and those who were playing real ones could read their own letters — the letters their characters had written! On top of it, I worked with a historian, Jacqueline Riding, and she helped guide us through all the research.”

And even if it’s not regularly a part of Leigh’s usual process, the filmmaker says he quite enjoys it — primarily for the results it gives.

“Yes, of course!” he says. “I’m not an academic — I wouldn’t be doing it for its own sake. I only enjoy doing it for the purpose of finding what story I’m going to tell. I’m not disposed to do research in an academic way, because I’m not that way — although I am a reader of books, obviously. You know, we made Topsy-Turvy, which involved massive amounts of research, as well as Mr. Turner. And, indeed, when we made Vera Drake, that involved substantial research into the nature of what went on when abortion was illegal.”

There’s certainly no denying that, thanks to its meticulous historical nature, Peterloo is more dense and involved than, say, the aforementioned Happy-Go-Lucky. Attention has to be paid with the understanding that, despite it all, some of it might go over your head — an almost automatic criticism in the “Golden Age of TV” era where exposition is not only encouraged but actively expected by audiences.

“I have two things to say about that,” says Leigh. “The first thing is that I’m not at all interested in such nonsense. But also, with all due to respect to everybody, the terms of reference of those kinds of observations are based on the premise that movies is Hollywood. But, actually, I’m not part of Hollywood. I’m part of world cinema. I’m a European filmmaker. All around the world, people are making all kinds of films. That’s got nothing to do with the presets and the constraints of what happens in Hollywood. I’m not really interested in any of that. It doesn’t really make any sense. Any film should do what it has to do, respect the intelligence of its audience, and get on with it, really!”

I bring the conversation back to the idea of scale in his film — Peterloo is a film with hundreds of extras, extensive crowd scenes and tons of period detail, which I make the mistake of thinking has not been achieved through CGI.

“Did I hear you say there’s no CGI in it?” says Leigh. “It’s got CGI all over it! (laughs) Huge amount of CGI! First of all, we only had 200 extras — there’s huge amounts of crowd replication in there. Secondly, where we shot the massacre is a place called Tillbury Fort in Essex, east of London. It’s a fort built by Henry the 8th. There’s nothing around, in the sky. In the film, you can see all these factories and churches and all this kind of stuff. The CGI guys built a model of Manchester at the time so that you could look in any direction and see this stuff. These guys have learned that craft doing all these big movies that are about CGI and advertised as such. The great thing is they’ve brought these skills and made it look really real. It’s fascinating the number of people — including you — who have said there’s no CGI. We couldn’t have done it without CGI!”

Regardless, don’t see Peterloo as a breakthrough in what Mike Leigh might make films about in the future. He certainly doesn’t.

“These things are a technicality, in the end,” he says. “Any tools that are there to help me tell the stories that I want to tell are tools to be used. And these kinds of new tools have been perfected by these bright people over a long period of time to be deployed. But in the end, I’m only interested in deploying them to do exactly the same kind of thing that I was doing in what you could call the ‘cruder’ films I was making 20 or 30 years ago. You move on! I made a whole bunch of films on 16mm film for BBC television; the motion picture standards that we were upholding then were very crude, indeed, but the object of the films are still the same, which is to talk about real people in a real way. In Mr. Turner, there’s a point where Turner and two young painters are in a rowing boat and they see that great ship, the Fighting Temeraire, which is a painting by Turner, being towed to be broken. Well, we filmed the sunset and we filmed the guys in the boat, but we sure as hell didn’t film the Fighting Temeraire!” ■

Peterloo opens in theatres on Friday May 31. Watch the trailer here: