Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Four People, Seasons & Visits

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Four People, Seasons & Visits

(from brinkzine.com 12/22/10)

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On Wednesday the 29th, before the new year, Mike Leigh's Another Year arrives in New York. That's great news. Another Leigh film means another chance to see such fabulous character actors as Jim Broadbent (Life Is Sweet, Topsy-Turvy, Vera Drake), Ruth Sheen (High Hopes, All or Nothing, Vera Drake), and Lesley Manville (Secrets and Lies, High Hopes, Vera Drake) in lead roles. In the acclaimed British director's twenty-second film, Broadbent and Sheen play Tom and Gerri, a geologist and medical counselor who share a blissful marriage. Manville plays Mary, Gerri's lonely, heavy-drinking, middle-aged friend and workmate whom she occasionally invites to their house. On one visit, the desperate Mary wrongly believes their thirty-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is interested in her and when he turns up with a girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) on her next visit, she is rude to her "competition," causing a rift with Tom and Gerri. The film takes place over the course of a year, with one visit by Mary each season--in her Winter visit, she has not been invited. There is much comedy in the film, but tragedy is always lurking. I participated in the following roundtable with Leigh (who takes exception to my reading of the film!) and Manville. I note my questions. Following that are my questions to Broadbent and Sheen.
Roundtable with Mike Leigh and Lesley Manville
Q: My feeling is that Mary isn't predatory toward Tom and Gerri's son Joe and doesn't want to have a sexual relationship with him because she's lusting after him but because she's desperate to get into his family. Is that how you saw it?
Lesley Manville: Personally, I don't feel that, although it's up for grabs and anything you want to make of it, really. I dont think that's what's going on. If she really thought about it she probably would realize that flirting with Joe is inappropriate given that Gerri is her closest friend. I think it's more that he's the only man around that she thinks is eligible to flirt with. She isnt interested in Tom's friend Ken [Peter Wright] because he's a bit of a slob and doesn't take care of himself. So she flirts with Joe. She's known him for a long, long time and she probably flirts with him a bit every time she sees him because she likes to think men think of her in that way.
Mike Leigh: She does want to be part of this family It is a nurturing family and she needs that comfort. She wants a piece of it and she cant have it. But I would agree with Lesley that she doesnt flirt with Joe for that reason.
Q: She's very envious of her friend Gerris relationship with Tom but she wouldn't intercede because they have such a tight relationship. She seems to want that for herself. I thought it was weird when she was looking at their child that way, when he's looking back as if she's an auntie.
ML: What you say is right, but I would think it goes beyond just flirting with him at that gathering. I think there's an implausible need that she has.
LM(to Leigh): Yes, when we spent all that time creating Mary and the story, there were many occasions when she flirted with Joe. That was part of her thing.
ML (to Manville): She would like to have that drink with him and go to bed with him.
LM (to Leigh): Yes, without thinking of the consequences.
Danny Peary: Is this family that Mary wants to be part of overrated? Do you know what Im saying?
LM: I do know what you're saying. You're saying, "Aren't they less of an ideal family than they appear to be?" I would pose the question, Why do you think they aren't as good as they seem to be? Why would you doubt it?
DP: At the beginning, you set it up with Tom and Gerri cheerfully enjoying lunch together in the rain. They're idyllic at first glance. And Gerri has a job where she helps people so you assume she'd help people even outside of her job, like Mary.
LM: But doesn't she?
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DP: Not really. Neither do. I think he patronizes her, while being a total idiot with his own friend Ken, and she lets Mary down, never really making an effort to help her.
LM: That's an interpretation. I have to say that I totally disagree with that reading of what's going on. As far as Ken is concerned, Tom goes back a very long way with him. He grew up with Ken and cares about him as his best mate.
DP: He'll let Ken do anything but he's not as patient with Mary.
