British director Mike Leigh turned an old Hollywood adage on its ear with his bravura biopic of early Victorian painter J.M. W. Turner. They say mediocre books can make for great movies, but great books make for mediocre movies. But it turns out you can make great movies from great paintings.
Just how Leigh went about pulling off his cinematic legerdemain in making the many-awards-winning Mr. Turner was the subject of “Mike Leigh in Conversation,” an hour-and-half long discussion that riveted 400 listeners this past Thursday afternoon in the auditorium of the Yale University Art Gallery.
The event, one of the main attractions of the idea portion of the Arts and Ideas Festival, featured Leigh and Jackie Riding, an independent art historian and Leigh’s researcher extraordinaire on the film, being interviewed by Tim Barringer, an art history professor at Yale University.
Unlike most biopics, which cover the arc of a whole life, Mr. Turner focuses exclusively on the artist’s late life, and the film has been universally praised for carrying the viewer closer and deeper than nearly any other film biography of an artist inside the perceptions and mind of an artistic genius. (Click here to read Tony Scott’s New York Times review. And here to read Independent critic Thomas Breen’s take on the genius of Mr. Turner.)
In his introduction Barringer did not spare his plain-spoken and at times combative interlocutor some very tough inquiries, including one or two questioning sequences that in Barringer’s view “ruined the film,” temporarily undermining its visual and storytelling magic. But he also termed Leigh “Britain’s greatest living film director,” and characterized the film as a great achievement.
Following are some excerpted highlights of the interview:
Barringer: What makes J.M.W. Turner a great Mike Leigh character?
Leigh: The extraordinary tension between the creator of these majestic paintings and the complex, eccentric, conflicted guy.
Barringer: The film relies on the towering performance of Timothy Spall [as Turner]. I actually believed I was being talked to by a historical character. How did you make him so convincing? What were you feeding this man?
Riding: Tim was very much like Turner in this desire to learn. He was having to learn, like Turner, on his own.
Barringer: Did you have to “police” [the production, script for accuracy, anachronisms, etc.]?
Riding: You had to constantly be checking language. The film straddles the late Georgian and Victorian period. For example, you have to use the term natural philosopher. Scientist wasn’t used till the 1830s.
Leigh: Turner was a little man with a hooked nose. Timothy Spall doesn’t look like him. The job was to embody the spirit of Turner.
Barringer [to Riding]: You found out how he talked?
Riding: A student at the Royal Academy wrote down an actual speech. [It was] hilarious: “You are Romans . . . not Romans . . . Hannibal . . . ” The constant pauses, changing directions, the tumbling of words and ideas.
Barringer: This film captures the actual practice of making art.
Leigh: I am fascinated by how people make things. [When you look at a great painting] you don’t think someone actually got dirty [making it.] Turner also painted in a visceral, down and dirty, sleeves rolled up [manner]. One thing I didn’t include was when the lead squeezable tube was invented, Turner went straight in and used it. Discovering that was fascinating.
Barringer: The choice to use Turner’s late life? We don’t have the traditional biopic arc. It’s a study in late style. It gives the film an air of elegy.
Leigh: To do a whole life? A small fat boy. And a pimply youth. I’ve lost interest already. What will afford us the framework to access Turner? In the end, it’s about growing old. There’s only so much you can do justice to in a couple of hours. . . It liberates us to cheat time.
Barringer: How did you achieve the visual world of the film . . . without its looking stiff?
Leigh: I thought about this film as far back as 1998 and we shot it in 2013. I was sharing it with Dick Pope, my cinematographer. Gradually we got him into our bloodstream. We were equipping ourselves to look at the world in a Turneresque mode.
Barringer: Is this the first time you used digital technology?
Leigh: We are 20th-century film makers. We banged the drum [against its use] and here we are making a digital film. History is making the decision for us. Once having embraced it, it’s fantastic. Like everything else, it’s a tool. If it [a particular sequence] was not believable, it had to go. But it worked even if it was a complete concoction.
Barringer: How much is the film [re: the women in Turner’s life] documented?
Riding: Most biographies don’t mention the women. All the credit should go to the actresses [who created them on screen]. Even if you can’t find information on Mrs. Booth [Turner’s late life lover/companion who ran a boarding house, and was played in the film by Marion Bailey], you can find information on women who ran boarding houses.
Leigh: The only thing we definitely invented was the relationship with the housekeeper. It came up in an improvisation. We explored it, and it worked.
Barringer: You’re widening the trope of the biopic — interfering with the image?
Leigh: I wanted to put on the screen people as they are.
Barringer: Ultimately is Turner an insider or an outsider? In the Royal Academy? Or outside?
Leigh: What do you think?
Barringer: I’m asking the questions!
Leigh: Turner was never knighted but he did have a massive funeral. Was he an insider or outsider? He was immensely popular. He was plainly “one of the lads.” But he’s a natural born outsider. It’s complex. I don’t think it’s a simple answer.
Riding: At the Royal Academy he was an insider. He was lower middle class. That’s who ran the Royal Academy.
Leigh: Queen Victoria loathed Turner. There were no Turners in the royal collection.
Barringer: Turner’s politics. How do you position him? A radical or an establishment?
Leigh: He was an individualist. He plowed his lone furrow . . . He was compassionate and a real democrat, but difficult to pin him down.
Barringer: John Ruskin serves a particular role in your film. I didn’t recognize the John Ruskin you present in your film.
Leigh: What’s he do?
Barringer: It spoils it.
Leigh: It spoils the film?
Barringer: Yes. [After having created a magnificent figure in Turner], you’ve turned another magnificent 19th century figure into a twit.
Leigh: Here’s the thing. Ruskin was a great supporter of Turner. We’re talking about the younger Ruskin. We arrived at Joshua McGuire’s [portrayal] of the young Ruskin — it’s not a cheeky gesture. His mother took rooms next to him at Oxford . . . so she could continue to breastfeed him! We dramatized this young, precocious, pretentious [character]. I submit it as a legitimate dramatization of Ruskin at that stage.
Mike Leigh’s next project is being called the Peterloo Massacre, based on that eponymous 1819 event, a pro-democracy, anti-poverty demonstration that ended in tragedy. It took place in Manchester, England, Leigh’s birthplace.
Asked by a reporter if he could comment on the project and if and how it relates to Mr. Turner, Leigh said it was too early to say anything, and he and his team were just beginning to think about it.
“Ask me back in four years,” he said.