VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Director Mike Leigh On ‘Peterloo’
Mike Leigh, one of the most acclaimed British directors of all time, is delving into new territory with his historical film, Peterloo.
Leigh sat down with uInterview exclusively to discuss the film, which recounts British military forces charging on a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, on August 16, 1819. The infamous Peterloo Massacre ensued.
“The film is unlike all my previous films, it is a real ensemble,” Leigh said. “Nobody really carries the narrative. There aren’t any actual starring roles, there are some very distinguished actors, some of them playing larger roles than others. But the great thing is that we are in the U.K. blessed with fantastic actors, and I mean really intelligent character actors.”
Peterloo‘s cast includes Marion Bailey, David Bamber, Neil Bell, Patrick Kennedy, Rory Kinnear and Ian Mercer.
“The casting was about getting the right people in the parts, not names, not stars,” the director added of the casting process. Leigh is known for several Oscar-nominated films like Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year and Mr. Turner.
Leigh noted that in order to tell the story of the Peterloo Massacre and to put it in historical context, the film devotes a significant portion of time showing the “factions” or social classes living in England at the time like the working class, the political activists, the government and royal family, the magistrates.
Leigh revealed that the actual massacre scene was lengthy and took five weeks to shoot, and said the real event lasted around an hour and a half.
“It took a lot of planning, obviously, but the important thing is that we planned it and shot it in such a way as to keep it liberated and fresh,” he said. “We didn’t reduce it into sort of over-organized slices. Sometimes we shot with three cameras, we chose never to have aerial shots of things, you’re always in there with the action.”
The filmmaker also revealed he made a deliberate decision, after consulting with his composer, to mute the movie’s score during a brief moment of the battle scene for dramatic effect, something that he said happened “naturally.”
Leigh commented on how Peterloo is different from his other films. “This film is the only film that is overtly political in that it is about politics and political activity,” Leigh said. However, he added, the film is also very similar to his other projects because it is still about looking at people “in a real way,” and about “looking at people as both individuals and as part of society,” including their values and flaws.
Peterloo is now in theaters.
Full interview transcript below:
Q: How did you approach the casting of the film?
A: “The film is uh, unlike all my previous films it is an ensemble, a real ensemble I mean
nobody really carries the narrative. There aren’t any actual uh starring roles I mean, there are
some very distinguished actors, some of them playing larger roles than others but they are I mean
the great thing is, that we are in the UK blessed with fantastic actors and I mean really intelligent
character actors and by that I mean people that know how to play, want to play real people like
the people out there in the street. Uh and so, you know there’s a great harvest of actors to choose
from and some of them like you mentioned ore caner, who is pretty well known as his maxine
peak and one or two others that are in the film. Uh, you know they have to come and do what
they did and uh it’s a bonus to have them basically. But you know, it’s about the casting, was
about getting the right people in the parts, not names or not stars you know.”
Q: What was the challenge of telling such a sprawling story?
A: “Well the truth of the matter is, that you could make a film, hypothetically just about what
happened on August 16 th 1819, just about the massacre itself but I think on the whole, it would be
pretty meaningless for the audience. I mean you- we spend a lot of time in the film before we get
to that day looking at all areas of ……, the working folk, the political activists, the government,
the royal family, magistrates, etc. So that by the time you get to it, you really do understand
where everybody’s coming from or what’s motivating people and yo- you get it basically. Um
and that you call it sprawling haha, it- you know, there are a whole lot of narratives, all of which
are important. All of which need to be told and investigated um that a lot of stuff to absorb and to
listen to uh I hope it’s a rich experience, it’s certainly a dense experience uh and there’s a lot of
stuff to take in. But you have to do all that you or the audience so that you get it when it com-
you understand and you empathize and you, you know you are motivated to- to have feelings and
opinions and attitudes to what’s actually going on.”
Q: How did you film the massacre scene?
A: “Well, I mean the most important thing about the sequence which is quite long and it took
five weeks to shoot, uh that’s an event that all happened uh i- it all happened in fact, in reality
and in the film it, it you see it happened quickly uh it was all over and done within an hour and a
half you know less. Um, err it took a lot of planning obviously but the important thing is that w-
we, we planned it and shot it in such a way as to keep it liberated and fresh. It- we didn’t reduce
it to um sort of uh, over organized slices you know. Um err sometimes we shot with three
cameras uh we chose never to have aerial shots or things, you’re always in there with the uh, w-
with the action. Uh I made a very different decision with my composer that when it came to that
whole sequence, the score would stop. There’s no music there to egg you on t-to, to color it and
to tell you how to remote. It just happens naturally you know um I obviously, there are lots of
different events that go on within the overall chaos and all of those are rehearsed and constructed
with the actors separately. Um and yeah, we put it all together basically um I mean the good- the
important thing is that film directors don’t make films by ourselves you know it, it’s team work and there’s a great, I work with a great gang of uh, very likeminded spirits and souls and uh were
all pulling in the same direction.
Uh and I mean the other thing of course is, that the curse of
English film making is the weather, you never know what its gunna do. Ha and here we are for
five weeks shooting an event that happened on a very nice sunny day in August, 1819 err in one
day so we were very very lucky. I mean it could’ve, the weather could’ve I mean it could’ve
rained the whole time I mean anything but, we were very very lucky. Som- somebody was on
our side. Some left-wing god was on our side.”
Q: How was shooting this different from your other films?
A: “I mean the film itself is different from my other films in that, apart from anything else. It’s,
all my films I would say are political in the sense that they’re about the way we live our lives.
But this film is the only film by which is overtly political in that it is about politics, it’s about
political activity. Um but in many respects I would suggest that the, this film is actually
fundamentally, o-otherwise basic level. No different from any of my other films, in that all of my
films, including this one are about people. About uh looking at people in a real way, looking at
people as individuals, as well as part of society. Looking at people in th- a rounded, three-
dimensional kind of way, looking at people with all their virtues and watts and idiosyncrasies
and this film does that too and although there’s a massive amount of things going on or a lot of
people, I still would hope that you’re looking at people in a very close up kind of way. So, in a
sense it’s kind of, sort of a regular Mike Leigh film ha but on a bigger scale basically.
After what I learned, well that’s a whole different sort of a question. I mean, you know as far as I’m
concerned, every film has a new um learning experience um because there’s always new
challenges and you know new problems to solve and uh well you name it basically. I mean what
we had to do on this film uh even more than on my previously period films, uh historical films,
Topsy Tervy and Mr. Turner is to assimilate, absorb into the script. Um actual stuff that people
actually said and particularly there’s quite a lot of political speeches in the, in the film which uh I
hope would make digestible and accessible and su-such that you can follow them and understand
what’s going on and learn something from each new one. But, you know that involved a lot of
research and a lot of um digging around in the archives and so on um, um I’m making it work,
editing the stuff I’m making it work, working with the actors so that it worked for each of their