LM: I think they're entirely patient and sympathetic with Mary. When Mary simply behaves badly, it creates a moral dilemma of where do you draw the line. The idea that Gerri is dispassionate or unsympathetic toward Mary, I completely disagree with. The fact is that in the last act, Winter, Mary does show up "coincidentally" on an occasion they are having a special family dinner. Tom's brother's wife has died, it's a family thing, it's not convenient to have her there. That's why they react as they do toward her. It's very straightforward. It's not somebody being fundamentally rude to her. In fact Gerri deals with it and is sympathetic. I don't buy what you're saying at all and I would say they are just as good as they seem to be--which isn't to say they are perfect, magical or romantic. They are flawed.
LM: I think that anyone would acknowledge that the best advice one could give to someone who isn't taking care of his or her life is to empower them and say, "You've got to confront your own stuff," which is exactly what Gerri finally says to Mary. "You've got to take responsibility for your own actions." We all know people who reach rock bottom and however much they're told that what they're doing is harming their lives, they cannot make somebody do anything until that person reaches the point where they realize they have to deal with it themselves.
Q: The last scene is emotionally powerful as we see that Mary has changed to the point where she is almost a different person. In playing that scene, did you draw from anything in your own life?
LM: It's complicated because you're not thinking about the way you're performing or the choices you're making as an actor. With this unique way of working, we spent so long creating characters, months and months, that by the time you've done that, you can put your characters into any situation and they kind of take care of themselves. We shot it pretty much chronologically so by the time it came to shoot the last section of the film, Mary was at that stage and everything she'd been through had already been shot. So once you have her in the situation of going to their home very early in the morning after having had a drunken night, how she behaves takes care of itself. The actress part of me isn't sitting at their table thinking, Would she do this or that? It kind of happens organically.
ML: The part of your question that deals with Lesley drawing on her own emotional recall obviously comes from knowledge of method acting of Strasberg. But this is a totally different approach to acting. This not about starting with an extant character and then using personal experiences. Instead we created a character, an entity in her own right who isnt Lesley. Normally on a film, there will be discussion and decisions made consciously about behavior. For the most part, those things are there, ready-made in their organic state; so you don't have to manipulate them or intellectualize them into existence.
Q: Did that influence you to shoot the film chronologically?
ML: No, no, no. This was the nineteenth film we made in this way over the last thirty years. I try to shoot as much chronologically as I can.
Q: Why did you structure your film with four seasons?
ML: Apart from the seasonal time progression, the four acts are photographed differently; and the spirit of each season informs or is executed in tandem with the content of what's going on. The spirit of the season is reflected in the story. The evolution of the idea of having four seasons was derived from the coming together of three things during the development of the film. My job was to work out what the film is and what we were going to do. One thing I did as part of this is to share with my cinematographer Dick Pope the feel of the film. He said there were several looks we could have so we shot the tests. Simultaneously I was thinking that I wanted to dramatize in some way Tom and Gerri's nurturing of people and their relationship with the earth by growing things. I wanted to do something implicitly environmental. The third thing is that I was trying to figure how to tell the story of Mary, who obviously doesn't come around to visit Gerri and Tom very often. Most of my films take place during a short time frame, but I thought we plainly had to have a longer amount of time. Otherwise there wouldn't be many visitations from Mary and her visitations are what the film was going to be about on a primary level. So I sat down to looked at the tests that were shot. There were three looks but one look had two subsidiary looks, so there were four looks and that's when I suddenly thought about the four seasons. Once I thought of that it liberated everything else I was doing as I worked out the characters with the actors.
DP: Why did you call it Another Year rather than A Year?
ML: Time, as you and I know, goes on and on and it happens again and again and will carry on. It isnt just one year.
DP: But its a pivotal year.
ML: As all years are. It's cyclical.
Q: What inspired you to make this film?
ML: It's so hard to answer that because it's about so many things. For me on one level its about fulfillment and disappointment and failed hopes.
Q: Where did you start? Was it the story of Mary? Was it the story of Tom and Gerri?
