Michael Sragow: I'm always expecting your next movie to be something about flight attendants flying between New York and London, since that was the first film of yours announced in the trade papers after Life Is Sweet. Was that ever a "go" project?
Mike Leigh: That really is a classic case -- it's when I decided I had to get tough. I had the notion for years to do something about flight attendants, and a company called Mayfair said they were on for it; it was going to cost 3 million and they were going to do 2 million and Channel 4 and British Screen would do the third million. One proviso was that some of the action had to be set in the States, based on this spurious notion that that would make it commercial. The other proviso was that we had to be ready in time for the Cannes of 1993. With the pressure on us to do it quicker than we planned, we realized that 3 million was not enough to do this immensely complicated movie. You had to have lots of people in planes, you had to have planes, you had to have airports; it just wasn't feasible. They said, "Go ahead, cast people," but they never signed a contract, and I would not cast an actor until I had a contract. Eventually we decided to walk away. We went to Channel 4 and British Screen and said, "Look, we don't know what they're playing, we want to pull out and make a film with the money that's left." And Channel 4 and British Screen both had meetings within two hours of each other and said, "Go for it! We're behind you, do it!" So instead we made Naked, we showed it at the same Cannes festival that Mayfair had wanted the flight attendant movie for, and we won some prizes. I decided not to be so easily seduced again. If we'd done the flight attendant film, I don't think we could have delivered it, we would have really gotten ourselves into a scrape, and we'd still be picking up the pieces now.
MS: Isn't the whole idea of inserting an American connection into an English project, or of translating an English project into American, trickier than most executives realize?
ML: I'll tell you what, somebody called us a week after Cannes, from Hollywood, to inquire for Whitney Houston about the remake rights of Secrets & Lies. And Simon Channing-Williams, my producing partner, came into my office and with a slight wink and a twinkle in his eye, said, "What should we tell them? We could make a lot of money."
MS: I can't imagine a big-star Hollywood film treating the racial content as tenderly as you do in Secrets & Lies; even a film that tries to be sensitive, like the recent movie A Family Thing, which starts with much the same premise as your film -- Robert Duvall finds he has a black family -- doesn't move far beyond the premise. Don't you think the racial angle almost disappears at times, in your movie?
ML: No, I don't think so -- it's always there, the film is built on how the characters react to it. The fact that I'm finally saying, in a fairly predictable liberal and old-fashioned way, "People are people," that is making a statement with a racial aspect. Without wanting to be too smug and arrogant about it, what I suppose in modern Hollywood they don't know about is dynamics -- that nothing works unless a number of different things are happening on several levels at the same time. Studio committees have never heard of that, or about things being implicit, or, on the whole, about things being real and three-dimensional. Because of my younger son, he's 15 (I also have an 18-year-old), I found myself a few weeks ago at a screening of Kingpin. When I first sat down at Kingpin, I thought, "It's a waste of an evening, what am I doing at this crap?" It's about a tenpin bowler who early in life has his hands completely smashed by an opponent; years later there's this confrontation between them after the hero's had this terrible existence. It's full of the most horrendous, awful gags, and at one point I got weary and thought, "I'm really going to go have a drink, I'll catch up to my son afterward." But then I thought, "Hold on a minute -- the guys who made this film are basically serious. This is a film about surviving bad people in the world. There's a kind of morality play here, there's kind of a good film here" -- which it isn't, of course, because it's cluttered with gratuitous nonsense. And that's the Hollywood disease, really -- you grab hold of a good idea and you can't get on with it, it's got to be compromised. Isn't it a question of the way these films are made? If you have a Hollywood kind of filmmaking committee, in the end, it's a question of formula.
To be a little elliptical about it: Ken Loach [the director of Hidden Agenda and Land and Freedom] and I are endlessly and jointly bemused when people tar us with the same brush, when we know that we are quite different. Ken makes these unashamedly agenda-driven films, with overt propaganda, while I quite simply don't. I hope I make films that are entirely inconclusive and leave you with a great deal to work on, and are ambivalent and equivocal and all that. Now the interesting thing is that Hollywood movies which are not motivated by any clear political objective like Ken Loach's films nonetheless suffer from propaganda syndrome. If you're going to have a black person, then that's an issue, and if it's an issue it's got to be sorted out in black and white. The audience is presumed to be thick.