ML: It's not for me to say. Actually,
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it would be erroneous to say there is a central character. You could say it's about Mary or say it's about Tom and Gerri. For a piece like this to work, there has to be a dynamic between a whole ensemble of characters and I think that's what there is.
Q: Lesley, are you the type of actor who wants to see dailies?
LM: We don't see dailies and it's not something Mike would ever encourage. Even when I work with someone else, I don't want to see dailies.
ML: When I was nineteen I worked as an actor on a feature film. It was a minor job but I was there every day. After lunch every day, we went into a preview theater and I observed the half a dozen actors who had the main parts watched the rushes. And I saw their performances disintegrate as a result of their watching them. That taught me to not let actors watch the rushes ever. The kind of actors I like to work with don't like to watch them anyway.
LM: Having said that, I dont understand actors who don't watch the end results. That seems ridiculous. When you see the whole thing you're not cheating anymore and there's nothing you can change, and you really can learn from what you've done.
ML: There's another aspect as to how we work on these films. There is no script and the actors who I invited to take part don't know what the film is going to be. The deal is that they don't know who their character is because there is no character until we collaborate and create one. They don't know anything about the film except what their characters know. They're in the dark about the whole thing. That makes it possible to investigate situations in truthful ways. They see the whole thing from the point of view of their character--and their character is at the center of their universe, as in real life. Not watching the rushes is part of the discipline.
Q: Do you do many takes?
ML: I don't do a lot of takes. But sometimes I get a really good first take but still go again to get nuances in the performances. I'll do more takes because were dealing with behavior and we want to explore that. It's film and that's all about using the medium to explore, so there's no particular virtue to going only once. In the scene we talked about between Mary and Joe, in every take Lesley was doing extraordinary, profound and unpredictable things. Each take was different because there were moment-to-moment organic things taking place. The best take is in the film, obviously.
DP: What is the purpose of the two scenes with the deeply depressed woman played by Imelda Staunton?
ML: I see different aspects to the scenes. The first scene is like a prologue. What it really does is introduce you to Gerri's professional function early on. But also if you didn't have the experience of that character before you meet Tom and Gerri who are comfortable in their lives, you'd feel comfort, too. But because I plunge you straight into the depths and bowels of her pain--theres a great close-up and you're in there--you are prepared to enter a less comfortable space. That's your boot camp for the film.
DP: That scene tells us that your film is not a comedy.
ML: There are comic elements but that scene prepares you for other elements. When I showed the film to the actors, Imelda Staunton said, "I'm the warm-up character for Lesley Manville's character." In a way, that is true.
Q: Is the film's ending the one you always had in mind?
LM: We didnt know the ending when we started.
ML: Because I make these films up as I go along there is no answer to your question. There isn't a script in the conventional sense. In the last scene, we constructed the scene, experimented, and found the end.
DP: Lesley, were you as surprised as we were with the ending?
LM: No, I wasn't, although there was an element of surprise that the shot was going to end on me. A lot of the film is about going on a journey with Mary, emotionally.
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I think it's fitting to leave you with her predicament laid out and unresolved and handing the battle over to the audience as to what she is going to do and what is going to happen. It's so accurate--my life never gets tied up neatly and I'm sure none of yours do, either. Tomorrow will be another day and something else will happen.
ML: What's important as well is that the family is reminiscing about good times, like when Tom and Gerri traveled the world when they were young. Maybe that's what lies behind your assertion that they're unsympathetic. Theyre celebrating something that's positive and sharing with the uninvited guest the new member of the family, Katie. It's important that you care about all of them but by caring about Mary you're carrying the clearest burden of emotional responsibility.
Roundtable with Jim Broadbent and Ruth SheenDanny Peary: So I just got reprimanded by Mike Leigh for not thinking your characters are as sympathetic as he does. They're presented at the beginning as an idyllic couple, but I say they let Mary down overall.
Ruth Sheen: I dont think theyre idyllic. I think they're ordinary people who love each other and are comfortable. They like what they're doing, they enjoy their work, they enjoy their family, they enjoy their friends. I think what you're saying is, Should they take more of an active role in Marys rehabilitation? I dont think thats their job. Anyone who has a drinking problem has to solve it themselves. If you're an alcoholic, you have to reach rock bottom before you do something about yourself. Gerri thinks Mary seriously needs help but as a friend she doesn't feel she can give her the help that she needs. She's been her friend for twenty-five years. We did have conversations about whether she'd take more of a lead with helping Mary, but we thought that she wouldn't. When you have friends like that you often avoid them but Gerri doesnt avoid her until she thinks Mary crossed the line with her son and his girlfriend. Until then she'd let Mary rule her house--she'd come and take over. I think she was accommodating to her.
Jim Broadbent: I think it's fair enough to think that they do let her down, as is your opinion. They aren't a perfect people. They are flawed people and I think it's justifiable to think that they short-change the woman they invited into their lives. As actors in this film, we just create the characters who behave as they do and were as true to them as is possible. If they are perceived as less than perfect that's interesting. And if they've done well, that's interesting, too.
DP (laughing): I'm not mad at you!
JB: You can be mad. The best part of doing a film like this is that you can have a lot of disagreement about what you see. It's complicated and you can have many subjective or objective opinions about what's going on.
DP: Tom is kind of patronizing toward Mary.
JB: He actually has no time for Mary, but she's Gerri's friend and he loves Gerri and is supportive.
DP: He's different with Ken, who he lets get away with anything without being critical.
JB: Yeah, Ken's his friend. who he loves from as far back as he can remember. With Mary, his only outlet is to make jokes that he knows she won't get because she has no sense of irony. He gets a small amount of pleasure teasing her when he knows she won't realize she's being teased.
DP: As Ruth says, Gerri tells Mary that she has to be responsible for her actions, but do Gerri and Tom ever do any self-examination and say that to themselves?
JB: I think that's innate with them.
DP: So they don't think of themselves as good people and leave it at that?
RS: They're not smug people who think they're better than anyone else. They're quite well-adjusted but they're not perfect. I don't think any of Mike's characters in any of his films are perfect. What Gerri and Tom have is a good marriage, and other than that they're just human beings.
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They're content they're getting older and are not fighting it. We just see a slice of their lives during one year.
DP: Your job on this film working with Mike Leigh was to create the characters over five months and then improvise during scenes as them. So did you try not to think about themes?
JB: We didn't know what the themes are. We didnt know what was going on in the other part of the film. For instance, while I knew Imelda Staunton was in the film I had no idea that she played such a character. Gerri never told Tom about this particular patient.
RS: I wouldnt be allowed to discuss with Jim my scenes with Lesley. I wasnt allowed to tell him the bits he didnt know about. That's the world that we stuck to.
JB: What Gerri would tell Tom about naturally, she would tell him during our improvisations. But what they didn't need to know, we never knew. [laughing] If I'd known about Imelda Staunton's character I might have thought that we were doing a film about damaged women, as opposed to doing a film about geology!
RS: I didnt really know what the film was about until I saw it. When you're just playing your character you don't see the whole picture.
DP: Has Mike Leigh changed since you started working with him many years ago?
JB: The way he works hasn't changed, although it varies occasionally, as with Topsy-Turvy, when we were dealing with real people and didnt step into the unknown. But building up characters and improvising without a script is exactly how it was in 1979 on Ecstasy, when Julie Walters, Stephen Rae and I would improvise in pubs while Mike sat in a corner. Thatt hasn't changed.
DP: What about incorporating the theme of aging into his films now that he's older.
JB: When we did Ecstasy, he said he had trouble finding actors of our age now who could work like he does, because it was unusual for the older generation of actors then. So he had to wait till we got older. We're used to the way he works.
RS: Of course, he's gotten older, too. And he's mellowed.
JB: In thirty years, we've all changed a lot!

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